Archive from October, 2012

Who is Xi Jinping and what will he mean for Australia?

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta meets with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping prior to a meeting in Beijing China, Sept. 19, 2012. Panetta visited Tokyo, Japan before continuing to Beijing and traveling to Auckland, New Zealand on a week long trip to the Pacific. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

At the launch of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove made an interesting observation during question time about the level of attention paid in Australia to developments in the United States versus developments in China. Specifically, he commented that the Australian public is told a lot about the US Presidential candidates—right down to the marathon running time of the Republican candidate for Vice President—but, despite the imminent leadership change in Beijing, we hear very little about the incoming Chinese President.

Perhaps part of the reason for our lack of interest in the Chinese leadership change is because it’s more or less pre-ordained, whereas in the US, Romney and Obama are engaged in a dramatic race to the finish, battling it out in televised debates. (Some prefer to imagine what a heated Chinese leadership debate would like). Yet, the Chinese leadership change is a once-in-a-decade event and, considering we know comparatively little about Xi Jinping, what should we know about this man and how his term might impact Australia?

Xi Jinping has been Vice President since 2007 and, at 59 years old, is one of the youngest members of the Communist Party leadership. His father was a revolutionary war hero who went on to become Vice President. However, in 1962 his father had a falling out with Mao and was jailed during the Cultural Revolution. Xi himself was sent to do hard labour in the countryside and ended up living in a cave, sleeping on bricks, and fending off fleas. Xi openly admits to outsiders that the Cultural Revolution was ‘a failure for the nation’—unusual candour from a Chinese leader. Read more

Rather than becoming embittered towards the Communist Party that jailed his father and exiled him to live in a cave, Xi made several attempts to join the Communist Party and was finally accepted in 1974. When Xi became Party Vice President he was careful not to ruffle the feathers of any of his colleagues and he remained clear of political scandals. Xi’s rise was marked by a keen support for the private sector and a rational business sense that allowed him to build the economies of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.

So, what might Xi’s rule over the second most powerful country in the world mean for Australia? It’s very difficult to know how China might change under Xi because, like Hu before him, Xi has kept silent on a number of issues. However, there are some things we can infer from his past conduct as well as from some off-the-cuff political statements.

Despite calls for Xi to make sweeping political change, his allegiance to the Communist Party suggests he won’t be making any drastic domestic changes. Plus, Xi himself has told us that he will be just as assertive in regional territorial disputes: in September, Xi told ASEAN leaders that he would safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and, in the same month, issued a sternwarning to Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, telling it to ‘rein in its behaviour’.

We also have some sense of Xi’s feelings towards the West and towards the US pivot to Asia. In 2009, while in Mexico, Xi lashed out at the West (possibly in response to US and UK criticism over China’s human rights record) by saying that China had already made a contribution to the financial crisis by feeding all of its citizens and that ‘there are a few foreigners…who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country’. However, on the US pivot to Asia, Xi has projected a softer stance, stating in September this year that diplomatic visits between the US and China were advancing state-to-state and military-to-military relations. Whatever Xi’s true feelings towards the US pivot, the US and China share many common security interests in the region, many of which will require cooperation rather than competition to resolve.

And what does Xi think about Australia? During a trip to Australia in 2010 Xi called it a trustworthy partner and said that Australia–China relations were of great importance. But, that was in 2010. Although Xi has said nothing publicly, he is probably highly critical of the decision to station US Marines in Darwin as are other Chinese leaders. However, Xi no doubt recognises the paramount importance of the Australia–China trade relationship and Xi’s strong background in fostering economic growth is likely to serve us well.

Xi’s personal style (markedly different from Hu) may also bode well for Australia. By many accounts, Xi seems more approachable as well as more confident than his soon-to-be predecessor. Kevin Rudd has praised Xi, calling him ‘the man for the times’, with ‘vast experience’. ANU Professor Richard Rigby characterises Xi as ‘a man who’s comfortable in his own skin—he’s a princeling but one who has come up the hard way’. Professor Rigby adds, ‘Xi of course would never hesitate to crack down if and when he thought necessary, but neither does he pick fights unnecessarily, and prefers to work with people rather than against them, as long as that’s possible’.

So, should Australia welcome the rise of Xi Jinping or will he give Chinese policies a sharper tone that will work contrary to our interests? Reflecting on his formative years sleeping in a cave and labouring in the country, Xi said, ‘Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship. Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.’ While Xi will have foreign policy challenges to overcome as President, at this point in China’s development he’ll find more hardships at home. If Xi’s attention is focused on domestic issues he’ll have less opportunity to assert Chinese dominance in the region, which is good news for Australia. Whatever leader Xi turns out to be, China’s domestic problems will certainly give him more opportunity to hone his character.

Hayley Channer is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Secretary of Defense.

Australia: an ASEAN perspective

ASEAN Secretary General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, at the launch of the Southeast Asia Institute, ANU (Photo credit: Ty Mason, ANU)

‘You [Australia] have found Southeast Asia, don’t lose it.’

These were the words of the highly charismatic ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the key-note speaker at last Tuesday’s launch of the Southeast Asia Institute at the Australian National University. Discussing the future of ASEAN, a central theme of his talk is best reflected in the quote above: now that Australia has ‘found’ Southeast Asia, it is in our best interest to continue to focus our cooperation, support and involvement in that region.

According to Dr Surin, Australia’s ‘discovery’ and involvement in the region has been a recent phenomenon. For a long time, Southeast Asian states, and even Australians themselves, viewed Australia as something of an aberration—a European country that just happened to be located in the Asia Pacific. However, as Southeast Asia has grown and changed, it was ‘about time’ for Australia to look towards its neighbours and realise the advantages of being connected with that part of the world. This is particularly important as ASEAN has become increasingly interlinked as an economic bloc, and is attracting world attention as being centred in the ‘new growth centre of the world’. Read more

However, it was not just economics that Dr Surin pointed to as being central to the relationship. Dr Surin emphasised ASEAN’s increasingly important role as a force for security and stability in the region. As the centres of global economic and strategic power shift towards East Asia, ASEAN will have a significant role as a stage on which tensions between states can be played out and resolved. However, he argued that this was contingent upon neighbouring states such as Australia continuing to engage with ASEAN. He implored Australia to keep the ASEAN perspective and framework in mind when dealing bilaterally with not only Southeast Asian states, but also the East Asian region more broadly.

What does this mean for Australia? With regards to regional stability, the example Dr Surin gave was the 1999 crisis in East Timor—a complex and sensitive issue for Australia. Indeed it was perhaps because of the complexities and sensitivity surrounding the crisis that he chose it as an example for the occasion. The crisis saw certain ASEAN states move away from their rigid positions of non-intervention to contribute to an international resolution of an issue. Under these conditions, Australia was able to engage and collaborate with Southeast Asian neighbours to lead a UN-sanctioned military intervention in the form of INTERFET. This was especially significant given Indonesia’s opposition to Australian leadership in the intervention. The use of this example was perhaps a pointed hint that Australia’s influence in the region is not always as welcome as we may wish. Despite extensive Australian involvement and leadership, Dr Surin noted that Jakarta turned to the ASEAN states to take command, while asking that Australia only be included as a (very) last resort. Dr Surin also observed that when law and order in East Timor was re-established, it was in a framework familiar to ASEAN nations—in ‘our own language’ as he put it. The implication for Australia is clear: yes, we need you but you also need us.

In many ways Dr Surin makes a valid point. The Southeast Asian response to the East Timor crisis was somewhat constrained and limited—in part due to a lack of resources and hesitation over intervention into a sovereign state’s affairs. As a result, Australia shouldered the majority of the military effort, showing that cooperation between ASEAN and partners such as Australia can be a vehicle for maintaining regional stability.

The Asia–Pacific region is a complex and dynamic place with many unresolved tensions. Any medium that can facilitate dialogue and promote cooperation should thus be welcomed. Nevertheless, there are some caveats and limitations to bear in mind. Although the Southeast Asian security architecture continues to evolve, and Australian Prime Ministers no longer characterise their counterparts in the region as ‘recalcitrant’, ASEAN still faces significant hurdles in becoming an effective force for stability within the broader East Asian region.

ASEAN itself has its own internal problems and conflicts; it’s not a ‘union’ but a group of diverse states and it doesn’t necessarily present a unified front on different issues—or even feel the need to do so. The tension between Thailand and Cambodia is one example of internal discord. Still, as the Asia–Pacific region continues to attract the attention of the world and as Australia’s interests in the region to our north continue to gain in importance, Dr Surin is right: now that we’ve found Southeast Asia, we’d do well not to lose it.

Chris Louie and Mary Willett are currently undertaking ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of Ty Mason, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU.

The challenges of order-building in the Indian Ocean Region

BAY OF BENGAL (April 14, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) transit in formation with Indian navy ships during Exercise Malabar 2012. Carl Vinson, Bunker Hill, and Halsey are part of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1, and are participating in the annual bi-lateral naval field training exercise with the Indian navy to advance multinational maritime relationships and mutual security issues.

Recent contributions to The Strategist have provided valuable insights on the extent and limits of India’s willingness and capacity to assert itself as a nascent great power. Implicit in these discussions lies a deeper issue, specifically the challenge of how best to secure international order in an increasingly contested Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As both the epicentre of the struggle against jihadist extremism and an increasingly critical ‘energy superhighway’ linking East and South Asia to resource hubs in the Persian Gulf, East Africa and Northwestern Australia, the IOR is rapidly growing in strategic significance. But the absence of either a ‘hub and spokes’ style alliance system or a well-developed tradition of multilateral security diplomacy comparable to equivalent structures in the Asia–Pacific significantly complicates efforts to establish a viable regional security architecture. India’s ‘rise’—however halting and incomplete—thus occurs in a radically different regional context from the densely institutionalised web of security and economic cooperation that is presently shaping China’s ascendancy in the Asia–Pacific. For this reason, when trying to make sense of the magnitude and likely consequences of India’s rise, it’s necessary to contemplate the range of possible alternative regional security orders that may co-evolve alongside a stronger and more assertive India:

1) An Indian Ocean Pax Americana: The US Navy’s re-calibration of its ‘two ocean’ orientation (from an Atlantic/Pacific to an Indo-Pacific focus) and the greater interest in the IOR evidenced in the US ‘rebalance’ towards Asia both provide some grounds for envisaging a more overt US leadership role within the local security order. Nevertheless, a combination of limited US interest and likely regional resistance to US hegemonic pretensions—not least from India—make the prospective emergence of an IOR Pax Americana a remote prospect. Undoubtedly, the US Navy will remain the principal security guarantor for regional maritime commerce, and the US will increasingly work to strengthen defence and intelligence cooperation with regional partners. But even the staunchest boosters of American primacy are unlikely to see the value or the viability of attempting to replicate in the IOR the obtrusive, costly and densely institutionalised types of security orders that have underpinned US dominance in Western Europe and East Asia since 1945. Read more

2) A ‘Neo-Nixon doctrine’ for the IOR: Walter Ladwig III has recently argued persuasively for an IOR order organised around a ‘neo-Nixon doctrine’, in which the US would sponsor key local partners—India, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa—to assume the primary burden for upholding regional peace and security. This proposal has significant merits, not least in the more reasonable balance it strikes between US leadership and local initiative. But a ‘neo-Nixon doctrine’ for the IOR runs the risk of overstating the degree of convergent security interests between its four presumptive sub-regional lynchpin states. The stillborn ‘democratic quad’ proposal in 2007 to strengthen security cooperation between India, Australia, the US and Japan furthermore cautions against efforts to build regional orders around democratic ententes, especially those that invite the perception of being implicitly anti-China in their inspiration.

3) India as local hegemon: Indian great power ambitions—stoked in recent years by America’s overt encouragement of India’s rise as a counterweight to China—leave open the theoretical possibility of India’s long-term emergence as a regional hegemon. The limits of New Delhi’s current military modernisation efforts nevertheless preclude this as a short-term prospect. India’s persistent rivalries with Pakistan and China are also likely to divert the bulk of its strategic attention towards a continental rather than a maritime focus for the foreseeable future, while sub-continental fears of Indian domination will continue to constrain India’s leadership aspirations. India’s great size and geopolitical centrality ensure that it will be an indispensible nation within any future regional order. But India’s internal governance challenges and its ongoing tensions with key neighbouring states will prevent it from being the indispensible nation within the IOR for some time to come.

4) An ASEAN for the IOR? Given that America is unwilling and India is presently unable to uphold regional order via hegemonic means, an alternative might be for India to co-sponsor with other like-minded states the development of a regional security architecture comparable to ASEAN and its varied offshoots (most notably the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, or ADMM+). ASEAN’s success from 1967 in integrating post-Sukarno Indonesia into a viable local security architecture invites tantalising parallels with contemporary India, suggesting a means of binding India’s burgeoning power within an institutional framework capable of reassuring New Delhi’s neighbours and thereby aiding multilateral security cooperation. The lacklustre record of regional cooperation through existing structures (eg the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, or IOR-ARC) nevertheless fails to inspire confidence that such a ‘top down’ exercise in order-building would yield significant strategic benefits in the short term.

5) Small beginnings – the case for ‘bottom up’ regional order-building: In analysing the development of security architectures in the Asia–Pacific, Professor William Tow and Dr Brendan Taylor have noted that order-building can occur as much through ‘bottom up’ processes of incremental security cooperation as from ‘top down’ blueprints prescribing far-reaching institutional change. In the absence of either an uncontested ‘architect’, a strong pre-existing tradition of multilateral security diplomacy or a coherent and thickly institutionalised sense of regional identity, the best option for IOR states to pursue in building a regional order could be the cultivation of ad hoc and issue-specific practices of security cooperation. The Tsunami Core Group (involving the US, Japan, India and Australia) provided an early indication of the practical dividends that ad hocsecurity cooperation might yield in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, while more recent anti-piracy and counter-terrorism initiatives among IOR states demonstrate a continuing appetite for limited cooperative security ventures. While hardly headline-grabbing, such initiatives promise to deliver real security dividends for participants, while also potentially inculcating the everyday habits of cooperation upon which more ambitious order-building initiatives might subsequently be built. Within this context, Australia’s hosting in 2014 of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) provides a useful forum for Canberra to catalyse discussion regarding the IOR’s emerging security needs, potentially promoting in so doing the small-scale ‘bottom up’ exercises in practical security cooperation that the region urgently needs.

India’s rise is occurring within a deeply unsettled regional context, and India will confront many challenges as it aspires to a global leadership role commensurate with its great size and even greater promise. But India’s neighbours will simultaneously need to work with New Delhi to craft an order capable of peacefully accommodating the seismic power shifts now rapidly re-shaping the IOR. In this regard, pragmatism and a commitment to promoting more modest issue-specific practices of cooperation may ultimately prove more valuable than the quixotic promotion of grand designs in securing the peaceful and prosperous order on which all regional states ultimately depend.

Andrew Phillips is a senior lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He was recently awarded the Crisp Prize by the Australian Political Science Association for his book War, Religion and Empire – The Transformation of International Orders. Image courtesy of Flickr user Official US Navy Imagery.

ASPI suggests

With the upcoming US presidential election on 6 November, we’ve put together a special edition ‘ASPI suggests’ of reports and articles relating to US defence policy and spending.

Defence policy and spending

One of the key issues in US defence is sequestration. To help you get across the issues, here’s a good primer. Although sequestration hasn’t happened yet, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has directed the Pentagon to ‘continue normal spending and operations’ in order to avoid the ‘harmful effects’ of spending cuts while they still can.

Turning to the third Presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney’s concerned about the US’ lack of ships. Over at Bloomberg, Gopal Ratnam has penned a piece on why that’s an imprecise measure of naval power. And whoever wins the election might have some tough decisions to make about the future of fighter aircraft development in the United States, according to no less than Aviation Week.

Next, for those graph tragics following the election itself, this New York Times graphic tracking the voting pattern of swing states is nothing if not eye catching.

Key advisers on defence and security

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have assembled teams to advise on defence and security matters. We’ve identified two important individuals who are shaping options for the next administration.

Michèle Flournoy served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Department of Defense from February 2009 to February 2012. In this role, she was the most senior woman ever to have served in the Department of Defense and a close adviser to President Obama on Afghanistan and other security issues. She recently moved to the Boston Consulting and has been active in a leadership group advising Obama on second term defence and security policy options.

In this September interview at the Fletcher Forum, Flournoy sets out some of the key challenges facing a second term Obama administration. She says,

The thing that would worry me most if he were not re-elected is that there is a lot that’s been done to restore respect for America as a country that champions the rule of law in the international system. There’s a lot that’s been done to restore our reputation for working well with others, for seeking to create and strengthen alliances and bring together coalitions.

There is also some good career advice here for women thinking of working in Defence organisations.

Probably the sharpest exchange between Obama and Romney in the third presidential debate was over the numbers of ships in the US Navy. One of Romney’s lead advisers on Defence is John Leaman, who at age 38 was made Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, and was the author of the then plan for a 600-ship Navy.

Here Leaman sets out his views on plans for the Navy in a Romney administration. He reveals plans to create an 11th carrier air wing, one for each aircraft carrier; to continue F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter production; to build up the amphibious fleet up to the Marine Corps’ requirement of 39 ships; to procure an entirely new battle-group-deployable class of frigate, along with a class of ballistic missile defence ships. These would be important developments for Australia and in all probability would impact on our own plans for Super Hornet acquisition and for BMD capability on the Air Warfare Destroyers.

Events

Australia’s Ambassador to China, HE Ms Frances Adamson will be delivering two presentations during November. Ms Adamson’s first appearance will be a Griffith University-hosted seminar on Australia’s relations with China at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane on 8 November at 5.30pm. Her second is a business lunch hosted by Asialink and the Australia China Business Council at the Langham Hotel, Melbourne on 9 November at 12pm.

The Kokoda Foundation will be hosting Susan Eisenhower, American expert on nuclear energy and US–Russia relations and President of the Eisenhower Group, for a workshop called ‘Why strategy matters’. The workshop will be held on Wednesday 14 November at the Hyatt, Canberra. Registration required.

For Perth-based readers, Curtin University will be holding its 4th Annual National Security & Strategy Workshop (look out for ASPI’s very own Tobias Feakin who’ll be presenting) on Friday 9 November at the Crown, Perth. Registration required.

The Asian Century White Paper: one plan to rule them all

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is an ambitious document, and it’s one Strategist contributors will analyse from different perspectives over the next few days. Broadly speaking, there are some important and positive aspects to the statement: it is the most comprehensive expression of Australia’s foreign policy objectives in over a decade; it focusses on a region of enormous importance to us; and it allows for a very modest growth in our diplomatic engagement with the region. But the downsides to the report are equally apparent: it is largely unfunded; the planning complexity rivals the Barry Jones ‘noodle nation’ education plan that was sunk by its own cleverness; and (as I have argued here) the narrow focus on Asia’s emerging powers is a necessary but insufficient start point for Australian strategic policy.

The chapter on ‘Building Sustainable Security in the Region’ is the only point in the White Paper that discusses the consequence of potential risks to Asian stability and growth. There is a welcome emphasis on the importance of continuing US military engagement in the region and on the essentiality of the US policy of extended deterrence to its allies. The chapter points to the growing range of defence capabilities in Asia. In China’s case, it says that this growth is ‘natural and legitimate’ and it emphasises the importance of building trust as a means to prevent potential conflict. We’ll have to wait for the 2013 Defence White Paper to see the finer detail.

The most curious inclusion in the security chapter is a reference to ballistic missile defence: Read more

Closer engagement among regional nations on missile defence will be necessary. We will work with the United States and regional partners to develop a constructive regional approach to dealing with the missile threat posed by rogue states, and the proliferation of enabling technologies in our region.

Well done to that drafter! This passage innocently nestles in some paragraphs on arms control issues and points to an obvious and necessary area of growth in US alliance cooperation. That aside, there is almost nothing new in the security section of the White Paper. It does little to dull the positive glow about presumed Asian growth and stability out to 2025.

One likely risk to the White Paper’s objectives is its enormous complexity. The plan sets out no less than 25 national objectives for 2025 with multiple ‘policy pathways’ to achieve these goals. Targets are set to put Australia’s per capita GDP in the world’s top ten by 2025; our schools in the world’s top five; a national goal to be in the top ten innovating countries, and so on. In reality, these are tectonic shifts. Detailed implementation plans cascade down from the national objectives: a National Research Investment Plan, a systemic national framework for infrastructure; a National Productivity Compact; a National Plan for School Improvement; an Asian Century Business Engagement Plan to name only a few. Comprehensive plans for our bilateral relationships with China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea (to start with) are to be developed, ‘tabled in Parliament and regularly evaluated and updated.’

In short, the White Paper is a central planners’ dream. Senior officials are sure to be developing nervous tics as they contemplate the volume of Cabinet Submissions required to service the plan. Beyond the ambition lies the reality of implementation. There is an obvious need here for some tough-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of these proposals. For instance, learning languages is obviously a good thing but we’ll need to take a hard look at the implications of teaching the White paper’s four identified languages—Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese—to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. There’s still a lack of clarity as to which imperatives led to some languages being prioritised over others. With incredible growth in both the Philippines (named one of the new ‘tiger economies’) and Vietnam, why Japanese over Tagalog or Vietnamese? And what subjects will be taken off the curriculum to accommodate the plan?

There is still a sense of unease that, under this plan, so much of Australia’s international focus is narrowed to a small number of emerging Asian powers. In important ways this amounts to a bet on a particular positive scenario continuing to unfold. Of course, these countries are vital to our interests but surely not at the exclusion of the rest of the world. The White Paper recognises the central security role of the United States but this critical relationship is dealt with only in passing. Europe is casually dismissed, the South Pacific is ignored, Africa remains the Dark Continent and bizarrely the White Paper claims that Australia should be a ‘connecting rod’ between Latin America and Asia, whatever that means. Meanwhile, all of Asia’s major powers are pursuing strategies of global engagement. The Asian Century White Paper should be seen as a welcome starting point to discuss Australia’s place in the world, but from here we need to broaden our focus, not narrow it.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Defence skills golden triangle: right people, right place and right time

In a recent speech to RUSI, Raytheon boss Michael Ward outlined how the Australian Defence industry had dropped from close to 30,000 people down to about 25,000 people over the last three years. Given the government would like to see 34,000 people upwards in that space over the coming decade I would suggest that the golden triangle for a skilled defence workforce is on very shaky ground.

‘In his July 2009 speech to the Defence & Industry Conference, the then Defence Minister, John Faulkner, predicted a defence industry workforce of 34,000 by 2013,’ Ward told his audience. ‘Much has changed since then but the reality is we will soon have a defence industry workforce some 30% smaller than the Government expected.’

Since this time guidance to industry has been a mixed bag. The White Paper of the day sent many a mixed message on the strategic outlook and the hows and whys of the wider defence landscape. Financial details were slim to be filled in at the budget and we all know how that went. Just read anything on ASPI’s site or blog by Mark Thomson on the Defence budget and the complete lack of detail on future spending. Rhetoric is great but the numbers just don’t match up. Read more

Industry has received a number of planning documents to help them plan their business around defence demands. The Defence Capability Plan (DCP) and the Defence Planning Guide (DPG) offer a ten-year horizon on the programs to come. The information in this document has been changed and updated every six months or so to reflect the changes in dollars and approvals (or cancellations) as they happen.

The last Defence Industry Policy statement in 2010 (PDF) from then Minister for Defence Materiel Greg Combet was a short and sweet read. The moral of the story was that some dollars were spent on programs to support industry and get used to the fact that we don’t do offsets and nor will we again.

The Priority Industry Capabilities (PIC) framework was also introduced.

  • PIC identify elements of broader industry capabilities that confer an essential strategic advantage by being resident in Australia and which, if not available, would undermine defence self reliance and Australian Defence Force (ADF) operational capability.
  • PICs are defined in terms of industrial capabilities rather than specific companies and, ideally, healthy PICs should function without any special form of Government subsidy or intervention in the market.
  • Under this policy an international company can establish a local workforce, infrastructure and intellectual property in Australia to develop or support a capability in a specific PIC area.

Under this framework, the DMO has been carrying out a number of health checks on the parts of industry that it deems worthy of support.

Apparently, all the easy PIC health checks are now out of the way with the harder ones remaining to report. These remaining PICs will no doubt need some form of support in order to remain healthy. What form of support has yet to be made clear. Talking to people inside Defence, the feeling is that there may be some re-programming of DCP programs to keep the ‘valley of death’ between programs swallowing skills that die from lack of work. Practice makes perfect. For example, it’s hard to practice your EW skills when there is one customer who only needs your hi-tech help every few years.

A new Industry Policy statement in 2013 will also support the upcoming White Paper. Just what it will cover remains to be seen. Unfortunately such documents have a history of being a really good read with many great ideas that lack funding and support from the wider Defence community. The cynicism is just too much to bear it seems.

The White Paper is not an opportunity for Defence to enunciate the finer details of how it will procure and sustain its capabilities. And nor should it be. But the realisation that the shopping list of capabilities needed to effect the outcomes it desires is supported by Defence industry, pressured by market forces. Getting the right people to the right place at the right time is not just for soldiers, sailors and airmen. It’s for welders, engineers and project managers too.

Katherine Ziesing is the Editor of Australian Defence Magazine, an independently published magazine on Defence capability and procurement. She is also a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, an air power think tank.

UN intervention in Mali – preventing terrorism or providing a new training ground?

Touareg independence fighters are reportedly continuing their advance, advancing south towards Mopti. April 2012

On 12 October the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution urging African regional troops and the UN to present within 45 days a plan for military intervention in Mali, seven days later Australia won its seat on the Security Council. This highly precarious situation in Mali is one that Australian diplomats will have to understand as the consequences of poor decisions will be far reaching beyond the immediate Sahel region.

Mali is one of the poorest nations on the planet, and its citizens have undoubtedly experienced a traumatic year so far in 2012. And with the recent announcement of the plan to deploy Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops into northern Mali under the auspices of the UN it looks like things will become even tougher for the country before it becomes better, if in fact that happens in the long term.

First, let’s take a look at the background of this situation. With the return to Northern Mali of somewhere in the region of two to three thousand angry, highly armed, battle-hardened Tuareg fighters who had been serving under Gadaffi in the previous year’s Libyan conflict, came the beginnings of the present rebellion, beginning in January 2012. The influx of Tuareg fighters was compounded by the lack of action on behalf of the Mali government to counter the problems they were causing. The uprising by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine began with the killing of many government soldiers in a series of battles, which also led to a humanitarian crises as tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting. As the fighting intensified, the Malian military became increasingly incensed at what they perceived as a lack of political will to end the rebellion and a lack of sufficient munitions, supplies and equipment to drive it back. Thus on 21 March a military-led mutiny at these conditions culminated in the resignation of President Amadou Toumani Touré and the temporary placement of a military Captain as the nation’s leader. Read more

If this wasn’t enough, the appearance of elements of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and increasing numbers of foreign Islamist fighters in northern Mali created unease amongst observers that the region was in danger of becoming a new safe-haven for Al-Qaeda where fighters could train and equip, ready for jihad in the wider Sahel region. The joint declaration of an ‘Islamic state of Azawad’ by the MNLA and Ansar Dine began to reinforce this position.

AQIM make a powerful ally for the MNLA and Ansar Dine, primarily due to their economic power which has been accumulated from kidnapping, trafficking cocaine, hashish and cigarettes across Western and Northern Africa, but also due to the volume of military hardware they have captured from fleeing Malian forces including American military vehicles and satellite communications technology, as well as abandoned stores of artillery, rocket launchers and large stocks of small arms and ammunition. All of these factors have led to AQIM in coordination with MNLA, Ansar Dine and other allies, having direct influence of approximately 816,000 square kilometres of territory, spreading across, south eastern Algeria, north western Niger, eastern Mauritania and northern Mali.

The potential pitfalls of intervention

In light of the clearly worrying situation in Mali, there has been rapidly expanding international support for intervention in Mali, with the United States, the European Union, including France (for historical reasons) at the spearhead and most notably the UN Security Council all voicing support for placing troops on the ground to stabilise the country. The UN passed a resolution on 12 October to press Western African states to speed up the process of providing an international military intervention. This resolution has given the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in coordination with ECOWAS 45 days to submit a viable plan of action. The appetite of the world’s major military powers to provide troops to this operation is clearly circumspect, with Afghanistan drawdown to begin in 2014, war weary nations such as the US, UK and Australia do not want to engage in another costly overseas operation. However, with somewhere in the region of 3500 ECOWAS troops on standby to be deployed, and with significant logistical support from the US and France, there is a ready-made force for deployment.

With no action likely to take place before early 2013, this gives time for thought and preparation for those on all sides of the situation.

Firstly, if the intervention force goes into Mali understaffed, equipped and motivated, then there is the danger that these forces will face a determined adversary who is well equipped, battle hardened and is likely to overwhelm them. Of greater concern is that this scenario will act as a magnet for would be international jihadist fighters looking to prove themselves in battle, as has been seen within Syria in recent months. Indeed there have already been reports emerging from northern Mali of an influx of some 150 or more foreign fighters into the region in the wake of the UN announcement. This outcome could well lead to re-enforcing the AQIM safe-haven that has already grown, except this time with an operational training ground for practising combat skills.

On the other hand, if ECOWAS go in too hard, there is a distinct possibility that the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population would be lost, due to the danger of high civilian casualties, the destruction of livelihoods and the lack of access to food and water resources. The reaction of AQIM and its partners could well be to disperse into neighbouring Sahelian countries, regroup and fight a guerrilla type campaign in a terrain that they are highly experienced of operating in. It’s important to remember that borders are highly porous in this part of the world so the potential for ‘overspill’ into other regions are high in this scenario. Whilst not landlocked with Mali, Nigeria is a ‘near neighbour’ and for many international nations, most prominently the UK, represents a key strategic provider of oil and trade. The danger of the Salafist jihadist group Boko Harem, who operate in northern Nigeria, becoming involved has significant regional security implications.

Again within this reasoning it is possible to see that AQIM would still have the ability to operate within the region, as they use their financial resource to gain popular support amongst a local population who are battle weary, in need of resources and importantly view ECOWAS with a high degree of suspicion as supporters of the deposed Malian leadership.

With Australia’s new position on the Security Council won and the dust settling on the euphoria of this success, the hard work now begins. Understanding the complex dynamics at play in far flung regions of the world, which if mishandled have the potential to have global impact has to now a central element of Australia’s foreign policy. Ultimately, the decision and influence that Australia has to provide will demand an appreciation of the resurgence of an Al-Qaeda affiliate which is growing in influence, power and geographical reach, with the price that has to be paid in human life.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Magharebia.

Will China be a responsible stakeholder in the Asian Century?

"mao money, mao problems." Flickr user: super.heavy

Cam Hawker’s recent post about the ‘Asian Century’ moniker got me thinking about the power of words to shape our analysis and perceptions—perhaps, most dangerously, in ways of which we are never aware.

Watching the third US Presidential debate, it was easy to discern the influence of another common phrase: China as a ‘responsible stakeholder’. This term, made popular by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in 2005 (PDF), has become an oft-used expression. But are we aware of the extent to which it subtly influences our considerations of China? Consider the following passage from Mitt Romney during the debate and listen for the thoughts of Zoellick, an adviser to Romney:

China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism…they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open. And so we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible. Read more

Although Romney refrains from using the ‘responsible stakeholder’ term, it’s easy to discern Zoellick’s influence. But is this notion of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ useful? In a strange way, it actually has a very soothing quality—it implies that China will adapt to play the geopolitical game, accepting Western norms as the route to global responsibility. But what have the last seven years taught us about China’s disposition towards the US-led international system? Is Zoellick’s term still useful, or could it in fact be detrimental to our understanding of China?

On the strategic front, while China may not want war, in the last seven years it has shown little inclination to ‘play the game’ by any rules other than its own. China’s conduct in the South China Sea has even managed to rouse ASEAN from its consensus-obsessed slumber, with a meeting earlier this year almost managing to mention a naval Code of Conduct in the closing communiqué. However, Cambodia blocked these efforts and—for the first time in ASEAN’s history—the meeting closed without the issue of a joint communiqué. Seemingly immune from international opprobrium, China is apparently content to firmly insist on its own way—notwithstanding the demands of the international system.

Economically, the same trend can be observed. In his 2005 speech, Zoellick noted several issues of concern to US businesses: ‘rampant piracy, counterfeiting, and currency manipulation. Even larger US businesses…are concerned that mercantilist Chinese policies will try to direct controlled markets instead of opening competitive markets.’ Fast forward again to the third Presidential debate and listen to Romney:

…on day one I will label them a currency manipulator which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods. They have to understand, we want to trade with them, we want a world that’s stable, we like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.

Seven years later, the list of economic grievances is more than suspiciously familiar—it is near identical. Prima facie, this tells us something about China’s rise and its willingness to conform to Western norms. Given that China shows no signs of adapting to our system, perhaps the time has come to jettison not only the ‘responsible stakeholder’ term, but also this idea that China’s rise would be on our terms.

What then should we think of China’s rise and the challenges it poses? The answer to this lies in a famous quote (or misquote) from Zhou Enlai, China’s first Premier. So the story goes, in the 1970s Zhou was asked for his thoughts on the 1789 French Revolution. His adroit reply—that it was ‘too soon to say’—seems about right.

Iain Henry is an academic tutor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user super.heavy.

A US–China ‘shadow condominium’?

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Coral Bell’s recent passing has created an unfillable void in the Australian International Relations and Strategic Studies scene. Yet Coral leaves behind a wealth of ideas generated during her illustrious career that retain substantial currency for those of us continuing to toil in her imposing scholarly shadow.

One such idea is Coral’s under-studied concept of a ‘shadow condominium’, which she conceived of during the mid-1960s. Inspired by the US–Soviet relationship of the day, it is a notion which arguably better describes the current state of strategic ties between Beijing and Washington.

Contemporary understandings of the US–China relationship have tended to swing between two opposing poles. At one end of the spectrum, pessimists such as John Mearsheimer and Aaron Friedberg point to the inevitability of strategic competition between these two preeminent powers.

At the other, optimists such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and our own Hugh White have instead pointed to the possibility of a power-sharing agreement between Beijing and Washington. This idea reached the peak of its popularity during the 2008–2009 global financial crisis in the form of calls for a ‘G2’. Read more

Neither of these extreme positions captures particularly well the mix of competition and cooperation which has, for some time now, characterised the US–China relationship. By contrast, the promise of Coral’s ‘shadow condominium’ lies in the fact that it is able to do just that.

Inspired by the dynamics of superpower diplomacy during the Cuban Missile crisis (which marked its 50th anniversary just this month), the ‘shadow condominium’ that Bell referred to was a temporary power-sharing arrangement that emerged during periods of acute crisis engaging the interests of the two dominant powers.

But once the danger had passed, this arrangement retreated ‘into the shadows of the future’ and default adversarial postures resumed.

Ever the optimist, Coral maintained that there was always a prospect for the condominium to re-emerge out of those shadows during times of deep crisis.

In her view, periods of power transition are especially conducive to such arrangements because they are invariably dangerous and difficult. The primary function of the ‘shadow condominium’ during such periods is to provide stability through joint great power management of the balance of power.

In the context of Asia’s current power shift, the best evidence that Bell’s 1960s template applies aptly to US–China relations comes from the Korean Peninsula.

To be sure, strategic competition between these two heavyweights has been a perennial feature of security politics surrounding this flashpoint. Arguably of greater interest, however, has been the cooperation that has occurred between Beijing and Washington during periods of crisis.

In early 2003 following the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, for instance, Beijing and Washington worked to initiate three party talks with North Korea which subsequently morphed into a larger and moderately successful Six Party format.

Again in 2006, in the midst of heightened tensions following North Korea’s first nuclear test, American and Chinese officials came together to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

In 2010, following the North’s November bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, tensions heightened to the point where highly respected analysts such as Victor Cha pointed to the possibility of all out conflict between the two Koreas. By December, however, Beijing and Washington were again reportedly working together to create calm.

This pattern recurred once more following the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in late 2011. The US and China maintained very close contact in the aftermath of that event. Indeed, during a visit to Beijing at the time, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke in terms not inconsistent with the ‘shadow condominium’ concept when intimating that ‘I think the US and China share a strong determination to maintain peace and stability’.

Will a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ manifest itself in the case of future strategic crises—in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or over Taiwan—if and when these emerge? Only time will tell.

Aside from the fact that it was conceived by one of our great strategic thinkers, Canberra might do well in the meantime to entertain and further explore the possibility.

First, it offers a more realistic way of thinking about US–China relations than a more formal, institutionalised power-sharing arrangement. Beijing and Washington simply do not share the same common values or strategic cultures necessary to sustain an arrangement of that nature.

Second, a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ will be more palatable to countries—including Japan and India—who fear their potential marginalisation under a more formal US–China power-sharing arrangement because they read it as a step towards some mild form of world government.

Finally, and most importantly, a US–China ‘shadow condominium’ is also a more attractive proposition than the intense and inherently unstable US–China strategic competition that some analysts predict, along with the stark strategic choices that such competition would likely imply for Australia.

Brendan Taylor is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.

UN Security Council – down to work

The Security Council Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament unanimously adopted resolution 1887 (2009), expressing the Council's resolve to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. Shown here is a wide view as the vote takes place. 24/Sep/2009. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

In a recent post, Peter Jennings and I argued that if Australia won a seat at the global decision making peak body, the UN Security Council, we’d benefit from picking some signature issues where Australia could contribute most effectively to solutions to pressing international problems.

Our suggested to-do list included leveraging our expertise to help build the UN’s capacity to help stabilise countries at risk of failing; highlighting Timor-Leste’s continuing needs; championing global opposition to the use of Improvised Explosive Devices; promoting efforts to strengthen maritime security, such as counter-piracy (see ASPI’s latest report on this issue); and developing cooperative measures to address information security.

Now we’ve won our fifth two year term on the Council, (proving wrong those naysayers that predicted our ties with the US, and strong support for Israel would spell defeat), we’ll need to respond to a whole host of global issues. Read more

Apart from Syria, where there’s a rift within the Permanent Five, (China and Russia don’t back enforcement measures), there’ll no doubt be a great deal of the Council’s attention focused on continuing conflicts in Africa, such as Darfur and Mali. Australia’s relations with Africa have to date been led by our private sector’s resource interests. But we’ll need a much higher level of Australian engagement with Africa, if we’re to contribute constructively to Security Council sessions devoted to African affairs. Initiating an Australia–African leaders dialogue is worth considering.

We will get to chair the Council twice during our two year term, for a month each time. That will be our main chance to shape the UN’s agenda. (The Australian Prime Minister of the day might choose to Chair a session to advance particular issues deemed of importance.)

Council resolutions require nine votes to pass. So we’ll inevitably be drawn into the politics of the P5 that exercise the veto. It will be crucial for us to adopt an independent approach here, if we’re to win the respect of all Security Council members and to show we’re serious about being an activist middle power with an independent foreign policy.

As the Council meets in one form or another almost every working day of the year, there’ll be a need for our New York mission to draw upon a wide range of ‘back-office’ stakeholders in Australia for ideas and support. This doesn’t just mean the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but AusAID, Defence, and bodies such as the Australian Civil-Military Centre (that’s focused on doctrine development for complex emergencies), business and selected non-government groups.

There’s a real risk, however, that for the next two years Australian governments may assume that as we’ve now won the Council seat without a huge resource investment, we can be a successful non-permanent member of the Security Council on the cheap.

The shameful leeching of resources from Foreign Affairs over recent years should be addressed as a matter of urgency. It’s going to take more than just chocolate koalas.

 Anthony Bergin is deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Pine Gap – technically speaking, Australia has a choice

Cam Hawker’s recent Strategist post, ‘Stuck in the middle with you’, suffers from five major fallacies. First, it assumes that Australia–US joint facilities predetermine the strategic relationship between Canberra and Washington. Second, it assumes that the facilities’ predetermination of policy is automatic—meaning, as Cam puts it, that ‘there is no choice and has not been for decades.’ Third, it argues that the pre-eminence of the joint facilities ‘hardwires’ Australian decisions about the use of force to US decisions—that once the US goes to war, Australia must follow. Fourth, it insists that in the typical rush to war, Australia would in any case have no time to think through possible constraints on the use of the joint facilities in a conflict to which Australia was not a party. And fifth, it suggests that recent signs of innovation within ANZUS, like the stationing of the US marines in Darwin, are largely irrelevant because our strategic policy is already a prisoner of Washington’s.

These are big, meaty assertions. Cam’s piece is one of the strongest examples I’ve seen in recent times of what’s called ‘the dependency thesis’—that Australian strategic and defence policy is dependent upon that of its great and powerful ally. But on all five points the article is fundamentally wrong-headed. The Australia–US strategic relationship is a broad one, and its character and content is not predetermined by the existence of the joint facilities. True, the facilities began their life as actual US bases, but evolved into joint facilities during the 1980s. As joint facilities, they serve both US and Australian defence forces, and US and Australian national interests. Changing US submarine deployment patterns have, over the years, made the Northwest Cape communication facility less relevant to the US and more relevant to us. And technological innovation meant the functions of the Nurrungar defence satellite support facility could essentially be fulfilled from the Pine Gap site. Pine Gap remains an important facility, but thinking that the arcane SIGINT relationship runs the broader strategic one is simply mistaken. Read more

The notion that the joint facilities have deprived Australian governments of choices for decades, as Cam asserts, would probably come as a surprise to a whole range of Australian governments elected over the years. This notion of automaticity of decision-making, paralleled by the claims of hard-wiring in decisions about use of force, overstates the case. Cam argues, for example, that Australia would have no choice but to follow the US into a war over Taiwan—because of technical reasons more than alliance ones. That’s not true. ANZUS itself isn’t clear about what role we might have in a conflict over Taiwan. But there’s certainly nothing that technically ‘hardwires’ us into going to war just because the US chooses to do so.

The joint facilities are governed by a set of arrangements that both governments have devised over the years. As Defence Minister Smith observed in a speech in Fremantle last November, ‘All activities at Pine Gap are managed to ensure they are consistent with Australian interests. The activities take place with the full knowledge and concurrence of the Australian government.’ So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume those arrangements anticipate the facilities’ possible involvement in future conflict. Australia wouldn’t be attempting to play catch-up once a war had already broken out—or at least we wouldn’t be trying to catch up on the core understandings of when and how the facilities might be involved. Could Pine Gap be a target during any conflict involving the US? Perhaps. But it isn’t an easy target to hit. And it’s merely one of a string of important US facilities across the region. Moreover, some of its functions could be transferred to other US facilities around the world, so weakening an attacker’s incentive to target it anyway.

Finally, it’s wrong to devalue new steps within the alliance on the flawed belief that the joint facilities are already the be-all and end-all of the Australia–US strategic relationship. The new steps reposition the alliance for an Asia in which strategic weight is gradually but steadily shifting south-west from its traditional northeast Asian centre of gravity. Indeed, once we move away from the idea of technical automaticity at the heart of our strategic relationship with Washington, the more important the willingness of both parties to explore new forms of cooperation becomes. The bilateral relationship is one where choices matter very much. The reality is the exact opposite of the one Cam portrays.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The third US presidential debate: a consensus on Asian Pacific security

Governor Romney and President Obama during the second Presidential debate, 3 October 2012

I’m currently attending the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Honolulu, the fifth such meeting to be held in Hawaii as part of the now 20 year-old venerable Australian American Leadership Dialogue process. It’s an interesting setting to watch the third Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

This debate focused on foreign and security policy, although Governor Romney was certainly keen to bring discussion back to the state of the American economy at every opportunity. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney performed strongly in the debate. On that basis I would score the debate narrowly in favour of Romney for two reasons. First, foreign policy should be a natural area of advantage for an incumbent President, because Obama has after all been directing the policy for the last four years. Second, Romney came across as looking largely on top of the issues, and cut a credible image as someone who could become the Commander-in-Chief. That’s no small achievement for a candidate who has had very little foreign policy experience in his political career to date. Read more

A striking feature of the debate was the number of occasions where the President and Romney found reasons to endorse each other’s position on key strategic issues. For example, on Afghanistan both candidates rather pointedly ignored the moderator’s question about what the US should do if Afghanistan was not in a position to handle its own security requirements by 2014. Obama and Romney both said that US forces would largely be gone by 2014. In this sense, it’s reasonable to expect an accelerated withdrawal timetable regardless of which candidate wins the presidential election.

On the question of Iran, both candidates were very firm in saying that it was not acceptable for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons. Obama deflected any discussion of the reported negotiations which have been taking place between the US and Iran. Both candidates emphasised that military action would be a course of last resort and made very strong expressions of support for Israeli security. These aren’t unexpected positions, especially during the course of a US presidential election campaign.

One clear area of difference was defence expenditure. Romney maintained that he will not cut US defence spending as the current administration has. In fact he proposed to increase US defence spending by an additional $2 trillion. Not surprisingly the candidates sparred over just how realistic it is to propose spending increases of that amount. One of the sharpest exchanges between them took place over the question of the numbers of ships in the US Navy. Romney criticised Obama for allowing the US Navy to reduce to some 285 ships, and said that this reflected the smallest US Navy since 1917, to which Obama replied that in the modern era the US military had less need of horses and bayonets as well. It was an amusing but rather high-handed retort that will not play well with the US Navy or pro-defence audiences.

On China, the positions of the candidates have been well rehearsed. Obama described China as a potential adversary but also potentially a partner in the world community—if China is prepared to play by the rules. Romney likewise said that the US can be a partner of China and that the US did not need to be an adversary of Beijing in any way shape or form. Romney repeated his comment that, on day one of his presidency, he would designate China as a currency manipulator. And while the moderator asked whether that meant he’d start a trade war, it remains to be seen what that really means in practice. Both candidates were talking primarily to a domestic audience in making these remarks. I struggle to identify any significant difference between them on their approach to China. While Romney’s rhetoric is stronger, both he and Obama appreciate the importance of a well-managed relationship with Beijing.

After strenuous efforts to bury the term ‘pivot’ and replace it with the term ‘rebalance’, State Department officials will perhaps be dismayed by President Obama referencing the US pivot to the Asia Pacific in his closing remarks. At least by implication that may be the closest that a presidential debate has ever come to referring to an element of policy closely engaging Australia. Again, there does not appear to be any substantive differences between President Obama and candidate Romney on long-term importance of the Asia Pacific to America’s interests.

Overall, the debate on foreign policy was in many respects an unexpectedly substantive exchange between two credible candidates.

Not many US votes will be swayed by foreign policy considerations but the third debate points to substantial areas of bipartisan support for policies which will continue to prioritise the Asia Pacific and will be of long term benefit to Australian strategic interests.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Barack Obama.