Articles by " Anthony Bergin"

Islam and terrorism: should our leaders be linking the two?

Terrorists operating against Western targets claim their acts are inspired, and in many cases required, by Islam. But should our leaders be openly linking Islam and terrorism or is it better if they publicly deny any such links?

In his National Security statement on Monday (video above) Prime Minister Tony Abbott made it clear where he stood on that question:

‘I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it. I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’. In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking. Everybody, including Muslim community leaders, needs to speak up clearly because, no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents must surely be a blasphemy against all religion.’

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John Hudson at Foreign Policy, writing about last week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, noted that neoconservatives ‘blasted the White House for not focusing exclusively on radical Islam’, while civil-rights groups pointed out that incidents of extremist violence attributable to Muslims are only a fraction of those carried out in the United States.

Our political elites aren’t experts on the Islamic religion. They won’t have much credibility disputing Muslim scholars who point to Islamic sources that reject terrorist behavior. But does that then require them to keep silent on the issue of any links between Islam and terrorism? There’s a strong argument that Islam, like Christianity, is neither a violent nor a peaceful religion: it contains texts that legitimize both, (although there’s no Islamic equivalent of a Pope who can rule on those controversies.)

Publicly saying there’s a link might be self-defeating: it could stir up trouble with moderate Muslims who oppose terrorism. And most political leaders will want to avoid being open to the charge that they’re somehow at war with Islam. It’s a sensitive and complex debate. But I’d side with Thomas Friedman’s recent take on this issue:

‘When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble…I am all for restraint on the issue, and would never hold every Muslim accountable for the acts of a few. But it is not good for us or the Muslim world to pretend that this spreading jihadist violence isn’t coming out of their faith community. It is coming mostly, but not exclusively, from angry young men and preachers on the fringe of the Sunni Arab and Pakistani communities in the Middle East and Europe.’

Friedman cites with approval Asra Q. Nomani, an American Muslim born in India.  She argues that there’s a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals ‘that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.’ Nomani says this coalition

‘throws the label of “Islamophobe’’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion…The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere…The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism…They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.’

It’s clear from Tony Abbott’s remarks on Monday that he’s not about to be bullied by critics. On Sunday a statement signed by 64 Australian Islamic organisations (including Hizb ut-Tahrir) and 42 community and religious leaders was released. It stated they opposed Abbott’s ‘politically convenient’ threats to crack down on Islamic groups who have been bold enough to speak out about his stance towards Muslims. I’m looking forward to seeing this collection of individuals and groups issue a statement on terrorism, al-Qaeda and ISIL, making it clear that they won’t tolerate those who try to impose their values on others by killing people.

In this context, it was encouraging to see what occurred in Norway over the weekend: more than 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community and condemning a recent attack on a synagogue in Denmark.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Video courtesy of YouTube user Liberal Party of Australia.

Radicalisation and extremism in schools

In an oped piece published today I’ve focused on the issue of safeguarding Australian school children from the risks of radicalisation and extremism.

I’d like to add four extra thoughts on this issue. First, in The Australian article I say that our academic researchers have let us down in that we don’t have a good understanding of what’s happening to some of the most vulnerable in our school system in relation to extremism and radicalisation.

But in making that observation, I do recognise that the importance of education has been raised before in the context of counter-radicalisation in Australia.  I think that one of the reasons we don’t have much research data on what’s happening in our schools is because the radicalisation of younger people hasn’t, until recently, been seen as a real threat. I suspect that many teachers have been reluctant to admit that there’s an issue with extremism. Read more

My plea here would be for some basic research to measure the extent of the problem, and to determine what teachers think about the issue. It would’ve been a major challenge to try to get approval and funding for such a project in the past. But I’d think it would get much more support now from our education authorities.

The second issue I’d like to raise is the need for schools to teach critical thinking as a measure to prevent radicalisation. Typically, of course, schools take it as their core mission to teach critical thinking anyway. Learning to think clearly is one of the reasons for educating students in the first place. But we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of that core mission in the counter-radicalisation field. Extremists see things in black and white; if students are able to think critically, they’ll be more resilient to extremist messages.

In my op-ed I note that association with gangs and petty criminality may be an indicator of a young person’s exposure to extremism. Here, I’d note that terrorists often use crime to fund their activities; so my third point is that in any discussion about radicalisation in Australian schools, that the link between crime and terrorism should also be considered.

Finally, strategies to raise awareness among teachers and educators about radicalisation and extremism should ensure that they take into account the complexity of the issue. A simple set of indicators related to signifying behaviours can be counter-productive, unless it’s also accompanied by a well-informed and comprehensive framework of understanding.

Parents, teachers and other socialising agents need to have the skills, capacity and awareness necessary to identify any worrying behaviours. The challenge is how to develop that framework without oversimplifying radicalisation. Observable behaviours may not always be indicative of radicalisation, but issues such as drugs, gangs, or inter-generational conflict often are. That’s why we need more research and stronger conceptual models in this area.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bill Erickson.

Strengthening Australian policy to counter violent extremism


Fairfax Media’s Deborah Snow points out that, while the federal government has made much of its commitment to programs aimed at diverting young Muslims who might be on the path to radicalisation, the Lebanese Muslim Association isn’t yet on board, with push-back also coming from the Arab Council of Australia.

Snow suggests that it’s a perceived imbalance in government priorities that’s driving Islamic community scepticism:

The Living Safe Together program has just $1 million to disperse among Muslim community groups to come forward with ideas for “helping individuals move away from violent extremism”, with grants up to a maximum $50,000 and for one year only, with no promise of future funding…[T]he Lebanese Muslim Association is saying little about the reasons for its effective boycott of the program…But one source says the paltry funding for this latest initiative and lack of ongoing financial commitment from Canberra were key factors.

The Arab Council Australia…is assessing this latest proposal with some scepticism. “There needs to be a level of sustainability, not just piecemeal projects that begin and end within 12 months,” chief executive Randa Kattan says. “We are madly researching this to see what might work …but we are really hoping that the government will have more of a holistic approach in delivering wrap-around services that would make a difference to the community, rather than piecemeal services in silos.”

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Snow points to the drawback of funding short-run initiatives, citing the fate of a program run by the (non-government) Victorian Arab Social Services three years ago. It used a one-year federal grant to produce a program called the Curbing Radicalisation Through Youth Resilience and Community Partnerships Project which included workshops, media productions, soccer leadership camps and resume writing to reach out to young Muslims. But when it lost funding, according to Snow, ‘much of the work ground to a halt’.

Next Wednesday (18 February), Australia will be represented at a White House Summit examining ways to counter violent extremism in order to try to stop people from joining terrorist groups in the first place. But Snow’s report suggests the government’s not got that much to put on the table when it comes to putting out credible messages to our Muslim communities, nor the best way to focus on those who’ve demonstrated a strong interest in terrorist propaganda (but haven’t yet broken Australian law).

We need an integrated communications campaign that develops a counter-narrative to prevent home-grown terrorism through a coalition of voices using the web, social media, and community outreach. We might, with appropriate resourcing, take a leading global position on a best-practice campaign.

And we also need to get on with a local version of Britain’s Channel program, that’s more tightly targeted. As mentioned by Tobias Feakin in his blog post, Channel triages those who’ve demonstrated a sustained interest in extremism. It considers 22 risk factors, with those individuals at risk regularly checked to see whether they pose a threat anymore. In many ways, a pilot program here along those lines would be a more effective use of counter-terrorism funding than our current ‘Harmony Day’ approach to counter-radicalisation that targets whole communities.

A positive step has just been taken with the government launch of its Report Online Extremism campaign, that allows people to alert law enforcement and intelligence agencies about illegal or offensive online material, and which could lead to sites being shut down if hosted in Australia or prosecuting people if crimes have been committed.

Attorney-General George Brandis has just returned from a ‘Five Eyes’ meeting in London. The five countries agreed to share approaches in developing a strategy to address extremist use of the internet and social media platforms. That’s a sensible approach. But any digital and social media counter-radicalisation program needs to be done collaboratively with our Muslim communities to develop the messages that will resonate with the target audience.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik.

The rising strategic stocks of Micronesia

CHUUK, Federated States of MicronesiaStrategists have long focused on twin arcs drawn from Kyushu through Okinawa to Taiwan and then back through the Philippines to Indonesia. Much of the maritime space inside those ‘shallow arcs’, also known as the First Island Chain, is contested, not least by China.

But in a piece published in the AFR today I’ve suggested we consider another arc: from Tokyo to the US-held Northern Marianas and Guam, and on to Yap, Palau and Indonesia. Behind this ‘deep arc’ lie the Caroline and Marshall islands, forming independent republics.

This ‘Second Island Chain’ surrounding China is the Micronesian region. It’s of great strategic importance to the US, which is in the midst of a military build-up on Guam. And it has been used in the past as an invasion route to PNG and Australia. It’s an important strategic axis where the interests of China, Japan, Taiwan and the US, as well as several Southeast Asian countries, intersect. Read more

Japan has a strong interest in the three former US trust territories—the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Republic of Palau—and maintains diplomatic missions in each, as well as consulates in Guam and Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.

The region is rising in political prominence: RMI hosted the Pacific Islands Forum in 2013, Palau last year and FSM will do so next year.

Under the terms of ‘Compacts of Free Association’ with Palau, FSM and RMI, the United States has defence responsibilities for each. The US military’s Kwajalein Base is used as a test site for ballistic missiles launched from the US, and for other missile and space-related activities, on a long-term lease arrangement with the RMI.

The centrepiece of US-led North Pacific security is Guam, a US territory further from Honolulu than Honolulu is from Los Angeles. It’s an island with a thriving tourism industry alongside its military bases. Preparations continue for the future strengthening of the US military presence on Guam. A US–Japan joint statement in 2012 specified that out of about 9,000 Marines to be relocated from Okinawa, about 5,000 Marines would move to Guam, a move that will start in the early 2020s.

Our diplomatic footprint in the region is tiny. Our Pohnpei Ambassador has multiple accreditations: to the FSM, the RMI and Palau, and (as Consul-General) to Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. We’ve got no Defence adviser based in Micronesia (although there are several naval surveillance advisers linked to Australian-donated Pacific patrol boats).

We need some harder thinking about our strategic interest in the North Pacific, including possible plans we might put in place in preparation for the marines basing in Guam. While we currently contribute to regional security through annual participation in Exercise Cope North, we could consider Australian defence representation on Guam and training with the US there and other areas of Micronesia.

We like to say we’re a big player in the Pacific and if that’s so, then why aren’t we thinking about a bigger role in the North Pacific?

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Pacific Command.

Reader response: Pacific labour mobility

Graeme Dobell argues in his latest post that ‘the one thing the Islands want from Australia and New Zealand—labour mobility—is the one thing Australia and New Zealand won’t give’. He says that ‘If PACER Plus is going to deliver new opportunities to the Islands then it must tackle the taboo of labour mobility’.

Graeme’s right that  Pacific Island nations see labour mobility as an essential component of the PACER Plus negotiations. We’ve now got a Seasonal Workers Program where people from the Pacific and Timor-Leste can work in Australia on a short term basis in select industries. We recently invited Fiji to join the SWP. Read more

ANU development economist Stephen Howes points out that in 2013–14, the SWP cap was 2,500 and just 2,000 workers came. The main problem is backpackers:

…backpackers are currently rewarded for three months work on a farm by a second year’s visa…It has been incredibly effective in channelling an ever-growing number of backpackers onto farms. Pacific seasonal workers simply can’t compete with backpackers. The number of backpackers who applied for a second-year visa on the basis of farm work in 2005-06 roughly equals the number of Pacific SWP workers last year. But in the meantime the number of backpackers on farms has shot up to over 40,000! No wonder the SWP is languishing. If Australia is serious about the SWP…the two most important things we could do are reform the backpacker scheme and increase the SWP cap. Both together are important. Increasing the cap on its own will achieve nothing. Reforming the backpacker scheme and not increasing the cap will quickly make the SWP cap binding.

Apart from those two sensible reforms, why don’t we look across ‘the ditch’ and consider a variant on New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category (PAC) scheme as a way of addressing unemployment in the Islands. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota Scheme for settlement in New Zealand, New Zealand provides residence to a number of citizens from Island countries. The schemes provide opportunities for low-skilled workers and for those who don’t qualify to migrate under the various skills categories.

Eleven hundred Samoan citizens are granted residence in New Zealand each year under the Samoan Quota Scheme. Under the PAC, New Zealand grants residence to 75 Tuvaluan and 75 Kiribati citizens as well as 250 Tongan citizens each year. Fijian nationals will be able to apply next year. Both the PAC and the Samoan Quota are determined by ballot. Applicants become eligible for the schemes once their registration number is drawn from the ballot pool for their country. To be eligible, applicants must register for the annual ballot and meet application requirements. The principal applicant must be aged between 18 and 45 years and be a citizen of one of the three PAC countries or of Samoa. Applicants must either have been born in one of those four eligible countries or be the children of citizens who were born in an eligible country.

After being selected from the ballot, applicants can apply for residence if they (or their partner) have an acceptable offer of employment and meet health, character and minimum English language requirements. Applicants with dependent children must meet minimum income standards. Under the PAC and Samoan Quota schemes, New Zealand accepts 1,500 migrants annually. If an equivalent program were adopted in Australia, and we accepted the same number of migrants per capita as New Zealand, we’d accept 7,964 migrants.

Graeme Dobell suggests that the ‘prize of labour mobility’ between Australia and the Islands maybe three decades away. In the meantime, we ought to consider a permanent Pacific migration scheme like New Zealand’s, at least for the smaller island states, where such an arrangement would make a significant economic difference. It would also put more Pacific people into our Pacific policy.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user ashokboghani.

Australia, India and maritime security

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Abbott after the Indian leader's address to Parliament.

In a historic address to Parliament in Canberra, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested both countries should collaborate more on maintaining maritime security: ‘We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums’. Modi noted that ‘the oceans are our lifelines. But, we worry about its access and security in our part of the world more than ever before’.

He’s spot on: the importance of the Indian Ocean can’t be over-emphasised. Over 55,000 ships transit through the Indian Ocean every year transporting oil, consumer goods and food, reflecting the dependence of nations of the region and beyond on this ocean. So Modi was right to raise the maritime security challenges faced by both countries, particularly the need for protection of sea lines of communication. (These days that includes ensuring global broadband connectivity via the network of undersea cables.) Read more

Both our naval forces are effective, and they aren’t in competition with each other. Common maritime challenges include counter piracy, maritime safety, strengthening port state control, and search and rescue. In his Canberra speech, Modi also singled out the opportunity for both countries to respond to regional disasters: that should include operational aspects between designated coordinating authorities.

India’s already making a solid contribution to maritime security: it’s been convening the biennial Milan exercises in the Bay of Bengal for nearly twenty years, drawing participants from across the Indian Ocean, including Australia. And for the last six years Australia has participated in the meetings of the chiefs of navies from all Indian Ocean littoral countries under the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) that was started by India (we’re currently the chair). IONS has the potential to serve as a broader platform discussing security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Increased naval cooperation with India will become more common, with a joint naval exercise next year. The last time the two navies engaged operationally was seven years ago during Exercise Malabar. And there’ll be more maritime exercises under the ‘Framework for security cooperation between Australia and India’ concluded during Modi’s visit.

There’s scope too for joint capacity building in the Indian Ocean’s island states such as Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. Seychelles and Australia, for example, recently identified opportunities for bilateral cooperation in ocean resource management. The Indian Ocean Rim Association, which Australia chairs for another year, promotes freedom of the seas and open sealanes. Modi noted in his Australian parliamentary speech the need for both countries to coordinate more closely in IORA.

Australia and India are heavily dependent on the oceans for economic growth. So we’ve both been pushing for developing greater cooperation in IORA on the ‘blue economy’—that is, maritime-related economic activity—as a common source of growth, innovation and job creation. As we shift our gaze westward across the Indian Ocean, there may be scope for the Indian Coast Guard and the new Australian Border Force, that will be established mid next year, to further develop the agenda of Indian Ocean maritime security.

Of course, these improvements in Australia–India relations come at a time when both governments already have crowded agendas. In Australia, the Abbott government has made no secret of its intentions to strengthen the bilateral relationships it enjoys with Washington, Tokyo and Jakarta. But, it would like to do more with India too. India, on the other hand, is looking east and building ties with Japan. And, as outlined above, there’s a shared agenda of work and interests already available. The real test will be whether both Canberra and New Delhi are willing to make it work.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.

Australian Antarctic policy: an update

Kangaroo over AntarcticaThe recent Senate report, Australia’s future activities and responsibilities in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters, released on 29 October, was—to some extent—a lost opportunity.  The timing of its release, virtually coinciding with that of the Abbott government’s commissioned twenty-year strategic plan for Antarctica, meant the Senate’s findings lost some of their impact. In all likelihood, they would’ve grabbed greater attention if the two hadn’t overlapped. But the fact that the findings of both studies reinforce each other in almost every way lends strength to the arguments presented in both documents.

I’d welcome the Senate Committee’s proposal that the government examine the potential for further use of non-vessel technologies, such as UAV’s, including consideration of the potential application of new Defence assets, to support law enforcement and border patrolling in the Southern Ocean. I’d also endorse the Committee’s emphasis on strengthening funding for science. Read more

I’d question, however, its recommendation to develop and implement a Southern Ocean mapping program. A better priority would be mapping the Australian Antarctic Territory and its near seabed. But there’s a strong case that even this task should be down the list from other science priorities, such as understanding changes in the Southern Ocean and their impact on Australian and global climates.

I was pleased that the Senate Committee recommended an ‘interagency working group be established to review Australia’s current and proposed marine assets and their utilisation, and to explore the potential costs and benefits of a national fleet approach to the acquisition and management of Australian vessels’. Here, it appears to have accepted the thrust of the submission made by Sam Bateman and myself on the need for a national fleet approach to our polar priorities in research, logistics and search-and-rescue. (Submission 2.)

We argued that there’s a hole in our current national fleet: the lack of a decent offshore patrol vessel. Neither the Customs’ Cape class nor the Navy’s likely Armidale class replacement vessels are suited for operations in the Southern Ocean. They don’t have the range, seakeeping qualities, and nor do they have a helicopter: the ability to carry a helicopter, particularly one that can be stowed in a hangar to protect it from weather, is an essential capability for sovereignty protection and law enforcement tasks down south.

I’m a bit more cautious, however, on the Committee’s recommendation that Australia ‘explores the possibility of concluding new agreements with neighbouring and like-minded countries to cooperate in patrol and deterrence in the Southern Ocean, based upon the example of the arrangements presently in place with France’.

The Maritime Cooperation Treaty on Surveillance in the Southern Ocean with France entered into force on 1 February 2005. But it was very specific. It was aimed at combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing around Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) and the French territory of Kerguelen Island, that adjoins the HIMI EEZ. It was also aimed at strengthening Australian and French collaboration in CCAMLR. It came about because Australia and France faced a joint economic and political problem. That’s not really the same for any other of our near neighbours, including New Zealand.

It’d be more appropriate for Australia to promote multilateral cooperation around specific issues—such as sustainability of the Southern Ocean, marine and Antarctic management, port state control, and flags of convenience.

Finally, I was pleased to see that the Committee’s report recommended the appointment of an Australian Antarctic and Southern Ocean Ambassador to ‘coordinate whole-of-government policy and to provide senior leadership for the promotion of Australia’s interests and role domestically and internationally’. That’s a suggestion proposed seven years ago in ASPI’s first study of our Antarctic policy settings.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Fransisco Martins.

Hizb ut-Tahrir: compete not ban

The limits of free speech?

Emma Alberici’s recent Lateline interview with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Australian spokesperson, Wassim Doureihi, prompted the Prime Minister to state he’s reviewing the Islamist group after calls for it to be banned. The group’s spokesperson repeatedly dodged questions about whether Hizb ut-Tahrir supported the campaign waged by Islamic State extremists.

The group isn’t currently listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia. But Abbott has made clear his recent views on the organisation, in particular in a radio interview with Neil Mitchell in the wake of the Lateline program. There he condemned the group as ‘un-Australian’ and said the interview confirmed his concerns about Hizb ut-Tahrir. He described the group as ‘very careful to avoid advocating terrorism but [which] is always making excuses for terrorist organisations’. Interestingly, he drew on the work of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair: Read more

He made the point that there is the fringe—a small minority of people who engage in terrorism—and then there is the spectrum—a much larger group of people who support an ideology—who have a set of beliefs which justify terrorism. Now, they are not practitioners of terrorism but they have an ideology which justifies and explains terrorism. The point that Tony Blair…is making is that while we must resist fiercely terrorists themselves, do everything we can to defeat the terrorists, we also have to intellectually wrestle and grapple with the spectrum of thinking which supports terrorism.

Asked about the laws currently before parliament, Abbott said that the government wanted ‘to make it an offence not just to engage in terrorist activity, but to engage in terrorist advocacy’. He accepted that it would be a question of law as to whether Hizb ut-Tahrir was doing that, but was especially critical of ‘preachers of hate’ coming to Australia to ‘stir up trouble’.

The proposed Counter–Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 is set to be passed this week. The bill would make it illegal, subject to a five-year prison term, to counsel, promote, encourage or urge a terrorist act.

Some of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s statements and literature could well fall under the proposed offence of ‘advocating terrorism’: if incitement or propaganda influences an individual or group to perpetrate an act of terror, it’s difficult to argue that one bears no responsibility, especially in a time of mass and rapid communication through social media.

The Prime Minister has said the current law doesn’t allow the government to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, but he has now stated that he’ll have another look at this question once the ‘advocating terrorism’ law passes, (ASIO would have the lead here). A court may also find a group to be a terrorist organisation as part of the prosecution of a terrorist offence. Listing Hizb ut-Tahrir under the Criminal Code Regulations as a terrorism organisation would send a clear message that the group is associated with terrorism and make it illegal to donate to the group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir would no doubt argue that individuals involved in terrorism have deviated from the group’s path. But the organisation operates in that grey area between advocacy of terrorism and free speech. While it maintains a public commitment to non-violent change at this stage, its threat comes from the ideology that drives the group. Its literature and speeches often seem close to praising terrorism.

Still, a ban might make it harder to track the group’s activities. Its legal status means it has a public platform, but that also makes it easier to observe. The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen recently argued (paywalled) that ’if we keep asking questions of the extremists in our midst, we will defeat them. Along the way we will bolster our commitment to free speech’.

I agree: we should be competing with the group for the support of its potential recruits. Banning the group isn’t going to assist in the war of ideas. So it was disappointing to learn early last week that several ANU academics had declined the opportunity to debate Hizb ut-Tahrir in a forum organised by the ANU’s student newspaper. As Tony Blair and Tony Abbott have said, we should be willing to wrestle intellectually with arguments we oppose deeply.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, ASPI and co-author of Responding to radical Islamist ideology: the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mikael Altemark

The Indian Ocean Rim Association: a progress report

HMAS Perth transits through the Southern Indian Ocean as an Orion P-3K of the Royal New Zealand Air Force searches for debris as part of Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.

The Indian Ocean littoral region’s resources and economic growth are attracting greater political attention. So it’s surprising there wasn’t more press coverage of last week’s meeting in Perth of the 20 member-states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. IORA aims to spearhead future regional integration as the Indian Ocean grows in economic importance.

Australia is chairing the Association—until next year, when we hand over the role to the current vice chair, Indonesia. IORA’s the only pan-regional forum in the Indian Ocean that tries to address challenges faced by the more than 2 billion people who live around the Indian Ocean rim. Its priority issues include maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk-management, and academic, science and technology, tourism and cultural exchanges. Read more

Membership of IORA is in demand. Somalia’s in the queue to join the association, although there are still a few formalities before that’s finalised. Myanmar and Maldives are also applying to join. But Somalia’s application signifies a new and constructive development: IORA members recognise that the international community has made significant investments in the area adjacent to its 1700-kilometre coastline, and Somalia needs to be constructively engaged (presumably IORA would do that once Somalia’s membership begins.)

A key outcome from the Perth meeting was a greater focus on business: for the first time there was an IORA Business Week that looked at increasing trade and investment flows in the region.

The grouping issued an IORA Economic Declaration (PDF) issued that centred on the so-called ‘blue economy': creating oceans industries such as port development, fisheries, aquaculture, renewable energy, mineral exploration, and marine-based tourism. The Declaration picks up on the key message of last year’s IORA declaration on the principles for peaceful, productive and sustainable use of the Indian Ocean and its resources.

If there’s to be greater Australian focus on the oceans as part of our economic diplomacy, that strengthens the case for an Australian Office of Ocean Affairs to coordinate DFAT’s oceans expertise.

In Perth we supported IORA’s economic declaration by establishing a fund of a $1m dollars to support economic diplomacy initiatives and activities in the Indian Ocean region.

No doubt some of that money could support Australia’s commitment at the Perth meeting to host an Indian Ocean Dialogue next year. That would build on a similar exercise held in India recently. It would be useful in promoting thinking on different aspects of regional cooperation and complement IORA’s discussions.

The MH370 tragedy highlighted gaps in search and rescue in the Indian Ocean and the need for regular SAR exercises in the region. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Defence Minister David Johnston proposed Australia facilitate a regular multilateral search-and-rescue exercise in the future, that’s ‘practically focused, designed to strengthen interoperability, and to build fraternal connections’.

Streamlining SAR efforts was therefore a key objective of the Perth meeting. And last week five countries (Singapore, Australia, Seychelles, Comoros and South Africa) signed an MOU on search-and-rescue cooperation developed by IORA. Hopefully more states will sign on in the near future. To support the MOU Australia usefully committed $2.6 million to working with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Maldives (the three countries bordering our SAR region) on responding to maritime and aviation distress situations.

The Perth meeting also saw increasing involvement by IORA’s dialogue partners. I’ve argued before that we should be encouraging this process. So it was positive that there was very high-level representation in Perth from the United States and China (both dialogue partners).

There were other positive developments, IORA’s sub groups—the Indian Ocean Rim Business Forum and Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group—were given stronger mandates to provide more focus and expert advice to IORA. There was an agreement to better resource IORA’s Secretariat to service the needs of the organisation.

But it’s a pity that little attention appeared to be given to closer connections between the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and IORA in addressing maritime confidence-building measures in the region. Potential for cooperation there was highlighted at the recent Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean. The issue could be explored at the second Indian Ocean Dialogue that we’ll be hosting in 2015.

Regional cooperation is critical for the creation of a stable and prosperous Indian Ocean. At the half-way point of Australia’s chairmanship of IORA, good progress was made in Perth on the Association’s development towards a regional institution that’s able to respond effectively to a range of economic and security challenges.

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

Reader’s response: three lessons for Australia from the Ebola outbreak

Ebola virusWhile it’s possible we could get an Ebola case in Australia, the chances are pretty low, with no direct flights between here and the west African countries most affected.

Those countries also now have in place Ebola screening at their airports. But as Rod Lyon notes in his recent post: ‘most Ebola victims aren’t travelling anywhere fast’.

So the good news is that the likelihood of Ebola overwhelming our health system here is low: it would be simple fear-mongering to suggest otherwise.

Even though Ebola poses little risk to our general population, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer has said that our facilities would be able to contain any cases here and prevent it from spreading further: ‘We have a tried and true system in relation to our quarantine officers… and our health system is really well-placed to manage where there is a concern of a disease of this nature’. Read more

Queensland’s chief health officer recently said Australia’s Ebola preparations had been successfully trialed three weeks ago. A Gold Coast man claimed to be sick on the back of a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, hit by a separate outbreak of the disease. He was found not to have Ebola.

But being able to treat an isolated case of Ebola here wouldn’t provide the most accurate assessment of the ability of Australia’s health-care system to respond to a widespread infectious disease outbreak. If a large-scale influenza pandemic occurred in Australia, for example, and spread more quickly than anticipated, then the surge capacity of our health response systems would almost certainly be rapidly overwhelmed.

We still don’t think enough in this country about our public-health system’s need to develop surge capabilities to handle a large influx of patients over a short period of time and our ability to provide adequate care for persons with special medical needs.

There’re no minimum standards for national disaster planning that relate, for example, to the number of critical-care beds or operating theatres required. No hospital sets aside intensive-care-unit beds: instead they rely on rather vague notions of making beds or space available depending on the disaster case load.

The Bali bombings didn’t really test the system: the small number of patients was easily absorbed, and the same applies for victims of the Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria.

Most of our health-care facilities are now operating at close to their maximum capacities, and hospitals have fewer resources for preparedness in harsh financial times.

So the first take–away from the Ebola outbreak is that it reminds us that we need to ensure we’ve got a robust public-health system that can adapt to the challenges that an infectious disease outbreak might pose at home.

The second lesson from the Ebola case stems from Rod’s point that ‘countries that already have strong health systems are better placed to respond to Ebola’. He’s right: so it makes perfect sense that we should help other countries not only to fight specific diseases like malaria and HIV but to build up their public-health infrastructure. That’s the best way we will help in preventing infectious diseases from reaching us, and keeping our public safe.

The third lesson of the Ebola case for Australia arises from Rod’s point that there’s a legitimate concern about the prospect of ‘diseases without borders’, given the ‘growing viral superhighway that globalisation provides’.

The key point here is one that an Australian parliamentary report into health issues across international borders highlighted last year: a disease outbreak in one country can easily spread to another, so we’ll need to have open lines of communication with health officials in different countries to share information for effective disease surveillance.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of CDC Global.

Reader’s response: modest assistance for African counterterrorism

A.U. and Somali Forces Capture Strategic Positions in Fight Against Shabaab

Africa’s more stable than ever before. The continent’s economy is growing faster than any other’s. According to International Monetary Fund figures, 10 of the world’s 20 fastest-growing economies are located in Africa. The continent’s population is expected to double by 2050 to more than 2 billion people.

Yet as Tobias Feakin makes clear in his recent report and blog post, the spread of violent Islamic extremism in Africa is troubling; there’s no doubt that terrorism is limiting Africa’s progress.

A peaceful and economically strong Africa can counter the threats of terrorism. A more secure Africa is one in which Australian engagement can flourish. So what can we do to help Africa here?

I’d suggest we should offer modest security assistance, focused on those states who respect democratic principles: we shouldn’t be offering security help to regimes that abuse their own citizens. Read more

We might consider sending a defence or foreign affairs officer to serve with US Africa Command (in the same way we’ve attached senior Defence people to PACOM).

Unlike the other US regional commands, which were created primarily for warfighting, Africa Command is designed to support regional partners and includes large components from other government agencies like the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. AFRICOM’s whole-of-government approach has been evident in its counterterrorism work.

Africa has a number of highly professional militaries. But we could make worthwhile, albeit modest, efforts to assist defence institution-building. IED detonations are of great concern in Africa. ADF personnel are among the best in the world at managing this threat so we might offer assistance here.

Unfortunately there’s minimal funding for defence cooperation with Africa: we have only one Australian defence attaché on the continent (based in Addis Ababa). That’s totally inadequate to cover the many areas of potential defence cooperation across 54 countries

We can lift our efforts in peace operations on the continent and do more with UN missions to show we’ve not forgotten about Africa after our UNSC stint ends later this year: seventy percent of UNSC business concerns Africa.

Given the links between crime, corruption and terrorism on the continent, we could provide training through Attorney–General’s on financial crimes and anti-corruption.

Training opportunities in counterterrorism in Africa should be explored by our Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism. It helps here that we weren’t a colonial power. Our Australia Awards could be extended in this area.

We’ve got a range of humanitarian goals across sub-Saharan Africa, but countering Islamist militancy should be accorded a higher priority in our aid policy. Our aid to Africa has slipped from around $230 million last financial year to around $150 million this financial year. (There’s a case for stabilising it for now at around 5 per cent of our aid program, i.e. around $250 million.)

We should be spending our African aid budget in those countries threatened by jihadist groups and lacking the resources to fund the necessary capabilities to defeat those terrorist groups.

Australia’s long term global interests are served by tackling terrorist groups at the source by building local capacity. We might consider a special program on counterterrorism working with the appropriate NGOs.

We should sponsor educational institutions that compete with radical messages emitted from foreign-funded educational institutions. We’ve done that in Indonesia. Africa’s full of mosques built with Saudi and Libyan money, and Imams trained accordingly. That needs to be balanced with more enlightened Islamic preachers.

We should focus on nation-building in those front-line African states as part of a co-ordinated strategy worked out with all other agencies of government to counter Islamist militancy in Africa: our foreign aid should be seen as the soft end of counterterrorism.

Communication via social media is of growing significance in Africa and that can be important in developing counter-narratives. But we have no public diplomacy activities in Africa yet to promote universal values in any organised way. We could partner here with other ‘like-mindeds’, such as the UK, US, Germany, and the Nordics.

Countering Islamist and other militia groups could be directed by supporting regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States. That would build better capacity for coordinated responses to cross-border groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Tuareg in Mali.

We might partner in areas like security sector reform and forensics. Our federal police have, however, only one Africa-based officer (located in Pretoria).

Counterterrorism shouldn’t trump all our other causes for aid. But we can make a modest contribution to building Africa’s resilience to the forces of international terrorism.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean: round two

Frigate HMS Kent is pictured during counter piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.Last week ASPI, the Indian Council of World Affairs, and Indonesian participants, met in Canberra at the Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean (TDIO) to build upon the work initiated at the first round held in New Delhi last year. The TDIO came hard on the heels of the Indian Ocean Dialogue, held in Kochi, and organised by the Observer Research Foundation and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. It considered maritime security policy issues in the Indian Ocean.

Australia puts a high priority on strengthening bilateral relations with Indonesia and India, as reflected in recent prime ministerial and ministerial visits. What the TDIO countries found last week was that there’s also lots of opportunities to enhance trilateral cooperation, in the broader context of developments in the Indian Ocean region.

In a way that’s hardly surprising: TDIO countries have common interests in the eastern Indian Ocean that provide a potential building block for addressing concerns of the wider Indian Ocean region, without the diversions of the strategic troubles of East Asia and the northwest Indian Ocean. Read more

TDIO countries are powerful democracies, heavily dependent on shipping and the security of sea lines of communication, with extensive EEZs in the eastern Indian Ocean. We’ve each got a vested interest in the management of the wider Indian Ocean. (A pillar of Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo’s campaign was an emphasis on strengthening the country’s identity as a ‘maritime nation’ and becoming what he called a ‘global maritime nexus’.)

The TDIO exchanged views on strategic stability in the Indian Ocean, shipping safety and security, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance, maritime confidence-building measures, search and rescue, marine scientific research and fisheries management.

Our discussions underlined the importance of the Indian Ocean Rim Association as the premier institution in the Indian Ocean region. India was the immediate past chair of IORA, Australia’s now the chair and Indonesia will take over in 2015.

The TDIO countries considered there to be value in further work around developing a ‘best practice’ approach to providing security in ports and anchorages against the threats of armed robbery and petty theft. Participants saw utility in crafting guidelines for maintenance of armed security guards on board merchant vessels and investing more effort in the security of offshore infrastructure (major safety incidents or attacks on the security of offshore facilities would have significant security, economic and environmental implications).

There was scope to strengthen arrangements for port state control for safer shipping, and developing capacity, both at the national and regional levels, for disaster risk management. (Marine natural hazards, in particular, are a major threat in the Indian Ocean region.)

There was potential to initiate a dialogue among the national disaster agencies of TDIO countries, as well as the development of cooperative protocols for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). MDA provides an effective understanding of any activity associated with the maritime environment that could impact on security, safety, the economy or environment. There are also opportunities for cooperative defence research projects of interest to TDIO countries, perhaps related to MDA and information-sharing.

Search and rescue (SAR) can be particularly demanding when the search area is mid-ocean and search vehicles must transit a long distance from base to the search area. Australia has accepted responsibility for a large SAR region in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia’s SAR region extends out from the Indonesian archipelago, and India’s covers an area in the Bay of Bengal.

In the light of the lessons of MH370, there’s an urgent need for regular SAR exercises in the Indian Ocean region, especially among TDIO countries. There’s a need for IORA to press forward with the early conclusion of a MoU on search and rescue. There are possible synergies between IORA and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium around maritime confidence-building measures.

The TDIO highlighted the importance of marine research, especially through the Indian Ocean Expedition 50th Anniversary Initiative. Between 2015 and 2020, the IIOE-2 will undertake an integrated marine scientific (with coupled climate science) program in the Indian Ocean, which will lead to an improved understanding of current systems and linkages between the ocean and weather. There are prospects for developing cooperative marine research initiatives among TDIO countries.

The TDIO canvassed the need to establish a fisheries-management regime for the Indian Ocean: current regional fishing bodies are fairly weak in the region, with illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing widespread.

It’s clear from last week’s TDIO that there’s plenty of scope for cooperation in the Indian Ocean. That applies especially in the eastern Indian Ocean, under the leadership of the TDIO countries.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI and co-chaired last week’s TDIO. Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.