Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

Muting Australia’s regional voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new relationship of Japan and Australia

Commanding Officer No. 3 Squadron Wing Commander Timothy Alsop shows Director, Defence Planning and Policy Department, Major General Yoshinara Marumo, ASO, from the Japan Air Self-Defence Force throughout the cockpit of an F/A-18 hornet.Japan has quickly risen to become a defence partner for Australia that ranks beside New Zealand and Britain. Thus, Japan sits on the second tier, with the traditional Anglo allies, below the peak where the US presides as the prime, principal and paramount ally.

To see Japan as one of Australia’s closest security partners is to describe a set of changes that have arrived with great speed in only two decades.

When Shinzo Abe told Australia’s Parliament on Tuesday that he wanted to ‘make a truly new basis for our relations’, he was stating a future ambition for Japan, but building on a structure already in place.

The key fact of that structure was in this sentence: ‘There are many things Japan and Australia can do together by each of us joining hands with the United States, an ally for both our nations’. As my previous post noted, Australia and Japan are becoming allies, without a formal when-the-shooting-starts-bilateral-alliance, because of the trilateral that expresses their alliances with the US. Read more

The trilateral is less than 15 years old and ain’t it grown. See this post with an off-the-cuff account by Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, of how he pushed to create the trilateral against Chinese hostility and, initially, dismissive scepticism from Japan. By denying that the trilateral would be the Asian NATO, Downer gave the Chinese a vivid description they still bring up. There are several laws about denials. One is that you should never believe anything until it has been officially denied. Another is Kissinger’s rule that when you deny an intention to do something, you’re also indicating the capability to do that thing if so minded.

Australia and Japan are no longer denying quite as much. Instead, they’re promising all sorts of stuff. Abe has big ambitions for the ‘special relationship’ with Australia. He sees the two countries ‘sharing common values, join hands’ to protect the norms and law of the ‘seas of prosperity that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian’. (And the skies, too.)

Apply the denial rules and Abe’s ambitions to the words Tony Abbott spoke to the Japanese Prime Minister in Parliament:

Australia welcomes Japan’s recent decision to be a more capable strategic partner in our region. I stress: ours is not a partnership against anyone; it is a partnership for peace, for prosperity and for the rule of law. Our objective is engagement, and we both welcome the greater trust and openness in our region that is exemplified by China’s participation in this year’s RIMPAC naval exercises.

Despite the denials, the Abbott government has followed Japan and reinforced the Abe relationship by inserting a lot more iron in the idiom Canberra uses about China. See this account of Australia’s shift to adopt stronger language reflecting Japan’s perspective.

The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, uses that language with her comments about Australia standing up to China to defend peace, liberal values and rule of law. Australia will be standing up with the US and Japan.

Where once the trilateral that was the foundation for Australian defence thinking had New Zealand as its third leg, now it’s Japan.

Andrew Davies’ column on New Zealand defence capability grinding to a standstill is a reminder of how much defence cooperation is a function of capability.

By contrast, Australia and Japan share F-35s and the new defence agreement for sharing equipment and technology signed last week means Australia’s future submarine can have a large Japanese element. Placing Japan beside Britain and New Zealand as a security partner isn’t to say that Tokyo and Canberra have achieved the intelligence-sharing intimacy of the Anglo club. But a lot is being shared and, again, this is driven by a trilateral dynamic with a Chinese flavour. The way things have shifted in the seven years since the signing of the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007 means Tokyo has definitely risen further in the hierarchy of Australia’s defence interests.

Another law worth remembering is that you can be endangered as much as enhanced by what you embrace. See fine discussions of this truth by Andrew Carr and Harry White. For the full jeremiad, though, turn to Malcolm Fraser’s book Dangerous Allies and his view that the alliance with the US is more dangerous to Oz than China can ever be, because Australia faces ‘increased pressure from the US to establish a more formal and all-encompassing defence relationship with Japan; a relationship that would make it much harder, if not impossible, for us to avoid being involved in any conflict between China and Japan’.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

Japan and Oz—ready, willing and Abe

Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan talks to the audience during the session 'The Reshaping of the World: Vision from Japan' at the Annual Meeting 2014 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, January 22, 2014.Australia is developing the habit of balancing an address to the Parliament by an Asia-Pacific ally with a matching speech by China’s President.

The contentious words in that sentence are ‘balancing’ and ‘ally’, even if the pattern is evident.

In October 2003, US President George W. Bush and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on consecutive days. Both were visiting Oz for the APEC summit in Sydney. Previously, only American presidents had addressed Parliament (Bush Senior, 1992; Bill Clinton, 1996). Read more

Hu’s address could properly be described in a parliamentary monograph as ‘a moment of great ceremonial and symbolic significance’, representing ‘a high point in the Howard Government’s engagement with China’.

Tweaking those phrases, Shinzo Abe’s Canberra address tomorrow is a moment of symbolic significance, marking an economic high point and a security exclamation mark in the Abbott Government’s embrace of Japan. Abbott’s best mate in Asia is calling. Note this is the first Japanese PM to get to Canberra since 2002—perhaps that explains the need for a ‘new’ special relationship.

Abe will join Abbott for the signing of the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and for a defence cooperation agreement for sharing equipment and technology. The defence deal is a step towards a next-generation Australian submarine with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. Abe and Abbott will be in equal agreement when Abe gives another version of his speech announcing Japan is back as a defence and security player.

This year’s balancing parliamentary address from China will come in November when Xi Jinping visits for the G20 summit. That word ‘balancing’ is useful in denoting the equal honour offered to two important Asian partners, as a reference to the US rebalance, and to discussion of Asia’s balance of power and balancing against the rising power.

Referring to Japan as an ‘ally’ is where the semantics compound. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that John Howard and Shinzo Abe signed in 2007, expressed an important and growing security partnership. The pact does not amount to a formal alliance; it’s not a treaty to be invoked if ships clash and missiles fly. Yet, increasingly, Australia and Japan act as allies, from cyber to submarines to Asia’s future.

A great impetus for this ally-type behaviour is that Japan and Australia are both allies of the same ally. In the trilateral relationship with the US, the Japan–Australia leg is the weakest, but it’s getting more exercise. Here’s the DFAT-speak version:

Australia and Japan now have a strong and broad-ranging partnership. Australia and Japan have taken practical steps to address regional and global strategic challenges of mutual concern. The United States is both Australia’s and Japan’s most important strategic ally, and the three countries progress cooperation on strategic issues through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.

In his Shangri-La speech on Japan’s role in Asia’s security future, Abe referred to Abbott’s visit to Tokyo in April and gave this alliance-lite description

We clearly articulated to people both at home and abroad our intention to elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship.

Shinzo Abe will give a speech to Parliament on Japan’s intentions towards Australia that will be stronger in tone and temper than that of any previous Japanese leader. The man who signed the 2007 pact is back to give it a boost. The speech will express Abe’s personality and his past as well as his vision of Japan’s future. 

The headline on this piece plays on the phrase ‘ready, willing and able’. Ponder if Abe will be able. He’s showing willing in the reinterpretation of the Constitution for collective self-defence (warmly welcomed by Australia) and the rewrite of the Japan-America defence guidelines, the first big overhaul in nearly two decades. Will he be able to get Japan to embrace and entrench that new mindset? Invective from China and South Korea might aid Abe, but will Japan truly commit?

The answer will define Abe as either a passing political outlier who couldn’t break the Japanese mould or the model for future leaders. Some of Abe’s habits of mind—especially his understanding of history as expressed by his Yasukuni shrine compulsion—play to the outlier view, even if those same qualities of will and self-belief make him a potential mould-breaker. Abe’s greatest external asset in his push to remodel Japan’s military role isn’t the US—it’s China’s recent belligerence and the moments of madness from China’s protectorate, North Korea. 

Abe’s parliamentary address will be more than a measure of what sort of ally Japan wants to be for Australia. It’ll be a measure that can be set beside—or balanced against—the picture Xi Jinping paints when he takes the same stage in November.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum.

Hillary’s pivot posse and China as Wild West desperado

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departs Nay Pyi Taw en route to Rangoon, Burma, on December 1, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Hillary wants you to know what the US is doing in Asia is a ‘pivot’. The previous Secretary of State thinks ‘rebalance’ is bureaucratic blandness, and dismisses its usage as ‘anodyne.’

Part II of the Clinton memoir is headed ‘Across the Pacific’ and the first chapter is ‘Asia: The Pivot’. And pivot it remains throughout. The purpose of the pivot is simple, even if the mechanisms are complex—it’s all about China.

Being present at the creation—indeed, claiming creator’s rights—Clinton writes in plain terms about the purpose and the power of that grand strategy shift. Of her first trip as Secretary—to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and, finally, China—Clinton says: ‘We needed to send a message to Asia and the world that America was back.’ She quotes the secretary-general of ASEAN on US ‘diplomatic absenteeism’ and comments: ‘That was a rather pointed greeting but he was right about our intentions.’ Read more

Citing husband Bill on the need to focus on trendlines and not just headlines, Hillary sees the pivot responding to what the US National Security Council called ‘an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East’.

Clinton says US frictions with China are more than disagreements about individual issues—the clash is over ‘very different perceptions of how the world, or at least Asia, should work.’ Her final thought is that in a contest over fundamentals, much could go wrong:

We have no interest in containing China. But we do insist that China play by the rules that bind all nations. In other words, the jury’s still out. China has some hard choices to make, and so do we. We should follow a time-tested strategy. Work for the best outcome, but plan for something less. And stick to our values.

Hillary gives no space to Beijing’s view that ‘play by the rules’ really means ‘play by the US rules’; yet there’s plenty to buttress that interpretation. The economic pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation, is ‘a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the US in Asia’.

Clinton expresses in one sentence the reason why Japan is in the TPP and China is not: ‘The TPP became the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia, demonstrating the benefits of a rules-based order and greater cooperation with the US.’ Ah, those rules again.

If the US can beat back the lawyers and lobbyists of Washington to do the compromises with Japan (and Vietnam, Australia, etc) for a TPP this will be rule writing and grand strategy performed in trade costume.

Usually a cautious pro in her image making, Hillary offers one classic American metaphor for the South and East China seas: ‘For the smaller nations, it could feel like the Wild West—a frontier without the rule of law, where the weak were at the mercy of the strong.’

The potential for China to act as Wild West desperado is expressed over the page: ‘Would China use its growing power to dominate an expanding sphere of influence, or would the region reaffirm international norms that bind even the strongest nation?’

Clinton nominates 2010 as the ‘tipping point’ when Washington started to round up the posse for ‘American leadership in Asia and in the pushback against Chinese overreach.’ I stress that ‘posse’ is my word. If Clinton sees the Wild West and her jury is still out, what hack could resist conjuring Hillary heading the pivot posse?

Explaining the creation of the pivot, Clinton outlines three options discussed in thinking about the new Asia approach:

  1. Focus on China ‘on the theory that if we could get our China policy right, the rest of our work in Asia would be much easier’.
  2. Alternatively, strengthen US treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia ‘providing a counterbalance to China’s growing power’. Clinton says ‘Australia became a key ally in our Asian strategy’ under both the Rudd and Gillard governments.
  3. Elevate and harmonise the ‘alphabet soup of regional multilateral organisations’. While Asia could not expect ‘anything as coherent as the European Union’, the multilateral bodies ‘could provide a venue for every nation and point of view to be heard and offer opportunities for nations to work together on shared challenges, resolve their disagreements, establish rules and standards of behaviour, reward responsible countries with legitimacy and respect, and help hold accountable those who violated the rules.’

As usual when a nation confronts big, differing, even conflicting options, Clinton decided ‘to meld all three approaches’. The thing that melds the options into the pivot is China—and (under option 3) how to ‘hold accountable those who violate the rules’? The pivot posse faces a big job.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.

Asia, not Atlantic, for Hillary

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger film, "Conversations on Diplomacy, Moderated by Charlie Rose," at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on 20 April 2011.A part of being a foreign-affairs tragic is believing any memoir by a modern US Secretary of State is interesting, no matter how flawed the book or the Secretary.

This tragic ranks the autobiographies of Acheson and Kissinger as golden, while Alexander Haig represents the more leaden category.

Even Haig, though, is fascinating, not least for his shocked lament that elite Washington players leak continuously to the press and—gasp!—are constant plotters. Coming from a Kissinger apprentice in Richard Nixon’s court, this is gorgeous, showing that even a leaden Secretary of State auto-effort is illuminating. Read more

In this field, Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices rates a comfortable silver; Hillary will never be shocked about the darkness or perfidy of Washington. As she remarks after trespassing on Treasury’s domain, ‘turf [is], of course, … a precious Washington commodity’. The way Clinton defines important turf beyond Washington gives her memoir a shape and taste distinctly different from many of her predecessors’ books. This is a 21st century memoir, largely free of Cold War baggage.

For Asia, Hillary’s silver-medal effort is gold. Hillary departs from the entrenched Atlanticism of the usual Secretary of State memoir. As in much else, Acheson set the standard. And as the 20th century Metternich, Kissinger’s frame is inherently European, despite all the wordage he devoted to China and the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s account plunges into Asia. The Asia flavour can be highlighted by comparing Hillary’s effort to that of Madeleine Albright, the most Clintonist of Bill Clinton’s Secretary of States. Albright’s memoir also rates in the silver category, sitting roughly beside Hillary. The difference is that Albright writes in the Atlanticist tradition so wonderfully exemplified by Acheson in Present at the Creation

Clinton nods to that history, even detailing her first meeting with Acheson—’the embodiment of an imposing, old-school diplomat’—at Wellesley in 1969, the night before Ms Hillary Rodham first introduced herself to America with a tradition-busting graduation speech.

Clinton invoked Acheson as she took up her job at Foggy Bottom: ‘After I became Secretary of State, I often thought of the grey-haired elder statesman I met that night at Wellesley. Beneath his formal exterior, he was a highly imaginative diplomat, breaking protocol when he thought it was best for his country and his President’.

Clinton’s break with Atlanticist protocol comes across even in the structure of the book. Part One contains two sharp chapters on reconciling with Obama (Team of Rivals) and taking the Secretary’s job, built around the idea of enhancing US ‘smart power’. Part Two heads straight across the Pacific to the great conundrum of China and the excitement of Burma’s turn to the light.

Part Three covers War and Peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part Four is the catch all, with one chapter each for Europe, Russia, Latin America and Africa. Part Five outlines the chaos of the Middle East under the heading, ‘Upheaval’. Part Six turns to the next presidential election, covering jobs, the economy and the future.

The way Clinton abandons the Atlanticist tradition of Secretary of State memoirs is camouflaged by the caution that touches every page. Clinton doesn’t write as well as Acheson or Kissinger, nor even offer the summing-up judgements of Albright. Of course, she can’t. She’s a consummate professional politician, ever conscious of the history she’s yet to make.  

The Asia flavour in the opening parts of Hillary’s memoir are the last thing America is going to notice. Her account of US foreign policy must serve multiple political purposes, raising the defences against Republican deceit and damnation, while emphasising Hillary’s Democratic credentials. Not the least complicated dance involves Clinton’s constant emphasis on how close she grew to Obama, while touching on slight differences that might become extremely useful in the next presidential campaign. Behold the memoir of a politician who wants to be many things in two years time—Obama’s heir, the second Clinton president and the US’ first woman president. 

Washington’s understanding of the world must be on the move if such a cautious book can so break with Secretary of State tradition. But Washington shifts slowly. On the evidence of Clinton’s memoir, if she were still Secretary of State, the President wouldn’t have given a major foreign policy speech at West Point that failed to mention the pivot.

And Hillary is quite emphatic about calling it a pivot and describing what it means for Asia and for China. More on Hillary and the pivot in the next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

What is China’s strategy?

President Barack Obama and President Benigno S. Aquino III inspect the honor guard during an arrival ceremony at the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Philippines, 28 April 2014. One of the responses China has produced or helped validate with its actions is to strengthen the US-Philippines alliance.A simple question about what China has been doing to its neighbours keeps recurring: How is that smart?

The question came up in dozens of conversations at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. The puzzle of China’s behaviour has shaped the previous columns on Shinzo Abe’s ‘we’re back in Asia security’ speech, the differing security doctrines coming from China and the United States, the Australian Defence Minister’s musings on Asia’s potentially catastrophic situation, the loss of regional confidence, and the impact of all this on the nascent Asian security system that has served China so well.

Consider the responses China has produced or helped validate: Read more

  1. Japan’s asserting its right to a bigger security role in Asia in ways not heard in 70 years—and this is being warmly welcomed by Australia and Southeast Asia. In a few weeks, Shinzo Abe will come to address the Australian Parliament just as President Obama did in November 2011. That was Obama’s pivot speech, announcing that as president he’d ‘made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends’. Abe will use the same stage—Australia’s House of Representatives—to offer his own version of that strategic decision.
  2. The US President went to Japan in April and stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the US security treaty with Japan. China has pushed so hard over some barren islands occupied by goats that it has produced a specific promise from Obama that the US is ready to go to war with China to ensure that the goats remain Japanese.
  3. Traditional fence-sitters such as Malaysia and Vietnam are doing exactly what theory says they must do—balance against China by nestling closer to the US. America now proclaims  ‘comprehensive partnerships’ with Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam’s Defence Minister is happily ruminating about the American Navy coming back to use Cam Ranh Bay.
  4. The rusty US alliance with the Philippines has a fresh coat of paint and Manila is desperate to add muscle to the rebalance. ​
  5. For Asia, the US rebalance is central and vital. No explanation is needed for why it matters and why it must be made to work. The only question is about the level of US commitment. Some mordant comfort is taken from the fact that all US military planning now assumes China as the default enemy. Asia is rushing to give new love to the US hub-and-spokes alliance system, with some supporting partnerships added.

How is it in any way smart for China to have done anything to produce such outcomes? As observed by a bearded Canadian strategist who has been cruising Asia for decades: ‘The principal architect of the success of the US rebalance is Beijing.’

When you talk to Chinese officials, officers and strategists, the standard line is that China is the victim. China isn’t the actor, it’s being acted on. China’s only responding to the provocation of others. China’s being pushed around and has to push back. It’s a strange rendering of the way things look to the number two economy in the world and Asia’s pre-eminent power. China’s reaching for its prerogatives as a great power and feeding the fires of its own nationalism while adopting the tone of a put-upon teenager.

One of the best descriptions of this dynamic was given by Rodolfo Severino, the former Philippines diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN. Now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Severino told me:

Although secretly the US is welcome here, publicly one cannot say that because that would be unfashionable. That’s where I think the Chinese are making a mistake. They think that the Philippines and Vietnam are under the thumb of the Americans and it’s not so. By doing what they are doing they are giving the US another reason to be around. So I think it’s a mistake, but one cannot assume that the Chinese have access to the best minds. Although they are very smart but sometimes they don’t think things through.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the White House.

China’s peaceful rise into pieces

16th ASEAN-China summit, Brunei Darussalam, 9 October 2013 China has gone from peaceful rise to rising by pieces, as it smashes the nascent regional security order. Not much peace in prospect as China forcefully asserts its ownership over pieces of the East China and South China Seas.

The irony is that the Asian order China’s ramming is one that has been a soft system, demanding little of Beijing and subject to Beijing’s effective veto. Beijing’s going from veto to vandal in an Asia system that has evolved in a China-friendly way for two decades. Driven by ASEAN, it has been a new order created by Asians for Asia. Mark that as another irony, with President Xi Jinping a fortnight ago arguing that ‘it’s for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia’. Unfortunately for the rest of Asia, Beijing’s actions mean those words are being interpreted to mean, ‘it’s for China to run the affairs of Asia’.

China’s assertiveness is bad news for the multilateral Asian order constructed using ASEAN building blocks—the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting. Read more

The ASEAN Regional Forum, for instance, founded in 1994, now confronts the reality that two decades of confidence-building have produced precious little confidence. Remember that the ARF was always supposed to be a three-stage process:

  1. Confidence building
  2. Preventive diplomacy
  3. Conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Forget about stages two and three. Stage one is crumbling.

The commentaries, official and unofficial, are in sad agreement. The motif of 2014 for Asia is ‘mistrust’, according to a geopolitical overview by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The National Security Strategy issued by Japan in December lamented that the regional security framework hadn’t been institutionalised, and charged China with trying to ‘change the status quo by coercion in the maritime and aerial domains including the East China Sea and the South China Sea, [in ways] which are incompatible with the existing order of international law’. It’s the frame Shinzo Abe employed for his ‘we’re back’ speech on Japan again taking a security role in Asia.

The 2014 Regional Security Outlook published by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, judges that after 25 years of effort, East Asia’s fight for a security community has to be rated, at best, as a draw. ‘In short,’ Ron Huisken writes, ‘we are not winning’. He describes the US and China slipping towards ‘mutually accepted adversity and antagonism’, as China finds it ‘hard to sustain its preferred image of a new model major power devoid of hegemonic aspirations and committed to stability and reassurance’.

The Regional Security Assessment released at the Shangri-La dialogue by the International Institute for Strategic Studies commented that the prospects for an institutionally based Asian security order ‘may be fading’ and ‘look much bleaker’ than they did five years ago. The evidence points to competition, not cooperation:

…much uncertainty hangs over the continued sustainability of the US-led order … it appears clear that rising China—although demanding greater regional influence commensurate with its growing power—is still neither willing to assume the leadership responsibilities traditionally expected of a hegemonic power nor able to replace the US as the region’s dominant power.

After more than two decades, Asia’s effort at security machinery or architecture—built by the middle powers but, until now, supported by the great powers—is confronting its limitations. If the first stage of this community is building confidence, then the stage is buckling; diplomatic socialisation, ASEAN norms and constant dialogue aren’t delivering.

The weak security system built by Asia has paid great homage to China’s prerogatives and granted Beijing an effective veto over progress and direction. The nascent system has been one of China’s many assets in its rise to the head of the region. Now that system is being damaged as China flexes its muscles over territory and national pride. Beijing seems little worried by brushing aside Asia’s multilateral security community.

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

China’s ramming policy in the South China Sea

Vietnam Da Nang Fishing BoatChina has shifted from salami slicing to ramming in the South China Sea.

Having created a new ‘fact’ by shifting an oil rig into Vietnam’s proclaimed EEZ off the disputed Paracel Islands, China is ramming home the reality it’s making. First, last month, it rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. Now, recent TV footage broadcast by Vietnam shows another incident on 1 June with a Chinese ship ramming a Vietnamese coast guard ship. Reporting the vision, The Wall Street Journal commented:

The latest apparent collision … suggests China won’t moderate its activities in contested areas of the South China Sea, despite a broadside of criticism from senior Australian, Japanese and US officials at the Shangri-La gathering of military leaders and defence ministers.

It’s time to accept that what China is doing is a full and official expression of Chinese policy. We’re long past the point where the Chinese system should be given some sort of leave pass because of suggestions that China isn’t a unified actor—a perspective that argues China’s ‘crisis management’ machinery consists of the PLA creating the crisis and the Chinese Foreign Ministry handling the outcry. Read more

As a description, that view has its attractions, but as an explanation it absolves the China polity of responsibility for its rash, ramming policy. We should take China at its word, in proclaiming itself a big and important power; and such powers are responsible for what their military and their coast guards and their energy agencies do in the name of the state.

If the South China Sea is Asia’s cauldron as well as Asia’s Mediterranean, as Robert D.Kaplan writes, then the heat in the cauldron is up again.

Kaplan’s Cauldron book has been out for a few months, offering an excellent set up for what has happened in the last few weeks as Vietnam is rammed. In surveying the ASEAN players, Kaplan judged, ‘It’s all up to Vietnam’. He has a quote from ‘a top US official’ on ASEAN’s positioning: ‘Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite that country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size’.

Good luck, Vietnam. On such matters turn to the master, Professor Carl Thayer, particularly his analysis of Vietnam’s strategy. ASEAN can’t abandon Vietnam to its fate the same way it stepped back from the Philippines last year. Accepting that ramming is official Chinese policy, endorsed from the top, what can ASEAN do?

Southeast Asia needs to shift its response to China away from a futile policy of trying to negotiate an agreement with Beijing. Whether by slicing or ramming, China is out to create more ‘facts’ proclaiming its sovereignty. No Chinese appetite exists for any multilateral deal. Beijing thinks it erred in agreeing to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and it’s not going to compound that mistake by agreeing to a Code of Conduct (COC).

Step forward Carl Thayer with some thoughts on how ASEAN can change the game. In a paper to the recent Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, the professor noted that the COC effort is a waste of ASEAN’s energy because China will make it unachievable:

The COC process has led to divisions within ASEAN and divisions among ASEAN’s claimant states. China’s assertion of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea and its recent unprecedented aggressive assertion of sovereignty utilising military vessels with unsheathed weapons and military aircraft, is now the major impediment to managing the maritime commons in the South China Sea.

The Thayer solution is for ASEAN to turn away from the pointless effort with China and negotiate an agreement within ASEAN—a Code of Conduct for Southeast Asia’s Maritime Commons. The ten countries of Southeast Asia would resolve territorial and maritime disputes with each other, using as a model the recent agreement between Indonesia and the Philippines demarcating maritime boundaries in the Celebes and Mindanao seas.

As Thayer notes, the new code would stand beside ASEAN’s Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (1971), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976) and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (1995):

The proposed COC for Southeast Asia’s Maritime Commons would enhance ASEAN’s unity and cohesion, promote regional autonomy and ASEAN’s centrality in the region’s security architecture.

Just launching the process would change the tone of the argument, not least by putting ASEAN back together again. China will almost certainly keep ramming, but it would be running into an ASEAN response based on unity, negotiation and legal agreement. That would be a significant response to Chinese force.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Em and Ernie.

Athens and Sparta come to the South China Sea

Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak. Mr Najib's speech to the 28th Asia-pacific Roundtable was delivered in his absence, as he is currently in China commemorating the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China. A few millennia after recording the basic tenets of hard-edged power politics and creating the historian’s craft, Thucydides has popped up in the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister has dipped into the historian, philosopher and general’s works to quote his most famous sentence on how raw power works in relations between states. Here’s how Najib Razak invoked Athens and Sparta, launching the 28th Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur:

Imagine a world where institutions, rules and norms are ignored, forgotten or cast aside; in which countries with large economies and strong armies dominate, forcing the rest to accept the outcome. This would be a world where, in the words of the Greek historian Thucydides, ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’.

The theme running through my previous posts, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, was that trust has been lost and the region’s now desperate for a bit of law and order. The Roundtable in KL offers more of the same.

Najib’s speech kept returning to that theme of power politics usurping Asia’s order. The Prime Minister’s final line was a plea for Asia to prosper and progress by ‘observing the rules and norms and institutions we have developed and built together’.

The distance from Singapore to KL, however, is more than a 45 minute flight. At Shangri-La, Japan, the US and Australia were all vocal in labelling China the great disruptor challenging the status quo and international norms.

Not so in Malaysia’s keynote address. In Najib’s speech, China wasn’t mentioned, although the South China Sea was one of the major problems discussed. And Najib didn’t actually deliver his speech in person. The Malaysian PM has been in China to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. So mark this as a Malaysian discussion of China delivered indirectly and by inference; the old ASEAN way in action.

One irony that struck me is how Malaysian demonology has shifted. In many years of listening to speeches by Dr Mahathir, I always knew who the PM was talking about when he railed against a brutal and unprincipled superpower. Not only did the US impose its raw power on everyone else, according to Dr M, the Americans also set the unequal rules for the global economy. So the US was guilty on two counts—in the way it used its military power and the way it policed economic norms. In KL demonology now, China is the power that does what it wants and challenges ‘the norms and institutions’ Asia has built. Just don’t state that case too loudly or too directly.

Malaysia steps up next year to take the ASEAN chair and KL will inherit the job of holding ASEAN together while responding to the mounting pressure from China. KL thinks that it has an important asset in doing that job because Malaysia prides itself on having a special bilateral relationship with China; that was the motif of Najib’s China tour.

One bit of evidence KL offers for this special relationship is the fact that China has never sought to muscle-up against Malaysia over their conflicting claims in the South China Sea. It’s an interesting perspective because of what it assumes about the overall coherence of what China has been doing—monster the Philippines, challenge Vietnam but leave Malaysia alone. That presumes a China that knows exactly what it’s doing and who should be on the receiving end—the calculated imposition of power to change the system. Thucydides would understand.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. He is reporting from the 28th Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Asia Security Summit: trust lost, order wobbly

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosts a bilateral meeting with Vietnams Minister of Defense Gen. Phung Quang Thanh at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore May 31, 2014. The theme of last year’s Shangri-La dialogue was the need to build trust and confidence. As Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, said then: ‘If trust is lost, all is lost’. Well, trust is lost. This year’s Shangri-La is desperate for some law and a smattering of order. This year’s speech from Vietnam gives the flavour. The Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh, spoke in the session on ‘Managing Strategic Tensions’. His opening line praised the keynote address from Japan’s Prime Minister and Japan’s ‘positive pacifism’. Score that Japan 1, China 0.

Thanh referred back to his Prime Minister’s trust line and lamented that ‘trust building is evermore imperative’. Then he turned to China, saying relations ‘have seen overall strong growth’ with ‘frictions from time to time’.  For friction, read high-seas confrontations with China’s roving oil rig. The General said China’s unilateral action in placing a deep water rig in Vietnam’s EEZ had caused ‘anger to the Vietnamese people and concerns to countries in the region’. Read more

While demanding that China withdraw the rig, Vietnam had used only coast guard and fishing vessels: ‘I believe that the army of the two countries must exercise utmost restraint, strengthen cooperation and tightly control all activities, avoid activity that may get out of control’.

In questions, General Thanh said Vietnam was trying to talk to Beijing at every level using phone calls, letters, special envoys and meetings. The aim would be to persevere with negotiations and to maintain friendship. In contrast with some other signals out of Hanoi, General Thanh said taking the dispute to international arbitration was an undesirable, last option. For the time being, Vietnam will continue to do this the Chinese way—bilaterally. Whatever the score, those are China’s rules.

The pleas for order so prominent in the Japanese and Australian speeches lead to the security guarantor; as  Australia’s Defence Minister observed, the ‘US has underpinned the region’s stability for 70 years’. For the last couple of years, the US pivot has been the central element of the American Shangria-La show— what’s now the traditional first plenary devoted to the US Defence Secretary’s address. This year, the rebalance got less wordage because, in the words of Chuck Hagel, ‘The rebalance is not a goal, not a promise, or a vision— it’s a reality.’ That reality is being constructed by such things as ‘comprehensive partnerships’ with Vietnam and Malaysia and the new agreement on US forces in the Philippines, which Hagel called ‘the most significant milestone for the US-Philippines alliance in more than a decade’.

In a list the Defense Secretary gave four broad US security priorities in the Asia-Pacific. The hierarchy of US goals is an interesting comment on where the region is today:

  1. Encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes; upholding principles including the freedom of navigation; and standing firm against coercion, intimidation, and aggression;
  2. Building a cooperative regional architecture based on international rules and norms;
  3. Enhancing the capabilities of allies and partners to provide security for themselves and the region;
  4. Strengthening US regional defence capabilities.

Incidentally, while championing those norms it’d be helpful if the US finally signed up to the UN Law of the Sea, as President Obama said yet again in his West Point speech. Not to do so is American exceptionalism writ large, and largely by US Senate peculiarity.

The fireworks in Hagel’s speech were his description of China’s ‘destabilising, unilateral actions’. The US, he said, would firmly oppose ‘intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force’ to assert territorial claims. The pushback came from the head of Beijing’s delegation, the deputy chief of the PLA General Staff, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, who announced he would depart from his prepared text to denounce the speeches by Hagel and Japan’s Prime Minister as coordinated, provocative and unacceptable actions against China.

I personally think that this speech by Mr Hagel is full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation. It was a speech [not] to abate destabilizing factors, [but] to create troubles and make provocations. It was not a constructive speech. Given the two speeches made by Mr Abe and Mr Hagel and if we look at the actions they have taken, we have to ask: who is actually making provocations and create troubles, disputes and differences concerning territory, sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, China has never taken the first step to provoke troubles. China has only been forced to respond to the provocative actions by other parties. And on bilateral and multilateral occasions, and on the Shangri-La Dialogue, China has never been the first to provoke disputes and troubles. I think everyone understands who actually initiated disputes and troubles. Secondly, from the speeches made by Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel, we have to ask: who is actually assertive? It is the United States and Japan who are assertive in concerted efforts, not China. And China is only making, forced to make the minimum, lowest level of response to their provocation.

So, trust lost, order wobbly.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. He has been reporting from the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue. Image courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Hagel.

Australia on Asian catastrophe and the zero impact of the US marines

The Minister for Defence, Senator David Johnston speaking during the Third Plenary Session, on Managing Strategic Tensions at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The Australian Defence Minister thinks Asia’s security situation is potentially ‘dire’ even ‘catastrophic’. But David Johnston twice assured his Shangri-La audience that the regional impact of the US marines rotating through Darwin on the strategic balance is ‘zero’. Strange times, indeed.

The Senator’s prepared text saw Australia stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and Japan on the threat to law and regional order posed by China. Yet his tone and some of his positioning—especially on the US marines—had a distinctly ASEAN flavour. In culinary terms, this was roast beef and veg served with soy and chilli sauce.

Australia has sent its Defence Minister to every Asia Security Summit (sharing that honour with Japan). I’ve heard most of those speeches and read them all and Johnston’s effort had some of the darker and sharper edges; the 13th Shangri-La dialogue prompts some superstitious reflections on that unlucky number.. Read more

Johnston offered a prepared speech that was entirely consistent with the previous efforts by the Japanese Prime Minister and the US Defense Secretary. First the setup, with the plea for respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation, then the dark stuff:

The use of force or coercion to unilaterally alter the status quo in the East China Sea and South China Sea is not acceptable. … Any breakdown in security, through miscalculation or actions that run contrary to the general principles of international law and the free flow of goods and services through the region would be catastrophic for all our nations. It would have dire consequences for the economic prosperity of the region.

The reason the Australian Defence Minister makes the Shangri-La pilgrimage every year is the opportunity, in the space of a couple of days, to do quality time with the US Defence Secretary, ASEAN ministers, and his counterparts from Japan, India, Korea and perhaps even one of the Europeans. This year, Johnston shared his session on ‘Managing Strategic Tensions’ with the Defence Ministers of Indonesia and Vietnam. All the ASEAN interaction might be altering the Australian style (this is offered only half in jest).

Midway through the Defence Minister’s speech, Nick Bisley tweeted, ‘Johnston’s delivery rather plodding. Bit more energy please’. Professor Nick is a tough marker who obviously doesn’t spend much time watching the Australian Senate in action. Another way of marking the speech would be to say that in the 40th anniversary year of Australia becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner, the Australian Defence Minister can occasionally match the tone and even some of the content of an ASEAN Defence Minister. Doing chilli with your roast beef isn’t an easy trick but Australia tries.

Johnston’s words about the centrality of ASEAN were straight out of the Southeast Asian play-book and his answers to questions reinforced that thought. In each of the two rounds of questions, Johnston was asked about the role of the US marines in Darwin. The first question, from an Indonesian, was on the reason for the marine deployment and its relationship to the rebalance. The Senator gave the training-not-bases answer: ‘There is no sovereignty or basing of US marines in Australia. Australia owns all of the facilities. We share them with the marines. Most of you are aware that space is something Australia has a lot of. Compared to Okinawa or Guam we have a comparative advantage’. Singapore uses a version of the same argument—we have a wonderful position and all those US ships are rotating through, not basing.

One point in Johnston’s answer that had some in the audience scratching their head was his comment that while the US sends 1100 marines to Oz, other countries have even more military on Australian soil.

Johnston didn’t use the figure, but Singapore has—at times— up to 4000 personnel in Australia, doing such things as armour training at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland and pilot training in Western Australia. It’s not a figure the Singaporeans like to broadcast, so Johnston was showing his ASEAN credentials by refraining from using it; mustn’t embarrass the hosts.

The second question on the marines received an equally ASEAN-like answer. What was the positive or negative impact on the regional strategic balance of the rotation of the US troops? Johnston’s short answer, offered twice, was ‘zero’. His reasoning is that logistics and the distances involved in getting the marines to Oz takes them out of the equation:

So there they are, half way down the Northern Territory to central parts of Australia—doing their exercises, doing their training, inter-operating with Australia, and that’s what’s happening. So with respect to that question—I think that’s a good question—I’m very happy to say the regional strategic impact of those forces in Darwin is zero’.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. He has been reporting from the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue. Image courtesy of ASPI’s Tobias Feakin.

Asian security doctrines (2): the biggest question

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of China at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in The Hague, the Netherlands, March 24, 2014. The biggest question facing Asia is becoming even starker because leaders are giving such different answers. The leaders of the US, China and Japan have just illustrated the conundrum that Rod Lyon outlined in his piece on Asia’s fraying order. Simply stated, the biggest question is: who rules? Or, in slightly expanded form, it asks: what is the Asian security system and how will it run?

Mind you, Asia is lucky that it has graduated to the point where this is the major security quandary it faces. In recent memory, the problems were even bigger: will the new nations of Asia form and unite? Can Asia modernise and deliver a better life for its people? Read more

Having climbed those huge mountains, a rich and powerful Asia can afford a naval arms race as part of this new power contest. Before donning the gloom-and-doom persona that strategists share with economists, it’s worth pausing to reflect that Asia’s new big question is the product of success. As China’s President remarks: ‘Asia today, though facing more risks and challenges, is still the most dynamic and promising region in the world. … Such a sound situation in the region has not come easily and ought to be doubly cherished’. Hear, hear!

After that unusual always-look-on-the-bright-side moment (well, unusual for The Strategist), let’s turn to the conflicting answer that leaders of Japan, China and the US are serving up to the big new conundrum.

As the previous post reported, Shinzo Abe agrees with the Chinese that Asia’s prosperity is shining and expanding, but Japan’s Prime Minister sees China as a threat to that status quo.

China, too, has laid out its views about how the system is shifting. Xi Jinping went directly to the systemic level (and who rules it) with his Shanghai security speech. The speech is here and is worth a read. You’ll find nothing in the text directly about high-sea dodgems, fighting fishing boats, coral confrontations, reef raids or roving oil rigs. But Xi’s fine words about how Asia’s new security system should work—and his proposal for new institutions—are valuable, if merely because the region can play them back to China, asking it to meet such standards.

Xi serves up much of what has become the usual Chinese boilerplate on Asia’s security system over the previous two decades, but adds in fresh strokes to be expected from a new leader starting to paint with confidence. The traditional frame is in place—that Asia needs new security thinking (Xi’s ‘new security concept’), not the old, Cold War security thinking. In that Chinese analysis, though, the US bilateral treaty system in Asia is the oldest of old thinking.

The jabs at old thinking are getting sharper. Thus, this whack from Xi: ‘To beef up and entrench a military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security’. That sets the scene for the widely-quoted Yankee-go-home call by Xi for an Asian system run by Asians:

In the final analysis, it’s for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia. The people of Asia have the capability and wisdom to achieve peace and stability in the region through enhanced cooperation.

The problem for Xi in offering Chinese leadership to that bright Asian future is he’s getting precious little Asian followship.

Across the Pacific, Barack Obama’s West Point speech looks like his Guam doctrine moment, offering balm to a war-weary America. Thankfully for Asia, Obama’s doctrinal moment has been far more carefully structured than Richard Nixon’s; unveiled at an impromptu press conference at a flight stopover in Guam on the way to Asia in the dog days of the Vietnam war. Even Kissinger was amazed that Nixon had publicly launched, in Guam of all places, their private ruminations on post-Vietnam strategy and the call for allies to do more of the heavy lifting.

Obama did his foreign policy big picture immediately after a four-nation tour of Asia that didn’t include China. And the promises he made in Asia must be weighed against the Asia-lite content of the speech. The fact of that Asia tour counsels against the fevered commentary that Obama has rebooted foreign policy by giving the boot to the Asia pivot. Even in a speech where Asia hardly figured, there was still room for three mentions of the South China Sea and a warning to China to play by the rules.

Going to Asia but not to China was both a nod and a jab at Beijing. The nod is that China’s now in a category of its own at the top of the mountain—the G2 perspective. Or as I put it last year when Obama and Xi met, render it as the g2, because both sides deny that they’d ever connive at condominium.

The jab is in the understanding—shown in the planning rather than the words—that China has become the default enemy in Asia.

Back to that big question: what is the Asian security system and how will it run?

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. He is reporting from the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.