Articles by " Rod Lyon"

The Australia–Indonesia bilateral relationship: strategic design or muddling through?

Le Monstre RollercoasterLate last year, as the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia struggled with the revelations of the spying scandal, Colin Brown, an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, described the history of the relationship in a carnival metaphor:

For anyone interested in Australia–Indonesia relations, nothing so characterises the phenomenon as a car on a roller-coaster. Any rise is followed inevitably by a fall. The ride is never boring, and in a bizarre kind of way it is quite predictable. But sometimes you might hope for a little more stability, a few more moments of calm.

That image of the roller-coaster is an old one—Brown himself has used it before. Indeed, it’s been around long enough (and been true long enough) to induce a weariness in even the most determined optimist. But in this post I’m hoping to convince readers that, strategically, there’s still much to play for here. Read more

Let’s start by looking at Southeast Asia. The table below, constructed from the publicly-available data in the CIA World Factbook, provides a quick economic snapshot of the ASEAN countries based on 2013 estimates. I’ve appended Australia at the bottom of the list just to give a sense of relative economic size.

If we look at the ASEAN figures first, it’s obvious that ASEAN isn’t a collection of evenly-sized economies. If we focus on the purchasing-power-parity measurement of GDP, we see in ASEAN one large economy (Indonesia), five middle-sized economies (Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam), and four dwarves (Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos).

GDP (US$)(PPP) GDP (US$)(Official Exchange Rate) Real growth rate Per capita (US$)(PPP)
Brunei $22.25bn $16.56bn 1.4% $54,800
Cambodia $39.64bn $15.64bn 7% $2,600
Indonesia $1,285bn $867.5bn 5.3% $5,200
Laos $20.78bn $10.1bn 8.3% $3,100
Malaysia $525bn $312.4bn 4.7% $17,500
Myanmar/Burma $111.1bn $59.43bn 6.8% $1,700
Philippines $454.3bn $272.2bn 6.8% $4,700
Singapore $339bn $295.7bn 4.1% $62,400
Thailand $673bn $400.9bn 2.9% $9,900
Vietnam   $358.9bn $170bn 5.3% $4,000
Australia $998.3bn $1,488bn 2.5% $43,000

Compared with the ASEAN countries, Australia’s economy is poised between Indonesia’s and Thailand’s. It’s not really like Thailand’s, though, and we can see that by looking at the GDP estimates based on official exchange rates, where’s Australia’s economy is three-and-a-half times the size of Thailand’s. So the two dominant economies in Southeast Asia are Indonesia’s and ours. Between us, we have the first requirement for a meaningful partnership: shared economic strength.

We also have something else that might empower a strategic partnership—a set of complementarities. Analysts often say the relationship has no ‘ballast’; that it’s all sail and no rudder, regularly blown off course by the winds of public opinion. Turning the issue around, though, we have an opportunity to nurture a set of complementarities with Jakarta: we’re a developed economy with a small population and good contacts in the Western world; they’re a developing economy with a large population and good contacts in the Islamic and non-aligned worlds. Those complementarities could form the basis for a genuine partnership—if will exists in both capitals to pursue one.

A third driver of a strategic partnership is a shared sense of strategic transformation: we both live in a region that’s having strategic significance thrust upon it. That’s important. Previously we’ve had plenty of scope to rehearse our differences at the regional level. But with more great powers wanting to play in Southeast Asia’s space these days, we share an interest in nurturing what the Indonesians would call ‘regional resilience’ and what we might call ‘a Southeast Asian power core’.

So far, I’ve put a positive spin on a future partnership. So why don’t we have one? Three reasons. First, the drivers I’ve pointed to above are all abstract. In the reality of everyday events—like boat people, live cattle exports, spying scandals, and drug trafficking incidents—abstract similarities get lost. Second, the complementarities that I identify arise because we’re so different. As Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant observed in their work Australia’s Foreign Relations, ‘No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia’. And third, there’s the issue of priorities. Neither of us prizes a partnership highly enough to make it work. That might be changing. In 2013 we had a conservative political leader campaigning on the slogan of ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’—but then again Geneva’s never ranked that highly in Australian strategic policy.

So where does that leave us? It means we’ll have a stronger strategic partnership in the future, but it’s as likely to grow from a policy of muddling through as it is from a policy of strategic design. If we want to push a particular design of a partnership, we’re going to have to put heavyweight political muscle behind it. On occasion, the Abbott government does signal that it’s prepared to do that. Still, others have been here before. Paul Keating made a serious effort to improve a relationship he saw as ‘a thin foreign policy crust covering a disappointingly hollow core’. The important difference this time round is Asian transformation: if that doesn’t drive us to work more closely together, I suspect nothing will. It’s do-or-die time for the Australian–Indonesian strategic partnership.

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

North Korea: Kim Jong Un, authority, and a debilitated king

Kim Jong UnKim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance yesterday brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong Un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing ‘discomfort’. Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong Un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humour that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a ‘nine-millimetre headache’. Read more

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong Un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a ‘grand bargain’ about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post on the National Interest blog, The Buzz. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the ‘Where’s Wally?’ framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user AK Rockefeller.

Shared and non-shared strategic interests in Australia–China relations

See-ming LeeWhen Prime Minister Abbott addressed the Boao Forum in China in early April, he told his audience that ‘Australia is not in China to do a deal, but to be a friend’. Actually, since he was towing behind him one of the largest business delegations ever to leave Australia, perhaps he should have said Australia is in China not only to do a deal, but to be a friend.

I take the prime minister’s statement as a sign that the Abbott government is determined to build upon the recently-agreed strategic partnership between Australia and China. But if we’re going to do that, then both countries need to speak candidly about their shared and non-shared interests in the strategic field. If our shared interests are thin, so too will be our relationship; if they’re thick, our relationship will similarly be thick. Australia and China have many interests in common, and there’s much more they could do together if they wished. But there’s also a list of topics on which they disagree—and glossing over those doesn’t help. Read more

Let’s start with the interests we share—not the obvious trade interests that arise from our high levels of economic complementarity, but the actual strategic interests. We both want a peaceful Asia, where development can occur and defence budgets are low relative to GDP. We share a strategic interest in Asian prosperity, as a driver for regional unification, and we oppose the formation of separate economic ‘blocs’—because those could quickly harden into opposing strategic blocs. We share a strategic interest in regional non-proliferation, not least because of the prospects for a proliferation ‘cascade’. Similarly, we share a strategic interest in secure sealanes, both our societies being heavily dependent on trade. (Perhaps more than any other factor, it’s that interest which suggests China’s strategic future will be more closely tied to the maritime-dependent world than some believe.) We share a strategic interest in countering Islamic extremism and addressing the concerns raised by the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. And we share a strategic interest in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief—reflected most recently in our cooperative engagement to search for the missing Malaysian flight, MH 370.

But it’s not all sunshine and puppies. We hold different views about the current regional order, which China sees as hegemonic and we see as stable, liberal and prosperous. We hold different views about future US engagement in the region: Australia sees the US alliances in the region as durable and beneficial; China sees them as the hangovers of an earlier era. We hold different views of the regional role of Japan: China’s more anxious than Australia about Japan returning to play a larger role. And we hold different views about territorial claims: China sees itself as a great power whose own national unification project isn’t yet complete, whereas Australia sees the competing claims of the various claimants in the East China Sea and South China Sea as justiciable (resolvable by international law) but—when pursued by force—disruptive to regional security.

That’s an important set of differences. In relation to future regional order, it’d be nice to get a clearer picture of what China wants. Sometimes Chinese visitors tell us they don’t see why China should be obliged to buy shares in a company where the US is already the CEO and Japan and Australia sit on the board of directors. Fair enough, but that’s just a statement about what China doesn’t want. Is it meant to be a subtle way of telling us that China wants to design its own company? Or would it like a G2 arrangement, whereby it shares that CEO role with the US? A G2 arrangement isn’t likely to fly in Asia: it’d marginalise too many security arrangements that lie at the core of the current order. If China wants to encourage ‘buy-in’ to a conception of the regional order that turns on a larger role for itself, it needs a clearer presentation of what that order would look like, and how it would work to the region’s benefit and not just China’s.

The alliance point is just as serious. The more Chinese representatives travel the region talking about US alliances as a hangover from yesteryear, the more they’ll stir resistance and resentment. In Australia, many strategic analysts agree that ANZUS is a more useful and more functional alliance now than it has ever been before. Far from being in decline, US alliances in the region look likely to last for many years to come.

What does all that mean for the future? The two countries have a healthy list of shared strategic interests, and should be canvassing ways in which they can both contribute—individually and jointly—to the realisation of those. But we also need to understand better through frank dialogue the points on which we disagree, because those are important issues—they go to the heart of the future regional order in Asia, a topic dear to all our hearts.

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

Assessing the Ebola outbreak

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line. Credit: NIAID

The diagnosis of the first case of ‘imported’ Ebola in the US has heightened public awareness and anxiety over the current outbreak in west Africa. The development sits atop a wave of recent depressing assessments. Last week, the Center for Disease Control issued a projection that tried to allow for the infection rate beyond the official count, and that factored in the rate at which infections are doubling in the different west African countries. That report makes for sobering reading: it’s the source of the latest projection of a possible 1.4 million cases by January 2015. Moreover, CDC has revised upward its estimate of the virus’s morbidity rate, from roughly 50% to a more precise 71%. That’s a high figure.

The World Health Organisation has added to those concerns by noting that we might be witnessing a long-term shift of the virus out of the animal kingdom to become endemic in the human population. And the International Crisis Group has pointed to the social and political dynamics associated with the outbreak, suggesting we might see the ‘collapse’ of west African nations under the burden that Ebola is imposing. Read more

The Ebola crisis is still swelling in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, cutting a swathe through first-line medical responders (often small in number to begin with), weakening the capacity to cope with normal medical tasks, and biting into economic productivity and tourist rates. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a New York Times article canvassing the possibility that the virus might ‘go airborne’; an observation from a doctor in Germany that the virus might have to ‘burn itself out’ in the current areas of major infection, possibly killing five million people; and Kent Brantly’s testimony that Ebola is ‘a fire straight from the pit of hell’.

Let’s put some of that into perspective. First, the outbreak in Africa derives part of its vigour from the weak national health infrastructures deployed against it (patients are routinely turned away from over-crowded hospitals), and the culture of fear and denial that surrounds the virus (seen in the attacks upon—and sometimes the killing of—aid workers sent into remote communities to help raise awareness of the disease). Infrastructures can be boosted and cultures can be changed, but it’s not quite as easy to do either as some claim. Countries that already have strong health systems and greater public awareness about the disease are better placed to respond to it.

Second, and less well noticed amongst the slew of bad news over the last week or so, has been an item of good news: there’s evidence that the outbreak is coming under control in Nigeria and Senegal, with no new cases of infection being reported in the past 21 days.

Third, experts dispute the notion that the virus can easily ‘go airborne’. For it to do so, it would have to mutate to target respiratory cells as a preferred infection route; and it would have to become more resilient at surviving outside its host’s body. Some say that’s possible: that influenza made that jump in the past. Others say the possibility of Ebola making the jump is remote.

Fourth, the CDC points to the continuing efficacy of isolation as a primary treatment. The fact that hospitals and treatment centres can contain the disease has much to do with their ability to isolate patients and thereby decrease the transmission rate to others. If early cases are treated properly, the disease has little chance to spread.

Because of globalisation, we’re always worried these days by the prospect of ‘diseases without borders’. That’s a legitimate concern. Disease experts have for some years written about the growing viral superhighway that globalisation provides. But not all viruses are equally adept at travelling along the highway. Monkeypox proved capable of reaching out from west Africa to Wisconsin in 2003, infecting five-year-old Schyan Kautzer: an imported Gambian giant rat in a US pet store passed the disease to a prairie dog which passed the disease to humans, one ocean and half a continent away from its usual habitat. It was observed at the time that it was easier for a Gambian rat to enter the US than it was for a Gambian: the rat needed neither passport, nor visa, nor funds to pay for its own airfare.

But with the current Ebola outbreak, we’re primarily talking about the movement of infected humans across national boundaries. That’s what happened in the US case—travel occurred before the individual showed any symptoms—and it’s certainly possible that similar cases might spring up elsewhere. Still, most Ebola victims aren’t travelling anywhere fast; and key infection points don’t have strong connections to the globalised world. Of course if the virus were to entrench itself in a city like Lagos—unlikely if the Nigerians really do have the outbreak under control—that’d be more concerning.

But if Ebola probably isn’t going to be a major problem for most of us, it’s already one for a small number of countries in west Africa. Australia should do what it can to help tamp down the latest outbreak—both in the name of humanitarian assistance and to minimise the prospect of Ebola exploring its own mutational possibilities.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of NIAID.

A world of Scotlands

The Not So Distant Past 1Regardless of how the Scottish referendum on independence turns out, it’s worth putting the event into context by recalling some basic facts concerning the rate of state proliferation. That’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention in news media. But how many countries do you think there are in the world today? Actually, the answer depends on how you define ‘countries’, but ‘about 195’ wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Given there were 68 in 1945, the number of countries in the international community has—roughly—trebled over the past seventy years. In short, state proliferation has been a powerful force, even during those Cold War years that we like to think of now as a veritable model of strategic stasis.

Moreover, there’s no reason to think the number of countries in the world has peaked. In his work on geopolitics, Saul Cohen, for example, argues that ‘the creation of up to fifty additional quasi- or fully independent states over the coming decades will change the territorial outlines and functions of many major and regional powers’. Indeed, political disaggregation will likely continue despite—indeed, partly because of?—the centripetal forces of globalisation, as testament to the strength of what we might call ‘identity politics’. Read more

These days, there’s a popular myth that state boundaries tend to be fixed and inviolable—witness the recent outcry over the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia. In reality, though, state boundaries are not nearly as fixed as many might imagine. Take a look at this brief three-minute video of how borders have changed in Europe over the last thousand years. It requires no great act of imagination to believe that an independent Scotland might arise—nor that it might, at some point in the future, be reabsorbed into the United Kingdom. Over long time frames, change seems normal.

The map’s not good at depicting the global growth in the number of states over the last seventy years—not least because decolonisation was a strong driver of state proliferation and most of that happened away from European shores. Nor is the map a good indicator of strategic angst. Seen at a distance—on a computer screen or from the other side of the world—state proliferation is an interesting phenomenon to watch. Seen close up, it’s highly unsettling and strategically unnerving. Consider the attempts by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to force Bougainville’s secession from Papua New Guinea. Or remember when East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia and the effects that had on the Indonesia-Australia relationship? Similar effects, perhaps more severe, would attend any move towards independence by West Papua.

And so far we’re only talking about relatively small cases of state proliferation. While some might think the prospect a Black Swan event, a broader break-up of the Indonesian archipelago, for example, would have major geopolitical consequences—indeed, it would fundamentally reshape Australia’s strategic environment.

Whether Scotland votes for independence or not, the big message is that state proliferation remains an important driver in international politics, and our own region is not immune to it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Bradley Wells.

Security and liberty: a schematic

In recent weeks, three of my colleagues have written about the appropriate balance that we should attempt to strike between national security and civil liberties. Toby Feakin began the series with a post which argued that positioning security and liberty as opposite ends of a single spectrum, and then trying to find an appropriate balance point, was an inadequate way of thinking about the topic. Anthony Bergin replied that striking some sort of balance between security and liberty was a practical necessity. And Andrew Davies argued that having appropriate oversight mechanisms in place is a necessary condition for allowing secret state powers within a liberal democracy.

In this post, I want to explore the relationship between security and liberty. Stating the argument at its bluntest, I don’t find it helpful to think about security and liberty as the end points of a single spectrum. That’s because security and liberty aren’t polar opposites of each other. The opposite of security is insecurity. And the opposite of liberty is control. So if we want to explore the relationship between them, we should have a schematic that looks something like this:

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Positing the relationship that way gives a better picture of what we’re trying to do. Ideally, as a liberal, democratic society, we’re trying to find security measures that land in the top left quadrant—the ‘sweet spot’—where we enhance our security in ways that accommodate our civil liberties. The core of our national discussion should be about that quadrant because it lets us have both liberty and security. We don’t trade them off against each other; we seek ways to achieve both simultaneously. Doing that isn’t easy; it involves debate and hard work—especially since security and transparency aren’t always compatible objectives.

A different problem begins once we reach proposed security measures that don’t fit the sweet spot quadrant, because then those who we might call ‘libertarians’ and ‘securitisers’ head in different directions. The libertarians—those who value liberty higher than security—default into the top right quadrant and tolerate a higher level of risk. The securitisers—those who value security higher than liberty—default into the bottom left quadrant and tolerate a lower level of liberty for the gain of feeling more secure. I’m uncertain who, if anyone, lives in the bottom right quadrant, though some might end up there temporarily and by accident.

The strength of the libertarian default position depends on the level of risk. The higher the risk becomes—say from a serious bird flu epidemic—the harder it is to argue that civil liberties can remain unconstrained. Several countries in West Africa are facing those sorts of challenges today in relation to the Ebola outbreak. Conversely, the strength of the securitiser default position depends on the existence of a clear and present danger—unless such a danger exists, democracies don’t usually tolerate stricter controls.

As a liberal, democratic society, Australia should be reluctant to trade away liberties for gains in security. Having a liberal society doesn’t usually require us to be unsafe: much can be done in the sweet-spot quadrant, especially when threats are clear. The bottom left quadrant is the natural home of authoritarian governments and dictatorships, who are typically unconcerned about civil liberties. It should require extraordinary dangers for us to venture there.

Still, extraordinary dangers do sometimes arise—dangers that force us to devise and impose security measures outside the comfort zone of the sweet spot. When they arise, the usual reaction of governments is to move towards the securitiser default position, and not towards the libertarian default position. Few governments respond to new threats by becoming more libertarian. But for a liberal democratic government, time spent in the securitiser default quadrant becomes a factor in its own right. ‘Emergency measures’ are for emergencies, after all, not for normalcy. The measure of a liberal democracy is how quickly it can shape those new protective measures to allow it to return to the sweet-spot zone.

I suspect all of my colleagues are actually having a discussion about three things: what we can and can’t do in the sweet-spot quadrant; when we should and shouldn’t contemplate alternative measures; and how we might qualify those measures to better protect our civil liberties. Seeing the security–liberty issue as a two-axes problem and not a single-axis one helps us sharpen both questions and answers.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.

The US and nuclear weapons: a turning of the tide?

While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

First, the administration has committed to the long-overdue modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. True, the initial funding decisions are merely the opening salvoes of a program that will take decades to unpack, and key decisions about the shape and size of the arsenal remain unresolved. But the administration has signalled a commitment to renovate the strategic triad, and even to modernise its principal tactical weapon, the B-61 bomb. Read more

Second, Washington has been busy putting its nuclear ‘house’ in order. By January this year, almost 20% of US Air Force officers in its nuclear weapons corps had been implicated in a proficiency-assessment cheating scandal. The Navy wasn’t immune either—earlier this month it expelled 34 sailors caught up in the nuclear cheating scandal. A senior naval officer was dismissed in October last year for inappropriate behaviour in Moscow. Some might even see the sacking of James Doyle by Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of that pattern. Certainly a more restrictive approach to nuclear information management and a more disciplined approach to command and control of the arsenal seem to be the flavour of the day.

Third, evidence points to a determination to rebuild the intellectual capital necessary to sustain the nuclear mission for another generation. A senior State Department official, at the Annual Deterrence Symposium in mid-August, spoke of the need to recruit a new wave of ‘political scientists, lawyers, physicists, geologists, engineers, and more’, in order to ‘bring the next generation into the nuclear deterrence enterprise’.

Fourth, what we might call the ‘three musketeers’ (Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Franklin Miller) seem to have displaced—at least temporarily—the ‘four horsemen’ (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn), as the media commentators of the day. The four horsemen have published a range of important op-eds since 2007 about the need to move away from nuclear weapons (see, for example, here, here, and here). Their arguments have generally gone unanswered. The musketeers’ recent article in the Washington Post, underlining the importance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, was obviously written with one eye on the approaching NATO summit in Wales. But it has wider implications: after all, if forward-deployed nuclear weapons are so important in Europe, why aren’t they just as important in other theatres?

Fifth, the administration seems to have wound back slightly the significance it attaches to the imperative of ‘nuclear security’—a protracted exercise to round up insecure warheads and quantities of fissile material in the world. Clearly that mission’s still important: Washington continues to fund it during straitened budgetary times. But one gets the sense that, for the coming few years, rounding up stray quantities of fissile material is not as strategically important as resuscitating the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

And sixth, the administration seems to have gone back to taking seriously the nuclear policies of the other nuclear-weapon states: witness the State Department’s recent finding that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Now, some will argue that those are all just straws in the wind, and that if Obama wanted to shift his nuclear policy, he would just say so. But one year out from another NPT Review Conference, could he? Besides, has policy changed, or are we just seeing a shift of emphasis? In 2009 Obama said he thought a non-nuclear world would be safer and the US should work towards that goal. The goal, he said, might not be reached in his lifetime. And in the meantime, the US would need to ensure it could rely upon a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal. So a theme of continued reliance always sat side by side with the grander goal of nuclear disarmament.

I think the straws tell a story: that nuclear weapons are making a comeback in US strategic policy—driven by a growing mood of strategic realism in Washington. The strategic environment of 2014 looks different to that of 2009. True, the comeback will probably be limited. But when future historians look back on 2013–14, they’re likely to paint it as a turning of the tide on nuclear weapons policy, occurring—ironically—under the administration of one Barack Obama.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

Is major war obsolete?

Poppies

August has seen a wave of reflection on major war. It’s a question we seem to revisit every time the key anniversaries of WWI and WWII roll around, but given special significance this year by the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. Some pundits are keen to draw parallels between 1914 and 2014—though on its face it’s not apparent to me why 2014 should be more like 1914 than 2013.

Academic strategists familiar with their disciplinary history will know that the issue of whether major war’s obsolete received a detailed coverage back in Survival magazine in the late 1990s. To save readers the trouble of digging through their archives, one contributor, John Mueller, argued that it was obsolete—gone the way of slavery and duelling—while others wrestled partly over how to define obsolescence and even more over how to define major war. Was the Vietnam War ‘major’? Was the Cold War a ‘war’? Michael Mandelbaum argued that perhaps major war was just a poor policy option nowadays—because of the steep rise in the costs and the thin rewards for success. Read more

It’s intriguing that the question about the obsolescence of war is typically qualified by the adjective ‘major’. No-one seems particularly keen to claim that nasty little wars—in particular, nasty little wars in faraway places—are obsolete, perhaps because they patently aren’t. From memory, Mueller didn’t want to call those conflicts ‘wars’, though; he saw those more as ‘opportunistic predation’. (That’s the reason the cover of his book, The Remnants of War, features an image—from the Balkan conflict in 1991—of a thug swigging from a bottle.)

9/11 came along and sideswiped that whole debate. The nasty little wars of the 1990s didn’t stay in faraway places. A superpower got up and marched off to war—albeit a war against al Qaeda, its supporters, and all its works. Somewhere along the line the mission became conflated with a host of other problems, and Washington ended up obsessing about the Global War on Terror for longer than it probably should have done. But Washington’s behaviour at least answered one question related to the Big One: did great powers still go to war? Yes. Now, the question still unanswered—unanswered since 1945 if you think major war has to be hot; unanswered since 1991, if you think major war can be cold—is whether or not major powers still go to war with each other.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued that the better angels of our nature are making us turn away from violence. I’m not wholly convinced by his argument—the better angels of our nature seem pretty militant to me, and always have been. (See Ephesians, 6:12.) But academic research from a few decades back suggests that great-power wars against each other aren’t common. Jack Levy in his research on war in the international system between 1495 and 1975 found only nine of what he would call ‘world wars’—wars where almost all great powers were involved. Much more commonly, he found ‘interstate wars’—113 of which engaged a great power. I cite those figures to underline two points. First, if world wars are rare, maybe we don’t need special explanations to say why there hasn’t been one since 1945 (hot) or 1991 (cold). Second, that definition of major war is still a problem.

Let’s put aside the academic arguments and look straight at the case that most worries. Is a great-power war between US and China possible? I think we could answer that question directly: possible, yes; likely, no. Great powers, especially nuclear-armed ones, don’t go to war with each other lightly. But sometimes wars happen. And they aren’t accidents. They’re about international order. They’re about, as Raymond Aron said, the life and death of states. And the principal reason for fighting them is that not doing so looks like a worse alternative.

Moreover, the paths to war—including rare major-power war—are not reserved solely for conventionally-armed states. Where both powers are nuclear-armed we should expect a conflict, even one at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder, to be fought with a high degree of political control, and an understanding that the objectives of the conflict are limited. Naturally, it would help if both sides shared a common understanding of where the firebreaks were between conventional and nuclear conflict, and already had in place a set of crisis-management procedures, but it’s possible that neither of those conditions might exist. (Neither would prevent a war, but both would provide a better sense of the likely escalation dynamics of a particular conflict.) Indeed, it’s because major war is possible that we retain such a keen interest in war termination. Unconstrained escalation doesn’t lead to a happy place.

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

The future of the US–Australia strategic relationship

AUSMIN 2014With the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) recently concluded in Sydney, it’s a good time to reassess the broader Australian–US strategic relationship. I want to frame that assessment here by employing a SWOT analysis. The methodology is clunky but simple enough to allow a set of insights about the relationship’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I’ve allowed myself three of each, as follows.

Three strengths: familial closeness, shared grand strategies, a solid foundation. First, closeness. The Anglosphere’s our international family, and while it’s easy to mock the importance of belonging to an international family, states that don’t belong to one (like Japan) would beg to differ. Ties of blood and culture run deep. Second, grand strategy: the best long-term allies are those who essentially want the same thing. In grand strategy, Washington and Canberra both want a stable, liberal, prosperous global order. And that’s a good basis for long-term cooperation—because the tie isn’t just of blood but of interest. Third, the foundation: we both enjoy an alliance that’s over 60 years old and is as close today as it’s ever been. Both allies are still looking for new ways to cooperate in order to make the alliance more relevant to the 21st century. Read more

Three weaknesses: time, place, strategic personalities. After the Global War on Terror the US is a weary Titan. That effect might last another five to ten years, but—over the longer haul—US vigour will wax as well as wane. There’s a second, longer-term ‘time’ factor, and that relates to the broader pattern of regional transformation: while the US rebalance to Asia is good, Washington’s rebalancing at a time when Western influence in the region is slipping because of the rise of regional great powers. Second is geography. At the best of times, Australia’s not Washington’s top priority—geographically we sit too far back from a strategic order essentially built along the Eurasian rimlands. True, the shift of strategic weight in Asia is changing that, to some degree—but we’re never going to be as relevant as front-line US partners. Finally, personalities: the US and Australia are two different strategic personality types: Americans are Extroverted, Intuitive and Feeling; Australians are Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking. In short, we‘re British empiricists, they’re the City on the Hill. There’s a messianic core to US strategic policy that isn’t replicated in ours.

Three opportunities: a more receptive Asia, a US more interested in Southeast Asia, a treaty with an in-built capacity to engage. Evidence of the more receptive Asia abounds. Regional countries want to do more with both the US and Australia. Japan’s the obvious example, but others aren’t as far behind as some think. It wasn’t always thus: remember, we couldn’t do much more with Japan before Abe, nor much more with Indonesia before SBY. A second opportunity, a shifting US perception of Southeast Asia. Washington has traditionally seen that subregion as a set of sealanes, and after 9/11 as a possible second front in the War on Terror, but it’s finally coming to see it as a set of influential players at the intersection of two key oceans. Third, both the US and Australia are classic networkers. And the ANZUS treaty already gives them scope (in the unused Article 8) to do more networking together in the regional context. I’m amazed we aren’t doing it.

Three threats: complacency, category mistake, distraction. Let’s start with complacency, because that’s the most insidious threat to the relationship. There’s something of a danger on both sides of the Pacific that capitals will treat the relationship as ‘business-as-usual’. Oddly, the simple regularity of AUSMIN actually increases that danger, reducing high-level political commitment to the alliance to an annual ministerial meeting. We need to work to sustain a broader base of political engagement. Second, the threat of the category mistake: that we come to see ANZUS as a barrier to our closer engagement with Asia, rather than an enabler of such engagement. It’s a simple mistake to slip into, and it typically follows from seeing ANZUS as a strategic hangover from a different era. And finally, there’s the threat of distraction. Distraction can come to both capitals from a range of sources. Washington can easily be distracted by more urgent priorities, both domestic and international; but so too can Canberra. Despite the excitable tones in which the future of our strategic partnership with the US is sometimes debated, the real threat isn’t that our relationship will be ruined by disastrous war, nor even that it’ll be traded away to accommodate China: it’s that the relationship will be eaten out from the inside, leaving a hollow, reactive partnership in the place of a substantive, proactive one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Analysing the China choice

Choices ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A generational shift in the North Korean nuclear program?

The death last week of General Jon Pyong-ho, aged 88, chief architect of the North Korean nuclear program, raises the tantalising question, ‘where to from here?’. We’ve become accustomed to a North Korean nuclear program that limps rather than runs. Two factors have constrained the program: a shortage of fissile material and a lack of nuclear testing. Deals cut in the 1990s and at the Six Party Talks (SPT) have also slowed proceedings; twice now the small 5MWe gas graphite reactor (the source of all the North’s current stockpile of plutonium) has been mothballed—and subsequently de-mothballed. But with that reactor being restarted last October, and a new 25MWe light water reactor (LWR) coming on-stream, are we about to see a generational shift to a new, more energetic North Korean nuclear program?

The short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer is more complicated. Broadly, fissile material shortages seem likely to hamper the program for some time yet. Estimates vary as to the size of the current North Korean plutonium stockpile. The US Congressional Research Service figure of between 30 and 50kg (enough for five to eight bombs) seems reasonable, but that figure could be lower if the third nuclear test involved a plutonium device rather than a uranium one (something we don’t know). If the 5MWe reactor is now running smoothly again, Pyongyang can use it to produce about one-bomb’s-worth (6kg) of plutonium per year. But the process is slow, beginning with construction of suitable fuel rods for the reactor, irradiation of the fuel in the reactor, removal and cooling of the fuel, and reprocessing to extract the plutonium. Read more

Size matters. Pyongyang’s problem is that the facility is just too small to allow greater production. Had it completed construction of either its 50-MWe reactor or a 200-MWe reactor, both of which it began building some years back but subsequently abandoned, the equations would look much more unsettling. The 50-MWe reactor would have created enough plutonium for ten bombs per year; the 200-MWe reactor enough for 40 bombs per year.

True, Pyongyang might choose to pursue simultaneously a second path to fissile materials—as the US did during the Manhattan Project. If it used its uranium-enrichment facility solely to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU), it could produce about 40kg per year. The IAEA defines 25kg of HEU as a ‘significant’ quantity, so let’s say that 40kg equals a capability to make one and a half bombs. But the enrichment facility must spend some time creating low-enriched uranium-oxide fuel pellets for the new LWR. And each new nuclear test will subtract one bomb’s worth of material from the stockpile.

Won’t the LWR provide an alternate source of plutonium for Pyongyang when it begins operations? Yes. Depending on how it chooses to run the reactor and how often it wants to—or can—refuel it, Pyongyang could use it to produce plutonium. Estimates vary about how much. Charles Ferguson, from the Federation of American Scientists, has recently argued that Pyongyang could extract 30–40 kg of plutonium each year (enough for five to seven bombs) from just that facility. That seems a high figure; others suggest lower ranges. Siegfried Hecker suggests a plutonium figure of 10–15kg per year might be more realistic.

The LWR isn’t an ideal producer of weapons-grade plutonium for Pyongyang. The fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets, each fuel-load requires low-level uranium enrichment (unlike the Magnox fuel being fed into the small reactor) and the plutonium reprocessing facility has previously been set up to reprocess metallic fuel, not ceramic. Some analysts—Hecker for example—argue that the LWR’s inherent proliferation-resistance means the North will probably use the LWR for electricity production rather than plutonium production. Further, the fact the North’s restarted its small reactor suggests it wants to retain its present plutonium path.

Still, the possibility for misuse of the LWR—while low—is sufficiently concerning that getting a handle on the program is becoming more important. Recent developments have certainly not been lost on the South Koreans, who have stated that a freezing of the North Korean program at its current level should be a precondition for any resumption of the SPT. Hecker used to champion a proposal called ‘the three nos’: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export. If Pyongyang keeps going in its current direction, the first two nos seem unlikely to be satisfied.

What can Australia do? Unfortunately, not much. We don’t control the supply of uranium to North Korea, we can’t influence how Pyongyang uses its nuclear infrastructure, and we can’t shape its decisions about missile and nuclear weapon testing. Our intelligence community might be able to lead an effort to clarify stockpile numbers, which would be valuable but not game-changing.

Despite the concerns of the international community, Pyongyang in recent years has constructed a new reactor and enrichment facility, tested longer-range missiles and nuclear devices, and declared that it’s a nuclear-armed state. It isn’t about to turn over a new leaf. But its nuclear program still lives on Struggle Street—and will for some years yet. That certainly doesn’t make it irrelevant; further testing, for example, could help North Korea miniaturise its weapons. Still, it buys us a little time—if we can find a way to use it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of yeowatzup.

Australia, Japan and the future of strategic relationships in Asia

His Excellency Shinzo Abe, PM of Japan & Mrs Akie Abe visit AWM 8/7/14

The rapidly-warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterised by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defence policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defence cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule. Read more

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialisation would enhance national defence force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian War Memorial