Articles by " Rod Lyon"

Two strategic competitions in Asia

Game of thrones?

The unfolding strategic environment in Asia is generating two strategic competitions: one horizontal and one vertical. The horizontal competition is highly visible: indeed, we see the evidence of it almost daily, as regional countries contest their respective territorial claims. But the vertical competition is less obvious:  it’s a contest over position, not of space. Rank and status matter in Asia. This is a region with a strong historical attachment to notions of hierarchy. We fret the consequences of a possible mishandling of the horizontal competition, but the vertical competition is probably the more serious one—because it’ll define the shape of the Asian security order in the 21st century. Why is that competition important? The main reason is that an era of relative Asian weakness is coming to an end, and Asian countries don’t share a unified vision of the hierarchy of 21st-century Asia. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s especially worrying about current security dynamics in Asia.

That’s not to say the horizontal strategic competition is irrelevant. It certainly isn’t. That contest has two core issues; the growth of Asian power projection capabilities, and the growing intensity of multi-player contests over small islands and rocks. The first of those issues is currently seen most clearly in the steady rise in China’s material power. ASPI analysts have talked before about the geographic expansion of Chinese military power as resembling a growing ‘bubble’, within which it’s becoming more challenging for adversaries to operate. That bubble is slowly expanding to cover more of the US’s principal allies and partners along the Asian rimlands, not to mention the US territories, bases and facilities to be found there. The growth of the bubble underpins Beijing’s ‘anti-access, area denial’ doctrine. Read more

Moreover, China’s recent push on its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas is a clear expression of Beijing’s objectives in the horizontal competition. China knows that it’s well-placed to wear down rival claimants one by one, and that it can do so without provoking a real crisis because the dominant strategic power in the region—the US—holds no position on who owns what. But China isn’t the only rising Asian power. Other Asian countries are generating their own somewhat smaller power bubbles as their economic and military strength expands. And they too are pushing back in relation to their own territorial claims, against China or another rising Asian player. Those various territorial competitions are perhaps best described as contests in low-intensity coercion. No-one wants the contests to escalate, but nor are any of the contestants willing to cede its claim.

One of the reasons why no-one’s pulling back from the horizontal competition is because of what such an action would imply in relation to the vertical competition. Abandoning a claim against a rival would be tantamount to deferring to another player. And such a pattern of accommodation would underpin the gradual emergence of a new strategic order in Asia. And that’s why the vertical competition’s important—because it’s a positional contest for places in the emerging 21st-century Asian hierarchy. Australia isn’t a direct player in the territorial contest, although it has direct interests in the ability of its major ally to operate in the Western Pacific. Our bigger choices are the ones related to the positional competition.

At the moment, we’re not competing with much vigour in the vertical competition. We occasionally send signals that we need to ‘weight up’ in Asia, but don’t show much understanding that the real competition is one of privilege and deference. We’re Westerners, after all. We cling to a notion that the region is moving towards a number of influential states playing alongside each other on an approximately level playing field. That’s a model built upon the basic equality of states, and appeals to our Westphalian understandings about sovereignty. In practice, of course, we accept that all countries aren’t equally influential, but nor do they have to be. But the Eastern notion of Asia is different. Over the past 2,000 years Asian countries have been drawn to models of hierarchy, not equality—to vertical distinctiveness, not to multipolar sameness.

Australia, as a Western country living in 21st-century Asia, has its own conception of an ideal Asian security hierarchy, and it’s one where the US remains the pre-eminent security actor. We seek to buttress that order by encouraging other regional states to support politically liberal, economically open, and socially inclusive values. That’s a noble order to aim for. But it might overlook the likelihood of a looming hierarchical competition as Asian great powers struggle for places on the regional ladder.

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

Stingers, round two?

President Reagan meeting with Afghan Freedom Fighters to discuss Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan. 2/2/83

It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at the meeting last Friday between US President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah. With reports emerging that Obama is again considering the possibility of supplying shoulder-fired air-defence missiles to some elements of the Syrian rebels, it’s timely to remember the previous US experience in relation to this subject.

That was back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration, upon the urging of a small but influential group of congressmen, decided to supply Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan. The experience still sears, and not least because parts of the Afghan resistance went on to become our enemy down the track. Putting it briefly, the US supplied the missiles, the Pakistanis delivered them, the Saudis paid for them and the mujahidin used them. There’s always a possibility of mischief when the supplier of a piece of kit isn’t the deliverer, and when the purchaser isn’t the end user. When what’s usually a two-party standard arms sale agreement (supplier–purchaser) becomes a four-party deal, it increases the prospect that the interests between them might vary radically. Read more

That proved to be the case in Afghanistan. The Americans supplied several hundred Stinger missiles, and it proved both difficult and expensive to get them back when the war was over. Many were never recovered. Further, the US had no clear record that provided accountability over where the individual missiles had gone. Because Pakistan’s ISI was the key delivery agent, weapons were allocated to different factions within the mujahidin, more in accord with Pakistani preferences than US ones.

Any attempt to repeat this exercise with the Syrian rebels in place of the Afghanistan mujahidin should give most people pause for thought. True, these rebels are trying to counter the Syrian Air Force and not the Soviet one, so they probably wouldn’t need hundreds of missiles—tens might be enough. And the US might be able to install some form of automatic use-by-date on the weapons now; back in the 1980s, the limiting point of the Stingers was their battery life, and that always left analysts pondering just how hard it would be to jury-rig a new battery for the launcher.

On the other hand, the number of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda affiliates, already in Syria suggests that we’d risk spreading expertise in the usage of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) across several continents. And there’s no guarantee that some weapons wouldn’t slip through nerveless fingers within the use-by-date. One could be enough to bring down a commercial airliner and dent the confidence of commercial airlines flying global routes. In late 2003, a civilian cargo plane flying out of Baghdad was hit by a surface-to-air missile; an attack on a plane full of passengers would make bigger headlines.

Where do Australian interests figure in all of this? Well, we have interests in the safety and security of advanced weapons systems, but also in the geopolitical shape of the Middle East. We’d like the US and the Saudis to continue to be on good relations—a Saudi Arabia that goes its own way could be the catalyst for a radically different Middle East. But we also shouldn’t be keen to see highly-capable US missiles find their way into the hands of Syrian rebels. If supply occurs at all, better that it happen through the provision of rather less capable surface-to-air weapons. That, again, might offer a parallel with the earlier Afghanistan case, because there’d already been a supply of less capable weapons (the SA-7 and the Blowpipe) to the mujahidin before the Americans turned up offering the Stingers. Advocates of supply then argued that the resistance ought to have sufficient weapons to fight and win, not just enough to fight and die. Because there’s no Soviet connection here, there are fewer voices now in the US advocating supply of advanced MANPADS in the Syrian case. So much will depend on just how convincingly the Saudis have pressed the case.

Media reports since about mid-2012 suggest that small numbers of less capable air defence missiles are, in fact, already making their way into the hands of the rebels—principally by capture and smuggling. That’s probably a good place to draw the line. Surely the key question must be whether the Syrian Air Force is so dominant that it can determine the outcome of the civil war? I suspect the answer is no. If so, there’s less pressure to supply an offsetting capability to the rebels.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ukraine and nuclear weapons

An SS-24 Scalpel at the Saint Petersburg Railway Museum.

Recent events in Crimea have seen a number of commentators (here, here and here) return to the notion that Ukraine made a mistake in the early 1990s by agreeing to give its nuclear weapons back to Russia. The issue is typically cast as a grand geopolitical ‘lesson’: that smaller countries living in close proximity to great powers can best preserve their independence of action through an indigenous nuclear arsenal. But is the Ukrainian example a case in point for that argument? For one thing, is it correct to think Ukraine ever had an indigenous nuclear arsenal?

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, three former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus—found themselves with some elements of the Russian nuclear arsenal deployed on their soil. The largest such was in Ukraine, and numbered approximately 4,500 warheads, including strategic warheads as well as tactical ones. Ukraine hosted SS-24 and SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as strategic heavy bombers. Under an agreement signed in 1994, Ukraine returned those nuclear warheads, and subsequently their delivery vehicles, to Russia. Those were the warheads that some commentators now think Kiev should have kept, the better to deter Russian adventurism against its territory. Read more

An important starting point is to clarify the sense in which the weapons were ever Ukraine’s. Certainly the weapons were deployed on Ukrainian territory. But that doesn’t mean Ukrainians controlled them. Nor does it mean that they could’ve taken control of them if they chose. By the end of the Cold War, both superpowers had built arsenals that were secure against theft—even theft by other nation-states. Russian nuclear weapons, like their American counterparts, are locked against unauthorised use. Those locks typically require the operator to enter some form of code into the weapon as part of the arming procedure. It’s entirely likely that Ukrainians didn’t have access to those codes: the Russians were never terribly good at sharing sensitive military information with the ethnic minorities who eventually made up more than 50% of the population of the former USSR. In effect, by the early 1990s, Ukrainian political authorities probably faced a situation where substantial numbers of nuclear weapons were deployed on their territory, but over which they had almost no control.

Could they have bypassed the security locks? The answer isn’t clear, but my impression is that it couldn’t have been done easily. They might have had to dismantle the warheads, remove the fissile material, and start again to construct new warheads. Yes, they would have had the fissile material from almost 4,500 nuclear warheads—and fissile material is the long pole in the tent of proliferation. And yes, they would have inherited a number of nuclear delivery vehicles—among them, intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers equipped with air-launched cruise missiles. But they would have inherited only a fraction of the expertise necessary to weaponise the fissile material and sustain that arsenal, and only fragments of the command and control system built to support them.

In brief, then, it’s probably wrong to believe that Ukraine ever possessed its own nuclear arsenal; what it did was house a part of someone else’s. In that sense, their decision to trade the weapons back to Russia in exchange for a guarantee written on a piece of paper (and a bucket of money from the US) is much more understandable. True, in the long run the guarantee hasn’t amounted to much. But in the long run, neither would have the nuclear weapons.

Because Ukrainians never controlled the nuclear weapons they returned to Russia, it’s a bit hard to accuse them of forsaking a nuclear weapons option, and allowing themselves to be coerced by Russia’s superior conventional military strength. Precisely the same point can be made, though, against those who want to praise Ukraine for its disarmament ethic. On occasion, Ukraine (along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) is cited  alongside South Africa as a nuclear disarmer. I’ve always thought that South African nuclear disarmament was one of the final expressions of apartheid; that a white minority government with nuclear weapons didn’t want to see a black majority government with nuclear weapons. But in the case of the three former Soviet republics, the better judgment is that they weren’t nuclear disarmers for the simple reason that they were never actually nuclear armed in the first place.

The danger now, though, is that some national leaderships—perhaps even Ukraine’s—will begin to draw the wrong lessons from the 1990s. In the current environment, it’s not hard to conclude that smaller powers do have options to deter great powers, and to imagine that Ukraine’s experience helps argue that case.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user David Holt.

The Quadrennial Defence Review: a surfeit of rebalancing

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, center, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the Department of Defense budget request for fiscal year 2014 at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2013. U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale, the department comptroller, joined Hagel for the testimony. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Released)

Readers of the recently released US Quadrennial Defence Review will be struck by one major characteristic: namely, a fondness for the notion of ‘rebalancing’. Asian readers looking for signals of the Obama administration’s commitment to the rebalance to Asia will be delighted to see that the QDR delivers. But they might be less delighted to see that the document uses the term with relative abandon, indeed to the point where the word ‘rebalance’ starts to lose its meaning. In the space of the executive summary, for example, the document manages to talk about ‘rebalancing and sustaining our presence and posture abroad to better protect US national security interests’, ‘rebalancing for the 21st century’, ‘rebalancing for a broad spectrum of conflict’, ‘rebalancing our counter-terrorism efforts’, ‘rebalancing capability, capacity and readiness within the joint force’, and ‘rebalancing tooth and tail’ by reforming the US Department of Defense.

The overall effect is to create an impression that the US is attempting to walk several tightropes simultaneously. By the end of the executive summary, readers will be starting to wish the authors had been asked to redraft it without using the word ‘rebalance’ at all. I know the richness of the English language is such that if you see a new word it’s likely you’ll see it again within six days, but even by that metric, the authors’ affection for the term is hard to explain. Really, if so much rebalancing has to be done, doesn’t it imply that US global force posture is currently unbalanced, and so is its force structure, its Defense Department, its counter-terrorism efforts, and so on? And what does the word actually tell us, anyway? It’s like ‘impact’ used as a verb. Rebalancing implies a degree of acrobatic agility; a centredness that’s its own virtue. But what does it mean? The US says it’s rebalancing to Asia, but maintaining its commitments to Europe and the Middle East, and reaffirming that defence of its homeland remains its single highest strategic priority. Read more

The QDR sits alongside a recent candid comment from Katrina Macfarland, US Assistant Secretary of Defence (Acquisition), that the rebalance to Asia ‘can’t happen’ because of budgetary pressures. It’s unwise to put too much emphasis on any one official’s comments, and she later clarified this remark insisting that the rebalance can and will continue, but the slip will only augment concerns across the region that the ‘rebalance’ has less meaning to it than US official statements would suggest. At one point in the QDR executive summary, the authors state that the US is exploring ‘new presence paradigms’, a phrase suggesting that the evolution away from major basing and towards a more rotational presence will continue. That’s not exactly a new approach: it dates back at least to the time (almost a decade ago) when Americans spoke about the increasing need for ‘lily pads’ rather than major facilities abroad. But it does suggest the Americans are looking to economise on how they adjust their strategic footprint in Asia.

I’ve previously argued that the US footprint is changing in response to a shifting strategic centre of gravity in Asia: that northeast Asia is no longer quite so dominant in its strategic weighting, and that the rise of China, India and Southeast Asia is pulling the centre of gravity south-westward. The effect is to pull US presence in the same direction, towards Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, so the rebalance isn’t only to Asia but within Asia. And that suggests the new presence paradigms will be unpacked in our sub-region. So this is a topic we might want to explore more closely with Washington. In essence, what will those new paradigms mean for US presence? The US marine deployment to the Top End, for example, isn’t a permanent presence, since there would be little point in having the marines there during the wet season. By contrast, the planned move of 4,000 US marines from Okinawa to  Guam and another 2,000-3,000 to Hawaii does look a little more permanent, even if the moves remain the subject of funding battles in Congress.

For some Southeast Asian countries, wary of being tied too closely to the US, the new paradigms might well be politically more acceptable than a heavier footprint. Singapore, for example, is too small to host a heavier footprint. The Philippines has a chequered connection, and might find a lighter footprint more tolerable. The same can probably be said for both Indonesia and Vietnam. But it does leave unanswered the big question: what will the future US presence in Southeast Asia look like, and what role will Australia be willing to play to support it? In his concluding chapter to the QDR, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, talks about differing forms of presence: permanent presence, prepositioned presence, rotational presence and surge capability. Perhaps, as the strategic future unfolds, we might be helping the US in all those areas.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Gamechangers in Asia

Gamechangers in Asia?

In late February, I attended the Ditchley Park conference on power rivalries in Asia. A sub-theme of the conference was to explore whether the region was being drawn into an arms race. Like all good conferences, it didn’t end in a series of pre-packaged answers, though I think my broad impression from listening to the conversation around the table was that we’re looking now at a region that has become strategically more competitive over the last year or two. Still, I can’t see Asia as a region characterised by arms racing—at least, not in the narrow technical sense that the region as a whole is locked into an action–reaction dynamic producing weapons arsenals excess to requirements. True, some of the harder-wired strategic relationships—in south Asia or northeast Asia, for example—have a little more of the action–reaction dynamic than others. But broadly speaking, defence spending in most Asian countries isn’t especially high as a percentage of GDP. And strategies tend to be asymmetric rather than symmetric.

Look at our own defence spending. Does it constitute the Southeast Asian leg of an arms race? No, and there’s not much prospect of its quickening abruptly. Indeed, there’s something approaching bipartisan agreement that defence isn’t a priority compared to domestic spending. That’s a position common to many of the countries that took part in the wave of military operations that followed 9/11, and the duration, cost and uncertain outcomes of those ventures have induced a weariness about the effectiveness of military force to achieve desired objectives among publics at large. But it’s also testimony to the rising social welfare demands upon many Western budgets. Most Asian countries are facing similar pressures to spend more in other budget sectors. And even if we were spending more on defence, would the net effect be stabilising or destabilising? A broad view of US allies and partners in Asia is that the US ought to be spending rather more here, precisely because it’s a stabilising presence in the region. Read more

Now, what’s interesting about Asia isn’t arms racing or defence budgets. What’s interesting is that regional strategic competitions tend to be characterised by a search for what we might call ‘gamechangers’—any factor that offers force-multiplier-level enhancements against a potential adversary. Some of the potential gamechangers take the form of new kinds of military equipment. Around the region as a whole, a greater interest in cyber and space capabilities, conventional prompt-strike weapons, drones, ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defences, hypersonic weapons, power-projection capabilities, and—as a final resort—nuclear weapons, testifies to an increased interest in military gamechangers.

But gamechangers needn’t always require new technological breakthroughs. China has reaped substantial strategic gain from pursuing maritime presence as a gamechanger: witness the reaction to its rather small naval exercise south of Indonesia a few weeks ago. But it supplements that power projection effort with a range of other options, including space, cyber and hypersonic programs. South Korea, by contrast, seems to be looking to a mixture of cyber capabilities, conventional prompt strike weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles as a deterrent to North Korea’s growing nuclear program.

Still other gamechangers are political or diplomatic. Burma’s strategic relocation from being a friend of China and North Korea to a normal player in Southeast Asia, for example, exhibits gamechanger behaviour. The Abe government’s deliberate revival of nationalism in Japan can similarly be perceived as gamechanger behaviour—one which suggests the Japanese government believes that domestic public opinion is a primary constraint upon its ability to play a meaningful regional role. Robotics and ballistic missile defence feature as supplementary technological Japanese gamechangers. Australia’s own gamechangers are primarily diplomatic: we’re pushing for greater US engagement in Southeast Asia (the real meaning of the US marine deployment in the Top End), and for Indonesia to emerge as the true power core of a Southeast Asian region with greater ballast. Enhancements we might make to the ADF over coming years will supplement those objectives.

So what’s all that mean for regional security? Well, the overall conclusion has to be a pessimistic one: regional countries are increasing their hedging behaviour, pursuing options intended to exploit what they perceive to be their asymmetric ‘edge’. Around the region, the core of cooperative endeavour remains economic; in the strategic field, competition is growing. It’s that factor, rather than arms racing plain and simple, that’s the real worry.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Phil Long.

Intelligence: actions and their meanings


In his book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke relates an incident when in 1993 he was attempting to persuade President Clinton to ‘snatch’ a terrorist (a practice nowadays known better by its more formal tag of ‘extraordinary rendition’). His proposal was encountering opposition from the White House Counsel, who argued that such a course of action would be a violation of international law. Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting and, upon hearing Clinton’s quick summary of the two sides of the argument observed, ‘That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.’

The message behind Clarke’s anecdote is that you should judge the merit of a government’s actions in large part by the policy that lies behind them, not by the acts themselves. In recent months, there has been considerable media discussion on the subject of intelligence, largely because of the revelations provided by Edward Snowden’s protracted leaks, the ensuing debate about proper intelligence practices, and President Obama’s selective reforms. Since it’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of Snowden’s leaks, in this post I want to say a few basic things about intelligence and why it matters. No secrets will be revealed. But I think it’s important to put some context around the core issues.

Read more

Despite the popular misconceptions about intelligence—that it’s a James Bond-like activity, conducted with great personal derring-do—in reality, it’s typically a prosaic activity. Intelligence is a tool of government policy and, as such, reflects the slow, incremental accretion of data across months, years and decades. Because it’s a tool of policy, intelligence collection and assessment by itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad, though it certainly might be either elegant or inept. What is good or bad is the policy that intelligence supports. For governments with a strongly revisionist agenda—like Nazi Germany—intelligence supports ends that Australians would find objectionable. But for states with an essentially status quo agenda in international relations, and a set of objectives which broadly promote a stable, liberal, prosperous international order, intelligence is a mechanism for supporting those objectives.

So I don’t buy the argument that all intelligence is bad, nor the notion that all intelligence is merely about self-interest—though, since the judgment about good or bad turns upon policy settings, I’m quite happy to admit some intelligence is bad and some, undoubtedly, is about self-interest. Though at the broadest level, judgments about intelligence must turn upon the policies that the intelligence supports. Australia, like the other members of the five-eyes community, wants a world where good people win and bad people lose. It’s prepared to invest in intelligence in order to support that notion.

How does intelligence help policy-making? Intelligence is about the collection and assessment of information. Good intelligence gives the policymaker more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and thus provides a better picture of the world. By doing so, it makes patterns more recognisable. It helps guide the targeting of policy effort. It can correct the assumptions upon which current policies are meant to lie. It provides the policymaker with a source of knowledge about the world—separate from open media sources or diplomatic exchanges. And it can—at least to some extent—be selectively targeted in response to a perceived need.

Does it always prove so helpful? No. Intelligence is neither perfect nor perfectly accurate. By nature, it tends to be patchy—typically, it provides the policymaker with more pieces of the puzzle, but not all the pieces. Sometimes the pieces of different puzzles are mixed together. Sometimes assessments are misled by a collective group-think that refuses to consider alternative explanations. Sometimes history misleads—for example, the under-estimation of what Saddam Hussein had achieved in the WMD field by the time of the first Gulf War contributed to the over-estimation of what he had achieved a dozen years later. Sometimes, as Joseph Nye has argued, the nub of the problem is a mystery rather than a secret—a secret can, in theory, be stolen whereas a mystery has no solution. And sometimes, as Amy Zegart has argued in her work Spying Blind, the institutional structure of the community tends to be blind to emerging threats.

Are some intelligence activities illegal? Yes. But to go back to Clarke’s anecdote, so what? True, some will claim that we would think this bad if it were done by an authoritarian government. To which Professor Severus Snape would undoubtedly answer ‘obviously’. It’s unlikely the authoritarian government would be conducting such activities in pursuit of noble goals. I certainly don’t want to argue that the end always justifies the means, though. What ends justify which means is a matter for government, which is why specific intelligence operations require ministerial approval. And ministers codify—and enforce—Australian standards of what’s tolerable. The same liberal, non-threatening, cooperative values that make us good international citizens also set the rules by which we manage intelligence activities. We don’t indulge in extra-judicial executions, for example, because that would undermine the broader thrust of our international effort. The type of society we are acts as a brake on the kinds of intelligence activities we undertake.

Over the past decade or so, the War on Terror has spurred the idea that Western intelligence agencies must be better able to pursue targets with low signal-to-noise ratios. That idea isn’t an unreasonable one: after all, for a war in the shadows, we should grow better eyes. But intelligence isn’t just about defeating terrorists. It’s about national advantage and, ultimately, about saving Australian lives. In a time of Asian geopolitical transformation, it’s about strengthening our capacities to achieve the sort of Asian regional order we want.

When news of Australian intelligence operations in Indonesia first broke, Prime Minister Abbott said those operations weren’t intended to harm Indonesia. The point is perfectly valid. Australian intelligence agencies don’t pursue an agenda in Indonesia separate from Australian government policy. And that policy doesn’t aim at a weakened, fractured Indonesia—it aims at a stronger, more cohesive Indonesia, an Indonesia that will be a better partner for Australia in pursuit of a stable, liberal, prosperous, regional order. We shouldn’t be shy of defending instruments that allow us to better pursue our grand strategy. And we should keep our grand strategy in mind as further Snowden revelations appear.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user frodrig

Strategic partnerships: Bismarck and beef

Otto von Bismarck

The theme of partnership is a growing one in Australian strategic policy. In some ways, it’s a useful qualifier to the emphases placed in an earlier era on ANZUS and self-reliance. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the notion of partnerships has arisen in tandem with Asia’s rise in global politics. In this post we want to work through the concept to highlight a more structured way of thinking about it.

We have to begin by observing something about the region as a whole. For at least the next twenty years, we’ll find ourselves on the periphery of a region where the strategic centre of gravity will be shifting—closer to us, rather than further away. As a consequence, we’ll sense the greater intrusion of Asian power shifts into our personal space. Those power shifts don’t automatically generate a more disintegrated Asian region. If we ask ourselves what would drive the growth of separate strategic blocs in Asia, the simplest answer is that the growth of Bismarckian nationalism, not mere multipolarity, is the factor most likely to exert such disintegrative pressures. In short, Asian mulipolarity is certain but the direction of nationalistic identities is uncertain—and possibly concerning. Read more

Nationalism in itself isn’t a malignant force, and all countries are nationalistic to some degree. But nationalism comes in different flavours. In the matrix below (click to enlarge) we’ve attempted to capture the different national identities of some countries based on a simple two-axes division: between nationalism and internationalism on the one hand, and between exclusive and cooperative forms of engagement on the other.

There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity and arbitrariness to the placement of particular states on the two axes, but the matrix helps give a visual portrayal of our argument that nationalism in its excluding form—here labelled ‘Bismarckian’—might be a powerful contributor to the emergence of a set of distinct power ‘blocs’ in Asian security. ‘Bismarckian’, of course, refers to that redoubtable Prussian realist, who pithily observed: ‘It is the destiny of the weak to be devoured by the strong.’ By ‘exclusivist’ we mean a propensity to pursue national interest obectives as ‘win–lose’ outcomes in the international environment. A ‘my country, right or wrong’ approach which reduces the potential for negotiated ‘win– win’ outcomes. An important test for Asia’s rising powers will be whether or not they can evolve a more cooperative form of nationalism; one that allows them to play a larger role in providing public goods to the region and working alongside others on a regular basis.

As power shifts in Asia, proponents of an integrated regionalist future will need to gradually reinvent regional order, carving out larger roles and responsibilities for those Asian players willing to play positive regional roles. Australia takes a close interest in regional order—but our key objective is that the order remains stable, liberal and prosperous. In part because we value that objective, we’ll continue to ally ourselves with the principal architect of the previous (and still current) stable, liberal and prosperous order, the United States. But in an Asia that will increasingly look multipolar and nationalistic (unlike the bipolar, ideological competition of the Cold War), we’ll want both to do more with ANZUS and to supplement the alliance with a set of regional partnership arrangements.

‘Partnership’ is a remarkably loose term, so we shouldn’t be shy about trying to add some content to it. Around the region, we will form our most lasting strategic partnerships—our first-circle partnerships—with other regional players

  1. who, like us, are concerned about regional outcomes being determined by a set of Bismarckian competitions
  2. who, like us, attempt to promote a stable, liberal and prosperous order
  3. and who, like us, have the capability and the will to operate beyond their own limited subregions.

None of those partnerships is likely to become an alliance in the true sense of the word. An alliance satisfies all three tests, but it’s also characterised by a formal agreement on when the members will come to each other’s aid, and typically includes regular patterns of defence cooperation and exchange. Australia has one ally and it’s not in the market for another; nor is it clear that any Asian great power will create its own alliance structure across the region. Still those first-circle partnerships will form a valuable part of our engagement strategy, and some may come to include their own forms of defence cooperation.

Beyond that first circle of partnerships a second will also be formed, the exact status of which will be blurred by the interchangeable terminology. Those second-circle partnerships will be with partners who fail one of the three tests for the inner circle. They’ll still offer strategic gains for us and the other player, but for both partners the relationship will be a more limited one. Will there be a third circle, for countries that fail two of the tests? We suspect not; the basis for cooperation would just be too thin. Even though they aren’t alliances, all partnerships involve calculations of relative risk and reward: the hamburger has to have some beef. In all cases, a decision about the beef quantity of a particular hamburger would be a matter for political decision-makers but we can’t see a future for strategic partnerships that are purely vegetarian.

Allies and partners are force multipliers and Australians should see them as such. Moreover, we should encourage others to think about them the same way—not least because doing so would be a partial antidote to the more exclusive variety of nationalism in Asian strategic settings. An era of partnership-building in Asia is already under way in Australian strategic policy. How effectively we pursue that policy will likely be a greater determinant of regional security outcomes than anything we can do by ourselves.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Asia in 2014

The B-2, from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, MoWe enter 2014 with the Asian security mosaic as complicated as it’s been in a long while. The two rising regional great powers, China and India, are still rising but at least in China’s case growth is slowing. The region’s stalled great power, Japan, is making a solid effort to get its motor running again. Russia is probably still a declining power, at least as far as Asia and the Pacific are concerned, but it’s modernising its nuclear forces and playing its foreign policy cards more adroitly. Kim Jong-un’s North Korea remains a regional wild card, the country’s nuclear program accelerating even as its domestic politics become more brutal and less certain. The region’s second-tier powers—and here we could reasonably count South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam—add their own complexities to the mix. And that’s before we even get to the United States.

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the beginning of President Obama’s second term. And, speaking plainly, I don’t think it has started well. The noted Asia hands of his first administration—people like Kurt Campbell and Jim Steinberg—have left. True, Joe Biden (the Vice President) and Susan Rice (the National Security Adviser) have both delivered big set-piece speeches on Asia. And the rebalance remains the core of US Asia policy—even though Asian audiences are still trying to decide what it actually means. Meanwhile two US decisions about the Middle East—the handling of the Syrian chemical-weapons issue and the Iranian nuclear agreement—have both muddied the waters in US relations with Asia. The first showed a hesitancy in US willingness to use force; the second a US willingness (actually a P5+1 willingness) to accept a quasi-nuclear status for Tehran. Both decisions have generated ripples in our own region.

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That’s not to suggest the administration hasn’t sent other signals as well: twice it has reached for the big stick in Asia, flying strategic bombers over South Korea in the wake of the third North Korean test, and through the recently-declared Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone. Strategic bombers are meant to send strategic messages, both to foe and friend alike. But the messages have been mixed, not least because of the distracting priorities in the Middle East. Some analysts even argued that the bombers’ messages were meant for the Middle Eastern audience just as much as they were meant for an Asian one. It’s less obvious that the strategic bombers exercised much suasion over their first-level targets. There’s no evidence, for example, that Pyongyang slowed its nuclear program in the aftermath of the American B-2 and B-52 flights; and not much evidence that China has tempered its approach to territorial claims and conventional power projection in Asia. Indeed, both Pyongyang and Beijing might actually have been encouraged by the train of events in the Middle East to push the envelope in Asia.

For all those reasons, the first year of Obama’s second term can’t be ranked an unmitigated success. The administration’s approach to Asia has lost some of its traction with the passing of its key Asian figures. I recall hearing Jim Steinberg a few years ago answer, in his usual pithy style, a question about whether the US would make room for China in Asia. While the question invited a protracted answer, Steinberg delivered a one-liner: ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘but not in the geographic sense.’ The answer, at first glance puzzling, is in fact an elegant statement of the US position in Asia: it’s prepared to make room in the Asian order for a China that steps up to a growing regional role, but it isn’t prepared to step back from the Western Pacific where a range of its allies live. Nor is it prepared to abandon the order it has built in the wider Asia Pacific—an order that is simultaneously stable, liberal and prosperous.

In a recent piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Douglas Paal, an old Asia-hand from the Reagan and Bush 1 era, suggested that Chinese policy currently turns on a contradiction: on the one hand a desire to advocate ‘win-win’ outcomes in its relations with other Asian states, but on the other a desire to press its own territorial claims against rival claimants. In Northeast Asia strategic relationships are prickly. In Southeast Asia the strategic temper isn’t so sharp, but the legacy of the 2012 contest between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Reef is one where Southeast Asian states are wary of future Chinese coercion.

Currently the falling out between Indonesia and ourselves is probably the issue of single greatest importance to us. It seems unlikely we can solve the issue of intelligence while it remains on the front pages of newspapers in both countries, and Edward Snowden might well have other tidbits to release in order to keep the issue front and centre. The political timetable in Indonesia in 2014 (parliamentary elections are due in April and a presidential election in July) is scarcely conducive to a judicious corralling of the issue. As John Le Carré once wrote, spying is justified only by its outcome. That outcome isn’t, as a recent Foreign Affairs article argues, merely one of advancing self-interest—intelligence is a tool that advances foreign and security policy on a broad front, and others benefit from it as well as us.

Overall then, a more complex mosaic lies in front of us, and this post scarcely scratches the surface of a deeply-layered strategic environment. Australia, like other regional players, has its work cut out in 2014.

A Strategist retrospective: do alliances work?

 Originally published December 19, 2012.

The signing of the ANZUS Treaty.

With ANZUS a core pillar of our own strategic policy, it should come as no surprise that Australians frequently turn (and return) to the subject of just how reliable that alliance is. Most of the debate tends to be remarkably impressionistic. For some, history is the best guide—and Britain’s inability to come to Australia’s aid after the fall of Singapore in 1942 a salutary warning about the dangers of a smaller power becoming too reliant on a great power to protect it. For others, reliability is simply assumed—sometimes on the basis that if the US refused to honour its ANZUS commitments all of its other alliances would come under increased pressure.

But we should look at some data to take the impressionism out of the debate. We should be interested not just in the big question—is ANZUS reliable or isn’t it—but in the specifics: how reliable is it? There are several ways of judging the utility of alliances—including whether they deliver strategic gains during peacetime through training, technology, intelligence exchange and the like. Still, the real test of an alliance’s reliability is whether alliance partners end up honouring their commitments to each other on the battlefield.

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It’s instructive, then, to turn to the academic literature for a set of insights on just how reliable alliances actually are.

Here, there are relatively few major studies, and I’ll discuss only two of them. An American academic, Alan Ned Sabrosky, back in the 1980s, put a sizeable dent in the reputation of alliances when he concluded that a study of allies’ behaviour over a 150-year period showed that they fought alongside each other in wars only 27% of the time. On 61% of occasions, allies sat by while their partner was fighting. Worse, on 12% of occasions they fought on the other side.

Those unsettling conclusions—enough to make any country doubt the value of its alliance—have, in more recent years, been revisited by other researchers. Brett Ashley Leeds and two of her colleagues at Florida State University revisited the Sabrosky data-set in 2000, and argued that his test for ‘alliance reliability’ left much to be desired. Sabrosky had tested only whether one ally fought alongside another in any conflict, not whether it did so in the circumstances in which it had a specific alliance commitment to do so. Moreover, Sabrosky had counted as ‘alliances’ agreements that might more properly be described as ‘ententes’ (agreements merely to consult) or non-aggression pacts. Leeds recoded the data to reflect the specific obligations laid down in alliance commitments.

The results were substantially different. Alliance ‘reliability’, redefined as the honouring of specific agreements, rose from 27% to 74.5%—or, near enough, from one quarter to three quarters of cases. Leeds’ research lies at the basis of an important truth in alliances: specifics matter. Alliance reliability increases when we take the specific commitments made by nations into account. Most alliances are not general purpose pledges to fight alongside another country in all circumstances, and shouldn’t be judged as such.

Now, what does all that mean for ANZUS? Well, if we genuinely believe that ANZUS might well be a more substantive alliance in the 21st century than it was in the 20th, then we might want to go back and re-read the specifics of the agreement. Further we might want to discuss with Washington how we both interpret the specifics. We can read Sabrosky’s research as a sign of just how weak international commitments are if they are regarded as general-purpose undertakings. But we can take Leeds’s research as an affirmation of just how strong international commitments are in relation to specific undertakings. They certainly aren’t absolute guarantees—but they seem to work three quarters of the time. I suppose there’s a caveat needed somewhere here similar to the sort used by fund managers selling their products: that past performance should not be taken as an assurance of future outcomes. Still, we should draw comfort from the broader pattern.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user kohane.

Misperceiving Australia: the CSBA report

Australian and American Flags, Australian EmbassyIt isn’t often that US think tanks put pen to paper about Australian strategic and defence policy. All the more reason, then, for us to look closely at those reports that are published, just to see how our American friends interpret the diverse range of signals that emit from both official and non-official sources here. A recent report by the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) is noteworthy in this respect. The report bears the bold title, ‘Gateway to the Indo-Pacific: Australian Defense Strategy and the Future of the Australia-U.S. Alliance’, and two of its three authors (Jim Thomas and Zack Cooper) have previous government experience. So readers might reasonably expect to find here a carefully nuanced assessment of the many tangled threads of Australian strategic thinking, especially those that apply to the future of the ANZUS alliance. But I must say I was disappointed in my expectations. Much of the report is narrow and operational in its focus, and Australian strategic policy appears as a caricature of itself.

I think the report places too much emphasis, right at the start, on a judgment that shifts in geopolitics have moved Australia from ‘down under’ to ‘top-centre’ in terms of geopolitical importance. This thesis has previously been associated with the work of Iskander Rehman, the CSBA report’s third author. (His report for the Transatlantic Academy in May 2011 (PDF) has the same central themes.) The thesis wasn’t true when it was first advanced and hasn’t become more so with the passage of time. Australia doesn’t become ‘top-centre’ under the likely shifts in geopolitical power, even allowing for a south-westerly drift of the regional balance point in Asia—strategic weight will remain concentrated in the northern hemisphere. Read more

But starting from this (false) position leads the authors to overbid their hand on Australia’s future. Australia is depicted as a ‘gatekeeper to the Indo-Pacific commons’, a watch keeper over contested waters, and a central agent in the preservation of crisis stability in Asia. Those are heady claims, and it’s not obvious we could fulfil them. On the first, for example, most major players have direct access to large chunks of the Indo-Pacific, and we would struggle to control any gate to the rest of the commons through which a major (and nuclear-armed) power was determined to go.

The report’s coverage of recent Australian strategic debates is necessarily constricted to how some of the key players in the Australian strategic community think about the future of ANZUS. Even here I’m not sure they’ve accurately set up the spectrum (between alliance maximalists, alliance minimalists, and incrementalists). Essentially, Hugh White is depicted as a minimalist, Ross Babbage as a maximalist, and Ben Schreer as an incrementalist. Personally, I don’t think the Australian strategic debate focuses much upon ANZUS—that’s typically a point of convergence rather than divergence within the community. The real debate is about something much broader—the shape of the future strategic order in Asia. That’s because Australia’s central strategy is about order-building, not hedging.

Sadly, hedging is the central theme of the report’s categorisation of our possible strategic ‘roles’. In a label-heavy way, the report believes that Australia could fulfil one or more of the following roles:

  • a ‘Supportive Sanctuary’ for US forces operating in the Indo-Pacific
  • an ‘Indo-Pacific Watchtower’ providing surveillance of the Indo-Pacific, space and cyber domains
  • a ‘Green Water Warden’ working alongside Indonesia to safeguard the Sunda and Lombok Straits
  • a ‘Peripheral Launchpad’, from which to launch maritime interception operations in the Indian Ocean in order to influence the outcome of conflict in the western Pacific.

Elements of each of those roles might well form part of Australian defence policy in the 21st century, but without quite the emphasis the report suggests here. The operational roles only make sense within a grander strategic picture—and for Canberra, that’s the picture of building a stronger regional order in Asia. Moreover, the significance of most of the roles is diluted once we reverse the ‘top-centre’ fallacy. Yes, there’s merit in Australia being a supportive sanctuary for US forces, for example. But its prime claim to being a sanctuary has to do with remoteness, and sadly geographical distance is the same when you’re travelling in the other direction.

The report subsequently moves on to the topic of capabilities and defence budgets, areas where I wouldn’t venture to tread. So let me conclude by saying that I think the report overstates one of its core assumptions—the assumption that Australia is a critical geopolitical hinge of the new world order. True, Australia is strategically more significant than it was, and is likely to become more so. In that changing strategic context, ANZUS will likely become a more important alliance both for us and the Americans in the 21st century than it was in the 20th. Indeed, I’ve written here before that we should be looking to do more with ANZUS, including by using the treaty’s under-used Article 8 to reach out to other players. But while I commend the CSBA authors for their exploration of possible alliance operational roles, I think we need to explore the future strategic role of ANZUS more closely.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ted Eytan.

Indonesia: more than a buffer zone

Presiden SBY dan PM Australia Tony Abbott memberi keterangan pers bersama, seusai pertemuan bilateral, di Istana Merdeka, Jakarta, Senin (30/9) sore. (foto: laily/

Daniel Grant is to be congratulated for his interesting post on the limited prospects for Australia–Indonesia strategic cooperation. I have two comments in response.

First, I think the piece underplays the idea of strategic cooperation as ballast and overplays the notion of strategic cooperation as a wartime alliance. Because of that, Grant is drawn to an argument about differing national interests based on Indonesia’s probable unwillingness to provide a buffer role for Australia when the fighting is actually happening in Indonesian living rooms.

But the great bulk of strategic cooperation between even close partners unfolds in peacetime, not in conflict. Close cooperation empowers partners. It adds to their strategic weight and it deters adversaries. It’s worth doing for a host of reasons that are less related to direct conflict than to what some strategists call the ‘gravitational’ use of force. Read more

Australia and Indonesia would both benefit from closer strategic cooperation. I think that cooperation should rest not on a willingness by Indonesia to be a buffer for Australia, but on a willingness by both countries to reassure each other of assistance across a broad spectrum of shared interests including in repelling external aggression—or coercion—against either.

Second, Grant’s piece argues that Indonesian strategic policy might well have reached the limits of its westward drift under SBY’s presidency. Perhaps so, but I don’t think we should assume that the future of our bilateral strategic cooperation turns solely upon Indonesia becoming western. Rather, it turns upon both countries thinking of themselves as Southeast Asian.

I’ve previously argued that the two countries could well form the basis of a Southeast Asian ‘power core’, because their strengths are elegantly complementary. Such a development would make the sub-region more resistant to external pressure. But to build that sort of relationship, Australia would have to change and learn to see itself as not just a western country but a Southeast Asian one as well.

A closer strategic relationship with Indonesia can’t just be a passing fad.  It needs to reflect an important new long-term strand in our strategic thinking.  The challenge is the same for Jakarta.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of the official site of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Four models in search of a tailor

LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile system being tested at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.At a seminar in the Stimson Center in late August, Brad Roberts, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense, canvassed the future of US extended deterrence and strategic stability in Northeast Asia. In an attempt to wrestle with the question of whether or not extended deterrence needed further ‘tailoring’ in the region, Roberts sketched out four alternative models for the future. (The associated paper is here (PDF).)

The four models can be briefly summarised as follows:

  1. a continuation of the current system, whereby US nuclear weapons are only forward deployed into the region during times of crisis
  2. a return to the system in vogue during the Cold War, when US nuclear weapons were routinely deployed in the region, both on land and at sea
  3. a NATO-like system whereby allies carry more responsibility for the stationing of warheads and provision of delivery systems, and are engaged in a high-level Nuclear Planning Group
  4. the emergence of a set of independent national nuclear arsenals that replicate British and French proliferation in the 1950s and 1960s. Read more

The models offer a good starting point for a discussion about the future of extended nuclear deterrence and assurance in Asia, even though three of them aren’t especially tailored to current Asian requirements. The Cold War Asian model, for example, was there to counter the USSR (a symmetrical nuclear great power who often didn’t feel at home in Asia), a slowly modernising China and a non-nuclear North Korea, and to reassure a Japan in which the nuclear taboo was relatively stronger than it is today.

I suppose we could say the current system is tailored. But it might be better tailored to 1991 than to today. Yes, a reach-back system allows the US to forward deploy its theatre and tactical nuclear weapons in a crisis. But it carries with it questions about the circumstances in which such deployment might occur. Indeed, in the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons saga, are we going to find a US president seeking authorisation from Congress for that sort of move? What if the Russians come along with a plan to pre-empt deployment by energetic diplomacy?

The last two of the four options reflect European tailoring rather than Asian. Roberts admits the multilateral Nuclear Planning Group doesn’t readily translate to the Asian environment. And he argues that British and French proliferation wasn’t regionally destabilising in the same way that, say, Japanese proliferation might be—in large part because NATO ensured that the two European proliferators were already allied to many of their neighbours.

In all US allied countries there’s a range of opinions about what the nuclear future might look like. So it’s often a matter of judgment about which country favours which approach. Still, since Option 4 isn’t really an option for strengthening extended nuclear deterrence, I suspect most advocates of a stronger US nuclear link would favour a halfway house between Options 2 and 3. That sort of halfway house would seem to me to give allies in Northeast Asia what they want: a more robust US presence, rather than a fly-in, fly-out arrangement; a sense of shared engagement with the operational side of the nuclear deterrent; and a sense of ownership in nuclear planning. It’s true that the European model is far from a perfect fit for Asia—there’s nothing like NATO to bring the cohesion of that theatre—so part of the tailoring exercise here will mean designing something new that addresses the key requirements.

Australia doesn’t feature prominently among the US allies with which the US feels it needs to buttress its current extended nuclear deterrence and assurance arrangements. Japan and South Korea obviously rank higher. But Canberra will need to keep a careful eye on what the US is doing with its Northeast Asian allies—an important piece of regional security architecture is being redesigned here, and it has implications for our own arrangements with the US.

For nuclear disarmament aficionados, the disappointing news will be that Roberts’ models contain no model for a diminished US extended nuclear deterrence role in Asia. That’s because a weakening US nuclear engagement in the region could well cause its own allies to lose faith and proliferate. In many ways, that would be the most destabilising outcome of all.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.