General

ASPI suggests

Robot wars!Could future wars be fought between robots? CNAS’ Paul Scharre has a new report that examines how swarms of ‘cooperative, autonomous, robotic systems have the potential to bring greater mass, intelligence, coordination, and speed to the battlefield.’ Part II of his Robotics on the Battlefield report sees Scharre delve into each of those attributes as well as swarm C2 models and countermeasures. For more on unmanned systems, Scharre and Daniel Burg look at how they can save costs over at War On The Rocks.

We haven’t heard much in world news about Myanmar lately … CSIS has compiled the observations of a delegation that travelled to Myanmar to assess health and development, political reform and governance, and conflict resolution with the country’s minority groups. The resultant report concludes that active US engagement is critical to supporting further transition. Meanwhile, New Mandala features a two-part series by Josh Wood on Myanmar’s Special Economic Zones.

Also from New Mandala, a round-up of their blog posts on Indonesia’s newly inaugurated President Joko Widodo as well as the performance of Yudhoyono’s administration, the state of Indonesia’s democracy, economic challenges and political reform.

For those interested in landpower, RAND has a new report out on improving strategic competence, drawing on the lessons from the US Army’s 13 years in war. Based on a workshop that collected the views of policymakers and academics involved in national-level strategy making, the report finds that land warfare has increasing relied on special operations forces and that Army often struggles to incorporate broader strategic lessons. For a useful overview of the findings, lessons and recommendations, see this summary. Download the eBook for free here (PDF).

The US and Russia aren’t always at loggerheads with one another. They’ve teamed up against a Swiss plan to increase the resilience of nuclear reactors against natural disasters. Both countries oppose plans that would force greater investment in safety, but China and India have lent their support to the initiative.

As China’s economic and military clout increases, so too does its role in regional affairs, including in Central Asia. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Daniel Trombly and Nathaniel Barr look at China’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan (PDF). Interestingly, the paper examines China–Pakistan–Afghanistan relations, observing that Pakistan’s support of Islamist proxies in Afghanistan is having a destabilising effect on the country, and is increasingly at odds with China’s interests. That’s prompted China to seek cooperation with India on stabilising the central Asian country. For more on those dynamics, keep reading here.

Add to that Lowy Institute’s Dirk van der Kley who also has a new report out on China’s foreign policy in Afghanistan which notes that ‘China’s main interest is ensuring instability doesn’t spread to Xinjiang.’

Imagine working at an all-male university where students spied on each other and were guarded only by female soldiers. American journalist Suki Kim worked as an English teacher at the elite, all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. She has compiled six months’ worth of secret notes into a book, Without You, There is No Us. Read/listen to Kim’s interview with NPR, which includes this insight:

And once I began talking about [democracy], I got very nervous because the students were all watching each other and reporting on each other. After we discussed democracy at the table, later, another student, who’s a roommate of that student, told me that he’s with me. Meaning, he thinks like me. And that really scared me because I thought, then, some of them are questioning the system.

Podcasts

Covert Contact is a new podcast series brought to you from the Blogs of War creator John Little. The latest episode is on what the attack in Ottawa teaches us about terrorists—and ourselves (7mins).

The Lowy Institute’s Aaron Connelly has some useful insights into Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s future administration (7mins).

Video

For more on that CSIS report on Myanmar, here’s the video of the report’s launch featuring reflections by delegation members and a panel discussion on political and health developments (audio here).

Military drum battle time! For a bit of frivolity today, check out the US III Marine Expeditionary Force band go head to head with the Republic of Korea Army band. Bangnam style!

Events

Canberra: This year’s Vietnam Update will be held Monday 1 – Tuesday 2 December at the ANU, featuring presentations by 16 scholars on political, economic, development and social issues. Register for this free event here.

Don’t forget to register for the Kokoda Foundation’s Future Strategic Leaders’ Congress, ANU’s coast campus at Kioloa, 7 – 9 November. This iteration’s theme is Australia’s role in addressing global nuclear security challenges and Professor Gareth Evans will deliver the keynote speech. Applications for Kokoda Next to be held on 28 November are due Friday 31 October, register here.

Sydney: One of Japan’s leading experts, Dr Ken Jimbo, will discuss maritime security challenges in Asia and their implications for Japan and Australia followed by a panel discussion with Rory Medcalf and Murray McLean. Hosted by the Lowy Institute, it’s on Thursday 30 October at 12.30pm.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and managing editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Evert Haasdijk.

What future for the Australian defence industry?

Recent events, rumours and reports have cast a light on the future of Australia’s defence industry. High-profile considerations have centred on shipbuilding and submarines with the ongoing Senate Economics References Committee Inquiry, ministerial and prime-ministerial positioning for a ‘Japanese solution’ to Australia’s future submarine, and the ongoing debate about costs and economic benefits.

But it’s also important to step back and consider the future of the broader industry. What’s the current status of the local defence industry? How does it compare with that in other jurisdictions? Is defence-related industry intrinsically different to other sections of the economy? Where are we headed, and is that a good place?

If we take those questions in reverse order it’s clear we don’t know where we’re headed. We’re on a mystery tour and no-one seems to care where it might end. Will it be possible to come back? Decisions on military acquisitions and support seem to be made on the basis of the balance sheet rather than any deeper consideration of strategic importance. Repeatedly, statements are made that the ADF needs to get the best capability for the available money, and that defence isn’t a job-creation programme. At face value both of those statements are sound, but they don’t take into account the longer-term ramifications of in-country industrial activity able to support the defence force.

Some suggest there’ll be more jobs in Australia because there’ll be more submarines, for example. What jobs? How does such an outcome equate with the smart manufacturing and high-technology economy that successive governments have preached but not practised? Is digging twice as many ditches satisfactory when someone else is making all the ditch-digging equipment?

Working back up the line of questioning there are fundamental differences between defence industry and other aspects of the economy—just as there are between those in uniform and those in civilian life. Defence industry is there to support the people in the services who may have to put their lives on the line for the protection of the nation. Few in society are called upon to do that.

Defence industry’s there to ensure that if (or when) that happens those people have the right equipment, and that it’s fit for purpose, properly maintained, and can be repaired and upgraded as and when needed. Defence capability and industry isn’t just an entry on a balance sheet. The question needs to be asked—repeatedly—whether Australian industry should do that, and also whether it can, or can’t. The question also needs to be asked whether the decisions being made harm the ability of the local industry to support the military in the field. Let’s face it—no-one else is going to care about Australia’s military as much as Australians.

How do we compare with other countries? Quite simply, abysmally. Most countries that fancy themselves as middle powers support their defence industry (see here, here, here, here and here). They see value in doing defence-related activities, particularly the support and upgrade of military capability, in country. They put a premium on the development and retention of local skills. They see a link between indigenous defence-industry capability and the mitigation of strategic and sovereign risk. It appears we don’t. What makes Australia so different that we’re happy off-shoring our industrial defence capabilities? Why do we naively believe that it doesn’t matter, that it isn’t worth the investment, and that someone else will pick up the pieces for us? That’s not sensible. You wouldn’t blithely expect someone else to protect your house when you can’t be bothered to do it yourself—or you want to save a few bucks.

And now for the reality check. What’s the status of local defence industry? Put simply it’s not good—and getting worse. The percentage of contracts being placed into Australia is declining—even to the onshore offshoots of overseas companies. Analysis of the Government’s own data from Austender for contracts placed by the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) over the past seven years shows that to be the case. When the data for Australian-owned companies is separated from the other contracts the results are pitiful. The following graphs (click to enlarge) show that to be the case (and remember this is the Government’s own data). True, it’s contract data—not cash-flow data—but it’s difficult to have cash flow without a contract.

Percentage of DMO contracts awarded to AUS-operating companies

Annual DMO contracts to Australian-owned companies

Why are we happily ‘off-shoring’ our defence industrial capability with no consideration of what that might mean in the long term just because it looks good on a balance sheet?

Why are we heading blindly along a path when nobody can articulate where we’re going, or what is might look like when we get there?

Why should we blindly accept the inherent contradiction between the current industrial position and the DWP 2013 statement that ‘The highest priority ADF task is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia without having to rely on the combat or combat support forces of another country’?  The fact that we’ll need to rely on the industrial support of another country (or countries) either escapes attention, or isn’t considered relevant.

We need to get our heads out of the sand, to consider the bigger picture beyond the accountants’ numbers, and to build towards the defence-industry capability that we need. We need to mitigate our own strategic risks, and address our own sovereignty—then we might finally be a middle power and not just a pretender.

Graeme Dunk is manager of Australian Business Defence Industry, a national defence industry association.

Give (unconventional) war a chance

Afghanistan Kunar October 1987: Jamiat-e Islami group shelter and "Dashaka" .50 cal. machine gun position in Shultan ValleyUnconventional warfare isn’t popular among Western strategists these days. Whether it’s supporting insurgent groups (the strict definition) or supporting militias allied with government forces, proxy warfare has a bad reputation. The complex situation in Syria and Iraq isn’t helping matters: the US is struggling to find a reliable proxy in Syria and confidence in Iraq’s security forces and associated militias is low. In a recent editorial in the Canberra Times, Hugh White said, ‘For half a century America and its allies have been trying to win messy civil wars without fighting themselves and by training and equipping one side or the other. It never works’.

Professor White’s not alone in his dismal assessment. The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti reports that a recent CIA study came to a similarly dim conclusion—that US efforts at unconventional warfare had little effect on the long-term outcome of conflicts. Despite those conclusions, it’s unwise for strategists prematurely to dismiss the idea of supporting insurgent groups and working with non-state armed groups in both current and future conflicts.

For those who find proxy warfare detestable, its poor record mightn’t seem worrisome. Unfortunately, global trends suggest future conflicts will be characterised by insurgents, militias, and non-state armed groups who’ll be important in determining outcomes. Reports, including the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030, show that increasingly those groups emerge to fill the security vacuums of failing states. They have easier access to external sources of support. Russia and Iran clearly see proxy warfare as part of their strategic culture. Even most conventional future scenarios—what Douglas MacGregor calls ‘wars of decision’—will have insurgents seeking to influence outcomes before, during, and after decisive actions. So it’s critical that strategists understand unconventional warfare and how to counter it. No matter how detestable we might find proxy warfare, it does work and our enemies would be happy to use it against us.

The data on supporting insurgent groups helps to illustrate my point. Studies of insurgencies and civil wars consistently demonstrate that external support is the most common enabler of insurgent success and that failure to isolate insurgents from external support is one cause of unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns. If external support matters so much in determining the outcome of civil wars, but US and allied efforts have a bad record, what’s the obvious conclusion? The problem isn’t that unconventional warfare doesn’t work; the problem is that we’re not good at it! The US and its allies are either doing something wrong or failing to do something important.

Actually, it’s both. Generally speaking, when supporting insurgent groups in the past, the US and its allies have either committed too little and/or expected too much. It’s important to recognise this failing now and to make a concerted effort to better understand how to incorporate unconventional warfare in future strategy. To be fair, the US and its allies have had some success when they chose to support a side in both insurgent and full blown civil wars. Successful examples include Afghanistan in the 80s, at the beginning phases of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and in Yugoslavia during World War II to name just a few. (There are more.) However, according to Mazzetti, the report claims that CIA efforts were less effective when insurgent militias fought ‘without any direct American support on the ground’. That’s a point I’ve emphasized before. Proxy forces will be more effective (and more malleable) when advisors are on the ground and providing them with capability, trust, advice, and support. Proxy forces live in the dangerous reality of civil war and social anarchy, and therefore have different immediate and long term interests than their sponsors. It’s a principal-agent problem that has to be addressed. If we don’t commit blood and treasure to their cause, we can’t expect to influence their behaviour—or the outcome.

Even if the commitment to proxies is strong, there’s also the danger of expecting too much from unconventional warfare strategies. In those cases where the US has been successful in supporting proxies, the desired outcome was broad. In Afghanistan in the 80s the US sought to punish and expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and cared little about what came next. Unconventional warfare with the commitment of only material support was good enough for the US, because Pakistani ISI provided the on the ground advice. In Operation Enduring Freedom, material support, in addition to on the ground advice and capability (air power) to the Northern Alliance was enough to defeat the Taliban—albeit not enough to secure the peace. In Yugoslavia during World War II, the objective was simply to keep Hitler’s divisions occupied. In each case, the objectives of unconventional warfare efforts were simple, broad end-states. The more control one expects over the outcome, the greater the need for a comprehensive strategy within which support for insurgents is merely one strand.

The lessons for anyone interested in military strategy are pretty clear. Future conflicts will be filled with sub-state and non-state armed groups. The capability to assess, influence, support, and integrate those entities into operations and strategy is something every credible military force needs to possess. Strategists need to understand those groups in both the context of the conflict at hand and in theory. The ability to influence such groups requires commitment. And, of course, the ability to influence outcomes requires that unconventional warfare efforts be part of a bigger strategy.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. The views expressed in this post are his own. Image courtesy of Flickr user Erwin Franzen.

Women of jihad

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Last month the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) estimated that as many as 15% of ISIS’ foreign recruits could be female, with up to 200 women from at least 14 different countries known to have made the journey to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Other estimates suggest that up to 10% of those leaving Europe, the US and Australia to link up with various jihadi groups are women and girls, some as young as 14 or 15.

The involvement of females in jihadist conflicts isn’t new. Nor is participation by Western women. The ‘White Widow’, for example, the British wife of one the perpetrators of the 2005 London bombings, is currently regarded by authorities as the most wanted female terror suspect in the world. ‘Lady Al-Qaeda’, a US-educated Pakistani woman linked to al-Qaeda, was convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill US personnel in Afghanistan. Read more

But it’s the sheer number of Western women and girls who are travelling to the Middle East to be an active part of violent jihadist movements, seemingly of their own volition, that’s striking.

The largest number of female jihadi recruits in Syria and Iraq hail from France, with around 63 French women known to have joined jihadi groups in those countries. The UK follows with around 50, then Germany with at least 40, and Austria with around 14. Although there are no concrete numbers at present regarding the number of females travelling from other Western nations, with foreigners from 74 countries involved in the conflict, it can be assumed that other countries are losing female citizens to the jihadi call.

It’s unknown how many of the 150–200 Australians thought to be currently involved with jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria are female. There has been at least one, with reports in January of the death of 22-year-old Queenslander Amira Karroum, who was killed alongside her dual-US–Australian-citizen husband soon after the couple arrived in Syria to join the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. There’s no reason to think that Australian women are any less involved in jihadi movements in the Middle East than their European contemporaries. At the least, there’s strong reason to suspect that Australian women, like other women across the globe, are the target of sophisticated and directed recruitment campaigns.

Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, writes that groups like ISIS are wooing women and girls via social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Bloom explains that women such as British national Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old Glasgow resident who travelled to Syria in November last year, have also become spokeswomen for the ISIS movement, using social media to entice vulnerable Muslim women with tales of a utopian existence and spiritual reward. According to Bloom, Mahmood—also known as Umm Layth—regularly posts about ‘the rewards young women will receive in exchange for their ‘hijrah’ (emigration)’ and tells her readers that in the Islamic State, ‘girls will be taken care of, and they won’t be mocked for their faith’.

So what exactly are those women doing once they arrive in Syria and Iraq? Reports suggest that the majority marry jihadi fighters shortly after their arrival and take up domestic roles—cooking, cleaning, raising children. In an article for Foreign Policy Today, Amy Stoller reports that groups such as ISIS see women as a crucial part of the ‘state-building’ exercise. That’s particularly relevant when it comes to child raising, with women being viewed as responsible for raising the next generation of Islamic fighters and committed Islamic followers.

But not all women travelling to the Middle East take up purely domestic roles. In an unusual step for the fundamentalist ISIS, an all-female armed brigade has been established in the stronghold city of Raqqa. The ‘al-Khanssaa’ brigade is made up of single women aged between 18 and 25 and is thought to include a high number of Western women in its ranks. The brigade’s role is to enforce sharia law dress codes and perform searches on women at ISIS checkpoints. The brigade also conducts patrols on the streets of Raqqa, looking out for inappropriate mixing of men and women or any engagement with Western culture.

The number of women travelling to the Middle East to join groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra may not be as high as the number of men (the gender gap in Syria and Iraq is around 10:1). But thanks to sophisticated social media recruitment efforts, women are travelling in numbers significant enough to warrant the concern and awareness of authorities. Even in Australia.

As part of the Australian Government’s $630 million counterterrorism package announced in August, $64 million has been directed to support and establish measures to counter violent extremism and radicalisation in Australia. Funding is being directed towards initiatives that include the strengthening of community-engagement programs aimed at preventing young Australians from becoming involved with extremist groups ($13.4 million), and the establishment of an Australian Federal Police Community Diversion and Monitoring Team ($6.2 million).

It’s vital that those and future initiatives recognise that women are the target of jihadist recruitment campaigns, and more needs to be done to understand what attracts women, not only men, to the ideology of groups such as ISIS.

Simone Roworth is the Business Development and Budget Manager at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user tentwo.teneight.

The Long War—on the ground

RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet aircrew departing for morning sortie. ‘Big History’ is all the go at the moment. This is a relatively new way of attempting to explain what’s occurring today by searching for deeper trends that are shaping events. Its popularity’s understandable—particularly when we’re confronted by a world that we can’t explain using the old ways.

The rise of ISIL, for example, seems to be a classic instance of an almost elemental force. A century ago, we might have attempted to explain its rise using the ‘great man’ theory. However unlikely a candidate, we might have tried to suggest that al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s leader, possessed unique abilities and charisma. That’s the way some explained the rise of Hitler, although in that case the thesis was challenged—some say demolished—by others as different as the polymath Herbert Spencer and the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Spencer approached the idea from a biological perspective; Tolstoy by harnessing elemental ideas about the nature of people and ‘Mother Russia’. They would have pointed to the economic chaos of the Weimar republic, giving it a central role in interpreting how Hitler came to power. They effectively destroyed the idea that leaders are anything other than the products of their societies. Read more

Nevertheless as individuals we love a story and, as every journalist knows, wrapping events around people allows a narrative structure to take over. It makes for a better story. It’s also the way most of us, unconsciously, perceive the world. Take John Howard, for instance. It’s so easy to attribute the coalition’s longevity in office to his remarkable political skills. After all, he became the second-longest prime minister and undoubtedly does have outstanding abilities. Nevertheless hagiography’s inevitable, and so we brush aside other realities—such as that Howard was lucky to form a government in 1998, even though he lost the popular vote; that six months before the 2001 election he was trailing badly in the polls; and that in 2004 he was fortunate his opponent was Mark Latham. It’s easy to imagine how minor changes might have re-written events. And how much was the 2007 result to do with Kevin Rudd’s genius, and how much simply because of the ‘it’s time’ factor?

Big History, on the other hand, focuses on broader themes, searching for patterns. That’s what makes Peter Leahy’s new ASPI study Another century, another long war so interesting. He erects a framework that allows us to isolate the real issues driving events and place them into perspective. This establishes a context that’ll be critical because it’s the way we understand the world. Importantly, he categorically states that any solution to the current situation ‘must come from within the Muslim world’. Even more importantly, Leahy emphasises that we need to re-conceive ‘victory’. ‘It might only be partial; we might only limit, but not eliminate, terror and radical Islamism and its damage to secular societies. The focus should be on…the commitment of resources over an extended period.’

That isn’t, of course, the sort of thing a journalist wants to hear. Once a problem has been identified we want it solved—at once. So do most people. Anything else seems lazy. When Tony Abbott declared we were getting involved in the struggle to degrade ISIL, news organisations immediately demanded action, preferably things that could be reported with TV cameras. The politicians gave every indication they’d accede to our expectations. Troops were dispatched from Australia and journalists hopped on planes eager to cover the clash. That’s why I’m in the Middle East now.

Except that we’ve been disappointed. That’s because we didn’t understand the nature of this campaign. We got two things wrong. Firstly, we in the media built ISIL up into a terrifying monolith. But that was because journalists didn’t really understand what sort of organisation it is. After all, it had kidnapped and killed any reporter who was captured and the organisation had emerged, seemingly unstoppable, from nowhere. It now turns out that ISIL may be far more fragile than first thought.

It seems, for example, that just a single, carefully-targeted US bomb was enough to effectively blunt the insurgency in the north. Although only a small number of insurgents in Kobane were killed in that specific attack, they included the most fanatical of the fighters, together with a number of their leaders. They had been meeting in a particular building that was targeted with the assistance of US special forces. This one attack seems to have changed the dynamic of the fight. ISIL brought up replacements, but those weren’t nearly as effective and, as a result, the insurgents have been forced to fall back.

Their big tactical advantage, vehicles equipped with heavy machine-guns can no longer move in the open. If they do, they’ll be destroyed from above. ISIL lacks the mobile firepower necessary to dominate the battlefield. In another area west of Bagdad about 500 Iraqi soldiers have been clinging to defensive positions for weeks. Their situation is dire, but the key point is they haven’t collapsed and now they’ve got support from the air.

The military’s actually meeting the demands of the battlefield well. The only thing it’s not doing is pandering to the media and political demands to put Aussie boots on the ground.

No matter how you frame the answer to the bigger problem of the Middle East, you need to begin with a tactical solution. The West is doing this—just not as quickly and decisively as some of us might like.

Nicholas Stuart is embedded with the Australian Forces in the Middle East Area of Operations. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Revising the guidelines for US–Japan defence cooperation: a ‘global’ alliance?

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Takanami sails alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell during a training event between the two ships in March 2014.Recently, the US and Japan released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation (PDF). The revision’s the first since 1997 and occurs in the context of Asia-Pacific power shifts. So countries in the region are watching closely just how much the USJapan alliance is changing, both practically and conceptually. That includes the Australian government, which has long been supportive of a more ‘active’ Japanese security and defence policy at both the regional and global level. It’s a line Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been pushing.

Indeed, the five-page interim report points to the prospect of a USJapan alliance moving beyond a narrow focus on the territorial defence of Japan against major aggression (from China or North Korea, for example). Instead, it’s based on a ‘strategic vision for a more expansive partnership’ and the need to build the alliance as a ‘platform for international cooperation that would continue to make positive contributions to the region and beyond’. It stresses that among other things future bilateral defence cooperation would focus on: Read more

  • ‘seamless, robust, flexible, and effective bilateral responses;
  • the global nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance; and
  • cooperation with other regional partners’.

Moreover, the report’s interesting for what it doesn’t say: in recognition of the expanding scope of geographical cooperation, the report doesn’t mention ‘situations in areas surrounding Japan’, a phrase that underpinned the 1997 guidelines.

While the 5-page document isn’t specific on details, the report provides some ideas on what these three aforementioned headings might entail. When it comes to ‘seamlessly’ ensuring Japan’s peace and security, it observes that there could be ‘cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved [italics mine]’. In other words, in theory at least, Japan could be asked to provide protection for US forces in hostile environments beyond its immediate neighbourhood; for instance in the area of ship-based ballistic-missile defence.

Concerning increased ‘cooperation for regional and global peace and security’, the document notes that ‘areas of cooperation to be described may include, but are not limited to’: peacekeeping operations; international Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support; and non-combatant evacuation operations. While the US continues to try to reassure Japan about its security commitments (for instance, the US Navy just announced plans to forward deploy three more ballistic-missile-defence-capable destroyers to Japan over the next three years), Washington also sees the revised guidelines as a chance to move the alliance beyond Tokyo’s preoccupation with the ‘China threat’.

How likely is the emergence of a more ‘global’ USJapan alliance? The good news is that Japanese officials involved in drafting the interim report agreed to the report’s language, probably in anticipation of the Abe government’s expectations. Moreover, Japan has been stepping up its Asia-Pacific defence engagement. For example, it agreed to provide both the Philippines and Vietnam with modern Coast Guard vessels. As well, Japan and India are in talks about the possible sale of Japanese amphibious aircraft. Lastly, there’s still the prospect of a submarine deal with Australia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of a truly global—or even regionally more active—USJapan alliance. For a start, Japan’s new ‘three conditions for the “use of force” as measures for self-defense’ still impose significant restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces in the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defence. If Japan decides to support the US in a regional or global contingency, it’ll probably remain strictly limited to tasks such as logistical support or minesweeping outside the area of actual combat. Moreover, despite much talk about Japan’s ‘remilitarisation’, in reality there’s no such thing. As Brad Glosserman and David Kang have observed:

Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.

As I’ve argued (here and here), Japan’s defence policy remains fundamentally defensive in nature. As Alessio Patalano has shown (paywalled), Japan’s naval modernisation reflects a ‘targeted enhancement’ of capabilities required for the protection of its sea lanes, particularly in the area of anti-submarine warfare and basic expeditionary capabilities to safeguard its many islands. Moreover, security reform in Japan remains a cumbersome process (PDF)—and there are already signs that attempts to flesh out at the legislative level what exactly the JSDF could or couldn’t do in support of the US in a conflict mightn’t come to fruition any time soon. Lastly, the Japanese side’s apparently frustrated that the interim report emphasises the alliance’s global role but makes no mention of China.

We’ll have to see what the final guidelines bring. But in any case, it’s prudent to expect evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in the USJapan alliance—and in Japan’s defence policy in particular.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.

Gough’s remaking of foreign policy

Gough Whitlam 1973Gough Whitlam helped Australia think about finding its security in Asia, not to seek security from Asia.

Not least of Whitlam’s achievements was to make Australia colour-blind, in both word and deed. Harold Holt’s government, in 1966, started a quiet—almost covert—dismantling of the White Australia policy with camouflage language about ‘flexibility’. Whitlam’s government used trumpets and drums to kill the White Australia policy as loudly as possible. To the enduring chagrin of Liberals, Labor has claimed the policy honours, based on Whitlam’s characteristically emphatic and emotionally-charged embrace of non-discriminatory immigration.

As the Vietnam War edged to its bloody end, Whitlam’s thinking didn’t retreat from the region along with Australia’s troops. He wrote in his memoirs that ‘forward defence’ was based on the ‘xenophobic belief that Australia was best defended from Asia’. That ‘defended from Asia’ line reflected several layers of Oz nightmare. Read more

Whitlam’s dismantling of immigration xenophobia was mirrored in his language on defence:

We do not see Southeast Asia as a frontier where we might fight nameless Asian enemies as far to the north of our own shores as possible—in other people’s backyards.

In his policy speech for the 1972 election, Whitlam committed to diplomatic recognition of China, an end to military conscription and the maintenance of the alliance with the US as one of Australia’s ‘two great associations’ (the other was the Commonwealth). Whitlam made four foreign policy commitments ‘commensurate to our power and resources’:

  1. National security—the defence-of-Australia doctrine discussed in the previous post
  2. A secure, united and friendly Papua New Guinea—PNG became independent in 1975
  3. Closer relations with our nearest and largest neighbour, Indonesia
  4. Promoting peace and prosperity in our neighbourhood: ‘We should be the natural leaders of the South Pacific’.

Whitlam set a pattern for Australian commitment to the region and Australian support for regionalism that has been sustained by every subsequent government. No less an authority than John Howard nominates Whitlam as the foundational leader for the Great Asia Project that has united every leader since 1972.

Whitlam’s regionalist wins were minor (Australia as ASEAN’s first dialogue partner) compared to later achievements, especially the Hawke government’s creation of APEC and the Howard government’s seat at the East Asia Summit.

But the language and the orientation Hawke used and Howard utilised drew directly from Whitlam’s effort in his first days in office to create an Asia Pacific forum. That forum idea was quickly killed off by Indonesia, in an early demonstration of the veto ASEAN could wield over regional initiatives from Canberra.

Outlining his Asia forum idea in January, 1973, Whitlam said he didn’t want to change and enlarge ASEAN, but to create a broader regional association for Asia and the Pacific, to develop ‘a truly representative regional community’. That grouping should include all of ASEAN and, in line with ASEAN language, Whitlam said it would ‘insulate the region against ideological interference from the great powers’.

The following month, Whitlam flew to Jakarta ‘to demonstrate the political and economic interest that Australia would now take in the region’. Whitlam later remarked that Suharto was ‘frank’; indeed he was. Indonesia’s President said there weren’t enough common interests within Asia for Whitlam’s forum to be practicable. The Australian record quoted Suharto as doubting the ‘usefulness of a formal conference or organisation. This would only aggravate conflicting interests. ASEAN also needed to be consolidated beforehand’. Suharto said he wouldn’t want India as a member of an Asia Pacific grouping and there’d be questions about Chinese participation. We’ve all come a long way since then, and the journey has reflected Whitlam’s vision, not Suharto’s fears.

Whitlam’s final-and-forever embedding of a non-discriminatory immigration policy stands as a supreme achievement, domestically and internationally. It was as foundational in its meaning for Australian foreign policy as the opening to China, so well described by Ross Terrill.

Whitlam’s embrace of Indonesia was equally fundamental; Tony Abbott’s presence at the inauguration of Indonesia’s President testifies to the continuing strength of this policy strand. Ironically, Whitlam’s successful embrace of Suharto became his foreign policy nemesis—East Timor.

Whitlam put two points to Suharto in September, 1974. First, East Timor should become part of Indonesia. Second, incorporation ‘should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the people of Portuguese Timor’. As the head of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, later wrote, Whitlam changed Australia’s position to a two-pronged policy when the two points were irreconcilable. Suharto embraced Whitlam’s first point and ignored the second. It took 25 years to undo the damage to Australia-Indonesia relations and the deadly costs for East Timor.

Whitlam’s East Timor blunder stemmed from his ambitions for Australia in Asia. The Timor stain touches the edge of the Whitlam toga, but it doesn’t gainsay that he was a big man who dreamed big dreams of Australia’s role in its own region. Gough Whitlam did much to launch Australia’s Great Asia Project and much that he dreamed has come to pass.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Carl Guderian.

South Australian defence industry summit

Start lineI was pleased to be invited to speak at the South Australian Government’s Defence Industry Policy Summit (PDF) earlier this week. I was invited in my role as a member of the Defence White Paper Expert Panel, and was asked to help set the scene for the discussion that followed. Here’s what I told the meeting.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here today. My topic is the Defence White Paper process, but I’m not able to say much about that as it’s still very much a work in progress. So let me give you the response I give everyone who asks me how it’s going. ‘It’s everything I expected it to be’.

In terms of this gathering, I’m not sure that the DWP is the most germane document. There are several important pieces of policy work going on in parallel, some of which will have at least as large an impact, particularly the development of a Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIPS), a shipbuilding plan and the First Principles Review of Defence’s organisation. Development of the DIPS is something that I and my Expert Panel colleague Mike Kalms were asked to take on by the Defence Minister here in Adelaide back in June. Read more

As a result of that, we’ve been touring the country to consult with industry groups and making site visits. We’ve heard some clear and consistent messages along the way from industry, and I’ve found some of the visits to be real eye-openers. I’ve been impressed with the industry capability and capacity I’ve seen in various places. That will all help inform the DIPS.

As for the DWP, I think it’s important that the discussion that ensues today takes into account the environment in which work is proceeding. Firstly, the federal government has made it clear that it’s going to continue to make major capability decisions. It has committed something like $20 billion to acquisitions such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the Triton surveillance drones. By doing so it’s avoiding the bottleneck in projects that’s accompanied previous DWPs—sometimes as much as 18 months of deferred decisions, which has a flow-on effect to ADF capability and to industry work-flow.

Second, it’s possible that major decisions will be made about shipbuilding and submarines prior to the DWP release. It’s also possible that they won’t, and I can say with high confidence that no decisions have been made to date. I think it’s fair to say that there are inclinations, but there’s still time for the sort of submission that will come from this meeting to influence the process.

Third, there’s the budget situation. In its first budget the government made good on its promise to increase defence spending. If it sticks to its pledge to reach 2% of GDP by 2023/24, Treasury forecasts suggest that the budget that year will be around $45 billion in today’s terms. That compares to this year’s $29 billion, amounting to an additional $16 billion to invest. That’s a lot of additional capability that can be acquired, and a lot of industry support to be purchased. There should be plenty of opportunity for industry. Not so much in the first few years, as there’s a shortfall from the underfunding of the 2009 DWP that has to be made up, but in the years to come there’ll be lots of new investment.

Finally, but possibly most importantly, there’s a whole-of-government policy environment that has to be taken into account. That’s worth studying for clues about government thinking on industry and innovation. A good place to start is the new Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (PDF) released last week. It had several policy objectives of relevance here, most notably boosting competitiveness and fostering ‘excellence, not dependence’. It also identified five growth sectors, which represent areas of comparative advantage in the Australian economy. The one of most relevance to defence is ‘advanced manufacturing’,

The Agenda observes that Asian countries are increasingly reducing trade barriers, reducing inefficient public spending, reducing taxes and improving competitiveness. In that environment, Australian industry will have to be innovative, be working at world’s best practice standards, nimble and—in the defence space—provide a capability-edge for the ADF. When putting forward business cases for defence industry investment, they’ll need to be couched in terms of competitive advantage and capability edge, not just ‘net benefit’, however calculated.

Finally, let me swap hats and become an ASPI commentator for a minute. As those of you who read The Strategist—which should be required reading—would know, I was much impressed by the productivity gains I saw in local shipyards recently. The touch labour productivity on the AWD is showing a learning of about 20% between vessels one and two, with a projection of between 10 and 15% from vessels two to three. That’s close to world standard.

Similarly, the Collins availability is much improved, suggesting that the Collins story is more about lack of resources than poor industry performance. Actually, it’s probably a combination of both, but increasing resources has enabled better performance. ASC has some way to go to be world’s best practice standard, but the trend is good.

One final comment. When I read today’s press clippings, I saw the call for a competition for the design and construction of the future submarines. As I’ve said before, that’s the way to do it.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Andi Sidwell.

Gough’s remaking of Defence policy

Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam. 10 October 1966. Gough Whitlam, then Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition, has a laugh during a talk with Private Wayne Weldon of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.Gough Whitlam was a physical giant with an intellect to match. His flaws were pretty sizeable, too, and the pygmies who beset him were often from his own party. His self-mocking humour was immensely appealing, and could only be carried off by someone with giant status: ‘I’ve never said I’m immortal. I do believe in correct language. I’m eternal; I’m not immortal’.

The Strategist is the right place to appreciate the bigness of the man’s ambitions—and significant achievements in foreign and defence policy. This post will consider Defence.

During his three years in government, from 1972 to 1975, in the agony of the final days of the Vietnam War, Whitlam delivered Australia two immensely valuable strategic benefits that are still central today. He held on to the US alliance and he helped give birth to an understanding that Australia could defend itself. The two thoughts aren’t truly opposed and Whitlam’s achievement was to embrace them both in ways that made it possible for them to become the heart of Australian defence policy, strongly supported by both sides of politics. Read more

Whitlam’s coming to power was the moment when Australia could’ve turned away from the US alliance. In the dark days of Opposition, Jim Cairns went close to beating Whitlam in a close-run caucus leadership ballot. The vote was all about an acid question aimed at their giant leader—‘Whose party is it, his or ours?’ Luckily, Labor decided it was Whitlam’s party.

A Cairns leadership—or merely a post-Whitlam leadership—could’ve seen Labor go down the road David Lange took New Zealand. The bitterness and disillusion of Vietnam would’ve been the context and the cause would’ve been ALP opposition to US bases in Australia. Nixon’s intense displeasure at the critical comments about Vietnam coming from the new Australian government would’ve meant there was no mood of compromise in Washington.

Whitlam preserved the core structure of ANZUS and fought off the efforts of the ALP Left to close the US intelligence and communications bases. Hanging on to the alliance was an important call, and Whitlam made it. Part of the trick was the rhetoric about a new and more confident Australia that shifted beyond a subservient dependence on the US. After Nixon’s ‘Guam doctrine’ moment in 1969—allies would have ‘primary responsibility’ for their own defence—Australia had started to grapple with the implications of the demise of ‘forward defence’ in Southeast Asia and what a Defence-of-Australia policy might look like.

Under Whitlam, the Arthur Tange revolution was launched upon the Defence Department, amalgamating five departments and giving birth to the term ‘Australian Defence Force’. The conceptual changes that swept through Canberra meant that it was the Fraser government in 1976 that brought down an accurate rendering of the new defence policy Tange had created for Whitlam.

After the bitter political division over Vietnam, conscription and the alliance, the Whitlam Labor and Fraser Liberal governments enshrined a bipartisan defence consensus that has lasted more than 40 years. Australia could create an independent capability for its own defence and action in its own region that reinforced rather than weakened the US alliance.

To see Whitlam’s role in that achievement, see that first Australian Defence White Paper in 1976 (PDF) as a joint Whitlam-Fraser achievement, delivered by Fraser but built by Whitlam. At its core were Whitlam’s thoughts about the need for Australia’s ‘new role’ and the stress on the need for Australia to be self-reliant:

We no longer base our policy on the expectation that Australia’s Navy or Army or Air Force will be sent abroad as part of some other nation’s force, supported by it. We do not rule out an Australian contribution to operations elsewhere if the requirement arose … But we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our Armed Services will be conducting joint operations together as the Australian Defence Force.

The battle over what those thoughts mean for the ADF still rages in Canberra, but Whitlam’s role in putting them at the heart of Australian policy (and quickly moving on from the trauma of Vietnam) is unarguable.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reflections on Whitlam

Gough Whitlam by Clifton Pugh

In memory of Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) and his contribution to Australian foreign policy, we republish here a brief excerpt from Ross Terrill’s ASPI Strategy paper, Facing the dragon, on Whitlam’s 1971 visit to China:

Zhou Enlai welcomed Whitlam to the East Chamber of the Great Hall of the People, with its leaping murals and crimson carpets. Present also were Chinese Foreign Minister Ji Pengfei and Trade Minister Bai Xiangguo. Zhou, a slight, handsome man with a theatrical manner, was all in grey except for a red ‘Serve the People’ badge, black socks inside his sandals, and black hair flecking the grey.

Whitlam gave Zhou a good account of Australia’s foreign policy, but showed little understanding of the impact of the split between Beijing and Moscow on Chinese and American thinking. The premier spent minutes criticising former US secretary of state John Foster Dulles for his policies of ‘encircling China’. He reached for his tea mug, sipped, and went on, ‘Today, Dulles has a successor in our northern neighbour’. Whitlam said ‘You mean Japan?’ Zhou was curt in response: ‘Japan is to the east of us—I said to the north’.

Read more

No doubt it was hard for a leader on the Australian left to accept that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might think of the Soviet Union as an enemy. In the exchanges about Dulles, the encircling of China and the Vietnam War, Whitlam unwisely volunteered that ‘The American people will never allow an American president to again send troops to another country’. Of course, they’ve done so numerous times since 1971, often without Chinese opposition.

If Zhou was tough on the Soviet Union, he was almost as tough on Japan. He feared that the Nixon Doctrine, asking for self-reliance on the part of US allies in Asia, would turn Japan into America’s ‘vanguard in East Asia’. He called it ‘the spirit of using Asians to fight Asians’ or, coining a new term, ‘using Austral-Asians to fight Asians’.

One of his strongest criticisms of Moscow, indeed, was its failure to oppose ‘Japanese militarism’. He feared that Japan would develop nuclear weapons. ‘Look at our so-called ally’, Zhou said to Whitlam of the Soviet Union. ‘They are in warm relations with the Sato government of Japan and also engaged in warm discussions on so-called ‘nuclear disarmament’ with the Nixon government, while China, their ally, is threatened by both of these.’

‘Is your own ally so very reliable?’ the Chinese premier challenged Whitlam. ‘They have succeeded in dragging you onto the Vietnam battlefield. How is that defensive? That is aggression.’ To his credit, Whitlam defended ANZUS. Later, Whitlam told me that he was surprised Zhou hadn’t attacked the American intelligence facilities in Australia. In fact, the omission was a sign that Mao was no longer as worried about the US as about the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese Foreign Minister did raise with Whitlam China’s unease that Australia had troops stationed in Singapore and Malaysia.

When the Labor leader expressed acceptance of the ‘One China’ principle that Beijing asked of foreign partners, the premier said crisply, ‘So far this is only words. When you return to Australia and become prime minister you will be able to carry out actions’.

And this reflection:

In December 1972, Prime Minister Whitlam, taking streamlined steps generally impossible in Washington, within a month of taking office reached agreement with Beijing on diplomatic relations, cut relations with Taiwan, and appointed the first Australian ambassador to the PRC. There were critics of the haste. Hugh Dunn (later the only Australian diplomat to be ambassador in both Taiwan and Beijing) was told by Chinese ambassador Huang Zhen, who negotiated with Australian ambassador Alan Renouf in Paris, that ‘Australia’s was the easiest’ of all negotiations over recognition he had handled. Observed Dunn, ‘The Chinese knew we wished to reach agreement quickly … one should never negotiate against a unilaterally self-imposed deadline’. Still, most Australians felt the step was overdue.

Ross Terrill is an associate of Harvard’s Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bobby Graham.

No to backburner, yes to a two-track strategy

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the general debate of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly. President Rouhani  indicated in his speech that Iran would co-operate on 'very important regional issues, such as combating violence and extremism', while demanding concessions in the P5+1 nuclear talks.Iran’s securing nuclear weapons would destabilise a region already suffering from mass upheaval, in addition to having dire security implications for the rest of the world. Multilateral efforts to deter the sadistic actions of ISIS, a crucial priority, seem to have distracted from international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program. As identified in the recent post by Andrew Nikolic, a nuclear Iran remains a broader strategic priority and potentially worse threat.

Those multilateral efforts have been further complicated by Iran’s promise to fight ISIS, with President Rouhani indicating to the UN General Assembly last month that Iran would co-operate on ‘very important regional issues, such as combating violence and extremism’, while demanding concessions in the P5+1 nuclear talks. With reports over the past months of Iran sending Guards in to wage a conflict already being fought by the US, ‘both sides will have an interest in not allowing a confrontation or increased tension over the nuclear issue to interfere with the campaign against ISIS’, as noted by Gary Samore, former White House Co-ordinator for Arms Control. Read more

Ostensible co-operation between the US and Iran on a common threat changes the dynamics of the talks. Complicating the situation even further are different messages coming from each power, with Susan Rice insisting the US held some ‘informal consultations’ with Iran about regional issues, while Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has claimed that the US approached Iran to seek assistance in combating ISIS.

There are limited prospects for the P5+1 achieving a sustainable outcome from their negotiations with Tehran while world powers are simultaneously distracted by the need to combat an urgent and highly-visible threat. The supposed alignment of objectives between the US and Iran has seemingly eroded both the sense of urgency about an effective agreement and ability to achieve one. As noted by Clifford D. May in the Washington Times:

The Islamic State’s flamboyant barbarism has been consuming the oxygen, making it easy to forget that Iran has long been, according to the US State Department, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

The ISIS threat, while theoretically facilitating short-term co-operation between the US and Iran, in the longer-term may well strengthen Iran’s resolve to further its long-standing nuclear ambitions. As former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey pointed out (paywalled):

It (ISIS) can destabilise neighbouring states, including Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, drawing on networks of sympathisers in these countries. This could lead to an even greater threat to regional stability… and encourage Iran and other states to seek (and possibly use) nuclear weapons.

Further, AIJAC Executive Director Colin Rubenstein writing in The Australian recently commented:

A significant concern is that the critical efforts to stop an Iranian bomb will be sidelined—or, worse still, Iran and its proxies will be empowered as a result… There is reportedly little progress on the two key issues essential for any nuclear deal… greatly reducing the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges… and stopping construction of the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor, which will produce easily-weaponised plutonium.

The focus on ISIS is important not only for the fate of nuclear proliferation in Iran but, as Nikolic identified, relevant to other states, including North Korea. The Six-Party Talks are still in a hiatus, despite China and Russia suggesting they could soon resume.

With the talks in Vienna facing a November deadline, it remains a strategic imperative that the international focus on ISIS not distract from ensuring Iran can neither secure nuclear weapons, nor produce them on demand. The only solution is for the West to pursue a two-track strategy: combating ISIS in a way that doesn’t undermine the effectiveness of the P5+1 talks, whilst ensuring that the negotiations don’t allow Iran’s actions against ISIS to distract from the necessity of a viable outcome.

Glen Falkenstein is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Image courtesy of the United Nations.

FPDA—not fade away

Echidna on the RunThree years ago the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) celebrated its 40th birthday, an anniversary that sparked a flutter of international curiosity about this most eclectic of regional security frameworks. By way of animal analogy, the FPDA is an echidna among defence accords: shy, long-lived, unassuming—somewhat odd-looking. Since 2011, it has arguably reverted to type, humbly re-occupying its niche as a sub-treaty legacy agreement, on a separate track to the region’s fast-evolving security architecture. As noted by Tim Huxley in 2012, the FPDA’s ‘anachronistic’ image has tended to obscure its advantages as a unique, evolving tool in Australia’s defence diplomacy. Subsequent developments have borne out that potential, although the FPDA—in its unspectacular way—struggles to compete for attention within a menagerie of competing, ‘alpha’ strategic priorities.

Dubbed the ‘quiet achiever’ by Carl Thayer, the FPDA’s low profile belies a brisk tempo of multinational air, naval, land and command-post exercises held regularly under its auspices among Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Boilerplate-text aside, Australia’s 2013 White Paper was surprisingly effusive on the Five Power arrangements, noting that membership ‘provides Australia with a strategically important presence in Southeast Asia that augments bilateral and other multilateral engagement’. Despite this there’s little public awareness of what the FPDA is for, or the prominent role that Australia plays within it: for instance the fact that a two-star Australian Air Vice-Marshal commands the peninsula-wide Integrated Area Defence System (IADS) from the Malaysian air base at Butterworth—more than a quarter century after the last RAAF squadron was withdrawn from there. Read more

Indonesia’s still the most important external factor bearing upon the FPDA. Although not officially acknowledged, the FPDA was created in the shadow of Confrontation as the successor to the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement, to provide a non-binding level of deterrence to Malaysia and Singapore against the return of Indonesian demagoguery (the arrangement obliges parties simply to consult in case of external attack on the Peninsula). As Canberra has embraced Indonesia’s post-Soeharto democratisation, and pursued a bilateral compact with Jakarta as its strategic priority in Southeast Asia, so the FPDA has lost some of its lustre for Australia. Singapore and Malaysia view their larger neighbour with continuing caution and are less sanguine about the prospects for defence engagement. That explains the continuing strong support for the FPDA in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, even as their own improving relationship has rendered the arrangements less important as a conduit for managing cross-Causeway tensions.

Improving strategic relations with Indonesia is likely to remain Australia’s most important security objective in Southeast Asia, for obvious reasons. However, Jakarta’s abrupt, prolonged freeze on security cooperation, in retaliation for the Snowden revelations, has brought home the vicissitudes in the bilateral relationship—and the dangers of overloading the Indonesian basket when it comes to Australia’s defence engagement in Southeast Asia. By contrast, the FPDA has continued to accumulate quiet achievements. If Canberra doesn’t share quite the same perceptions of Indonesia as its Southeast Asian partners, its difficulties with Jakarta over the past year nonetheless underscore the value of FPDA dependability—and the risks of over-reliance upon a single partner within the region.

Unlike the echidna, the FPDA has at least adjusted its gait to move with the times, re-badging IADS from integrated air defence to area defence as far back as 2001. Exercise and interoperability themes have since been broadened from conventional defence to HADR and maritime security. FPDA was not publicly invoked during the search for MH 370, but the disaster has focused an operational spotlight on the need for integrated air surveillance and SAR coordination across Southeast Asia and beyond. The apparent failure to track the airliner as it passed north of Butterworth was not IADS’ finest hour. But the continuing multinational search operation has unquestionably benefited from the institutionalised trust built up between Malaysia and its fellow FPDA members. With Singapore recently unveiling a new Regional Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre, HADR collaboration within FPDA is probably set to expand further.

With an eye to more strategic concerns, while the geographical purview of FPDA is limited to the Malay Peninsula and its maritime approaches, naval and air exercises are held in the southerly reaches of the South China Sea. Extending those to East Malaysia on an ad hoc basis would send an important, non-provocative signal of the Five Powers’ commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight.

Although the perception that the UK no longer pulls its military weight within FPDA is a common source of complaint, the de facto senior external partner status that confers on Australia is a net plus. The FPDA is unique as a multilateral defence framework in the western Pacific, and one of the few fora where Australia’s present and America absent. Diplomatically, that’s surely advantageous for a country that struggles to shake off the ‘deputy-sheriff’ moniker in Southeast Asia. From a military point of view, the major limitation on the FPDA going forward may in fact be Malaysia’s laggard level of defence capability. As a consequence, Singapore and Australia may be led to exercise bilaterally on a more regular basis. The FPDA’s flexible enough to accommodate that, though it’ll require careful diplomatic management.

With the White Paper pending, Australia could start by giving fresh consideration to the FPDA, not as a legacy throwback to forward defence or a deviation from partnership with Indonesia, but as a flexible, proven platform to serve its security interests in Southeast Asia.

Euan Graham is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Wong