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About the project

The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.

Latest publications

China: Contradictions in climate leadership

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Xi Jinping had a good year in 2017. It began on the international stage at Davos, when the Chinese leader, in sober suit and tie, assured his nervous audience that China was a steady ally that stood by its treaty commitments, including the Paris Agreement, and was firm in its commitment to globalisation. The contrast with the US president was too obvious to need stating.

As the year drew to a close, Xi, in his domestic capacity as chairman of everything, appeared to consolidate his leadership of Party, army and state into an unassailable, long-term dominance. It is worth asking, then, what Xi Jinping means by his commitment to globalisation and to tackling climate change, and, in what way China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, might fill the leadership vacuum created by the absence of the United States.

Xi’s backing for the Paris Agreement is not in doubt. China’s climate policy is closely aligned with its long-term industrial and economic strategy in support of a necessary transition from low added value, high emitting industry to a higher value, more efficient, cleaner and more advanced economic model.

China has long identified low carbon technologies as the technologies of the future, and the development of its strengths in these areas figures largely in the 13th Five Year Plan. China’s ambition to dominate the global market in low carbon goods – renewable technologies for example – is well advanced. The battle for dominance in electric vehicles and in the next generation of batteries is underway. Unlike Donald Trump, China’s leaders see the energy transition as an important economic opportunity, and one in which they have invested considerable time, money and political muscle.

This does not, in itself, make for an outstanding record. In some sectors, China’s record is impressive, and its leaders can certainly claim credit. Its domestic mitigation, however, is patchy and there are large, problematic sectors where the legacy of previous choices makes a transition slow and erratic - the use of coal in primary energy generation being the most obvious example. China could demonstrate leadership by raising its domestic ambitions and encouraging others to do the same.

Nor does China’s position add up to global leadership, or indicate that China will become the mobilising force that the world requires to ensure that global average temperatures rise no more than 2 degrees. The positive dynamic generated by the 2014 US-China climate statement and the cooperation that was built around it has dissipated with the arrival of Trump in the White House. As yet, China shows few signs of going it alone and the fact is that China is not yet a global diplomatic leader and may never become one, despite Xi Jinping’s assertion of China’s power.

There are other negatives in any judgment of China’s climate leadership: its external investments include substantial amounts of new coal fired power stations in Southeast Asia, for example, and its investment practices and external trade favour towards high carbon sectors. Exporting dirty industries may help China meet its own national mitigation targets, but it does not help the world tackle climate change.

China’s climate leadership takes other forms: in its ability, for example, to direct its capacity to manufacture at scale into low carbon technologies and to focus its research and development firepower on the urgent challenges of decarbonisation. China’s success in lowering the costs of renewable technologies has the capacity to enable other emerging economics to bypass the development of high emitting energy sources and go straight to renewables – potentially an enormous contribution to global mitigation. China could demonstrate leadership by promoting renewables over coal overseas, and by conditioning its overseas investment and lending on climate compliance.

In international forums, China could use its weight to advance climate goals, something that, absent US pressure, it lamentably fails to do. In the G20 and World Trade Organisation it could throw its weight behind the speedy elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, instead of using its muscle, as at present, to obstruct such initiatives.

The contradictions in China’s assertion of responsible leadership and its commitment to globalisation were in evidence as the 11th WTO ministerial conference opened in Buenos Aires: China is in dispute with the United States and the European Union over its claim for recognition as a market economy, while both the US and the EU argue that China’s economy remains too closed to qualify. For its critics, China’s embrace of globalisation tends too much in one direction.  

On the question of responsible resource stewardship and climate change, China has not shown any inclination to abolish the damaging fossil fuel subsidies that enable its fishing fleet to reach the territorial waters of Argentina, among others. Many countries subsidise their fishing fleets, including the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the EU; but according to an EU study, China’s subsidies are the largest, averaging some €5.6 billion a year between 2011-2013, most of it on ship fuel. The operations of China’s fleet, now the world’s largest and heavily implicated in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, would not be financially viable without these subsidies. The sinking of a Chinese vessel by Argentine coastguard in 2016 was a sign of growing frustration with the operations of the Chinese fleet.

How much influence can external powers like Australia and the United Kingdom have on China’s climate policies? As far as its industrial policy is concerned, China’s decisions are made and do not require external input.

China does seek, and could benefit from cooperation in cleaner urbanisation and in conservation. In finance and investment, in the development of green bonds and low carbon investment, there are substantial opportunities for the UK to exercise influence. Yet Australia’s opportunities to exercise influence on China’s climate policy are constrained by the ambivalence of its own commitment to climate leadership. 

Does the nuclear weapon ban treaty warrant the Nobel Prize?

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for:

Its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.

ICAN was a major influence behind the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was opened for signature at the UN in New York on 20 September. The Nobel award ceremony will take place this Sunday in Oslo.

The ban treaty aims to prohibit all aspects of nuclear weapons: development, production and testing; acquisition, possession and stockpiling; transfer; stationing and deployment; and use or threat of use. This is the first treaty to seek a universal prohibition on nuclear weapons, though there are several nuclear weapon-free zone treaties that apply similar prohibitions. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) also prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

Although the NPT does not expressly provide for the elimination of nuclear weapons, all parties are required to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament’. In its landmark 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice held this NPT obligation meant not only to pursue negotiations but to bring them to a successful conclusion, resulting in nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control. In this, there are two major problems:

  1. The NPT nuclear-weapon states (US, Russia, UK, France and China) are not pursuing such negotiations and show no sign of taking their disarmament obligations seriously.
  2. This obligation does not apply to the nuclear-armed states that are outside the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea).

Not only are no nuclear disarmament negotiations in progress or planned, today nuclear arsenals are being upgraded. Military planners are considering new uses for nuclear weapons, scenarios for ‘limited’ nuclear wars have re-emerged and political leaders are even threatening the use of nuclear weapons (such threats clearly violate international law). Anger and frustration about this situation led to the ban treaty negotiations.

Will the ban treaty make a difference? It is too early to tell. This would not be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded prematurely. In 2009 it was awarded to US President Barack Obama, citing his advocacy for a world free of nuclear weapons, but he did little to turn his vision into reality. As I have written in The Interpreter and elsewhere (for example, here and here), the ban treaty is contentious and deeply flawed. The treaty proponents made no effort to find common ground with the nuclear-weapon states and allies. There are substantive problems that undermine the requirement, unanimously endorsed by NPT review conferences, for universal high safeguards standards (on safeguards aspects, see here).

The greatest value of a ban treaty at this time would be to delegitimise nuclear weapons. However, the divisiveness of this treaty greatly diminishes its impact. It is regrettable that the treaty proponents were in a hurry to make a political statement and were not prepared to spend the time to find common ground. A high-level declaration of principles without the specific provisions that have proven so contentious could have been acceptable to a larger number of countries. As it stands, many countries will be unwilling to join the treaty, and the treaty will have no legal effect on non-parties, including those with nuclear weapons.

At the end of the negotiating conference, in July this year, the treaty text was voted for by 122 countries. Over three-quarters of these supporters are parties to nuclear weapon-free zone treaties, so the treaty adds little to their existing commitments. The treaty will enter into effect when it has 50 ratifications. Currently it has four (Guyana, the Holy See, Mexico and Thailand), and 49 signatories. Of the countries that voted for the treaty in July, 74 have yet to sign. While the current ratifications are well short of the number required for entry into force, formal ratification processes are usually time-consuming, so we can expect the number to increase over the next year or so.

What is more interesting is that so far less than half the countries that voted for the text have signed it. Domestic processes for signature can also take time, but it is possible that many countries, having made the political gesture of supporting the treaty, will not be in a hurry to follow through.

At least the treaty will help to remind politicians and the public that the need for nuclear disarmament has not diminished – quite the opposite. It will help build pressure for those countries with nuclear weapons to take the practical steps needed for disarmament. In this regard the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN is important in raising public awareness of the issues.

Should Australia sign the treaty? The current government has made it clear it will not do so. My advice to a future government is not to sign, because of the substantive problems in the text, but Australia should be doing everything we can to support the objective of nuclear disarmament. (I have a detailed discussion on nuclear weapons, the ban treaty, and practical disarmament steps in 'Nuclear War Must Never Be Fought: The Need for a New Global Consensus', a chapter in this book.)

Australia has a distinguished record in identifying the practical steps that are needed, especially through the Canberra Commission and, with Japan, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. There is an urgent need to work with other countries in taking these efforts further. While the international political environment is far from encouraging, there is much that can be done. For example, Australia should be contributing to discussions in the US on defining the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons, including the adoption of a 'no first use' policy. Another important area of work is to resolve how the ban treaty will interact with the NPT, to ensure there is no damage to the latter.

Converging approaches on Chinese investment

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Although both have been very open to foreign investment, Australia and the United Kingdom have for decades championed quite different regulatory approaches. In the UK very few foreign investment proposals require government scrutiny. In Australia, at least in principle, a great many do – though the result in both cases is to permit the vast majority of investments.

Increasingly, however, the UK and Australian approaches to foreign investment are becoming more alike, driven in both countries by the same policy perplexity. Both recognise the increasing importance of China's economy, both wish to welcome a growing global surge of China direct investment into their economies, and both wish to do so on terms that take account of the special character of China investment. That is, investment from China is often from state-owned industries, is assumed to be part of a larger strategic and government-directed plan of economic expansion, and, whether rationally or otherwise, is sometimes troubling to not only Australian and UK national security agencies, but also the major security partner of both countries, the US.

Since China is such a big, fast-growing economy, UK and Australian attitudes to Chinese investment are necessarily a part of their approach to the world's most flourishing economic region, Asia. On the regulatory control of foreign investment and especially foreign investment from China, therefore, Australia and the UK have much to discuss. It is one of the tender spots in both countries' adjustment to China's increasing economic weight.

Australia's economic relationship with China is now deeper and more extensive than the UK's. Australia since 2005 has received very much more Chinese foreign direct investment, largely because China's early interest in offshore direct investment was predominately in minerals and energy. According to the American Enterprise Institute, at US$101 billion Australia has received over twice the US$48.3 billion received by the UK over the 2005-2017 period (these AEI numbers may disagree in detail with the national authority numbers, but they have the advantage of being easily compared).

Australia is now second only to the US in the stock of China's outward direct investment, and in earlier years was often in front of the US. In both the UK and Australia the relatively low level of investment stock compared with older investors such as the US obscures the rapid nature of its growth. On Australian official numbers, a decade ago China direct investment in Australia was still negligible; since then China direct investment has grown 80-fold. Today the stock of Chinese investment is a quarter of the stock of US direct investment in Australia, compared to an eightieth ten years earlier.

Reflecting differences in their economic structure, Chinese investments in the UK and Australia have taken different directions. In Australia it is principally about resources (including farming), though it now importantly includes harbours, energy generation and distribution, and property development. In the UK, by contrast, it is principally about property. That industry accounts for nearly a third of Chinese direct investment in the UK, compared to one sixth for energy. Financial services are also important, with the standout China Development Bank investment of US$3 billion in Barclays.

For all the warmth of recent UK-China economic relations, China is also a far more important trade partner to Australia than it is to the UK. China accounts for a third of Australian goods exports, and a very considerable share of customers of its tourism and education services. For the UK, the US is by far its largest export market, followed by the large European economies. China is still well down the list.

While Australia has long insisted that all major foreign investment proposals must be presented to the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), the UK has maintained far less intrusive scrutiny. The most important control is through merger laws, which apply equally to domestic and foreign businesses. The tests include national security, stability of the financial system, media quality and plurality and standards. There are regulatory rules on transport, energy and banking and insurance, applied usually in a non-discriminatory way by the applicable regulators. Defence-related proposed acquisitions have typically been dealt with by exception. Even under the 2002 Enterprise Act, intervention requires 'exceptional public interest grounds'. By contrast, the FIRB may recommend the Treasurer refuse any major merger or acquisition or for that matter greenfield investment on undefined 'public interest' grounds, with no substantive appeal to a court.

For all the differences in form, Australian and UK foreign investment regimes are closer than they appear. Though it scrutinises most major foreign investment proposals, the FIRB refuses very few of them and publicly portrays itself as a very light regulator. And while the UK regime is formally largely non-discriminatory, in recent years foreign investment proposals have met with greater scrutiny. In June the May government announced a new regulatory framework specifically to apply national security considerations to critical infrastructure proposals. The merger public interest test on national security, formerly applied only in the defence industry, has now been extended to non-defence industries. Both changes in the UK may presage a move to a specific foreign investment scrutiny regime closer to the Australian model.

The recent unease in both countries is driven by increasing security concerns over Chinese investment, especially in critical infrastructure. In 2016 the Australian Treasurer refused a Chinese investor proposal to acquire NSW energy distributor Ausgrid. In the UK there was considerable debate over the Hinkley Point nuclear project, in which a French Chinese consortium is a major investor and developer. The UK has now responded with greater scrutiny over 'critical infrastructure' foreign investment proposals. For much the same reason and in the typically translucent style of Australian foreign investment regulation, the Turnbull government in April appointed David Irvine as the chairman of FIRB. Irvine was formerly the head of Australia's foreign and domestic intelligence agencies. Earlier, the Turnbull government created a Critical Infrastructure Centre tasked to protect against hostile disruption, including through foreign ownership.

The UK and Australia have to some extent converged on foreign investment scrutiny, and largely in response to national security concerns over Chinese direct investment. But that is certainly not the end of the policy discussion, or of the issues which give rise to it. Neither country wishes to discourage direct investment from or slow the growth of trade with China. In both countries, economic officials recognise that China will become the single biggest national economic power in the world, if it is not already. They recognise, too, that it is China and not the West which will decide whether, when and to what extent China is prepared to privatise state-owned industries or loosen the central role of the Communist Party, and that China's economic model will not change on the West's say-so. And, finally, they recognise that while Australia may be the number two recipient of China direct investment and the UK number eight, the US has since 2005 received considerably more China direct investment than the UK and Australia put together, and continues to accept it in large volume. The US may scold its allies, but has had little hesitation in its own embrace of China's vast economy.

Advancing the Quad through diversification

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 'Australia-India-Japan-United States consultations on the Indo-Pacific' on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila provoked more excited commentary than might be expected of an officials' minilateral.

But then, as Tanvi Madan argues, the 'Quad' (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to give it its original name) has long assumed 'mythic proportions'. In Australia, two concerns have been expressed, sometimes at the same time: that the Quad is unduly provocative and that it holds out false hope. Neither are well-founded.

Far from being an 'Asian NATO', the Quad began as a forum for the discussion of issues of mutual interest, beginning with disaster relief coordination and maritime security. The low-key but widely parsed statements released after the recent meeting show a broader agenda that included the challenges inherent in upholding the 'rules-based order', ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, regional connectivity, counter-terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. In other words, the consultations dealt with issues Australia already discusses in established bilateral and trilateral dialogues with India, Japan, and the US, and with others, including the annual AUKMIN ministerial consultations with the United Kingdom.

The Quad is, in other words, an extension of evolving practices, not a radical or destabilising innovation. Nor is it a cure-all for regional security challenges. Like the many strategic partnerships and 'minilaterals' that have emerged in recent years at the behest of India, Japan, the US and indeed China, it is neither an alliance nor a multilateral institution. As critics rightly point out, the Quad does not bind participants to mutual assistance in times of conflict; it is not designed for that purpose. Instead, such minilaterals are flexible arrangements that permit the pursuit of particular projects at particular times, and laying the foundations for what Madan calls 'more advanced habits of cooperation' at the working level.

The value of flexibility was clearly demonstrated by the recent Quad consultations, with officials rather than ministers or heads of government present, no joint statement issued, and reassuring signals sent by the participants.

Taking the Quad forward, however, will mean communicating more clearly what it involves to the public as well as to strategic elites, efficiently coordinating policy, developing a focused agenda, and engaging partners in productive ways beyond the four, such as the UK.

Communicating what the Quad consultations involve and do not involve is crucial. The notion that it is device for orchestrating the 'containment' of China must be dispelled. This is not to suggest that the participants should deny that they discuss the potential negative consequences of Beijing's recent behaviour for regional security and the political independence of regional states. It is crucial that publics and elites across the Indo Pacific understand that economic interdependence means that China cannot and should not be 'contained', but at the same time its territorial claims and attempts at interference can and should be challenged.

Better policy coordination is also essential between states with an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, and in opposing attempts to bring about changes to the territorial status quo by coercion or force. This should involve a concerted effort to develop ways of better managing unplanned encounters or accidents at sea, an area in which too little progress has been made in the Indo Pacific despite the agreement of a non-binding Code in 2014.

Establishing a clear agenda that leads to effective coordination and tangible results is also essential if the Quad is to remain informal and not institutionalised. Between 2007 and 2017 the talking points have proliferated; some analysts have quite reasonably called for the inclusion of even more. There is risk, however, of the Quad's agenda becoming too cluttered to manage in the context of periodic meetings on the sidelines of conferences.

Despite the risk of exacerbating that problem, it may also be advantageous to diversify the Quad consultations and, as Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently suggested, bring in other states with significant regional interests such as the UK. There are significant overlaps between the Quad's agenda and other ongoing processes, such as those held under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, recently discussed at the AUKMIN meeting in Sydney in July. Parallel dialogues could be created within the framework of the Quad to facilitate policy development and coordination on issues such as counter terrorism, drawing on the extensive experience of states such as the UK in these areas.

The UK embraces an expansive impulse in international security

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Defence cooperation between Australia and the United Kingdom has deep roots, reflecting similarities in the two countries’ foreign policy values and strategic perspectives as well as binding sentiment and tradition. However, clear thinking is necessary about where Australian and British international security interests overlap and what form practical collaboration should take in the future if bilateral defence relations are to develop in a way that will bring tangible benefits to both countries.

Australian and British forces fought alongside each other in successive conflicts, from Sudan in the 1880s, through the Anglo-Boer War, the two World Wars, Korea and the Malayan Emergency to Confrontation with Indonesia from 1963-6. But Japan’s advances and British losses in East and Southeast Asia in 1941-2, notably Tokyo’s capture of Singapore, led to Australia’s strategic reorientation and, ultimately, the ANZUS Treaty. Britain’s own strategic realignment during the 1960s, when it applied to join the European Economic Community and decided to withdraw militarily from ‘East of Suez’, further diminished bilateral relations.

Defence cooperation between Australia and the UK never entirely withered, ensured by cultural and political affinity, similar perspectives on international affairs, inter-military links and British defence-industry interests, as well as continuing connections through the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence arrangement (also including Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (with Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore). But it was not until the early twenty-first century, as a result of converging strategic interests in the context of a broad US-led coalition of mainly democratic countries, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then against Islamic State that Australian and British forces found themselves again fighting in parallel.

In 2013 the Australian and British governments, recognising new common interests, enthused with notions of an ‘Anglosphere’, and with the potential benefits of defence-industrial collaboration in mind, moved to resuscitate bilateral defence relations with the Australia-UK Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty – surprisingly, the first-ever comprehensive framework for defence cooperation between the two countries. In August, the defence-industrial dimension to the partnership deepened when the two governments set up a ministerial-level Defence Industry and Capability Dialogue. One clear focus is BAE Systems’ bid – submitted in August – to build in Australia the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the RAN’s Future Frigate (SEA 5000). But there is also potential for broader collaboration, notably with respect to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that both countries will operate for many decades to come.

Defence-industrial collaboration may grow stronger – particularly if Canberra selects the Global Combat Ship. But in order to advance bilateral defence cooperation the parties will need to find practical ways of engaging more closely and powerfully in relation to common strategic interests. These are pre-eminently in the Asia Pacific (or ‘Indo Pacific’ in Canberra’s current terminology), and particularly Southeast Asia. As Canberra’s 2013 and 2016 Defence White Papers emphasise, Australian strategic thinking and defence engagement post-Afghanistan is re-focusing on the Asia Pacific, particularly in light of China’s growing challenge to a regional order that has brought both geopolitical stability and widespread prosperity.

At the same time, the 2016 Brexit referendum result reinforced the impulse of the Conservative government in London to think of the UK’s international security interests in more expansive terms. Even before the referendum, Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review emphasised the need to ‘address global challenges and strengthen the rules-based international order’ and made a commitment to strengthen alliances with Asia Pacific partners including Australia. To strengthen defence engagement in the region, this year the UK established a small regional British Defence Staff office in Singapore. In capability terms, the UK’s armed forces are being re-oriented towards a larger global role. The British army’s expeditionary capability is being doubled in size. Even more importantly, the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will provide the basis for restoring the UK’s global naval power-projection, and British ministers have emphasised that these ships will start deploying to the Asia Pacific from the early 2020s. With their striking power and long reach, British carrier groups will represent a significant additional capability in Australia’s region. 

The alliance with the United States will remain the cornerstone of Australia's security relations, yet it makes sense for Australia to engage the UK (along with other quasi-allies including France, Japan and Singapore and partners such as India and Indonesia) to help mitigate the potentially negative consequences of a shifting distribution of power in the region as China becomes more powerful and the relative decline of the US as an Asia Pacific power continues. Given the UK’s potential to contribute greater resources to Asia Pacific security, bilateral defence cooperation supporting the strategic interests of Australia and the UK in the region could include:

  • More detailed discussions between Australian and British defence officials regarding coordinated responses to adverse contingencies in the region, particularly Southeast Asia.
  • Coordination of measures to support the Five Power Defence Arrangements, particularly in terms of enhancing the operational value of FPDA exercises through incorporating new capabilities (as agreed by the FPDA defence ministers in June this year).
  • Planning for bilateral naval exercises in the early 2020s when the UK deploys an aircraft carrier group to the Asia Pacific for the first time in 50 years.
  • Joint development of the UK’s naval logistic facility in Singapore to support future naval deployments to Southeast Asia by both countries.

How practicable these suggestions are will depend in large measure on the degree of commitment by the UK. A revived British defence role in the Asia Pacific is by no means certain. While the present UK government is committed to increase defence spending until 2022, political change and economic problems as a result of Brexit could derail defence plans. Security challenges in Europe, the Middle East or Africa could distract the UK from the Asia Pacific. In late 2017, though, the outlook is still broadly encouraging.

Still room to improve on Australia-UK counter-terrorism collaboration

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It's difficult to identify new areas for Australia-United Kingdom collaboration. The historic and sustained links and commonalities in defence and security, supported by the same in people-to-people links, have produced a level of engagement that is almost too rich and complex to track. Counter-terrorism is no different.

But if recent strategic shocks such as Brexit have taught us anything, it's to take nothing for granted. With the UK now emerging from its decades-long association with the European Union and seeking to re-establish its European Union-free state, it is natural that it should look more broadly around the globe. With Australia already a Five Eyes partner and fellow member of the Commonwealth and the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, as well as a close bilateral partner, it is also understandable that the UK should look with interest at its old friend. As British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated at the Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting (AUKMIN) in July this year, from Britain's point of view it is now 'more important than ever to nurture the friendships that we know best'.

The AUKMIN meeting produced a range of policy initiatives relating to defence and security collaboration, with counter-terrorism a common theme. From countering the spread of Islamist extremism to Southeast Asia to sharing policy on the role of the military in domestic counter-terrorism, there is a shared understanding of the key threats and a commitment to working together to address them.

But what can really be done that is not already occurring in some way cross the rich tapestry of the Anglo-Australian relationship? And what could be done to improve the great array of activity already underway?

A first practical step would be to undertake a stock-take of security cooperation, and a dedicated audit of counter-terrorism activity. The extent might surprise many, even those at AUKMIN who supported sharing information on key issues. That ASIO works closely with MI5 would be expected; that the Victorian Police Counter-Terrorism Command has a relationship with the West Midlands Police might be news to some. Having a shared dataset on the extent of the relationship would help both countries understand the value of the existing partnership, see where bodies of shared knowledge and collaboration already reside, and identify the gaps. It would also assist public understanding of the value of the relationship.

Australia's alliance with the US provides a cautionary tale. Soon after the Trump administration took office, some high-profile observers in Australia called for a withdrawal from the alliance. Commentary suggested that this might constitute something like a simple exchange of letters. Absent in some of the discussion was an appreciation of the hundreds of thousands of interactions across capability, planning, operations and personnel that gave life to this extraordinarily deep and rich relationship. Without clear and regular communication on the nature of the Australian-UK relationship, including public statement, it could potentially go the same way.

The second step is to improve coordination of the engagement that already occurs. Much, if not all, of the information-sharing on counter-terrorism called for at AUKMIN likely already occurs. Across Australian federal and state counter-terrorism agencies, policy officers, legislators, police and members of the Australian Defence Force are intimately aware of the arrangements in Australia and the UK on the employment of the military in counter-terrorism matters and in relation to most other matters of counter-terrorism law, policy and procedure. Given that both are common law countries sharing a similar threat, the same language and dozens of exchange officers as well as personnel who have transferred from one country to the other, Australia has studied the UK's approach to counter-terrorism as it has studied no other. Indeed, many of Australia's counter-terrorism reviews have included British advisors. Whether we retain and share that knowledge, and appropriately assess its applicability to the local context, is another matter.

So the key is to establish links and repositories for information-sharing and lessons learned, as well as a way for each country to analyse and determine relevance to their own circumstances. In the future, a Joint Task Force or group of task forces might work effectively to bring information and analysis together in real time. This already occurs in joint military staff, both in the home countries and on overseas operations. But it could be expanded beyond this to counter-terrorism and other areas of security.

An obvious candidate for this would be collaborative intelligence teams drawing upon tactical lessons learned from military operations against insurgent groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda-aligned terrorist groups (the UK advising its lessons learned in North Africa and South Asia, with Australia advising on Southeast Asia, and both on the Middle East). This advice could then be shared with police and intelligence agencies operating in domestic jurisdictions. The Marawi offensive in the Philippines and the recent Sydney aviation plot demonstrate that Islamic State in particular is exporting its tactics and methodology from one environment to others. The team could be partly virtual, linking into existing arrangements, but some core collocated members would be essential.

Such task forces could build upon existing links in the Five Eyes or 'Quad' groups. But more interesting and effective would be Australia and the UK sponsoring a South Asian or Southeast Asian multilateral fusion centre for a broader multilateral response. This would enable sharing information on terrorism developments across a region that is of high interest to both countries, and give effect to the strategic policy aspirations of both to use multilateral approaches in dealing with complex multilateral issues, such as terrorism.

Broader lessons learned for policy is a key area that could benefit both countries. The UK's experience of terrorist attacks and proximity to other attacks in Europe provide it with particular insight into how to deal with this threat through strategic policy direction and legislation. Australia's involvement in counter-terrorism activities in the Indo Pacific and the Middle East, as well as its own direct experience of dealing with terrorism, would provide a complementary perspective.

A higher level engagement for policymakers, strategic planners and legal advisers to build further upon both lessons learned from the current and emerging threat environments and how to translate our shared strategic guidance into practical multilateral and national activity would benefit not only the two countries but also Five Eyes partners. 

The building blocks already exists for these three initiatives: a stock-take, enhancing existing arrangements, and developing shared fusion centres at both the tactical and strategic policy levels. While our immediate environs are different and geographically remote from each other, we face common threats from terrorism and other non-traditional security threats, and have a shared interest not only in addressing these threats, but doing so in a way that upholds rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Australia-UK cooperation on the rules-based order

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There should be plenty of scope for cooperation between Australia and the UK for upholding a rules-based international order in the Asia Pacific.

Aside from the commitment to shared values that derives from their special historical relationship, both remain committed to regional security cooperation through the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The UK maintains a defence garrison in Brunei. Australia and the UK also work with New Zealand, the US and Canada as members of the Five Eyes partnership on intelligence sharing and law enforcement.

This should provide a solid foundation for contributing to the widely-shared goal of building a rules-based regional order. Even China's 2017 white paper on cooperation in the Asia Pacific states a determination to promote 'rule-setting and improve the institutional safeguards for peace and stability', including support for institutions such as UNCLOS.

When China's Xi Jinping addressed the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in October, however, he had no qualms in claiming construction on the disputed islands in the South China Sea as one of his administration's major economic achievements. Such messages raise the question of whether his promise to promote humanity's 'community of shared destiny' is little more than code for the unilateral remaking of international rules.

Reacting to this challenge is made more difficult by US President Donald Trump's 'America first' stance, evident in his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and forcefully expressed during his recent tour of the Asia Pacific. Pressure for increasing US arms sales, fiery rhetoric towards North Korea and the growing likelihood of a trade war with China are some of the more prominent signs of a US unilateralism that has serious implications for Australia and the UK.

One need only consider the importance of the sea lanes that run through the Asia Pacific to understand why neither Australia nor Britain can allow regional order to be shaped by what Beijing calls its 'new mode of great power relations' with the US. Moreover, the challenges of a globalised world are just too complex for a Chinese Munroe Doctrine, or the backlash this might provoke from Washington.

This complexity is particularly evident in Australia's economic dependence on China, which has made it something of a laboratory for the buying of foreign influence in its political, media and academic life. The UK can learn much from this, as issues such as Chinese investment in its critical national infrastructure become more controversial. The lacklustre response to China's trashing of its Joint Declaration with the UK on the future of Hong Kong as 'history and a matter of no practical significance' this summer was a painful reminder of how China's growing wealth translates into an increasingly open posture of 'might is right'.

Dealing with such complex problems requires diplomacy as well as military cooperation. Playing the role of a middle power in shaping the rules-based order is not new for Australia, and both it and the UK have substantial contacts and experience of working with both China and the US. They should have gained additional traction in Beijing as founding members of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This political and diplomatic capital should be used to send a united message of support for those in Beijing and Washington who understand that the rules-based order has served their countries well and continues to be the best way to manage the rise of China.

The success of this two-pronged strategy requires public and cross-party support in domestic politics. This has been growing in Australia, thanks largely to media revelations about the scale of Chinese influence. The UK's 2015 National Security Strategy also promises a greater engagement in the Asia Pacific, including the despatch of its new aircraft carrier. Whether this is sustainable depends on how the current political turmoil surrounding Brexit works out.

Advocates of 'global' Britain promise to rebuild relations with the Commonwealth countries and have a greater presence in regions such as the Asia Pacific. However, the suspension of the House of Commons select committee on relations with China since the UK's snap general election in June is not a good sign. The political turmoil in the UK, including the resignation of Defence Minister Michael Fallon in November, also raises questions over the feasibility of strategic thinking, when the future of the government is uncertain.

Problems with the UK economy will also put downward pressure on spending on defence and foreign aid. As the government has to show progress on the bilateral trade agreements with China and the US that it has promised to deliver, it will have less incentive to align with other states and organisations to challenge Beijing or Washington. This makes it vital for Australia to use its special relationship with the UK to add its voice to the chorus of those who want to ensure that maintaining the rules-based order becomes a more prominent issue in the unfolding debate.

Time to fast-forward the Future Submarine

Australia’s future submarine program has attracted fewer headlines since the Government decided on the French Shortfin Barracuda design last year. But it was heavily criticised in a recent Insight Economics report, and on the receiving end of some speculative depth charges in a strange, testy exchange between One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate estimates last week.

Australia’s submarine industry is no stranger to poor publicity, attracting sustained and justified criticism throughout the painful ups and downs of the Collins class development. Submarine success stories, like the fixes to Collins’ teething problems, are harder to identify, largely because the submarine arm is publicity averse, given its stealthy line of its work. Yet the Future Submarine Program is now strategically and politically so important it has no prospect of receding into the depths of defence capability. It is simply too big to fail, both in dollar and deterrence terms. The case for a $50 billion submarine program must therefore be made, and continually scrutinised.

Last week's Australian Naval Institute Goldrick Seminar, named in honour of Lowy Nonresident Fellow, Rear Admiral James Goldrick, was an opportunity for just such scrutiny.

Admiral Sammut, who heads the Future Submarine Program, was unsurprisingly at pains to assure his audience that everything is proceeding to schedule since a treaty-level framework agreement was signed in May. A sizeable Australian cohort is already in Cherbourg, France, to participate in the preliminary design work. Sammut confirmed that the 12 new Shortfin Barracuda submarines on order from Naval Group (a specially created offshoot from France’s DCNS) will employ pump-jet propulsion, which he said is equally suited to conventionally powered submarines as it is to nuclear-powered boats.

Sammut reiterated that there are no plans to convert to nuclear power during the lifetime of the submarine program. This has been a lingering suspicion about the decision to go with a DCNS design, since France was the only one of three competitors to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines. Interestingly, Sammut added that no decision has been made on future submarine basing, holding out the possibility that some could be located on the east coast.

Much of the public controversy around the submarine program stems from its astronomical, if largely notional, $50 billion price tag. According to Sammut, this represents a ballpark estimate that extends beyond the construction phase, presumably including through-life costs, though he attached a careful caveat that 'firm cost estimates at this stage of the design process are not credible'.

I asked Sammut if the Commonwealth has flexibility to accelerate submarine delivery, including shifting a portion of the production to France, should there be a deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment. Sammut essentially gave a two-part answer: first, there are no contingency plans to advance the delivery schedule under the existing arrangements or to move it offshore; second, the service-life extension of Australia’s six Collins submarines will continue to provide an effective capability until the new boats start to arrive.

Irrespective of improvements to the Collins’ operational life span, I’m not convinced Australia can afford to wait until 2032 for the first of its 'regionally superior' submarines to enter the water. That’s 15 years from now if the planned schedule is maintained. By then, the youngest Collins hull will be almost 30 years old. Assuming retiring Collins submarines are replaced one-for-one, Australia will remain a six-submarine force for most of the 2030s.

With about half of the world’s submarines set to be concentrated within Australia’s potential area of operations by 2030, that isn’t likely to be enough. Australia’s strategic circumstances have already deteriorated since the 2016 Defence White Paper and the trend is unlikely to improve. Serious thought therefore needs to be given to accelerating the future submarine program, and towards boosting the numbers of submarines beyond the dozen currently envisaged.

According to Naval Group’s CEO, Brent Clark, it is possible to shave six months off the production schedule, from 24 months to 18 per hull, and to initiate production in parallel. Theoretically, that could bring forward the timeframe for delivering the future submarines by several years if the Government is willing to commit extra resources.

Are there other ways to increase the numbers? In September, Former Australian Public Service chief Michael Keating and Professor Hugh White argued that Australia should buy six submarines off-the-shelf to boost capability before the Collins replacement arrives in numbers. They said this would be cheaper than extending Collins into the 2030s. At the Goldrick Seminar, Sammut rejected this option on the grounds that no existing design meets Australia’s strategic requirement for a 'regionally superior' design.

Another possibility would be to supplement the Collins service-life extension by re-opening production of the Collins-class in Australia, with the goal of building up to three new boats before production of the Shortfin Barracuda ramps up. The attraction of this option, beyond delivering a capacity boost from a proven and familiar design, is the potential for flow-on benefits, since a skilled workforce could be concentrated at an earlier stage, then transition on to constructing the Future Submarine.

ASPI’s Andrew Davies also spoke, giving his assessment on the submarine’s future as a war-fighting platform. While Davies is generally sceptical about the long-term future of crewed platforms, in his view submarines remain the most survivable high-end naval platform at Australia’s disposal. In fact, as anti-access and denial technologies mature and become more prevalent across Australia’s region, submarines may become more important in the medium term and 'will have greater longevity than almost any other military platform' including the yet-to-be built future frigates. The oceans are not about to become transparent 'suddenly, or even soon'.

According to Davies, the nature of submarine operations is likely to change radically. Thus the last of Australia’s Future Submarines may be substantially different in capability and function from the first boat delivered. Large submarines will remain necessary for the type of long-distance operations Australia’s force will need to perform. But in future they will be likely to function as standoff platforms for launching underwater drones, which 'will be the platform of choice for operations in areas of significant risk, such as in littoral waters or choke points, where the adversary can focus its resources.'

James Goldrick argued against presenting submarines as a stand-alone capability solution to Australia’s strategic problems. Submarines have a high, if not unique, degree of autonomy, which gives them a 'strategic' quality in conventional deterrence terms. But they still function within a combined-arms and networked command and control environment. Submarines should not be seen as an alternative to surface ships, which are likely to have an enduring role despite their greater vulnerability to missile attack in particular.


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