Monday 10 Aug 2020 | 16:32 | SYDNEY
What's happening on

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

A test for Australia in Marawi

The continuing conflict in the southern Philippines has engaged Australia's regional counter-terrorism interests like never before. Few predicted that the siege of Marawi, now entering its fourth month, would be so intractable or so effectively galvanise existing terrorist and insurgency groups. Marawi has evolved into a rallying cry for the ISIS-inspired in South East Asia.

The Philippine government, for its part, has been caught flat-footed. From the initial botched attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon to the army's lack of urban combat experience, the conflict has revealed serious capability gaps.

With the campaign to retake Marawi entering a final push, Australia should turn its mind to a long-term approach to security in Mindanao that casts forward to reconstruction, countering violent extremism and capacity building. As Sidney Jones has written, hopes for a peace settlement with insurgents in Muslim Mindanao may be dead. Getting the reconstruction right will be critical for preventing further conflict and extremism in this volatile part of the Philippines.

Australia is already contributing two Orion spy planes for intelligence gathering and $20 million in humanitarian aid. During a visit to the Philippines last week, Defence Minister Marise Payne committed to sending small contingents of Australian soldiers to train Philippine troops. So far a combat role has been ruled out, largely due to concerns that 'it would not look good' for the Philippines to invite foreigners to fight on its soil.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have both declared that Marawi is 'in our region' and Australia has a vital vested interest in denying ISIS a foothold in Southeast Asia. But the strategic importance of Marawi is not just about the direct threat of terrorism. More broadly, Marawi is a tactical opportunity to deepen key regional relationships and meet global alliance commitments. Often for Australia these two imperatives conflict, but in Marawi they converge.

Australia and the United States have found common cause in supporting the Philippines in Marawi. But with the Trump Administration preoccupied with the Middle East and North Asia, Southeast Asia will struggle to occupy much of the US's bandwidth (and therefore its resources). Even if the US stays the course in Southeast Asia, Australia may be expected to shoulder more of the burden. Trump's 'America First' foreign policy asks allies to take more responsibility for their own security – Mindanao may be where Australia can pay its alliance dues closer to home.

In this context, Australia should step up as a valuable partner and engage more closely with the Philippines and with other regional players. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is notoriously suspicious of US interference and famously announced a separation from the old alliance to forge closer ties with China. When the US confirmed in June that it was providing assistance in Marawi, Duterte said he didn't ask for the help. The Philippines may be more comfortable quietly receiving advice and assistance from Australia – the recent visit by Australian spy chief Nick Warner is a case in point. Whatever you might think about Warner posing with the notorious Duterte, it is hard to imagine the director of the CIA receiving a similarly warm reception.

Australia is also well placed to leverage its existing counter-terrorism partnerships to coordinate a regional response, particularly with Indonesia and Malaysia, from where a handful of militants have travelled to join the fight in Marawi. Attorney-General George Brandis did some groundwork with a regional meeting on foreign fighters and cross-border terrorism held in July.

There are two areas where Australia can add substantial value to counter-terrorism and reconstruction efforts post-Marawi. The first is development in Mindanao, where Australia has a positive, decade-long track record. Education, health and peacebuilding programs in Mindanao account for more than a third of Australian aid to the Philippines. More investment in these programs, coordinated with the $14 million aid package announced by the US, will be important for facilitating returns, (re)building civil society and preventing ISIS or other extremist groups from finding easy recruits.

Second, Marawi should give new impetus for stronger defence and security ties with the Philippines. Payne's announcement that Australia would provide specialised training is a good step and aligns with priorities under the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2015 Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. Capacity-building should include a focus on maritime cooperation in the porous border areas around Mindanao and potentially Australian support for trilateral patrols between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

There are of course risks to Australia's deeper engagement in the southern Philippines. An obvious one is managing Duterte, the bellicose strongman whose war on drugs and comments on rape, extrajudicial killings and Barack Obama have forced countries to think twice about engaging. Despite this, Duterte remains popular domestically and will continue to lead the Philippines for the foreseeable future.

Malcolm Turnbull is yet to have his first formal meeting with Duterte. This should be rectified as soon as practicable. Getting top cover from Duterte or those close to him, such as Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, will be crucial for avoiding any missteps. On human rights, Australia will need to fend off accusations that a long-term role in Mindanao is a tacit acceptance of the war on drugs (while also accepting that Duterte is unlikely to change course).

None of these risks outweigh the need to shore up security and stability in Mindanao, especially as the fighting in Marawi spills over. The Australian government has been communicating with the public about Australia doing more heavy lifting in the region – this was a theme of the Prime Minister's speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in June and will probably feature in the government's upcoming Foreign Policy White Paper. Australia's role in Mindanao post-Marawi is a litmus test of its willingness and ability to do more in the immediate neighbourhood to safeguard its interests. Australia needs to pass that test.

Indonesia is talking tough on drugs, and Australians should listen

Last month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a stern missive to the law enforcement agencies responsible for tackling drug crime: 'Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Gun them down. Give no mercy because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now.'

Widodo's statement (his strongest language yet on drugs) has prompted international criticism and comparisons with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose notorious war on drugs has killed at least 8000 people.

The comparison to Duterte is unfair in a number of respects. Amnesty International puts the number of drug-related extrajudicial killings in Indonesia at 60 so far this year. This pales in comparison to the 80 killed across Manila in just three nights between 16–18 August. Even toddlers have been caught in the crossfire.

This is not the first time Widodo has called the drug problem a national emergency. He used similar rhetoric in 2015 before the execution of eight convicted drug smugglers, mostly foreigners (including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran). While Widodo's recent statements take an even harder line, they do not signal a major departure from his longstanding position or from existing practice.

Widodo's police chief Tito Karnavian and the head of the national narcotics agency Budi Waseso have both denied Indonesia is taking a leaf out of the Philippine playbook. They say Indonesia has its own laws to protect its citizens from the drugs scourge. Police already have powers to shoot drug suspects who violently resist arrest or retaliate. And so far there has been no announcement of new policy or legislative changes that would open the door for a rise in extrajudicial killings.

Widodo will be cautious about overreaching and attracting the kind of domestic backlash that is growing in the Philippines. The anti-drugs agenda is broadly supported by Indonesians, but as the Philippines experience has shown, drugs crackdowns disproportionately affect the urban poor. At recent protests in Manila, hundreds of Filipinos carried placards accusing Duterte of targeting the poor rather than drug kingpins. With Widodo making poverty alleviation a more prominent part of his government's agenda, he will be loath to introduce any war on drugs that is perceived to be a war on the poor.

It's also unlikely that the positions taken by Widodo and Duterte are symptomatic of a wider regional drug crackdown. For example, Malaysia is set to roll back the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a risk that countries in the region could engage in a race to the bottom and progressively set aside human rights considerations in an effort to shift the drug problem outside their borders. Waseso is already claiming that Indonesia has been forced to take stronger action because the success of Duterte's drugs campaign is pushing more crystal methamphetamine (known locally as shabu) into Indonesia. Other countries may yet mount the same argument.

Australia should not overreact to Widodo's tough talk, but nor should we ignore it. Indonesian policies on this issue could affect the more than one million Australians who visit Indonesia each year. It's no coincidence that Widodo singled out foreign drug dealers in his speech, with the implication that these foreigners should be made examples of. A week earlier, a suspected drug trafficker from Taiwan, Lin Ming Hui, was gunned down by police near Jakarta as he tried to escape.

Drug cases have seriously strained Australia's relations with Indonesia in the recent past. Australia's domestic policy on illicit drugs takes a harm minimisation approach that would be considered permissive by Indonesian standards and by most of our Asian neighbours. Many Indonesians viewed Australia's pleas to stay the executions of Chan and Sukumaran as hysterical and insulting to Indonesia's sovereign right to enforce their laws. The prospect of an Australian being caught up in another trafficking case in Indonesia would be a diplomatic nightmare.

Public advocacy and private protests from Australia are unlikely to soften Indonesia's stance on drugs. It certainly didn't work in 2015. If anything, Widodo may ramp up the popular campaign in the run-up to the 2019 presidential race as he competes against more hardline candidates.

More pragmatic efforts could be directed towards deterring Australians from doing the wrong thing in the first place. A few lines of caution on the SmartTraveller website is a start, but as Cassie Sainsbury and other examples show, it's not nearly enough. In 2015-16, over a third of Australians in prison overseas (149 out of 391) were there for drug-related offences. There needs to be a more concerted effort to warn our intrepid Australians that some countries see drugs as an existential threat to security and society and will not hesitate to impose harsh penalties on offenders. Target the campaign to every university campus, STA Travel outlet and travel doctor until the message sinks in. Lives, and diplomatic relationships, might depend on it.

Australia, US and NZ military co-operation augurs well

Last month a combined force from five allied nations, including a fleet of 33 warships and submarines, over 200 aircraft and more than 33,000 military personnel, defeated an ‘enemy force’ in 20 locations across northern Australia.

The enemy, of course, was an imaginary one and the battle was a military exercise, Talisman Sabre 17, but its successful conclusion raises some interesting questions about future co-operation between the US, Australia and New Zealand.

For Australia and New Zealand, this was the most significant Talisman Sabre since the series of exercises began in 2005. It was the first time the Australian Defence Force (ADF) successfully lodged a combined-arms battlegroup, based on an infantry battalion with tanks and Bushmaster vehicles attached, from a Canberra class amphibious assault ship and logistically sustained it across the shore in a mid-intensity conflict scenario. New Zealand provided ground troops as well as integrating the multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury into the Amphibious Task Group.

For the first time, the combined amphibious force was comprised of ships from the US, Australia and New Zealand. It is tempting to see in this development another step along the road that could one day return New Zealand to the ANZUS alliance.

The argument whether middle sized countries such as Australia or New Zealand punch above their weight is so common that it is almost a cliché. But it doesn’t sit well with everyone. Dennis Richardson, the recently retired Defence Secretary, scorned the notion when he spoke at the Lowy Institute recently, deriding it as a lazy presentation of national interest. Turning the phrase on its head, he stated: 'I think we should be asking ourselves whether we punch up to our weight.'

From a national perspective, Talisman Sabre is a useful barometer. If the ADF was forced to act unilaterally, it could deploy an amphibious battle-group for a RAMSI-style intervention to stabilise a neighbouring country. It is yet to demonstrate, however, that it can successfully conduct the amphibious lodgement of a combat brigade and sustain it over the horizon for any length of time. The Army has organised itself around the combat brigade: a balanced, fighting unit that provides both the lethal capability and protection required in modern war. To punch to its weight, Australia needs to be able to deploy a force this size within the immediate region. Proving it can do so should be the goal of Talisman Sabre 19.

More concerning is the lack of air cover which an Australian amphibious force would need in the event of an air threat. Even the most ardent supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter acknowledges that its operating range is a potential concern. The tyranny of distance that characterises the regions of the South Pacific and South East Asia amplifies this limitation. Either Australia is going to have to develop a strategy of developing, maintaining and operating from forward airbases pre-established in friendly nations throughout the region, or it will need to rely on the United States Navy to provide air cover through a carrier strike group. And herein lies the real story behind this year’s exercise.

Talisman Sabre saw the successfully integration of Australian, US and New Zealand forces to form a combined amphibious task group, supported by air and surface fleet combatants, that would be able to operate in all but the most contested of environments. While Australian and the US have done this before, New Zealand provided a significant contribution in only its second attendance at the exercise. Viewed alongside the recent attachment of a New Zealand frigate to a US Carrier Strike Group, there are signs that the relations between New Zealand and the US are the warmest they have been since the US suspended its security obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty in 1986.

The most likely deployment of an amphibious force would be within the South Pacific or along the maritime trade routes on which both Australia and New Zealand rely. Combining the capabilities of Australia, New Zealand and the US would make political as well as military sense. Therefore, the question should not be whether Australia or New Zealand are punching to their weight, but whether a renewed tripartite ANZUS alliance would be able to.Talisman Sabre 17 would suggest the answer is yes.

Home Affairs change driven by manifest need

Are Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's changes to Australia's intelligence and national security arrangements necessary and genuinely transformational, as he claims? Or are they essentially an exercise in political management aimed at burnishing Turnbull's national security credentials and ensuring the continuing loyalty of his key conservative ally and current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton?

Critics assert the latter and fear that the creation of a mega-Department of Home Affairs will reduce contestability, efficiency and oversight. In short, the whole exercise is a waste of time, energy and precious resources. If the national security machinery isn't broken, what's the case for change?

Much of this criticism is exaggerated or misconceived. Let's start with the politics. There is no doubt that Turnbull's need to shore up his right flank and mute conservative criticism of his leadership played a major part in his choice of Peter Dutton to head up the new super department.

But this is more a case of Turnbull seeking to optimise the political benefits of a decision that was primarily driven by a manifest need to improve the coordination, oversight, funding and strategic management of the sprawling intelligence and national security apparatus and bring it fully into the modern era.

The Independent Intelligence Review makes this abundantly clear. It argues that while the expanded, ten-agency intelligence community has performed well, it needs to move to 'an even higher level of collective performance'. This requires new coordinating structures, funding mechanisms to address capability gaps and measures to streamline legislative arrangements and strengthen trust between the intelligence agencies and the Australian community.

Much of the public commentary has missed the key point that the rationale for reform of Australia's intelligence system, articulated by the review, applies equally to the wider national security architecture. It is a powerful argument for centralising core national security strategy, policy and operations in one department.

Turnbull's decision reflects international trends and brings Australia into line with the US and UK, our principal partners in the Five Eyes intelligence community. The US, UK, Canada and New Zealand all have a single point of intelligence coordination and are grappling with the same complex security threats that confront Australia. Among the most challenging are the political and strategic disruption caused by the fragmentation of the Western-led international order; the exploitation of the internet and social media by hostile states, terrorist groups and criminal organisations with global reach; an upsurge in violent extremism and espionage; and the increased vulnerability of critical infrastructure, including financial systems, to cyber-attack.

Staying on top of these rapidly evolving and interconnected threats requires constant improvement, adaptation and reform.

Yes, the system isn't broken. And it's clearly far better joined up than before 9/11 ushered in the national security era. But asserting that no change is necessary flies in the face of best practice risk management, which is to anticipate threats, structure for them and build resilience. Such an assertion ignores recognised deficiencies in the current architecture and practices that Turnbull wants to remedy. These were strikingly evident in the less-than-whole-of-government response to the Lindt Café siege and the distinctly unjoined up evaluation of foreign threats to critical infrastructure, intellectual property and our democratic institutions in recent years.

There is a logic to having key security agencies such as ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force under one departmental roof. It promises better policy and operational alignment on complex issues like returning foreign fighters and a more strategic approach to national security.

On the intelligence side of the house, the big winner is the Office of National Assessments (ONA), which will have its analytical capabilities doubled and be subsumed into a more effective intelligence coordinating body, the Office of National Intelligence (ONI). This change should ensure that performance benchmarks are met, improve the capacity for independent national assessments and entrench much-needed contestability within the intelligence process.

Far from being weakened, oversight and accountability of the intelligence and national security community (which is already high) will be further strengthened by the expanded remits of the independent Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Another welcome improvement is the long overdue attention given to developing strategic priorities for investment and resource allocation. Excluding defence, spending on intelligence and national security has more than doubled since 2001 to $7 billion. Making sure that this money is spent wisely, across the enterprise, will be a task that falls to Dutton's new department and ONI.

As to the argument that the Home Affairs idea should have been subject to extensive consultation within government, why would you risk leaving its fate to be determined by ministers and agency heads predisposed to rejecting any change that could threaten their power and influence?

Turnbull is not the first prime minister to reshape the bureaucracy according to his preferences, nor will he be the last. Ultimately, Turnbull will have to live with the consequences of his decision, but it is one he is entitled to make.

However, he now confronts a problem of his own making. By announcing the super department at the same press conference as the findings of the intelligence review, Turnbull ensured media focus on the politics around Dutton's appointment rather than the review itself.

This worked against serious analysis of the important and well-argued recommendations of the intelligence review by opening up an obvious avenue of attack for Labor, the Greens and the minor parties in the Senate: that the Home Affairs decision was all about Turnbull's political interests rather than the national interest.

The current national security system has evolved incrementally, with bipartisan support, over 70 years, punctuated by two major periods of change: the establishment of the foundational architecture in the post-war decade and the watershed 1977 Hope Royal Commission, which led to the creation of ONA to coordinate the intelligence community and provide integrated national intelligence assessments.

If Turnbull's mooted changes receive parliamentary endorsement, he can rightly argue that they represent the most significant change to Australia's national intelligence and domestic security arrangements since Hope. His challenge is to make them work.

Talisman Sabre 17: The realisation of defence strategy

It was an Australian Defence Force (ADF) public relation officer’s dream. ABC news footage, delivered directly into the living rooms of Australian families, showed Australian troops and Australian armoured vehicles streaming across the beach and onwards into the hinterland of Queensland. Australian landing craft, launched from the (now working) Australian Canberra class amphibious assault ship had transported the land forces to the beach. Meanwhile, Australian MRH90 helicopters flew in more soldiers to landing zones inland, demonstrating the ability for the amphibious force to arrive by sea or air. While Exercise Talisman Sabre was a coalition interoperability exercise, it was also an unapologetic display of the host nation’s capabilities.

Over the last weekend it became apparent that it is not only the Australian public who have been interested in the exercise. The China’s People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) sent a 6000-ton, Type-815 Dongdiao Class ship, designed specifically for intelligence gathering, to sit in international waters in the vicinity of the exercise. As noted by my colleague Euan Graham this is the first time the PLA-N has so overtly collected off the Australian mainland during a major exercise. Yet Talisman Sabre 17 is the seventh iteration of this biennial exercise. So why has China decided to do so now?

As the largest amphibious landing Australia has executed since the Second World War, Talisman Sabre 17 was certainly an impressive display of Australia’s developing military capability. But behind the visually exciting display of helicopters and tanks, landing craft and fighter jets, lies a more significant fact: for the first time in more than 30 years Australia has a military strategy that is beginning to truly align ends, ways and means. This is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Realisation of strategy

Ever since the Dibb report of 1986, Australian Defence White Papers have, to a greater or lesser extent, viewed security priorities through a ‘concentric circles’ approach. As such, the security of Australia’s maritime approaches through the archipelagic region to the north, as well as through the island chains of the South Pacific, has been a key defence objective. Yet, rarely has this strategic end-state been matched with the ways or means to achieve it. There are many reasons for this. Budgetary constraints, legacy equipment, the absence of an existential threat, and a lack of political will have all played a role in ensuring a mismatch between ends, ways and means.

Of course, that is not to say that Australia has been unable to operate in the region. Operations in East Timor in 1999 and the Solomon Islands in 2003 both contained amphibious elements. Yet these were both benign environments for the amphibious force and, at worst, uncertain environments on land. The ships that enabled those operations, HMAS Manoora, HMAS Kinimbla and HMAS Tobruk, were aging platforms that would have struggled to operate in contested environments. Their forced retirement prior to the Canberra class assault ships coming online left an even bigger gap in the ADF’s ability to conduct operations in the region.

Take as an example the last Exercise Talisman Sabre, held in 2015. Although still a significant exercise in its own right, the ADF’s contribution was far more modest than this year. The only Australian amphibious ship able to contribute was HMAS Choules which, while able to carry a large amount of equipment, can only carry a standard embarked force of approximately 350 troops, about a third of the capacity of the Canberra class ships.

While an important stepping stone in the development of Australia’s amphibious capability, the 2015 exercise demonstrated that Australia was still unable to unilaterally conduct amphibious operations in the South Pacific. In effect, the Australian Defence Force would have been severely challenged to carry out the second ‘strategic interest’ as directed in the 2013 Defence White Paper, namely the ‘security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood, which we share with Papua New Guinese, Timor-Leste and South Pacific states’.

The 2013 Defence White Paper continued:

Australia seeks to ensure that our neighbourhood does not become a source of threat to Australia and that no major power with hostile intentions establishes bases in our immediate neighbourhood from which it could project force against us.

It is not surprising this strategic goal has such weight. The latest statistical analysis from the government, which covers the period 2014-2015, indicates that maritime imports and exports over that 12-month period totalled $424.9 billion. This was transported by merchant shipping using trade routes that traverse the archipelagic region to Australia’s north or through the South Pacific towards the United States. Maintaining an amphibious force capable of keeping these routes open if threatened by a hostile force is a key strategic end-state and critical to Australia’s national interest. Exercise Talisman Sabre 15 showed Australia still lacked the means to achieve this.

What a difference two years makes. This year’s exercise has shown that the ADF can now project a combined arms battlegroup over the shore and sustain it during mid-intensity warfighting. A significant role of any defence force is to act as a deterrent and to do so it must be capable against a range of high-end threats. The ADF has demonstrated that it is now able to conduct major amphibious operations throughout the region, either unilaterally or as part of a coalition with the United States or New Zealand. As such, for the first time in three decades, Australia now has the military capability to back up its stated defence strategy. It is little wonder the Chinese have taken notice.

The nuclear weapon ban treaty is significant but flawed

On 7 July 2017 a UN negotiating conference adopted a draft treaty banning nuclear weapons – specifically, their development, production, possession, stationing and deployment, use, threat of use, testing, and so on. The treaty will be open for signature on 20 September 2017, and will enter into force after it has 50 ratifications. The treaty will be legally binding only on those states that join it.

Some 130 states, comprising almost two-thirds of the membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), participated in the negotiating conference. These states feel strongly that the NPT nuclear-weapon states are not taking seriously the commitment under the NPT to pursue nuclear arms reductions and disarmament. Although the Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, the world still has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear war is increasing. A ban treaty is needed to re-energise disarmament efforts. The treaty will help to stigmatise nuclear weapons and change mindsets about retaining them.

The negotiations were boycotted by all nine nuclear-armed states (those in the NPT – the US, Russia, UK, France and China – as well as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) and their allies, including Australia; around 30 states in all. These states argue that a ban treaty is unrealistic when, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will remain essential to their national security. They maintain that nuclear reductions are possible only through a step-by-step approach, and can't be forced by a ban treaty. I have argued previously that the boycott was a mistake and that Australia and the others should have participated in the negotiations to ensure their views were presented and to seek to influence the text.

The nuclear weapon ban is a landmark treaty, of great political and historical importance. It should rank with the 1968 NPT which, despite some criticism about the lack of specificity on disarmament, remains a remarkable achievement after almost 50 years. The NPT was drafted with great effort and farsightedness. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the ban treaty and there are some serious problems with the text. These problems reflect the fact that negotiations took only four weeks, an unprecedented pace for a treaty of such importance, and that the treaty was adopted without the usual practice of consensus. It would have been far better to have taken the time to resolve the problems and achieve consensus. The Netherlands voted against the treaty, and Singapore abstained. Others expressed concern about the text, but finally acquiesced. I expect we will hear more in coming months from those participants unhappy with the text.

The treaty provides for three groups of parties: states that had nuclear weapons after 7 July 2017 but eliminate them before joining the treaty; states that have nuclear weapons upon joining; and others (essentially, non-nuclear-weapon states).

States that join the treaty with nuclear weapons are required to remove them from operational status immediately, to negotiate time-bound plans for eliminating the nuclear weapons, and to destroy them within a deadline to be determined by the first Meeting of States Parties under the treaty (it could be some time before this meeting takes place and the deadline is set).

The main problems in the treaty relate to safeguards aspects:

1. The ban treaty sets out two different safeguards standards – a higher standard for parties that had nuclear weapons and a lower standard for all other parties. This discrimination is counterproductive to the treaty's objective. Strong safeguards against clandestine nuclear weapon programs are absolutely essential for disarmament to proceed. States will not disarm when other states seen as potential (or actual!) proliferators (such as Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela) have not committed to the strongest form of safeguards.

While the issue of safeguards standards primarily needs to be resolved within the NPT or the International Atomic Energy Agency, the ban treaty should have avoided setting a lower standard. As the NPT makes clear, the achievement of nuclear disarmament requires the collaboration of all parties, not just the nuclear-weapon states. Parties that insist on lower standards for themselves are not serious about supporting disarmament.

2. A state that joins the treaty while still possessing nuclear weapons is not required to accept any safeguards until after it has eliminated its weapons. This is a major weakness – elimination could take years, during which time the state could be producing new weapons to replace those it is eliminating.

Another issue of concern is the relationship between the ban treaty and other treaties such as the NPT, the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty), and nuclear weapon-free zone treaties. The operation of the ban treaty vis-à-vis other treaties is uncertain.

Unfortunately, the states that boycotted the negotiations will be able to point to these problems and say 'we told you so'. The problems might have been avoided if those states had participated, though no doubt they would say consensus was never going to be possible and their concerns would have been ignored.

It would be open for the UN General Assembly to direct that further negotiations be held on the text, but considering that the states supporting the text have a majority in the General Assembly, this seems unlikely. So now states that want a ban treaty will have to sign this text, despite its flaws.

The Turnbull Government has made it clear it will not sign the ban treaty. The other nuclear-weapon state allies that boycotted the negotiations will also likely not sign. It would be difficult for members of an alliance like NATO to sign, as the treaty prohibits a party from allowing stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons in its territory, and also prohibits 'encouragement' of an activity prohibited under the treaty. The stationing provision would not affect Australia, since this is already prohibited for us by the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. As for the 'encouraging' provision, the scope of this is uncertain.

Considering that the impetus for the ban treaty is the widely shared concern at the lack of any current action on nuclear arms reductions and disarmament, the least Australia should do is to actively encourage the commencement of negotiations to this end. Extolling a 'step-by-step' approach to disarmament lacks credibility when there are no such steps under way, or even being contemplated. An outline of the many risk reduction steps that could be taken in the near term is set out in the 2009 report of the Australia/Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The Government would do well to dust off this report and promote its findings.

Three focus points for Turnbull at G20 summit

You have to hand it to Kim Jung Un. In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile two days before the G20 summit ensures that North Korea jumps to the top of the Summit's agenda. With one push of the button - probably practically as well as metaphorically - Kim Jung Un derailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans to focus the summit on climate change.

As a result, there is every likelihood that Australia, along with the US and other nations, will focus on persuading China to pressure North Korea into halting its nuclear weapons program. This would be a mistake. China knows that North Korea will not stop until it has the nuclear capability the regime believes will guarantee its survival. China also has little appetite for demonstrating what most analysts already believe; it has much less influence over North Korea than many, including President Trump, presume. So instead of spending two days consumed with the intractable problem of North Korea, the G20 should focus on the other great existential threat of our time: climate change.

Australia has a key role to play in ensuring this happens. As the only country in the Pacific region with a seat at the G20, Australia has a moral obligation to act as a spokesperson for the region. It is, perhaps to the chagrin of some, the most influential country in the South Pacific and therefore has an important role to play as a regional leader. Yet if Australia is to truly be a leader then it also needs to display loyalty to a region that it has deemed critically important to its own national security.

At the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) Event held in Suva earlier this week, Pacific Island leaders repeatedly implored the G20 to heed their calls for action on climate change. Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, in a plea to the G20 nations stated, 'Please do not abandon us. Please commit yourselves to solidarity with vulnerable nations around the world', adding 'We have not caused this crisis – you have'. Meanwhile Peter Christian, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, addressed Australia directly. 'Speak to your industrial partners in South East Asia and the world,' he said, 'You are closer to Trump than I am!'

With this in mind, there are three important points that Malcolm Turnbull should push hard at this summit.

The first is for a commitment from all nations to seek to keep global temperature increases under a 1.5-degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels. At the CAPP, the Pacific Islands nations repeatedly made the point that, at current predictions, anything over a 1.5-degree rise in global temperatures will seal the fate of several atoll and island nations, including Tuvalu and Kiribati. Getting the other G20 countries to formally agree to this as a target, rather than the aspiration it is in the Paris Agreement, will be hard. However, if Australia wants to maintain any leadership credibility with its Pacific Island neighbours it needs to be seen acting in the region's interests, even if that is unpopular with the other industrialised nations. This should be the central tenet of Turnbull’s G20 objectives.

The second point involves solving an awkward dilemma: it is hard to be a climate change champion when you are the world’s largest coal exporter. Australia will always struggle to be accepted as a true regional leader when it is resourcing the very green-house gas emissions responsible for the global warming that are raising global temperatures, melting the ice caps, causing rising sea levels, and threaten the very existence of its Pacific Island neighbours. No-one expects Australia to cease coal production overnight. However, a moratorium on new coal mines would demonstrate a commitment to a reduced-carbon future. It would be seen as a selfless act and would restore some legitimacy for Australia in the eyes of its Pacific Island neighbours.

Thirdly, Australia can announce an increase in contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and challenge the other nations to match it, until they have covered the $2 billion shortfall caused by President Trump’s withdrawal from the fund. This will help the most vulnerable nations in adapting to the effects of climate change largely caused by the very industrialisation that gave the G20 countries their wealth. If championing a commitment to a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise and banning new coal mines, would demonstrate moral courage, then financially helping those nations paying the price for Australia’s carbon-enabled wealth would show that it is willing to take practical steps as well.

In Suva bay lies a container ship. In May this year, overloaded and unbalanced, the Southern Phoenix rolled over. Trying to overload the ship to maximise profit ultimately sealed its fate. The Southern Phoenix is lost, the cargo ruined. She lies now, a metaphor for the Pacific: over burdened by the greed of others; threatening to slip beneath the waves forever. By siding with the needs of the Pacific nations at the G20 summit Australia can help right the ship and demonstrate, not just that it is a regional power, but global leadership.

The overturned Southern Phoenix in Suva bay (Photo by author)


News & Media