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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.

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Understanding resilience and fragility in the South Pacific

This post is part of the Lowy Institute's South Pacific Fragile States series.

After the US withdrawal from both the Paris Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Islands region is looking for reassurance from Australia and the US. The recent AUSMIN summit did produce a joint statement reaffirming US and Australian commitment to the region, but the South Pacific will need more.

Many nations across the region are subject to geostrategic, domestic and non-traditional drivers of instability that load stress onto national and local systems, sometimes to crisis point. The question for Australia and the US is how to work best with partners in the region to increase their resilience to these stresses.

Why resilience?

As Jenny Hayward-Jones recently commented, ‘resilience’ has been a buzzword in the development community for a while now. Hayward-Jones highlights the incredible resilience already inherent in South Pacific communities, often forced to cope with natural disasters independent of government support and she rightly points out history has shown the people of the South Pacific to be fantastically resilient. Indeed, they have much to teach Australians on the subject.

However, Australia does not often deal directly with the people of other sovereign nations. International partners must deal with local governments. This is especially the case when considering issues of security. As such, it is important to understand the systems that allow Pacific states to function. I want to propose a model for examining resilience and fragility within these systems that can guide security-focused policymakers.

A systems approach to resilience and fragility

A nation-state is an excellent example of a complex adaptive system, in that it consists of many diverse and autonomous components that are interdependent in ways that make it hard to predict the outcomes of altering any one part of the system. As you can see in the resilience framework model below, each system, which incorporates subordinate sub-systems, can tolerate a certain amount of stress or shock but, if too much pressure is applied, the system will reach a threshold. At this point it will fail and the system will go into crisis.

Usually, unless it is a truly black swan event, there will be a number of threshold indicators that, if picked up, will denote an increased likelihood of system failure. Once these are recognised, policy makers can be alerted to the probable impact of that system failing. They can also get timely and sound guidance as to the risks of allowing that system to fail, as well as the costs and risks associated with pre-emptive or post-crisis intervention.

Assessing intervention and risk tolerance

It is important to highlight at this point that, should Australia choose to intervene, it can do so at any point along the line; it does not have to wait until there is a crisis. Any intervention, be it pre-emptive or post-crisis, will have one of two aims: it will either seek to reduce the stresses on the system so that they no longer overwhelm the system, in effect returning the conditions to pre-crisis levels, or it will attempt to make the system more resilient. Preferably, any intervention should aim to increase system resilience, even if addressing the causes of a crisis. In the long run, it is increased resilience that will allow a nation to cope more effectively with future shocks and stresses.

The timing of any intervention is important for two reasons. Firstly, and critical for policy makers, is the cost differential between pre-emptive and restorative intervention. A good example is the cost of Britain’s intervention in the Balkans. The then-Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw, highlighted in a speech in 2002 that intervention in Bosnia, which only occurred after multiple systems had passed their thresholds and the nation had failed to function as a state, cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. In comparison, the intervention in Kosovo, which occurred at the point of crisis, cost £200 million while the pre-emptive intervention in Macedonia, which occurred when threshold indicators suggested systems were approaching crisis, cost just £14 million.

Second, it must be noted that the risks, and costs, of both intervention and declining to intervene are not just financial. The risk descriptors outlined below are an attempt to articulate the impact of that risk to the Australian government across five categories: national reputation; political capital; human capital; financial cost; and environmental impact.

The other important aspect of timing is detecting when the environment is ‘ripe’ for intervention. The theory of conflict ripeness suggests parties to conflict only resolve their issues when they are ready to do so, usually when other options that would give them a more favourable outcome have been exhausted. In other words, this is the art of identifying and seizing the point where a stalemate is reached and parties are willing to accept an intervention. This is very much a qualitative judgement, best made by experienced observers on the ground. It is also worth highlighting that if some environments are ripe for intervention, others will be ‘unripe’. Intervention in unripe environments are likely to be ill-received and may even exacerbate problems.

When confronted with decisions about resilience and fragility in the South Pacific, policy-makers can benefit from considering this model. It focuses on identification of threshold indicators, and it also articulates risk holistically. Most importantly, it forces decision-makers to compare the pre-emptive costs of intervention against the cost of restorative intervention.

As Trump flip-flops in Asia, things slide China’s way

Somewhat obscured in last week's outpouring of penny dreadful news from Washington (such as Sean Spicer ensconcing himself in the White House shrubbery) was the announcement of a US-China 100-day economic action plan.

It is a pedestrian, workmanlike document, committing to a raft of bilateral trade, investment and regulatory measures. Its references to poultry, beef and clearing houses are not obviously the stuff of grand strategy, or grand bargains.

It could prove economically beneficial, on its own merits, if China can be persuaded to open its market on more reciprocal terms. Interestingly, China will start importing US liquefied natural gas to meet its energy needs, within existing US export quota limits for non-FTA countries.

Politically, it is a significant step forward, given the gathering US domestic headwinds against seemingly any kind of trade deal. A potentially damaging trade conflict with China, widely feared at the outset of the Trump administration, has been averted – for now.

Also tucked away with the action plan was an instantaneous commitment to send a US delegation to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit currently being hosted in Beijing. They must have had their bags packed.

So, what's the harm?

A persuasive criticism of the Trump Administration is that it is losing influence in Asia because it lacks a regional economic policy beyond a knee-jerk rejection of existing trade deals, including those already negotiated with US allies and partners under the Obama Administration. As a result, the US is falling back on an over-reliance on the military toolbox. That is the gist of an argument put by Ely Ratner and Samir Kumar in a recent Foreign Policy commentary, pre-dating the US-China action plan.

The authors contrast the currently haphazard US approach with China's purposeful promotion of the BRI. Regardless of its merits or demerits, China is communicating a clear vision to a receptive audience in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Beijing forum showcasing the initiative has drawn in 'more than 1,200 delegates from 110 countries, including 29 heads of state'. Trade Minister Steven Ciobo is representing Australia. Japan and India are the only two significant Asian countries still keeping their distance.

To some observers, Washington's decision to send a delegation to China's Belt and Road Forum should be welcomed as a sign of growing maturity in the Trump Administration's position – an overdue correction from Barack Obama's standoffishness on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Australian proponents of closer economic engagement with China will take heart, arguing that trade and investment don't have to be zero-sum.

Let's take a closer look at Point Ten of the action plan:

The United States recognises the importance of China's One Belt and One Road initiative and is to send delegates to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing May 14-15.

What is striking is the implied subservience of recognising 'the importance of China's' initiative. On Twitter, Ely Ratner compared the wording to Rex Tillerson's verbatim 'aping' of China's 'win-win' formulation for Sino-US ties on his inaugural visit to Beijing.

I tend to agree. Words and set phrases mean more to China more than most countries, because they carry encoded meanings intended to be relationally and hierarchically defining. Agreeing on words is more than half the battle with Chinese officials.

For Trump Administration negotiators new to diplomacy, especially those from business backgrounds, conceding such framing may seem inconsequential compared to tangible economic and commercial benefits of the type outlined in the 100-day action plan. The Trump Administration is not only feeling its way through the unfamiliar terrain of international relations – it is deliberately mixing traditional boundaries between 'high' and 'low' politics, as part of a wheeler-dealing approach to foreign policy (regardless of whatever advice Henry Kissinger is supplying).

Indeed, China may already be embracing Trump's transactional pragmatism with a more brazen variation on the package deal. If Japanese reports are to be believed, in the run-up to the Mar-a-Lago summit Beijing's ambassador to the US requested the removal of Pacific Command's Chief Admiral Harry Harris in return for China's cooperation over North Korea (China's Foreign Ministry subsequently characterised the reports as 'fake news').

Some of Trump and Tillerson's initial tough talk on China was clearly overheated and needed tempering by exposure to policy reality. But now US policy on China shows signs of flipping to the opposite extreme. Since Mar-a-Lago, strategic and commercial frictions have given way to an uncritical embrace of cooperation on both fronts. America's singular reliance on China as the crux of its 'maximum pressure and engagement' approach on North Korea is proving especially useful to Beijing as a source of leverage with Washington for what appears to be a marginally tougher approach towards an indifferent Pyongyang.

In the South China Sea, the promised US push-back against China's encroachment has failed to materialise. Nor is there evidence yet of a strategy to guide Washington's actions there. No US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) have been publicly carried out since the US presidential election, amid accounts that PACOM requests have repeatedly been spurned. 

Intriguingly, the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group not only continued to sail in the 'wrong' direction after it was ordered back to the Korean Peninsula last month, it also diverted around the South China Sea, despite this detour significantly lengthening the transit. Whatever public communication errors there may have been on the part of the US defence bureaucracy, the absence of US FONOPs and the carrier diversion won't have appeared coincidental to Beijing, which has long demanded a US operational pull-back in the South China Sea.

While some US allies and partners may be privately relieved that Washington has adopted a more accommodative approach on the BRI, others will be anxious at this latest turn of events. Japan's antennae are peculiarly alert to any prospect of a US-China 'G2' compact bypassing Tokyo's interests. Security considerations aside, Japan must be piqued about the US-China action plan and BRI attendance, after being left high and dry on the TPP, the main selling point of which, for Tokyo, was preferential access to the US market. India has stayed aloof from the Belt and Road for similar reasons to Japan, and though it is less directly affected as a non-ally, it will still regard Washington's capriciousness with renewed caution.

In Southeast Asia, while the Trump Administration has lately moved to engage allies and partners bilaterally and through multilateral fora, the results of the recent ASEAN summit in Manila were not encouraging for those hoping for a concerted stance on the South China Sea.

All this runs in Beijing's favour.

The choice of National Security Council Asia Director Matt Pottinger to front the US delegation at the BRI forum appears to be Washington's way of trying to split the difference. Pottinger is, if not a hawk, certainly no acolyte of Beijing. But from China's perspective, it's showing up that counts.

It would hardly be surprising if the US reverts to a harder line on China once the gulf in their national security interests in Asia is exposed as a result of frustrated expectations over North Korea or incidents in the South China Sea. But these abrupt swings in policy direction are themselves detracting from already diminished stocks of US trust and credibility.

Australia calling: How to fight external electoral manipulation in the South Pacific

Security concerns about external subversion of national elections show no sign of abating. On 3 May, James Comey, then still Director of the FBI, testified to the US Senate Judiciary Committee that the Russian government was attempting to influence American politics, going so far as to say that Russia is 'the greatest threat of any nation on earth' to the US democratic process. On the other side of the Atlantic, hackers released nine gigabytes of emails from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign two days before the French presidential election and in the UK, officials have accused Germany of trying to influence the upcoming general election by undermining Theresa May during Brexit negotiations.

External attempts to manipulate electoral outcomes in politically stable countries that are members of the G7 is certainly troubling. However, electoral manipulation within fragile states in the South Pacific, which do not share the same levels of political or social resilience, could cause catastrophic cascading effects. Destabilising actions that heighten tensions during elections risk triggering political violence with which local law enforcement agencies would struggle to cope. As such, electoral manipulation is not just a threat to political processes in the South Pacific, but also a very real risk to stability across the region. But what could be gained from manipulating elections in the South Pacific?

The aim of electoral manipulation does not need to be a change to the global order. The election of a friendly government or leader may give an external actor more favourable access to emerging markets or natural resources, assured votes in the UN, or simply undermine existing alliances. The reasons may be varied and, in many cases, not immediately apparent. US indignation that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the US presidential election should be served with a healthy side order of hypocrisy. Research by political scientist Dov Levin has found that the US may have attempted to influence foreign elections as many as 81 times between 1946 and 2000. Most of these were small countries that, for a variety of reasons, the US wanted to see run by a sympathetic government.

So, electoral manipulation is not new, but it does appear that it is now being conducted more brazenly and Australia needs to pay attention. In next three years, four significant elections are expected in our region. Two of these are national (PNG in 2017 and Fiji in 2018) and two are independence referendums (New Caledonia in 2018 and Bougainville, currently forecast for 2019). Of the four, the latter two are most susceptible to interference from external forces. New nations make for new markets, new security partners and new opportunities to increase influence within a region. Independence referendums are also fertile ground for disinformation campaigns. Rumours and passion make for a heady, and often combustible, mix.

The counter to disruptive disinformation aimed at manipulating elections is an accountable news media that populations trust. Australia has traditionally been a major provider of trusted news to the South Pacific through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). For geographic reasons, short wave radio was the most effective way of reaching communities in the South Pacific throughout the 20th century. Some have therefore lamented that, just at a time when Australia needs to be a trusted voice across the region, the ABC has ceased its shortwave radio service. An Australian Senator has even raised a bill in parliament which, if passed, would force the ABC to reintroduce the shortwave service. It is true that shortwave radio provided the ABC with a proven platform that could counter misinformation and that is hard to manipulate. However, as the ABC argues, the shortwave radio service is also an outdated media platform that costs a significant amount to maintain. The reality of tight budgets means limited resources need to be prioritised to provide the best content possible over a platform that is accessible to the widest audience.

We live in an increasingly digitally connected world that now largely relies on non-traditional media outlets for its news. A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center estimated 62% of US adults got their news from social media sites. Another study in 2016, by the Reuters Institute, found that 61% of Australians use a smartphone or tablet to access news online, with 52% reporting that they use online sources and social media to get their news.

These trends are visible in developing nations too. Mobile broadband has had a significant impact in the South Pacific. A report published in June 2015 noted that 90% of households across Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu had a mobile phone. In Papua New Guinea, the most challenging of nations for market penetration, 44% of the population have mobile phone subscriptions and, as a result, only 10% of national web traffic is accessed by computers while 89% goes to mobile phones. In effect, a large proportion of the South Pacific’s population, regardless of their remote location, have access to a digital world of information through their mobile phone. And the world has access directly to them.

It makes sense therefore for the ABC to concentrate on developing products accessible through the mobile broadband network. According to David Hua, ABC's head of international audiences, there are plans to 'internationalise' the ABC mobile phone app to make it available outside Australia. This would be a good start but more needs to be done. The development of mobile broadband-based platforms needs to be a priority for government as part of a broad security strategy to provide stability in the region. A trusted Australian voice, delivered directly to the people of the South Pacific through their phones, could provide a stabilising influence in an era increasingly characterised by destabilising external forces.

When Turnbull meets Trump

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first face-to-face meeting with President Donald Trump is an opportunity to deliver some key messages about the role the United States should play globally and in Asia. Photo: Getty Images/Pool

Three questions about North Korea

Below, I tease out a few below-the-radar observations in the form of three questions. Each addresses the problem from a different angle.

1. Is the Trump Administration as serious about confronting North Korea as appears?

It's tempting to hang the tag of adventurism on an impulsive character like President Trump. Hands up, I raised that possibility before he entered office, though I believe the Administration was right to conduct a limited, punitive strike on Syria to protect the norm against chemical weapons use. In South Korea, Trump's talk of an 'armada' that failed to arrive off the Korean Peninsula as advertised confirmed the opposite suspicion, of bluster. Loose cannon or paper tiger?

Either way, the likelihood that North Korea will acquire the means to hit the US with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Trump's watch is a legitimate and serious concern, one that would lead any White House occupant to consider 'all options', at least until they discover how poor most of these are. Incoming US presidents tend to experience a similar learning curve on North Korea.

In 2002, when George W. Bush co-bracketed North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an 'axis of evil', many wondered if this prefigured military action to effect regime change in Pyongyang. It wasn't to be, in part because North Korea was a tough enough target then. But the real reason was because America's strategic attention was tuned to the Middle East, Iraq in particular. To be cynical, North Korea's addition to the axis ensured there wasn't an all-Muslim line-up of rogue actors. We know what happened next.

Donald Trump has neither the popular mandate for, nor the inclination to repeat, a foreign policy mis-adventure on the scale of Iraq. Yet when ISIS is eventually out of the way, there is a good chance that the inner core of Trump's national security line-up, led by McMaster and Mattis, intends to apply the squeeze on Iran.

If Tehran preoccupies the Trump Administration, what appetite will there be to escalate tensions in parallel with Pyongyang? Expectations that China will deliver for the US by persuading North Korea to reverse course on its nuclear track are very likely to be dashed, even assuming Beijing's coercive efforts are in earnest. But if the US prioritises Iran, the current 'phoney war' on the Korean Peninsula could continue for some time.

It's hard to know where Trump's instincts will draw him, but he has threatened to take care of the North Korean problem unilaterally if China's efforts fail. If the US manages to avoid sapping new commitments in the Middle East, we could see a renewed push for preventive strikes on North Korea next year. But Iran might get a veto on that.

2. What is the impact of a North Korean nuclear ICBM on extended deterrence and US alliances in Asia?

If US military options and China's leverage are so constrained that we have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, what will be the longer impact on US alliances? Hugh White touched perceptively on this in his recent post, in relation the impact North Korea's incipient ICBM capability will have on US pledges of extended deterrence to its Pacific allies. It's an important point worth thinking through.

Japan and South Korea rely on the US for extended deterrence, but how credible is this once Pyongyang acquires a second-strike and, perhaps, a thermo-nuclear capability against the US? Without the surety of the nuclear umbrella, will Japan and South Korea decide they have no choice but to arm themselves with an independent deterrent? That outcome is certainly not pre-ordained. After all, extended deterrence to US allies has accommodated China's ICBMs. But it becomes more likely once a North Korean nuclear ICBM comes into being. Even Australia now finds itself on the receiving end of nuclear threats from Pyongyang, during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence, though these are not to be taken too literally.

The logic of extended deterrence requires the US to risk, say, New York in order to save Tokyo, Sydney or Seoul. Now that Pyongyang is on the threshold of entering the elite intercontinental nuclear club, in the company of China and Russia, it should not surprise that the equation works in reverse. South Korea's nuclear umbrella holder, the US, may well be prepared to risk Seoul, now, to prevent a North Korean nuclear sword of Damocles from being suspended over the US homeland, later. Some see Trump's rush to confront Kim Jong Un as irresponsible, given the North's conventional artillery threat to Seoul. But such confrontation has an instinctive appeal, especially for a confirmed alliance sceptic like Donald Trump.

3. Trump has received attention as the new actor in the North Korean drama. What of the dynamic with Kim Jong Un?

Kim Jong Un was chosen over his elder brother Kim Jong Nam, who was probably killed on his sibling's orders, using VX nerve agent, in Malaysia's international airport in February. Jong Un was chosen for a reason. He visibly relishes the missile tests and parades that he frequently attends. He doesn't want to be remembered as North Korea's Deng Xiaoping, or some drab economic tinkerer. His signature Byongjin policy amounts to having his cake and eating it too. He wants to grow North Korea's economy while building up the acme of nuclear missile programs.

Kim Jong Un isn't interested in a back-burner, virtual deterrent to be traded away for heavy fuel oil, or security guarantees that in his mind aren't worth the paper they are written on, though that doesn't mean he won't demand them. He wants affirmation for North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, now written explicitly into the country's constitution, portraying this as the fulfillment his father's legacy. Kim Jong Un is fashioning a brand of nuclear fascism that fetishises the tools of mass destruction as ends in themselves, hard-wired into the country's domestic politics. He has proved himself both canny and ruthless, five years into the supreme leader role. He is in his element.

North Korea under Kim Jong Un isn't pursuing a minimalist nuclear hermit strategy for regime survival and the quiet life. Controlled, deliberate instability is part of the regime's DNA. Without external enemies, North Korea's domestic oppressions and privations will be laid bare for what they are: cruel and pointless strictures to perpetuate misrule by the Kim family. If North Korea's confrontation with the US flashes hot, it will be because Kim oversteps the line with Trump, or perhaps with China, now that Beijing's treaty ally is being openly labeled a latent enemy. A provocative test of South Korea's next president is also highly likely later this year.

For now, Kim has opted not to escalate beyond ICBM launcher parades and missile tests. But it is only a matter of time until the next nuclear trial. The most destabilising outcome from the current tensions would be if Kim concludes, as well he might, that Trump's bluff can be called, consequence-free.

Photo by Flickr user Adaptor -Plug.

What is Vietnam’s fishing flotilla doing at Scarborough Shoal?

Those who have written off last July’s Hague Arbitral Tribunal ruling in the South China Sea as a dead letter should keep an eye on Scarborough Shoal.

Late last week, reports surfaced on Twitter, showing the AIS signals from a flotilla of Vietnamese trawlers close to the shoal. Significantly, Vietnam Coast Guard vessels are also present.

The focus of a bilateral territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, Scarborough Shoal is an isolated rocky outcrop surrounding a lagoon rich in marine life, strategically situated 130 miles west of Luzon – and a long way from Vietnam.

The shoal has been under Beijing’s de facto control since tensions flared in 2012, patrolled by Chinese law enforcement vessels and fishing boats. China’s widely trial-ballooned ambitions to develop Scarborough Shoal as another artificial island and potential military base have attracted strategic attention. An uneasy calm has descended around the feature since the ruling. Chinese and Philippine vessels co-exist in close proximity, while Beijing has pared back its law enforcement presence to a handful of patrol vessels.

President Duterte has repeatedly downplayed Scarborough Shoal as a friction point in Philippines-China relations; recently declaring 'We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them'. Duterte’s officials have proposed a marine reserve prohibiting fishing within the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal, as a means to reduce frictions as well as to conserve the fragile fishery.

The Hague award is considered binding only on the Philippines and China. Questions of sovereignty lay outside its purview. However, the panel judges concluded that Scarborough Shoal is above high water and therefore entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. Since the award also affirmed that it lies wholly within the Philippines 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), this presents a highly unusual situation, given Scarborough Shoal’s potential to generate an exclave territorial sea within the EEZ, if the Philippines does not hold sovereignty.

Although the Hague ruling did not directly address third parties, one of the judges’ most interesting findings, in paragraph 807,  is that ‘Scarborough Shoal has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen of many nationalities, including the Philippines, China (including from Taiwan), and Vietnam'.

Separating government-driven motivations from the commercial pursuit of fish in the South China Sea is notoriously difficult, given far-ranging fishing fleets and general stock depletion. Vietnam has one of the region’s biggest fleets and its fishermen have a reputation for illegal fishing, as far as Australia. However, there is also the interesting possibility that the Vietnamese state is putting fishing rights deliberately to the test at Scarborough Shoal for wider reasons.

By asserting traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal (though one might ask how ‘traditional’ trawlers are), Vietnam has inserted itself directly into the post-ruling narrative. A third-party intervention serves to keeps the Hague award alive, by internationalising it, while making it more difficult for Beijing and Manila to seek an accommodation in ways that could undermine Vietnam’s position more broadly in the South China Sea. Manila recently announced a bilateral coordination mechanism on the South China Sea, with Beijing, due to commence in May. This may have raised Vietnam’s diplomatic concerns.

Vietnam stands to gain considerably from the Philippines’ arbitration verdict, especially its consummate rejection of China’s dashed-line claims, which intrude far into Vietnam’s EEZ. Hanoi has an active interest in upholding the Award. The Hague judges’ recognition of multi-nation fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal gives Vietnam an ‘in’ to help ‘implement’ the ruling.

On the face of it, Duterte has reasons not to welcome Hanoi’s intervention. First of all, for bringing Vietnam’s broader dispute with China to the Philippines’ doorstep when his priority is rapprochement with Beijing. Second, Vietnamese fishermen are no strangers to Scarborough Shoal, but their presence in such numbers may upset their Filipino counterparts. Third, the presence of Vietnamese maritime law enforcement vessels could be construed as reviving a latent claim to Scarborough Shoal’s sovereignty.

But in the current climate it makes no sense for Vietnam to isolate itself on the South China Sea by alienating its fellow ‘frontline’ claimant. Particularly so, when Manila sits in the ASEAN chair and presides over the Code of Conduct negotiations with Beijing. That would be handing a strategic gift to China.

It is much more likely that Vietnam consulted with the Philippines in advance. The defence and security relationship between Hanoi and Manila is close. Duterte reaffirmed the strategic partnership on his visit to Hanoi last September, including a strongly worded joint statement upholding 'freedom of navigation and overflight as well as unimpeded commerce in the region, particularly in the South China Sea'. Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana recently voiced concerns about China’s intentions at Scarborough Shoal that appeared at cross-purposes with his boss’ public nonchalance. In fact, Duterte may even tacitly approve of Vietnam’s action for added leverage over China ahead of May’s bilateral negotiations: a ‘bad coast guard’ to complement the Philippines continuing ‘good cop’ act.

As long as the Philippines recognises the rights of Vietnamese fishermen in accordance with the tribunal ruling, and Vietnamese fishermen stay out of the lagoon, the latter can claim legitimacy from the Hague award. As well as encouraging Manila to keep the Award in play diplomatically, this move puts the burden of escalation at Scarborough Shoal onto China, a risk that Vietnam proved it was willing to take during the 2014 oil-rig standoff. Hanoi could be calculating that China is currently unwilling to risk inflaming tensions with ASEAN.

Viewed through this lens, the arrival of Vietnamese fishermen off Scarborough Shoal is an imaginative way of regaining the initiative lost to China since last July. If China can be nudged into compliance with the Hague Award, by permitting Vietnamese fishing at Scarborough Shoal (as apparently it did, even in 2012), Hanoi may not only help to forestall the construction of a new artificial island, it could build on this precedent in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, where the harassment of Vietnamese fishermen is a perennial, high-priority concern. Since the Hague ruling, Hanoi has noticeably emphasised the protection of fisheries and fishermen, including legal measures under consideration. It also regards its coast guard’s activities as exercising freedom of navigation, albeit broadly defined.

If this is indeed a coordinated action between Vietnam and the Philippines, it speaks to a growing security bilateralism among certain ASEAN members, offsetting the grouping’s institutional drift on the South China Sea, and perhaps as an insurance policy against Duterte using his role as ASEAN/East Asia Summit host this year to act as spoiler. Uncertainty about the US’ willingness, under President Trump, to push back against China in the South China Sea is a further forcing factor.

The appearance of a Vietnamese fishing flotilla near one of the South China Sea’s most remote flashpoints is not just about catching fish. Hanoi’s legal and diplomatic motivations run deeper. It will be interesting to see if China reacts. The Hague tribunal ruling, meanwhile, remains in play.


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