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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ongoing diplomatic dispute between Malaysia and North Korea, triggered by the brutal, brazen and bizarre assassination of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur's main airport on 13 February, is something of a rarity in international relations. It is not often that two smallish, distant states, both members of the non-aligned movement, suddenly find themselves on the cusp of a full-scale diplomatic rupture. Then again, it's not every day that a murder is carried out in broad daylight by means of a highly toxic nerve agent in a busy international airport.
To recap thus far, only the Vietnamese and Indonesian women directly implicated in the attack have been charged. Despite a welter of speculation, no evidence has directly implicated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the death of his half-brother. The motivation and especially the timing of the attack remain a matter for conjecture. But the finger of state complicity points squarely at North Korea – if not Kim Jong-un himself, then at least implicating state-security organs and operatives with the organisational skills and access required to conduct such an elaborate attack.
Seven North Korean nationals are being sought by Malaysian police in connection with the murder. Four individuals, likely to have orchestrated and witnessed the attack, flew out of Kuala Lumpur immediately afterwards, arriving in Pyongyang via Dubai and Russia, in an apparent effort to bypass China. Kim Jong-nam resided in Macau and was therefore under the implicit protection of the Chinese state. The other three North Koreans wanted for questioning are believed to be holed up in the DPRK embassy in Kuala Lumpur – nervous agents of another kind.
North Korea's Ambassador Kang Chol was sent home on 6 March, declared persona non grata after Kuala Lumpur lost patience with his accumulated slurs against the Malaysian authorities and repeated demands to hand over Kim Jong-nam's body (the presumed target, moreover, of an unsuccessful post-post mortem mortuary break-in). He also stonily rebuffed Malaysia's requests to hand over North Koreans in his custody.
The following day, Pyongyang retaliated against the expulsion of its Ambassador by barring the 11 Malaysian citizens in North Korea from leaving. This was a significant escalation and a blatant transgression of the Vienna Convention. Within hours, Kuala Lumpur had retaliated in kind, cordoning off the North Korean Embassy. Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a strongly worded statement accusing Pyongyang of 'effectively holding our citizens hostage' and promising 'all necessary measures' to secure their release. Malaysia has also rescinded the visa-free travel status that North Koreans have enjoyed since 2000.
Though the crisis continues, it may already have peaked in intensity. While nine Malaysian citizens remain trapped in Pyongyang, two Malaysian UN employees have since been allowed to depart. A reciprocal ban on North Koreans leaving Malaysia remains in place, but cordons around the DPRK embassy have been lifted and bilateral negotiations are continuing. A diplomatic row that unfolded rapidly and acrimoniously in full public glare is likely to slip out of the spotlight into the shadowy world of back channels and third-party facilitation. Meanwhile, revelations about the extent of North Korea's activities in Malaysia continue to emerge.
Several observations can be made about what the diplomatic spat has revealed so far.
On the North Korean side, it is likely that Ambassador Kang was aware of Kim Jong-nam's visits to Malaysia but had only the sketchiest knowledge about any assassination plot. The North Korean system is too stove-piped and secretive for that. Subsequently, for sure, he would have been under strict instructions from Pyongyang to obtain and repatriate the body of the deceased to Pyongyang. Kang had to publicly agitate for this as an urgent priority, while maintaining the patent falsehood that Kim Jong-nam had died of natural causes (even after surveillance video of the attack had been released).
Knowing that his career and probably his liberty were on the line, Kang's safest option was to escalate the dispute in order to demonstrate his loyalty. He would not be the first ambassador to lie for his country, but this escalatory dynamic is best understood as a consequence of North Korea's Orwellian 'internal contradictions' rather than his personal shortcomings as a diplomat. Put simply, the Ambassador's displays of public anger were primarily about saving his own skin.
Does it matter that the killing of Kim Jong-nam and North Korea's thuggish behaviour towards Malaysia have worsened Pyongyang's reputation as a feral pariah? It matters less in the West, where sanctions are fully extended. But the spectacle of North Korea bullying a similar-sized Asian country could have an impact where it matters most: within the non-aligned cohort.
North Korea cannot claim to be underdog in this fight. Indeed, the episode should trigger alarms for other neutrals concerned about the potential for North Korean skullduggery on their turf. Malaysia itself would have done better to recall the 1983 bombing of South Korea's cabinet in Rangoon before granting North Korea visa-free access.
The strength of the Malaysian response, although plainly excessive in breaching the Vienna Convention, offers a hopeful sign that Kuala Lumpur has been belatedly shocked out of its complacency. Since visa-free entry was extended, Malaysia has become a key economic hub for North Korea, including remittances from labourers in construction and mining, numbering perhaps thousands at their peak (I once stumbled upon a North Korean construction team on holiday at a resort hotel in Sarawak).
A laissez-faire attitude also enabled unscrupulous, well-connected Malaysians to profit by selling military hardware to Pyongyang, as recently exposed by the Glocom scandal. Malaysia has previously cooperated with Western governments to thwart the export of illicit goods, but never to the extent of uprooting North Korean networks taking advantage of the country as an operating base. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, 315 North Koreans currently remain. A surprisingly high total of 193 North Koreans are supposedly registered in the Malaysia My Second Home Program, although this figure needs to be verified.
One observer attributes Malaysia's robust official reaction to the application of public relations lessons learned from the ineffectual response to the MH-370 episode, when China put Malaysia under intense pressure. Politics is surely part of the explanation too. Prime Minister Najib faces an election later this year and North Korea's chest-thumping since Kim Jong Nam's killing provides a perfect sounding board for toughness. It is undoubtedly less risky than standing up to China. In fact, by offering its good graces, China potentially stands to gain from Najib's professed interest in a 'quick solution' to the diplomatic standoff with Pyongyang. The Prime Minister may feel a domestic political imperative to cut a swift deal to secure the release of the remaining Malaysians in North Korea, in exchange for allowing some North Koreans through Malaysia's legal dragnet.
By offering its services, Beijing has an opportunity to increase its stockpile of leverage over Najib – always a handy strategic resource in the South China Sea. And having backed itself into corner with an unusually strident Kuala Lumpur, even Pyongyang may be reluctantly forced to engage China as the best bet of cutting its losses on another broken friendship.
It was recently reported that New Zealand and Singapore are conducting a feasibility study into basing F-15SG multi-role fighters at Ohakea Air Base, on North Island. If the proposal succeeds, up to 500 Singaporean personnel would be stationed at Ohakea to support a detachment, if not a full squadron, of Singapore’s most potent combat aircraft.
The proposal, though still nascent, neatly captures a historical power shift. As noted by IISS-Asia Director Tim Huxley on Twitter, when Singapore became independent in 1965, Canberra bombers from New Zealand’s Air Force were defending the fledgling city state against the ongoing Confrontation from Sukarno’s Indonesia. Singapore had to acquire its own army, navy and air force practically from scratch.
New Zealand kept an army battalion on the island until 1989, the last of the Commonwealth powers to leave. Its navy still plays a logistical role, with Britain’s Royal Navy, in supplying fuel to the US Navy from Singapore, while a New Zealand Naval Task Group will sail there to take part in a Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) exercise this April. Yet half a century later, how the tables have turned in the air domain. New Zealand, with neither bombers nor fast jets in its air inventory, is now vying to host F-15s in service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).
When Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was asked if the initiative could spur New Zealand to re-establish an air combat arm, his blunt answer was 'definitely not'. It would be an exaggeration to say that New Zealand’s most prized air assets are an under-utilised airfield and empty skies, but it would not be inaccurate in the Singaporean context.
Singapore, by contrast, now possesses by far the most formidable air force in Southeast Asia. The RSAF will soon complete delivery of 40 F-15SGs on order from the US, formed into two Singapore-based squadrons, out of five fighter/ground attack squadrons in total. Some RSAF F-15SGs are based in Idaho for joint training with the US, and it is unlikely this arrangement would be affected if the New Zealand proposal eventuates.
Chronically short of space, Singapore has a web of overseas military training arrangements in place, conducting its basic flight training in Australia and advanced jet training in France. It is also looking to conduct training in Guam. The most significant of these arrangements is with Australia, poised for a major expansion under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), as I wrote about in depth last year. Singapore’s army already trains in New Zealand under a 2009 Defence Cooperation Arrangement, centering on artillery live-firing at the Waiouru Training Area. Although Ohakea lacks nearby instrumented weapons ranges, access to unrestricted airspace, over land and water, would potentially enable the RSAF’s F-15SG pilots to hone their skills in maritime strike missions, as well as the F-15’s better-known air superiority role.
It is unlikely that New Zealand was Singapore’s first choice for basing F-15s overseas. RAAF Darwin was probably the preferred location. That would have given Singapore access to the nearby Delamere Air Weapons Range, and an easier pathway to interact with Singaporean units training in northern Queensland during two large-scale annual field exercises that will involve up to 14,000 personnel. Darwin would also be a better geographical fit for Singapore than Ohakea, being within ferry range for the F-15SG. Ohakea is more than double the distance, requiring refueling en route. The RSAF could employ its aerial tankers for this purpose in emergency. Otherwise, staging F-15s through Northern Australia to and from New Zealand could potentially offer the RSAF the best of both worlds from a training perspective. Singaporean F-15s are no stranger to the Northern Territory, as regular participants in the biennial Pitch Black exercise.
Air combat training was discussed between Australia and Singapore during the CSP negotiations, but is not currently part of the expanded defence relationship.
One factor may have been noise, an existing issue for fast-jet operations at Darwin. Although RAAF Bases Darwin, Tindal and other defence facilities in Northern Australia are being modernised, capacity may have been another constraint on the RSAF option, because the RAAF’s basing infrastructure must accommodate not only Australia’s scaled-up air fleet but also an enhanced US Air Force and US Marine Corps aerial presence under the Alliance Force Posture Initiative.
As an indicator of the RSAF’s interest in trying out the concept, a pair of F-15SGs were at Ohakea this week for New Zealand’s air tattoo. More substantively, the two defence ministers met in January and agreed to meet annually. Singapore’s defence chief then visited Ohakea in February. A joint statement released by the defence ministers sent a clear signal of intensified defence relations to come. In a personal statement, Minister Brownlee went as far as to flatter Singapore as 'New Zealand’s closest defence partner in Southeast Asia'. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper only describes the city state as Canberra’s 'most advanced' defence partner in the sub-region.
So, is Brownlee’s description of the partnership as a 'strategic alliance' justified? While Singaporean F-15s based in New Zealand would certainly elevate the defence relationship to a new level, caution is needed in applying the 'strategic' label to tactical take-aways for the RSAF. A strategic case can be made for the kind of geographical depth that New Zealand and Australia offer a vulnerable city state like Singapore. But Brownlee was also clear that Ohakea 'would be a Singapore operation entirely'.
While both capitals are keen to couch the bilateral defence relationship in the broader context of the FPDA and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus framework, a basing agreement without a substantial bilateral training component (as is the case with the Australia-Singapore CSP) does not meet the threshold of 'strategic' cooperation, however capable the F-15SG is as an air dominance platform. As was the case 50 years ago, the plain geo-strategic fact is that substance of defence cooperation counts for much more in Southeast Asia than it does in New Zealand.
Yesterday afternoon International Security Program Director Euan Graham spoke with prominent Japanese Sinologist Seiichiro Takagi, Senior Research Advisor at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, on the Chinese Communist Party's upcoming 19th National Congress, President Xi Jinping's relationship with the People's Liberation Army, how the Trump Administration is influencing regional security in Asia, Japan's future role in the region, and Japan's bilateral relationships with China, the US and Australia.
As the new US administration considers how to respond to China’s strategic challenge in the South China Sea, it must also grapple with the legal, political and operational complexities to the freedom of navigation issue. A strategic focus on China should not obscure significant differences among Southeast Asian countries on military navigation and overflight, limiting their potential support. These factors are also important for Australia to consider.
China’s harassment and close interception of US ships and aircraft undertaking surveillance operations within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been a longstanding friction point in US-China relations, one that pre-dates Beijing’s island construction campaign in the South China Sea. Beijing does not recognise such surveillance as lawful, although the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) permits it.
More recently, Beijing has vociferously protested freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US Navy in the South China Sea aimed at challenging excessive maritime claims in the Spratly and Paracel micro-archipelagos. These surface operations, four in all since October 2015, were not aimed at contesting sovereignty per se, and were ineffective in reversing China’s artificial island-building. The Obama administration’s fitful, somewhat haphazard approach to asserting freedom of navigation attracted criticism from the start, and growing consternation since.
China is reported to be considering amendments to domestic legislation that would further deter foreign warships from entering 'Chinese waters' uninvited. The geographical scope of China’s claims in the South China Sea remains ambiguous, notwithstanding a sweeping legal defeat at the Hague arbitral tribunal court last July. Concerns remain that China could declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.
While a continuing focus on China is understandable, excessive claims and passage restrictions by Southeast Asian coastal states have received insufficient attention as a result. This, despite the fact that US FONOPs in the South China Sea were expressly meant to challenge Southeast Asian claimants as well as China.
In Southeast Asia only Singapore and Brunei, both small states with limited maritime jurisdictional claims, take a position on freedom of navigation that closely resembles Western maritime states. Singapore is conspicuously outspoken, identifying freedom of navigation as an 'existential issue', though it has stopped short of engaging in operational demonstrations along US lines. Elsewhere, the record is mixed including those states embroiled in territorial disputes with China.
First, Vietnam’s practice of drawing strait baselines (where a state’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea is measured from) is among the most egregious in Southeast Asia, pushing its territorial sea out well beyond the coastline in places. Vietnam has previously insisted on prior notification for innocent passage within its territorial sea. However, Hanoi is trending in the right direction, progressively aligning its domestic maritime statutes with international law. Vietnam has not protested US FONOPs and upholds the right of innocent passage within the territorial sea.
Second, Indonesia, together with the Philippines, was a major beneficiary of UNCLOS. Both won recognition as archipelagic states that allowed them to draw straight baselines between their outermost islands and enclose these waters as territorial seas. The quid pro quo in UNCLOS was that archipelagic states should grant unrestricted access to ships and aircraft through designated sea lanes, a process that both Jakarta and Manila have only partially completed.
Indonesia’s initial reaction to the recent US FONOPs was frosty, influenced by a deep angst about foreign military activities within the archipelago. President Joko Widodo’s recently reported willingness to discuss joint South China Sea patrols with Prime Minister Turnbull belies a deeper ambivalence. Jakarta’s attitude towards overflight of its airspace is if anything pricklier, as demonstrated by repeated intercepts, including of non-military aircraft, and a festering dispute with Singapore over control of the Flight Information Region that regulates civilian passenger flights east of Changi airport.
Indonesia is believed to have drawn up high-level plans for its own ADIZ last year. ADIZs carry no international legal force, being originally designed as a Cold War early-warning measure to discriminate between benign and hostile aircraft approaching national airspace. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia to have a formal ADIZ, but for years has lacked aircraft to enforce it. Capacity constraints would similarly limit the practical effect of an Indonesia-wide ADIZ, even if Jakarta were to announce one. But the political consequences would still be serious, since an ADIZ declaration would perturb Indonesia’s neighbours, including Australia, and probably upset the US given its increasing interest in operating combat aircraft from Northern Australia. Worst of all, China would be gifted a golden opportunity to react in kind by declaring its own ADIZ in the South China Sea, with more obvious strategic overtones.
Third, Singapore is among those worried about potential restrictions on military navigation and overflight reportedly under consideration by Malaysia. Since ratifying UNCLOS, Kuala Lumpur has claimed a dubious authority to restrict military activities within its EEZ, while maintaining straight baselines that it is not entitled to. Malaysia, to be fair, has responsibly and consistently upheld international navigation and safety in the Malacca Strait. But there are concerns that Kuala Lumpur plans to illegitimately restrict the transit of submarines within its EEZ and to limit military access to surrounding airspace. This should be concerning not only for Singapore, but Malaysia’s other partners within the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). These include Australia, which stages maritime surveillance flights out of the Peninsula and participates in regular FPDA exercises that extend into the South China Sea.
The US and its partners therefore face an uphill challenge if they aim to garner support for a regional order that enshrines navigational access and overflight for foreign militaries across Southeast Asia. The vast majority of the region’s maritime domain is already subject to some form of jurisdictional claim, including overlapping and excessive claims.
Concern not to incur China’s wrath reinforces caution on the South China Sea in particular. Yet creeping jurisdiction is a broader coastal-state phenomenon, driven by security and economic nationalist imperatives. It is the case that maritime Southeast Asian states increasingly fear Chinese encroachment from the South China Sea, but appetite to cooperate on freedom of navigation is still inhibited by local distrust of immediate neighbours, as well lingering unease about intervention by Western maritime powers.