Friday 29 May 2020 | 13:55 | SYDNEY
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About the project

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

Latest publications

Neil, an Australian terrorist

The detention of Neil Prakash is of significant interest to Australia but perhaps less so for other countries. At this point, so little is known among open sources about the circumstances of his capture that it is difficult to make definitive statements about what it means. There are certainly many upsides, but perhaps not as many as the public assumes.

Prakash was not an operational commander or senior figure within Islamic State and therefore his insights into much of the organisation will be limited or non-existent, however there are still multiple potential benefits from his capture. Building a coherent intelligence picture often involves piecing together enormous amounts of information from multiple sources, so whatever he gives up under questioning is likely to help in clarifying some piece of the Islamic State puzzle.

The first intel sought would be the circumstances of Prakash's arrival in Turkey: how he got there and, if it was with the help of IS, how the smuggling network functioned; what type of documents he obtained, and how; and, most importantly, what was his intended destination, contact and future role. Depending on when he was detained, that information may already have been gleaned and acted upon. Now his detention is public, IS will have shut down whatever network was being used.

Also important will be the exploitation of whatever electronic devices Prakash had with him to shed light on the terrorist networks with which he may be associated. And of course there is the whole question of his input into IS’s social media strategy, an arm of IS that has been significantly degraded but that is still fascinating, if only for its ability to attract recruits and inspire plots. Its importance as one of the coalition’s targeting lines of operation is evidenced in this NYT piece that was the first to publicly reveal Prakash’s detention. 

The most important aspect of his detention is that it removes an active online jihadi recruiter and promoter of terrorism. Prakash first surfaced in public in the English-language Islamic State recruitment video 'There is no life without jihad' released in July 2014 featuring British and Australian jihadis (his non-speaking part is at 7:35 on this video).

He went on to promote himself as a mirror image of those who he sought to recruit. 

His story was that he was an outsider in mainstream Australian society (just as his targets felt themselves to be) but he found meaning from Islam, gained a family amongst his Muslim brothers, and, in the vision he portrayed on social media, empowerment through the barrel of a gun. Also in his account is rejection of both the Australian government, that stopped brothers undertaking hijra (travel to fight with IS), and of Australian society that attacks Muslim women. It's a simple, easily understood story. But narratives need either a happy or heroic ending to be enduring. Prakasch is now detained in a Turkish facility and likely to be extradited by the country he betrayed to be put on trial and judged by 12 kuffar (unbelievers). It is not the ending he likely envisaged.

His social media profile and penchant for appearing in Islamic State videos should make his prosecution relatively straightforward compared to other foreign fighters who have tried to maintain low profiles in order to make gathering admissible evidence as difficult as possible. And while Prakash’s detention is a welcome, if small, tactical victory, the most senior Australian jihadi operating in Syria, whose capture would render a much greater intelligence bonus, the al-Qa‘ida aligned ideologue Mustafa Faraj (aka Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), remains active. Whether Western authorities get to him before he is killed remains to be seen. 

Trump and the Iran nuclear deal

The election of Donald Trump raises many uncertainties about the future direction of US foreign policy, including nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation. A major aspect of this is the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), concluded between Iran, the five permanent members of the Security Council, Germany and the European Union on 14 July 2015.

While the JCPOA by itself does not resolve the Iranian nuclear problem in the longer term, it is an important achievement. It curbs Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons for 15 years, thus defusing the immediate crisis and providing a breathing space in which to seek a lasting solution. As I argue in a paper just published by Harvard University, and also in my Lowy Interpreter post of April last year, it is absolutely essential for all parties to start working now on finding a long term solution, not only to the Iranian problem, but for controlling proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle around the world, avoiding similar crises in the future.

Republicans have criticised the deal from the outset. Trump has said variously that he would ‘dismantle’ the deal, that he would renegotiate it, and that he would ‘police (the deal) so tough they don’t have a chance.’ As Trump himself has conceded, it would be hard to change or walk away from on a deal that has been approved in a Security Council resolution. The deal has eight parties – if the US acts unilaterally this will alienate its negotiating partners, and the US will carry the blame for the collapse of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. We must hope that Trump's future advisers will see the sense of preserving the deal and building on it through engagement with Iran, rather than precipitating a new crisis.

Photo: Getty images/Washington Post

Dominoes in the South China Sea

First the Philippines, now Malaysia is being drawn deeper into China's orbit.

Are dominoes teetering again in Southeast Asia? The limitations of that metaphor were clear in the Cold War, and are even more so now given the region’s much greater geopolitical fluidity.

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

Law of the sea: Activist judges open a pandora's box

The recent judgement by the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the nature of the features in the South China Sea caused some stir in both foreign ministries and among international lawyers, and not just because it favoured the Philippines. In rejecting China’s ‘dashed line’, the five judges took a robust approach that included a much more restricted definition of an ‘island’ (with an accompanying ability to generate extended maritime zones) than many expected. So restricted is this definition that it may have implications for the status of many features so far largely accepted as being ‘islands’, including some Australian claims.

However, an earlier opinion given by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in April 2015 may be even more significant. In 2013 the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission, representing six West African nations, sought an opinion on the responsibilities and obligations of states in relation to their flag vessels fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other countries. The tribunal interpreted a clause within its own regulations to say that it was indeed able to render an advisory opinion on the matter and did so. This was the first time the full tribunal had issued such an opinion since it came into being in 1996.

The advisory opinion itself brought some clarity to the responsibilities of nation states and stated that there was a requirement for ‘due diligence’ on the part of the flag state concerned to ensure that its vessels were not fishing illegally in the maritime zones of other countries. Given that this was largely based on well-established precedents (notably the case of the Confederate raider Alabama during the American civil war, an affair in which the ship’s sojourn in Australia played a significant part), the opinion itself is largely constructive in effect.

However, the tribunal went much further and declared that its rules allowed for any two nations to jointly seek an advisory opinion from the tribunal as to the meaning of any element of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). That the judges view themselves as a key part of the evolution of the law of the sea was reflected in the opinion of one that ‘the Convention is regarded as the constitution of the oceans and, in my opinion, is akin to (comparable with) a national constitution. Therefore, it must "grow" in accordance with the times.’

This has profound implications, particularly as the same opinion noted that the tribunal had a role in removing ambiguity. Yet many aspects of the 1982 Convention are deliberately ambiguous. This created sufficient room for manoeuvre for countries that had widely differing views over several aspects of the new maritime domains regime. Such deliberate ambiguity was as much part of the package that allowed so many countries to accede to the new convention as any of the new elements set out in the text, such as the Archipelagic regime and the EEZ.

In the future, it will be possible for an advisory opinion to define some of the most vexed questions of the LOSC. This could include, for example, the nature of ‘normal mode’ for the transit of submarines through archipelagic sea lanes and whether surveillance and intelligence operations are possible within the EEZs of other nations with ‘due regard’ to the interests of the coastal state involved. While advisory opinions may not be formally binding, they will nonetheless have significant weight. And they will, in both the cases above, have significant strategic implications.

The result can only be deep unhappiness on the part of the nation state whose interpretation of the LOSC a particular advisory opinion does not support. The Convention was achieved by consensus among nation states; judicial activism as a leading element in the evolution of the law of the sea will be something new and potentially destabilising - environmental organisations which grasp the implications of the tribunal’s decision may well urge various states to approach the tribunal. An associated result of the activist position taken by the judges is that it makes US ratification of the 1982 Convention even more unlikely. This sort of external control of the meaning of the LOSC, for that is how it will be viewed, is exactly the sort of thing the US has rejected in the past.

Australia was one of the states which disputed the tribunal’s authority to provide an advisory opinion as it did in April 2015. It looks as though our law officers were quite right. A Pandora’s Box is opening.

Photo: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood

What the Philippines and Australia can learn from Vietnam about living with China

It is early days, granted, but the Philippines' crude and crass new president Rodrigo Duterte appears increasingly intent on reversing his predecessor's plucky South China Sea policy and pro-Alliance leanings, opting instead for a tilt towards China.

The Philippines' proclivity to flip-flop in its great power relations reflects various factors. One is the absence of a strategic tradition. This is evident in the priority accorded by Duterte to domestic challenges over external security, even when the latter extends to China's strategic encroachment within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, a legal violation explicitly flagged by The Hague arbitral ruling. Another is the disproportionate attention occupied by the US, Manila's treaty ally. This has a distorting quality, be it along 'pro' or 'anti' alliance lines.

At a conference I attended recently, a Filipino participant argued that geographical 'proximity' compels Manila to be more accommodating towards China following five years of tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea. Vietnam offers an instructive contrast on this point, and not only for the Philippines.

Vietnam shares a 1200-kilometre land border with China, demarcated by mutual agreement. Even a negotiated land border puts a very different complexion on the bilateral relationship. Although Vietnam came off better from the 1979 border war with China, Hanoi must live, uniquely among Southeast Asia's South China Sea territorial claimants, with that heightened strategic vulnerability. Beijing could, if it wished, position forces on the border to pressure Hanoi in a crisis. China's air force bears no comparison to 1979. Hainan Province, where many of China's most-advanced naval and air assets are already concentrated, flanks the north Vietnamese coast in semi-encirclement. Hanoi is 173 kilometres from the Chinese border – approximately the distance from Canberra to Bowral – and would be immediately vulnerable if general hostilities broke out.

If proximity was the deciding factor, Vietnam should be more subservient to China than it is. Instead, the country has demonstrated very high tolerance of strategic risk, including during the confrontation over China's positioning of an energy rig within disputed waters in 2014. Vietnam chose to escalate in that case by mobilising its modest maritime forces to face down the rig and accompanying Chinese forces over a two-month standoff, during which the risk of collision and confrontation was constant. In the end, China backed down.

In an all-out conflict, Vietnam's armed forces have little hope of prevailing against China's PLA. Nonetheless, Hanoi has directed scarce resources to maritime and air acquisitions in recent years, giving Vietnam's navy and air force sharpened teeth with the aim of fielding a credible conventional deterrent. Vietnam is now the eighth-largest arms importer. The civilianised coast guard has also undergone expansion, receiving external assistance, as is the case in the Philippines.

This ambitious capability build-up in Vietnam is being carried out despite defence spending that is roughly equal to Malaysia in dollar terms and only slightly higher than the Philippines. Yet in capability terms, there is no comparison: the Philippine Air Force has only recently re-introduced jets into service after a lengthy gap, while the navy's frontline combatant is a US-gifted, refitted Coast Guard cutter built during the Vietnam War. Duterte aims to reverse this long-overdue modernisation trend towards external defence, re-emphasising counter-insurgency as the armed forces' primary function.

Beyond the deterrent value of raising costs for China in a military sense, Vietnam understands the complex interplay between diplomacy and military power. This includes psychological aspects, above all the capacity for independent action that is embodied in a national defence capability maintained at high readiness. Vietnam's defence inventory includes Israeli-made radars, Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, Su-27 and Su-30MK2 strike aircraft and Kilo submarines equipped with land-attack cruise missiles. This resembles a thrifty but still potent version of China's own 'anti-access' and sea denial dispositions vis-à-vis the US.

Hanoi further avoids the flip-flop mentality by maintaining depth to its international relations, averting dependence on a single ally, and ensuring that alternatives are available when a comprehensive strategic partner like Russia proves unreliable. This cultivation of strategic bandwidth, a trait Hanoi shares with Singapore, extends beyond defence and diplomacy. Vietnam consciously pursues diversified economic partners, courting investment from a wide base and 'strategic' agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to balance its trade dependence on China. Hanoi closely tracked the Philippine legal case against China in the South China Sea, hinting it will launch proceedings of its own if pushed too far.

History naturally pervades Vietnam's strategic behaviour. Not simply in the folk-memory sense of resisting and ultimately prevailing against materially superior forces in wars with France, the US and, for much of Vietnam's independent history, China. These struggles have conditioned the Vietnamese polity to calculate strategic risk, and to embrace it. Relative to past sacrifices, the risk of standing up to China in the South China Sea appears acceptable. Intuitively, Hanoi grasps that an approach based simply on conflict avoidance and de-escalation with China is doomed to failure.

Vietnam's real trick lies in showing that it is possible to have a coherent approach towards China that combines competition, with bouts of confrontation, and sustained political engagement. Hotlines can go unanswered and its envoys are sometimes cold-shouldered. But channels, including inter-Party, are generally maintained in a complicated relationship that respects coexistence, however grudgingly, in spite of strategic distrust, disputes and tensions in the South China Sea. Enemies can be forgiven but neighbours are permanent.

Vietnam and the Philippines draw from divergent traditions and cultures, but as Manila currently lurches between the great powers in search of an 'independent' foreign policy, it should look to its strategic partner across the South China Sea, for clear-eyed lessons on the realities of self-reliance, defending the national interest and living at close quarters with strategic risk. Even faraway Australia, now feeling the pressures of strategic competition in the region more directly and prone to looking through an alliance prism, could usefully take a page out of Vietnam's book on how to manage a broad-spectrum relationship with Beijing that includes both cooperation and competition. 

Tactical nuclear weapons in the modern nuclear era

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Brendan Thomas-Noone argues that advances in technology are making tactical nuclear weapons more precise and potentially more usable. He argues that new arms control measures are needed to promote greater transparency about the development of these weapons.

Photo: United States Department of Defense/SSGT Phil Schmitten


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