Wednesday 02 Dec 2020 | 14:10 | SYDNEY
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  • 2 Dec 2020 12:00

    India’s farmers take on Modi

    The tactics that have allowed the Modi government to enforce unpopular new laws may not work this time.

  • 2 Dec 2020 10:00

    Al-Qaeda: The core problem

    The killing of senior terrorist Abu Mohammed al-Masri on a Tehran street raises questions about al-Qaeda’s ties to Iran.

  • 2 Dec 2020 06:00

    A false start for PNG-Bougainville consultations

    The post-referendum process stalled after a delegation arrived in Port Moresby, only to have the meeting cancelled.

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

North Korea’s diplomatic dispute with Malaysia: No more Mr Underdog

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.

Singapore’s strike eagles show up flightless kiwis

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.

Quick comment: Seiichiro Takagi on China, Trump and Japan-Australia relations

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.

Southeast Asia’s neglected navigational and overflight challenges

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.

Quick comment: US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky on F-22 operations in northern Australia

Late last year, PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris revealed in his lecture to the Lowy Institute that the US planned to operate F-22 Raptors out of Australia in 2017.

This afternoon the Lowy Institute's International Security Program Director Euan Graham spoke with David Skalicky, a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force who is currently operating the F-22 out of RAAF Base Tindal, about the experience of piloting the aircraft in Australia, the difference between it and other platforms Skalicky has operated, and the Australian exchange pilot currently flying in Skalicky's squadron.

A question for alliance critics: What's your alternative?

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the National Press Club in Canberra on 21 February, 2017, in a panel discussion with Sir Angus Houston. The full text can be found here, and a video of the event here.

It is easy to be troubled by Donald Trump and the unpredictability of his Presidency. Many of us are. Those who recognise the enduring importance of the alliance to Australia have some challenging tasks ahead. 

One is to explain and advocate the alliance regardless of President Trump, and to remind at every turn that the alliance is more robust and lasting than any one administration. Another task, of course, is to look dispassionately at the facts, and to ensure that this state of affairs remains true. A third task is to steer Australia’s policy settings in a way that helps us weather the turbulence of this era. Thus: more resilience, more self-reliance, a deepening and diversification of our security relations, building a strategic web with Japan, India and others to bind and complement US allies. And a fourth mission is to do what we can to shape the choices of the US, and of others, to defend regional stability.

There is a story to be told better at home. Government and business need to directly explain and champion the importance to Australia of our comprehensive ties to the US, including in priority domains like cyber security, as well as in investment and defence.

Certainly there is a need for better public awareness about the alliance, especially in a post-truth era, where the new trend is towards mass misinformation by those opposed to liberal democracy and a rules-based order. We saw Russia’s interference in America last year. We underestimate how vulnerable a country such as Australia could be to sustained, well-resourced propaganda and misinformation aimed at undermining our security and the alliance.

So our politicians, policymakers and opinion leaders need to do more to tell the public precisely why and how the US-backed alliance system is in our interests. This will require engaging directly with the arguments of those who criticise the alliance and who understandably worry about Trump.

The challenge ahead is how to preserve and protect the alliance through a difficult phase. It may well be a different world, and a different America, that emerges from these years. But the alliance will still have an enormous amount to offer Australia. And we have to face the reality that for the foreseeable future, we do not have other options.

Our interests are extensive and our capabilities cannot protect them all. Australia provides security for a continent and its offshore territories. We are the security provider of last resort for much of the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. We have zones of maritime responsibility across much of the Indian and Southern Oceans. We are responsible for 43% of Antarctica. We rely acutely on lifelines of trade, investment, information and people across the Indo-Pacific. We rely on a rules-based order in which the rights of small and medium powers are respected.

The fact that our interests outweigh our capabilities places a premium on partnerships. And to attract and consolidate links with partners, including the US alliance, Australia needs credibility. That means it needs its own core strength, its own capabilities, its own strategic weight. We need the capacity to do things for our own security, and to demonstrate this.

That’s why it makes sense for Australia to be able to contribute to regional and global coalitions for common security interests, whether it is the fight against ISIS or shared humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Governments are good at telling the public how strong and effective our national security is, how much our defence force is capable of doing. But there is much our defence force cannot do alone. And even with the ambitious but generally realistic plans under the Defence White Paper, limits will remain. A degree of military self-reliance in combat is not the same as being able to operate entirely without our US ally, which will continue to provide much of the technology, interoperability, intelligence and targeting a self-reliant combat force will need. And it will be many years before our new regionally superior submarine fleet is operational. 

Maybe Government and Opposition have to be somewhat bolder in explaining to the Australian people just what would be the limits of Australia’s security without the US. It is easy and, for some, politically tempting to say we need to begin thinking about Australian security without America. But this appraisal needs to be honest. It needs to include suggestions of what a viable national security strategy (defence, diplomacy, intelligence and social resilience) would look like without the US.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary we hear is light on such practicalities. The onus needs to be on the critics of the alliance to offer realistic alternatives. Likewise, friends of the alliance need to set out a realistic plan for helping Australia and the alliance adjust to the difficult times ahead.

Will the Western Pacific’s long peace endure?

The security picture in the Western Pacific is marked by maritime boundary disputes, nationalist enmities and rapidly modernising militaries. Against that backdrop, the prolonged absence of war between states poses an analytical conundrum. How has the region stayed so peaceful for so long?

Fortunately, peace has held among the major powers across this pivotal region for over a generation, enabling economic development on a scale that is the envy of the rest of the world. Yet if peace breaks down, it would dwarf the conflagrations of the Middle East.

Consider that Japan’s post-war military has not fired a shot in anger throughout its existence. Not once. China has not battled another state head-on since the border conflict with Vietnam in the late 1970s, and a more limited clash in the South China Sea in 1988. On the Korean Peninsula, the armistice in place since 1953 has episodically come under violent strain. But it has never broken. Southeast Asia has a number of long-running internal conflicts, and cross-border and boundary disputes which occasionally flash hot. But the last major state-on-state armed conflict ended in the 1980s with Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia.

Some scholars, notably Muthiah Alagappa, argue that Asia’s declining incidence of inter-state conflict is structural in nature, as post-colonial states have stabilised politically and developed economically. A reinforcing argument asserts that the high cost of war (potentially nuclear war between the US and China) has made force obsolete for resolving disputes, especially given the region’s high level of economic inter-dependence.

The counter-argument, put by Hugh White among others, is that the region’s US-centric security order faces an unprecedented revisionist challenge from a great power, China, intent on acquiring capabilities to match this ambition, at least regionally. The cheek-by-jowl presence of the US, China and other heavily armed military powers in Northeast Asia means conflict there could escalate into general war even if the spark is local and accidental, especially since effective crisis-management machinery is not in place.

Peace is of course a good thing, yet the fact that the Western Pacific has been free of war between states in recent times potentially adds a ratcheting dynamic to the risk of armed conflict, since the use of military force, once initiated, will command a heightened ‘demonstration premium’ among the major powers, particularly those whose armed forces lack any recent meaningful combat experience. This is particularly acute for China and North Korea. Defeat is not a good look for any nation. But in non-democratic societies in particular,  escalating to a successful outcome may be a rational temptation for commanders if the alternative spells personal as well as political oblivion.

Another point that does not receive the attention it deserves is that the US, despite being the region’s acknowledged guarantor of security, has not engaged in a single combat operation throughout the 100 million square miles of the Pacific Command since May 1975. Not once. Contrast this with the fact that America’s two bloodiest post-1945 conflicts were both fought on China’s periphery, in Korea and Vietnam.

What explains this disjuncture in America’s regional record?

Is it simply that Western Pacific states learned to shun military force as an instrument of external policy, as potential spoilers of the regional 'rules-based order' were held in check by America’s forward deployed capabilities, its network of alliances and security partners? In Southeast Asia, it has been argued that the normative security paradigm has shifted permanently, relegating armed conflict among ASEAN’s members to minor cross-border scrapes of the Thailand-Cambodia variety, or non-lethal maritime jousting. It is difficult to fathom circumstances under which Indonesia would again choose to confront its neighbours militarily, even if Jakarta experiences reversals in economic growth and democratic governance.

Or has the US itself been deterred? Turning to Northeast Asia, a close examination of the US record on North Korea suggests that Washington’s long abstinence from the use of military force in the Western Pacific reflects a more complicated reality than just successful US deterrence and regional economic development. As far back as the late 1960s, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, holding its crew hostage for a year. The following year Pyongyang shot down an unarmed US surveillance aircraft. These and subsequent incidents caused multiple military fatalities. Yet the US did not retaliate. In 2010, North Korea attacked Washington’s South Korean ally twice, causing military and civilian casualties for South Korea. Not only did the US not respond militarily, it pressured Seoul, which was on the receiving end of North Korean provocations, not to retaliate.

Successive US administrations have continuously engaged in coercive signaling, through military exercises and reactive deployments directed usually at North Korea and China. Washington’s alliances with South Korea and Japan have not only endured, they have strengthened and deepened. Yet the historical record demonstrates that the US has been deterred from using force. Moreover, US strategic forbearance in the face of North Korean aggression even held during the post-Cold War era, the supposed zenith of US hegemony in Asia. Pyongyang’s ability to hold Seoul hostage because of its proximity to the DMZ is one well-known constraining factor on US military options on the Peninsula. Pyongyang’s breakneck nuclear and long-range missile development now threatens to unleash a more direct and fundamental deterrent.

But although these explanations of North Korea’s deterrent capabilities are valid, they miss the wider strategic point that Pyongyang has escaped US retaliation and pre-emption because it enjoys protection from China. Beijing is not always happy about this, since its recalcitrant ally has mastered how to exploit living in China’s strategic shadow even at the expense of Beijing’s security interests (eg. by developing missile capabilities that have encouraged Japan and a reluctant South Korea to join the US-led missile defence network). Without China next door, North Korea simply could not have evaded US military punishment as perfectly as it has. It is a feat unmatched among state adversaries of the US, all the more glaring when North Korea is uniformly regarded as America’s number-one enemy, according to a recent public opinion poll reported by the New York Times.

Proximity to China alone is no guarantee of inviolability. The fact that Afghanistan shares a land border with China was no bar to US-led intervention in 2001. But those were exceptional circumstances that did not challenge Beijing’s core strategic interests. By contrast, China intervened directly in the Korean War and opened critical supply lines with Communist forces during the Vietnam War. Washington’s rapprochement with China was the necessary geopolitical precondition for the US military withdrawal from Indochina. It is surely significant that the US has not used force in Northeast or Southeast Asia since; nor in the sea or airspace surrounding China, including the South and East China seas.


At a time when the prospect of US military adventurism in the South China Sea and other regional flashpoints is enjoying so much attention, it is important to consider the peculiar dynamics that account for the prolonged if somewhat edgy peace in the Western Pacific, in particular the very high bar on the use of armed force between states in place since the end of the Vietnam War.

The constraints that have deterred the application of US military force in the Western Pacific for over four decades will continue to apply in the face of China’s across-the-board military modernisation and ongoing improvements to North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities.

But it is already clear that the Trump administration aims to inject deliberate uncertainty about US strategic intentions in Asia, and towards China especially. Also, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his most recent remarks on the South China Sea, there is now a greater willingness on the part of the US to 'accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms.' Such willingness is likely to be one of the major contrasts with the Obama Administration’s risk-averse approach, in which conflict avoidance appeared to be the overriding priority. This sometimes came at the expense of US credibility, as at Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Moreover, the deliberate unpredictability of the Trump Administration about US intentions injects an insidious risk into regional security. Combined with the genuinely unpredictable temperament of the new commander-in-chief, such uncertainty could destabilise the region as allies and adversaries struggle to adjust. The trigger for conflict is more likely to come from an over-confident Beijing or Pyongyang that misreads Trump’s isolationist instincts for a latter-day US paper tiger intent on abandoning its traditional alliances.

The potential for such misperception is one major reason why I’m not confident that inter-state armed conflict has been banished from the region, and why I won't be surprised if the region’s long peace is shattered in the coming decade.  

Photo: PublicDomainPictures/18043

Australia and South Korea: Time to expand co-operation

This week the Lowy Institute's International Security Program, supported by the Korea Foundation, is hosting the Australia-Republic of Korea (ROK) Emerging Leaders International Security Forum in Sydney and Canberra, bringing together scholars and future policymakers focused on the bilateral security relationship. This is the first in a series of posts from Forum participants. 

The world as we know it is experiencing fundamental change. This is particularly true in the Indo-Pacific region, where two variables are providing a significant challenge to the familiar security-economic operating system that defines the parameters of our known world – the rise of China and strategic uncertainty about the course of US foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

In the security domain, China continues to assert its strategic and military presence, especially in the South China Sea. The Philippines' legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration last July has failed to deter China’s activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to build up its artificial facilities and to display, through military exercises, its existing and new capabilities such as the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Simultaneously, China is providing significant economic assistance to particular Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Malaysia, while attempting to mend its relationship with Vietnam through high level exchanges. But China’s economic assistance to Southeast Asia is just one part of its One Belt One Road vision, which goes beyond economic statecraft to provide a geopolitical, or geo-economic alternative, to existing regional and global governance.

China has every right to secure its strategic and economic interests. But the intent underlying its initiatives – to promote a Chinese alternative to the US-led international order – raises big questions for many of its neighbours. What is the Chinese alternative to the existing regional operating system (ROS) that has been the basis of the region’s peace and prosperity since the Second World War? Do we have faith and confidence in Beijing’s motives? Can China assure other regional countries that a Chinese alternative would safeguard their interests?

At the other end of the spectrum is the US. As Kurt Campbell argues in The Pivot, the US not only built the existing international order and regional operating system but has operated as its lynchpin since its inception. Of course, Washington did not build and operate this system purely out of altruistic intent. The system has served US interests as well. The US has provided security assurances to the region, championed free trade and open markets and buttressed several economies in the region, especially during the Cold War. Peace, democracy, free trade, and open economies have provided the fundamental base for the existing ROS underpinned by the US. Regional countries have largely benefitted from the system, although to varying degrees.

Now there are growing doubts about the role of the US as a defender of the system, especially since the election of Donald Trump. Will Trump’s America remain the defender of the existing order? More to the point, can he abandon those election promises which contradict the existing order and system? Will the long-touted declinist argument finally come to fruition? Perhaps, if not a complete decline, could it be part of a long-term downward trend for the US? Neither the US nor China have clear answers to these questions. Meanwhile, the competition between the two powers is increasing strategic tension, uncertainty, and dilemmas in the region.

At this juncture, we have to ask ourselves: can we afford to simply say things are going to be alright? Can we risk the deterioration or collapse of the ROS? Can we place our interests in the hands of others? The regional system we have today has brought peace, security, and economic prosperity to many regional countries. Without it, this peace and prosperity will come under threat.

Because of Sino-US power rivalry, regional countries have been in a strategic dilemma for the past ten years. Now they have to decide who can best serve their security and economic interests. There are three possible scenarios for a power rivalry: a dispute that turns the region into a battlefield; continuing tension that will subject regional countries to enduring strategic uncertainty; or a compromise that results in two spheres of influence. None of these scenarios are acceptable for regional countries.

Australia and South Korea must come together to safeguard the existing ROS and the interests of small and medium regional powers. Why is an Australia-South Korea partnership important? As likeminded 'constructive' middle powers, both have a similar strategic outlook. Both are committed to a rule based international and regional order, open economy with free trade, and universal values such as democracy and human rights. Australia and South Korea are partners in regional multilateral institutions including the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Moreover, Australia is one of only two countries with which South Korea has a 2+2 partnership. Finally, both Australia and South Korea are capable of economically, militarily, and politically contributing to the whole region and are willing to do so.

What do Australia and South Korea have to do to reduce strategic uncertainty and maintain the existing ROS? First, the 2+2 should be further expanded, as a vital platform for furthering Australia-South Korea cooperation across a broad policy spectrum (peacekeeping, defence exercise, education and training, defence science, non-proliferation, cyber security, police cooperation, border protection, maritime security and safety). Currently, the 2+2 focuses mainly on promoting functional cooperation, although the 'public goods' of cooperation are shared regionally. What is missing is a strategic discussion, consultation, and consensus on the landscape of the region; the central themes of which are the maintenance of the security and the economic futures through the ROS, as well as the impact of US-China relations.

Second, the two countries have to seriously foster strategic networks among regional small and medium powers. It is time for small and medium powers to go beyond either the existing US-led hub and spoke system or the Chinese alternative system whether it is OBOR or something else. While maintaining the existing relations with the US and China, small and medium regional powers have to form a denser, more interconnected, network of strategic cooperation. Australia’s National Security College recently published a report, calling for a resilient web of allies and partners in the region. I agree that we have to build an effective consultation and cooperation network among spoke countries in the region, but one which includes consideration of China. This is an advanced hedging strategy for small and medium regional powers that will not only secure and strengthen their interests, but also promote regional multilateralism.

Trump's CIA speech reveals a challenge to America's 'deep state'

Yesterday, in his first official engagement as President, Donald Trump visited CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where he gave a 15-minute televised speech in front of the Agency’s memorial wall to around 400 employees. The decision to visit the CIA, and to speak publicly, as virtually his first presidential act, is surely significant. To what end?

According to the Republican chair of the House committee on intelligence, Devin Nunes, the visit was scheduled in anticipation that Trump’s pick for CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, would have been sworn in. Pompeo’s appointment has yet to be confirmed, triggering a predictable swipe at Democrats from Trump. The President was no doubt also briefed during his visit to Langley. The fact that his speech still went ahead suggests he had more than Pompeo and ceremony in mind.

On the surface, Trump’s gushing support for the CIA ('I love you. I respect you') comes across as an attempt to bury the hatchet, following the public rancour between the president-elect and US intelligence community over Russian interference in the presidential election. On Twitter, Trump attributed media leaks to the intelligence community, making an inflammatory comparison to Nazi Germany. Trump also singled out the outgoing CIA Director, John Brennan, for criticism.

Trump’s speech, in contrast to the inauguration address, marked a return to the raw, unfiltered extemporising of the election campaign. In addition to praising himself, Trump lionised Pompeo and included raucous shout-outs to National Security Advisor John Michael Flynn, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, both present. Trump spent much of his remaining time riding a familiar hobby horse, attacking the 'dishonest media' for its coverage of the inauguration ceremony – a theme later to dominate Sean Spicer’s extraordinary, intemperate outburst in the first White House press briefing of the Trump presidency.

Despite abundant contrary evidence on his own Twitter account, Trump accused the media of misrepresenting his relationship with the intelligence community as a feud: 'I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number 1 stop is exactly the opposite'.

Trump declared he would give the CIA his full backing for a campaign to 'eradicate' IS 'off the face of the Earth', intimating that operational restraints on the Agency’s 'real abilities' will be relaxed. Beyond the threat of 'radical Islamic terrorism', Trump did not elaborate on other threats facing the US. The only reference to another state, was a typically Trumpian aside on Iraq ('So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe we’ll have another chance.').

While the audience of CIA employees was out of camera shot, for security reasons, clapping and cheering, presumably from a portion of the Agency’s rank and file, was clearly audible - although an indeterminate number of Trump’s own staff were also present. In a characteristic effort to claim the crowd's allegiance, Trump went as far as to claim that 'probably almost everybody in this room voted for me'. His assertion that 'we’re all on the same wavelength' was greeted by applause.

Trump’s egotistical stream-of-consciousness mode of delivery makes his unscripted speeches easy to dismiss, as ill-considered or buffoonish.

Outgoing Director John Brennan was said by a spokesman to be 'deeply saddened and angered' at Trump’s 'despicable display of self-aggrandisement'. At first sight, Trump’s attention to media coverage of his inauguration ceremony appears waywardly off-target for an address to the US Government’s premier intelligence body.

The written transcript allows for an alternative interpretation. Consider, in particular, Trump’s closing comments:

So I only like to say that because I love honesty. I like honest reporting. I will tell you the final time: although I will say it, when you let in your thousands of other people that had been trying to come in, because I am coming back.

We may have to get you a larger room. [laughter, applause] We may have to get you a larger room.

And maybe - maybe - it’ll be built by somebody that knows how to build and we won’t have columns [laughter] You understand that? We’d get rid of the columns.

I just wanted to really say that I love you. I respect you. There’s nobody that I respect more. You’re going to do a fantastic job. And we’re going to start winning again. And you’re going to be leading the charge.

So thank you all very much. Thank you, beautiful. Thank you all very much.

Have a good day.

I’ll be back. I’ll be back. Thank you.

Without being overly conspiratorially minded, it is possible to see within this a distinct double message. On one hand, Trump is expressing his support for the CIA rank and file, cracking jokes and venting off-topic frustrations with the media.

For the senior CIA leadership present, however, I believe Trump’s comments took on a painful 'dog whistle' pitch. They are likely to connect Trump’s media complaints and call for 'honest reporting' with the intelligence community’s ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. Indeed, shortly after Trump’s CIA visit, Devin Nunes announced to CNN that alleged leaks to the media are going to be investigated by Congress.

Trump’s line 'I will tell you the final time' could be read as an ultimatum. When he jokes about letting in 'thousands' of other CIA employees for his next visit, that sounds rather like an effort to play the Agency’s base off against its leadership. When Trump promises to 'get rid of the columns' and build the CIA 'a larger room' is he flippantly playing the property mogul, or is he putting the guardians of America’s most vaunted 'deep state' institution on notice that he can pull their temple down, unless they play ball?

Perhaps I am committing the analysts' sin of over-interpreting Mr Trump’s 'off-the-wall' comments. My hunch is I’m right in thinking that in Trump’s mind the media and the intelligence community are intimately connected, as arbiters of 'ground truth' to be tamed and controlled, in a world where truth is fungible, and where the wars that count most are wars of information.

If the CIA is to maintain its central role and independence under President Trump’s administration, deep thinking is required before he returns with the bulldozers.


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