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

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Missed opportunities at the Australia-Japan summit

Although it took place at Kirribilli House, just around the corner from where I live, I can unfortunately claim no inside information on last weekend’s Sydney summit between Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Shinzo Abe. From this nosy neighbour’s reading though, the outcomes on defence and security cooperation fell substantially short of the relationship’s potential.

The main defence 'deliverable' announced was an upgrade to the existing Japan-Australia acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA). In addition, both sides pledged to deepen training and joint operations through a 'reciprocal access agreement' between Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to be concluded later this year.

Although Abe and Turnbull met at the ASEAN summit in Vientiane last September, this was the Japanese Prime Minister’s first visit to Australia since 2014, and the first summit between the two leaders since the Turnbull Cabinet’s decision to award Australia’s future submarine contract to France. In that context, it is surprising there was not more ambition to deepening bilateral defence cooperation.

Defence professionals would understand that an upgraded ACSA constitutes a low bar for cooperation between the two US allies with probably the greatest potential for strategic partnership in the Western Pacific. The main augmentation to the 2013 ACSA will allow the SDF to supply ammunition to ADF where they operate alongside in UN peacekeeping operations and joint exercises. While welcome, this looks like a largely symbolic commitment, although the two militaries do operate similar (though not identical) weapons systems.

It is well known that Abe felt the disappointment of the submarine decision personally. In the awkward aftermath, Japanese defence officials uncharacteristically let it be known that they felt misled by the Australian Government. While it is also the case that some defence officials and industrialists in Japan were privately relieved that the Japanese bid fell through, many still expected at least a face-saving commitment by Australia to collaborate with Japan’s defence industry at some level. Mitsubishi, after all, opened a new representative office in Australia partly in anticipation of winning defence business not only relating to submarines.

Shared concern about China’s creeping takeover of the South China Sea, or the risk that the incoming Trump administration might dilute US defence treaty commitments ought, logically, to be spurring Canberra and Tokyo into greater activity. Yet beyond the above agreements and passing reference to North Korea and the South China Sea, there wasn’t much concrete evidence to support this from Saturday’s press conference. A joint statement reportedly goes somewhat further, expressing ‘serious concern’ about the South China Sea.

It is of course possible that areas of defence cooperation deemed too sensitive for public release were discussed between Mr Abe and Mr Turnbull. However, I suspect that the weekend summit failed to deliver any significant advance in defence and security cooperation for the more basic reason that Australia and Japan are currently more united in mutual caution than shared strategic ambition for the bilateral defence relationship. What might account for this?

On Japan’s side, since Tokyo’s acute threat perceptions towards China have hardly moderated, Abe could have elected to moderate his ambitions for a strategic partnership with Australia, judging the Turnbull administration either too fickle or risk-averse on China to justify investment of more political capital beyond 'natural' incrementalism in defence ties, as represented by the upgraded ACSA. In the run-up to Sydney, Abe’s visits to the Philippines (including a tour of President Duterte’s bedroom) and Indonesia were arguably more ambitious.

On the Australian side, the onus being on Turnbull as Abe’s host to take the lead on new policy initiatives, it arguably speaks to a prevailing caution on Canberra’s part to maintain some strategic distance from Japan, for fear of entrapment in Tokyo’s troubled relationship with Beijing, or upsetting the economic apple-cart of trade and investment from China. If Canberra is primarily worried about an apparent US tilt towards a more confrontational approach towards China under Trump, then alliance considerations could, in fact, act as a brake on bilateral defence cooperation with Japan. A more assertive Washington can be expected to press its security treaty partners in Asia to adopt new roles and missions potentially beyond their comfort levels, seeking opportunities to ‘trilateralise’ inter-alliance cooperation. The Trump factor may have reinforced Turnbull’s natural caution about being ensnared in the Thucydides trap.

I may be wrong. But if I’m right, and last weekend’s summit constitutes something of a plateau in Australia and Japan’s strategic cooperation, this does not bode well as a signal for the wider region. As this recent article by the Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak persuasively argues, there are sound strategic reasons for Southeast Asia to pursue defence cooperation with both Japan and Australia. If Japan and Australia are either unwilling or unable to get their bilateral defence act together beyond a cosmetic ACSA upgrade and reciprocal access agreement, then more equivocal players in the region are unlikely to set their own bar much higher.

'Tis the season to be wary

The advent season has brought with it a renewed focus on the globalised nature of terrorism. This week’s grim tally of atrocities includes the assassination of the Russian ambassador at an art gallery in Ankara by a Turkish policeman, the death of 12 people at a Berlin Christmas market at the hands of an as yet-unknown terrorist in an attack claimed by Islamic State, and a shooting at a mosque in Zurich by a Swiss-Ghanaian, the motive of which police are still trying to determine. These come hard on the heels of the Coptic cathedral bombing that killed 25 in Cairo last week, and the shootout in Karak in Jordan that killed 10 people but may have forestalled a better-planned and executed plan, judging by explosives discovered. 

While each is shocking enough, the proximity of these attacks to each other has exaggerated their individual impacts and even strangely obscured the reality that the terrorism issue shows no signs of abating. Consider a snapshot of terrorist-related activity in Europe discovered this last month. The 12-year-old Iraqi-German boy who planted two nail bombs in Germany a few weeks ago, allegedly based on instructions gleaned from Islamic State via a messenger app.  A month ago, French police arrested five people planning an imminent attack in Paris after receiving instructions from Islamic State via an encrypted device. Last week six arrested in the UK and detained for questioning on suspicion of terrorism offences. Two weeks ago, one arrested by the Dutch police.

The forensic (and particularly the electronic) analysis of each of these will tell us much about the degree to which they are part of a coherent European network. They could be part of the broader, remotely-controlled or inspired pattern of Islamic State terrorist acts, or the timing may have been coincidental. The Ankara assassination is the most shocking but also perhaps the least concerning in a perverse sort of way. A lone gunman who saw the recapture of Aleppo as an assault on fellow Muslims and decides to kill a representative of the Russian government whom he holds accountable. The assassination had a surreal, studio-quality feel to it which made it all the more disturbing; a stark white background, an assassin dressed like he was on the set of Reservoir Dogs, and a professional photographer on hand to record the event.  Despite the shocking scene, and without the joint Russian-Turkish investigation having started let alone finished, it is very possible that this was an isolated, single-issue terrorist act. Regardless, it disrupted nothing. The foreign and defence ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia continued their planned meeting on Syria held in Moscow and even issued a joint declaration on Syria only hours after the Ankara assassination.

It is the plethora of the other, more anonymous foiled plots that remain more disturbing. Nationals of a country seeking to kill their countrymen and women, non-citizens ostensibly seeking protection but willing to kill members of the very societies they claim they wish to join.  A 12-year-old boy finding some kind of warped religious fulfilment in making IEDs rather than playing as boys should. The sheer persistence of the threat, regardless of how much actual damage that it causes, defies easy analysis or solution.  As does the path to Islamic extremism.  In this information-saturated world, where 'fake news' has become a widely accepted term, reality, truth and analysis are taking a back seat to emotive, manipulative assertions. And when the radicalisation process relies on the ability to appeal to an emotional identity rather than rational discourse, we should expect this persistent threat to remain long after the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are resolved.

Merry Christmas.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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


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