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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

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

What needs to happen before the 2018 ASEAN-Australia leaders summit

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's pledge to hold an ASEAN-Australia leaders' summit in 2018 is a sign that Australia intends to take a more proactive and public role in shaping the Southeast Asian regional order. With a focus on strengthening economic ties and boosting links between Australian and ASEAN-based businesses, Turnbull hopes the summit will build on the Australia-ASEAN strategic partnership inked by leaders in November 2014.

But the 2018 meeting needs to be preceded by a solid plan to lift our strategic ties with ASEAN and its member states. Australia must devote serious attention to Southeast Asia's strategic and political architecture in the forthcoming foreign and trade white paper. Keeping a new White House constructively engaged should also a top priority.

Before his visit to Laos, the Prime Minister said 'Australia's future prosperity and stability are best served when we engage actively in our region and shape its course'. This sense of initiative needs to be seized upon and turned into a coherent and ambitious program of engagement with ASEAN. This rhetoric is a marked change from the passive stance of the 2003 White Paper, in which the government pledged to simply 'seek opportunities for Australia to participate in the broader dynamic of regional cooperation in East Asia in whatever practical ways become available'.

The regional strategic environment has changed a great deal since 2003, and the imperative and demand for Australia to play a leading role is stronger than ever. One of the ways Australia could do this is by encouraging the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit to morph into a freer exchange between leaders. Views should be more liberally aired, instead of constricted by bureaucratese and tightly-scripted statements.

There is something to be said in favour of the consensus-driven 'ASEAN way'; as the Economist notes, ASEAN summits are the only game in Asia, and allow regional leaders rare trust-building opportunities. But it's not a great use of time to bring together the leaders of ASEAN states, along with the US, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, to read out prepared statements once a year. A dynamic, reformed and strategically engaged EAS needs to be front and centre of our ASEAN strategy, and is key to keeping the group relevant and able to deal with the region's challenges.

While bringing Southeast Asian leaders to Australia is a solid first step, the ASEAN-Australia summit probably won't take place for 18 months. Much is likely to change between now and early 2018. The Prime Minister needs to back up Australia's ambition by traveling to Southeast Asia more often, and not just for the mandatory multilateral summits. 

Notably, no Australian prime minister since John Howard has paid a standalone visit to Vietnam, one of our largest trading partners and a critical strategic player in the South China Sea. Political instability notwithstanding, the same goes for Thailand, another major trading partner and key ASEAN player. John Howard went in 2003 to mark the conclusion of the Australia-Thailand FTA negotiations, but no PM has paid a separate bilateral visit since then. 

In contrast, a steady stream of Southeast Asian leaders have visited Australia in the last five years, including those from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. We've rightly devoted significant leader-level attention to our relations with Indonesia, ties with Singapore are particularly strong, and the MH370 and MH17 disasters drew us closer to Malaysia. But Australia shouldn't forget about the importance of developing links with ASEAN across the board.

Not only must Australia pursue closer engagement, it needs to encourage the new US administration to remain closely engaged in Southeast Asia. Under President Obama and the pivot, the US has significantly stepped up its engagement, including through the US-ASEAN Sunnylands meeting held in February 2016 (an event largely ignored in Australia). It's uncertain whether this focus on Southeast Asia will be kept up under the next White House. The rebalance is certainly more likely to be sustained under a Clinton Administration, but a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues there is confusion about its purpose and how it's being executed; not a good sign for such a high-profile policy initiative. Australia will need to play a significant role in convincing a new president to stay constructively engaged in regional institutions and in the neighbourhood more generally.

Australia has serious depth of expertise on Southeast Asian economic, strategic and political matters. We have the advantage (or predicament) of geographic proximity to boot. But the long-term benefits won't appear without effort. Australia needs to do more hard thinking about what we want the regional order to look like, how we're going to get there, and what Australia's place in it should be. The first step is to redouble our ties with ASEAN and Southeast Asia.

Patrick Ingle is the 2016 Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is currently on leave from the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu

An inevitable precedent: Where states stand on the South China Sea ruling

By Nicholas Welsh, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security Program.

As the dust begins to settle after the Permanent Court of Arbitration's landmark ruling on Tuesday, many countries find themselves in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not to take sides. From the outset however, it is important to understand that 'choosing sides' in this particular case is not simply about siding with China's maritime territory claims or those of the Philippines (often portrayed as the 'US side'). 

Beyond the strategic and economic impacts of classifying features as rocks instead of islands, this case will set a precedent for many international dispute resolution cases for years to come. One side argues that the ruling of the tribunal is legally binding; the other that the entire procedure is illegitimate and void. With no enforcement mechanism (apart from international pressure) debate is now raging; not between China and the Philippines, but between those in support of multilateral international law structures and those who consider them invalid.

Following the ruling, state-run newspaper China Daily published a front-page map of the globe (reproduced above) highlighting an overwhelming global support for China's position, with more than 70 nations calling for bilateral negotiation in favour of arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism. Such a high degree of support, by extension, justifies China ignoring the ruling as 'null and void'. The same map indicates that only five nations consider the tribunal's ruling to be legally binding, suggesting a distinct lack of faith in international organisations and international law as a concept. 

While the publication is a clear and fascinating example of state media bias, it does raise an interesting question: where do the world's nations stand now that the ruling has been handed down? Does China's claim of 70 supporters hold up to scrutiny, and are only five countries truly supportive of the tribunal as a means of dispute resolution?

At the risk of ruining the suspense, the short answer to both questions is no.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) released in June what it calls the 'Arbitration Support Tracker', which analysed publicly available official statements in order to determine where each country stands. According to this data, prior to the ruling 10 countries had publicly confirmed their support while 47 others released no statements that confirmed they backed China. Of these, 21 are members of the Arab League. China claims the League released a joint statement supporting China following the Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, though this statement does not appear to be publicly accessible. Another four nations denied China's claim of their support (Cambodia, Fiji, Poland and Slovenia).

Also missing from China Daily's map is a strangely silent 'normative power'; the EU. Its apparent lack of support for UNCLOS comes as some surprise, particularly considering that almost five months earlier, the EU released a statement calling on all parties to resolve disputes 'in accordance with international law including UNCLOS and its arbitration procedures', a declaration with which Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liechtenstein, Moldova and Montenegro also aligned themselves. 

Now, almost a week on from the tribunal's ruling, the numbers paint a very different picture. Of those 57 who (supposedly) challenged the legitimacy of the process, three have spoken up to reject the ruling: China, Taiwan and Pakistan. The remaining 54 supportive nations have, thus far, refrained from publicly challenging the ruling. In comparison, 34 nations have publicly called for the ruling to be respected, with a further four acknowledging the ruling positively without supporting its binding nature.

Global support for China's right to ignore the tribunal is not as widespread as state-media would depict, but the lack of any enforcement mechanism in the ruling makes the next step for any nation uncertain. For all countries, whether staying mute or pledging support one way or the other, it is important to look beyond the traditional geopolitical sphere to the larger picture, and for nations to speak up in favour of the world system they want to see in the future. If states believe in a multilateral rules based order, then support for the tribunal and its ruling needs to be made clear. Multilateralism and third-party dispute resolution is not always the answer, but it needs to be available as a legitimate and credible option available to states in deadlock. How states react to this ruling will set a precedent regardless, and it is in everyone's interest that this precedent be as clear and as peaceful as possible. 

Image source China Daily via Hindustan Times


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