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Obama's Syria critics ignore inconvenient facts

It is fashionable to criticise Washington's approach to the Syrian civil war. In his memoir, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described President Obama's approach to Syria and Iraq as flawed. Obama has been roundly criticised for his 'tentative' approach to Syria. A piece on this site last week referred to the bankruptcy of US policy in the region. Even Australian pundits such as Greg Sheridan have said that 'for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.'

Now the Russians' apparent decisiveness in deploying a modest strike force to its decades-old ally Syria has led people to claim Obama has been outmanoeuvred by Putin. But this same argument was leveled against Obama more than two years ago. It also ignores the fact that the Syria problem has always been more straightforward for Moscow than for Washington. For Russia there is simply the Assad regime and those opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow's only real question has been the degree and timing of its support to Assad.

Critiques of Obama's Syria policy ignore two inconvenient facts. Firstly, the critics have offered no credible alternative policy. Indeed, Obama was recently moved to highlight the intellectual vacuity of many of his critics when he stated:

I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in the situation. What I'd like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

Panetta offered the fact that Washington should have armed 'moderate' rebels, without going into any detail regarding what he meant by 'moderate' or how the use of these weapons would be accounted for once they crossed the border. Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner has even spoken of the need for US 'boots on the ground' without ever going into specifics.

For those who have cared to listen, the US Commander-in-Chief has highlighted the intractability of the situation in Syria before, along with the dearth of good options.

In a long interview with President Obama published in 2014, David Remnick from The New Yorker asked him whether he was haunted by the situation in Syria, and his reply says all that one needs to know about how he sees Washington's role:

I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we'd have a peaceful transition, it's magical thinking. 

Added to that is the plethora of state and non-state actors with their fingers in the Syrian pie, and over whom Washington has little if any influence. And as for those who see arming the various opposition forces as some sort of panacea to Syria's troubles, Obama had this to say:

Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn't come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions...And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they're not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.

This is not to say Obama has gotten everything right. Indeed, it's probably accurate to say that his strategy is correct but some of the tactical execution has been poor. The major error was his use of the term 'red line' in setting the trigger for (limited) US air strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons. Although the Russians came up with a diplomatic outcome that was a net gain for regional security, Washington's lack of follow-through on the threat eroded its credibility in the region. Israel has shown the effectiveness of limited air strikes in sending a message to Damascus without becoming decisively committed.

Another tactical error has been to dally in the rebel-arming business, even though Obama himself pointed out the futility of it. There is evidence that the US-supplied weapons and some training to rebel groups in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there has been an ill-fated push by the US to create a secular anti-ISIS militia. Obama's misstep could be explained by his need to assuage the concerns of regional states and to dissuade them from creating their own proxies (to a greater extent than they already did). Unfortunately, Obama's concerns have been borne out by the results, as 'moderate' groups supplied by Washington have allegedly been overrun by Islamists and have had their weapons taken. The idea of creating a secular anti-ISIS rebel group has also proved to be a chimera; their small numbers barely survived first contact in Syria. 

Obama has been under enormous pressure to do something in Syria, however he rightly believes that it would take an enormous commitment of blood and treasure to even begin to restore order in that blighted country. Even then, there would be no guarantee that it could resolve the underlying causes of the civil war.

When you don't control all the levers you shouldn't expect to control the outcome. So, while Washington has made some tactical errors, Obama's strategy of avoiding a decisive commitment is the right one. While it may appear a modest strategy for a superpower, none of his critics have been able to come up with anything that resembles a coherent alternative. That says much of what you need to know about Syria.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.

Economic crisis in China? We're not there yet

I started my job at the Federal Reserve three weeks before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

I wish I had kept a diary of my initial months at the Fed, so I could recall clearly what we thought was happening each day. I do remember there was a discrete point where suddenly everything felt like it was in free-fall. It brought to mind the comment of Don Russel, Paul Keating's economic advisor, claiming there was a moment in his office when he heard the Australian economy snap, sometime in late 1989. I think I heard the US economy snap in my Washington office in 2008.

Judging by the headlines, many people heard the Chinese economy snap this week. I didn't. The stock market continues its fall, but I'm not too concerned. As I said in an earlier post, 'The stock market does not look to be of systemic importance to the Chinese economy. It is relatively small, it is not a major source of finance for firms, and stocks are not widely held.'

I do think China's next GDP numbers, to be released in October, will be disappointing. One reason is that financial services, which had accounted for a lot of growth earlier in the year (growing by 17.4%), will likely have had a poor quarter.

But there some good news stories too. Many people were concerned about low government revenue growth earlier this year, suggesting this was a sign of a weak economy. That figure has bounced back nicely, growing at 12.6%, year on year in July, and as far as I'm aware, tax rate increases are not responsible. A poor manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI; an index gauging manufacturer's sentiment) seemed to kick off the recent round of hand wringing, but the PMI for the non-manfacturing sector has held up so far.

This relates to a general point made by one of my favourite China experts, Nick Lardy of the Peterson Institute. Lardy thinks services are growing quite quickly. Moreover, he has this rebuttal to those who doubt the data:

Naysayers question government economic data, continuing to focus on weakness in China's industrial sector and the extremely slow growth of electric power output. But steel production, for example, is significantly more energy intensive than entertainment, so the demand for electricity has fallen sharply as the structure of the economy has evolved.

It's fair to say there is an entire industry based on the claim that Chinese GDP has long been overstated. But we don't often hear about the fact that China underestimates housing services in GDP, which is documented in the appendix of Lardy's book Sustaining China's Economic Growth After the Global Financial Crisis.

I digress. Yes, the Chinese economy faces risks. Debt has ballooned over the last eight years. The IMF, in its 2014 Article 4 consultation, had these words to say:

Looking at a sample covering 43 countries over 50 years, staff identified only four episodes that experienced a similar scale of credit growth as China's recent TSF growth. Within three years following the boom period, all four countries had a banking crisis.

That's a worry. But it does not imply that crisis is a certainty, or even the most likely result. The IMF, in its 2015 consultation, was more upbeat. And this is money the Chinese owe to themselves in their own currency. That takes off the table many of the risk factors that have plagued other emerging economies.

Am I foolishly saying 'This time is different'? Ken Rogoff, a former Chief Economist at the IMF who wrote the book on financial crises, may suggest that I am. I could look silly in six months. What I am not saying, however, is that China is certain to grow steadily, without incident, for years. It would be remarkable if China did not encounter turbulence. I just think we are some way from a full blown crisis.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

Abe's mandate: The economic imperative

As predicted, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored an easy victory in Japan's Lower House election on Sunday. For Abe it was a vital win on a shrewd, strategic gamble.

The LDP under Abe's leadership was judged the only viable option by an electorate craving political stability and economic prosperity. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in disarray, remained badly out of favour with the electorate following its brief period in government from 2009 to 2012. Other opposition parties had promised new beginnings in 2012, but the significant support attracted then has largely dissipated over the past two years.

The objective of gaining time drove Abe to call this snap election. Now his coalition has won more than a two-thirds majority and Abe has achieved his goal of a further four clear years in power. He now has the extended mandate critical to his chances of breaking through on the far-reaching agenda he laid down over the past two years.

Abe knows Japan's economy is unlikely to recover lost momentum if he does not take strong and early action to address multiple challenges. Policies that are unpopular with large swathes of the electorate must be implemented. Japan needs sustained economic recovery if it is to hold its own against the challenge to national self-esteem posed by China's economic and strategic growth. China's increasingly powerful regional and global influence has impacted Japan deeply.

Abe's management of priorities will need astute judgment. Driven by the mood of some parts of the electorate and by China's rise, the temptation to pursue issues relating to national security will be great. Initially, however, it will be wise for Abe to focus on the economy.

During his first two years in power, Abe fired two of three 'arrows' of his economic reform program. These strategies were quickly termed Abenomics. Mixed outcomes resulted. The first arrow of Abenomics initiated massive quantitative easing to stimulate the economy; a second huge tranche of easing followed shortly before the 14 December election. The second arrow of Abenomics featured a proposed increase in the consumption tax to 10%, to be achieved in two stages. However, the impact of the first increase to 8% in April 2014 hit more severely than anticipated as Japan's economy fell into a technical recession in October 2014. Prime Minister Abe responded by announcing that implementation of the second increase of a further 2% would be delayed a further eighteen months to April 2017, and based his call for a snap election on that timeframe.

Prime Minister Abe's intention with his first arrow — to stimulate the economy with massive quantitative easing  — was controversial and the merits much debated. On the second arrow, there is a consensus across the political divides that Japan's huge 240% ratio of debt to GDP needs all the help it can get from the extra revenue raised through the increased consumption tax.

The third arrow of Abenomics, which introduces more radical structural economic reform, is not only the most crucial but the most difficult. Abe made little progress on structural reform in his first two years, and this renewed mandate offers a 'do or die' chance.

The major reason for calling the snap election was the need to have sufficient opportunity in the political cycle to seriously address major structural reforms. If the LDP wants to achieve much greater economic efficiency and budget savings nationally, it must open up Japan's notoriously protected and subsidised agriculture sector. It must also address areas of the domestic economy, such as labour practices, that remain bound up in excessive red tape, dragging down productivity. This includes the need to take measures to facilitate entry of a much larger proportion of women into the workplace.

Prime Minister Abe knows such steps are necessary. The key question is whether he will now feel confident to tackle full-on the redoubtable agricultural lobby, for example. This powerful, respected, conservative and ageing lobby group is a cornerstone of the LDP's support base. Japan's keen national interest in concluding the long-delayed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations offers Abe the greatest opportunity to achieve genuine progress on agricultural reform. The extent to which Japan meets the requests for far-reaching agricultural liberalisation demanded by the US in the TPP negotiations will be the acid test of Abe's resolve to push forward on structural reform.

The signing of the Japan Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) in July saw Japan agree for the first time to reduce agricultural protection in  some sectors. This was a curtain-raiser for what Abe will ultimately need to agree for the TPP negotiations to be successfully concluded.

Japan's economic health remains burdened by the enormous cost of recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. With each of its remaining 50 nuclear reactors still idle, Japan's balance of payments is hard hit by the need to import alternative energy sources. Australia's growing LNG industry has benefited greatly from this situation.

Re-starting the vital nuclear reactors, once they are declared safe by an exhaustive assessment process, is LDP policy and Abe clearly wants to implement that policy. While Japanese consumers and industrialists want lower power costs, they are divided about safety of nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The decision to restart even the few nuclear reactors that have been assessed as safe remains a tough political decision. Abe may well decide he has the mandate to act but it will be controversial and potentially unpopular.

In a follow-up post, I will examine the security dimensions of Abe's election victory.

Putin flexes muscle ahead of G20

What to do if you are the leader of a former superpower about to travel to a small-ish country whose leader has promised to shirtfront you? The answer seems to be to flex a little muscle.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in Beijing today for the APEC meeting ahead of this week's G20 Summit in Brisbane. Also in the neighbourhood this week, an unusual sight: several elements of the Russian Navy.

The flagship of the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, is conducting unilateral live-fire drills in the South China Sea after transiting through the Indian Ocean and Singapore. The ship's appearance in Southeast Asia was described by the US Naval Institute as 'a rare show of surface presence in the region'.

Also in the region are the Russian Navy frigateYaruslov Mudry and a replenishment ship, which were until yesterday berthed in Jakarta. The ships were in town principally for last week's Indonesian Defence Expo, at which 14 Russian defence companies were represented.

Russia's defence industry appears to have had modest success at the expo, with suggestions that Indonesia is interested in purchasing more Sukhoi fighters, and some small-arms contracts being completed. Interestingly, one Russian exporter flagged that it is willing to sell up to three submarines to the Indonesian military; offers to develop Indonesian coastal radar installations were also made. These moves play into Indonesia's newly flagged strategic maritime aspirations and are a reminder that Russia has multiple connections into Indonesia's military, chiefly as a supplier of materiel.

Though the presence of the Russian Navy near Australian waters is unusual, it is far from new. Australians have been thinking about Russian naval power in the Pacific for a long time, Sydney's Fort Denison was built due to inflated concerns that Russian ships might threaten Sydney Harbour. This week, once again, Australians will be watching closely to see where the various Russian naval elements in the region move next.

Pacific islands links: Fiji election, Kiribati and climate, Peace Ark, clean energy and more

This week's collection of news, commentary & analyis from and about the Pacific island region:

  • ICYMI, Fiji went to the polls for the first time in eight years yesterday. This vlog gives an overview of the day's happenings: 

  • A Queensland woman has taken advantage of constitutional changes to claim citizenship of Vanuatu on behalf of her grandparents, who were 'blackbirded'.
  • President Anote Tong of Kiribati has expressed his disappointment in Australia's lack of support in relation to the impacts of climate change in the region.
  • Here on The Interpreter, Philippa Brant looks at what the visit of the Chinese navy's Peace Ark to Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu means in terms of soft power.
  • Giff Johnson makes a compelling case for Pacific governments to provide funding to non-governmental organisations involved in essential service delivery.
  • On the Devpolicy blog, Matthew Dornan & Joanna Spratt examine the NZ Aid program's efforts to promote use of renewable energy in the Pacific island region.
  • From the Pacific Network on Globalisation comes this critique of Australia's 'aid for trade' approach in the region.

Why America's Iraq strategy will work, and why Australia should take part

Here are three observations on Iraq:

1. Australia does have a core interest in Iraq

One of the arguments already used by opponents of any Australian participation in military action against ISIS is that Australia does not have any core interests in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of whether the strategy for Iraq is the right one, there is no question in my mind that we have a strong interest in what happens in Iraq.

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. These fighters are also developing connections with other extremist groups that will make them a more lethal threat in years to come.

Some will ask: why does Iraq deserve particular attention above other parts of the Middle East that are also helping to incubate a new generation of extremists? It is a good question and we should not lose sight of these other problem areas even as we focus on Iraq and Syria.

But Iraq and Syria do deserve disproportionate attention for two reasons. First, the numbers of foreign fighters is bigger than we have ever seen, even compared with Afghanistan in the period leading up to 9/11. Second, the number of Westerners is also larger, which is bad because their passports and visa-free access to a larger range of countries will make it much easier for them to cross borders.

Some will argue that a military response is not the right one to this threat and that Australia should rely on police and intelligence work and cooperation. They will point to the way this worked in the 2000s, particularly in diminishing the terrorist threat in Indonesia.

Certainly a military response won't work on its own, but neither will simply waiting for the threat to come to you. One reason the terrorist threat in Indonesia was diminished over time was because it became impossible for extremists to get the training and maintain the connections they had formed in Afghanistan. Those behind the Bali bombings were largely veterans of Afghanistan, and the hardcore part of Jemaah Islamiya behind the targeting of Westerners had intended to keep sending cadres to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, as illustrated by the break-up of the Ghuraba Cell in Pakistan in 2003.

True, the police and intelligence effort in Indonesia was more important. But I don't think it could have been as successful without the military effort in Afghanistan at the same time.

2. The US strategy in Iraq will work, probably

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. In the case of Iraq, those allied forces will be the Kurds, the Iraqi Army and possibly local Sunni militias. In Syria it will be opposition groups opposed to ISIS.

Because it has worked before, it is reasonable to assume that the strategy will probably work again. ISIS is not that big, and is probably not as militarily competent as people think. It is true the Iraqi Army has not covered itself in glory so far, but good units can be found, and with better leadership will probably prove more effective.

But most importantly, once momentum shifts, other local militias will turn on ISIS to make sure they are on the right side when the fighting ends. Here the willingness and ability of the new government in Baghdad to reach out to the Sunnis in northern Iraq will be critical.

Of course, none of this guarantees success and there are risks aplenty. But we should not confuse the way Western countries have mishandled Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown) for what we are about to do in Iraq. We are still pretty good at blowing stuff up. It is the building stuff after that we are not so good at.

3. There will be bleed-out

To say that the US strategy for Iraq will probably work is not the same thing, however, as saying that it is the right strategy. One of the consequences of even a successful campaign will be the bleed-out of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The border with Turkey – the last real route into and out of ISIS-stan – is likely to remain porous, although there will be massive pressure on the Turks to seal it.

Where will these fighters go? They may turn up in other conflicts in the Middle East, or they may head to other countries, but some will go home. In all likelihood this won't be the hard core but rather individuals who received some training, maybe didn't see a lot of combat and are not prepared to stay and die for the cause.

This does raise the question of whether, by targeting ISIS, we are accelerating the problem we are most worried about. In this respect there is a case for a strategy that tries to contain ISIS in Iraq. It would require real pressure on Turkey to seal the border, which may or may not be possible for Ankara to do. It would still require action to erode ISIS on the ground by local forces over a much longer period. And for this to work it would still require some Western support, at a much lower profile than what is being proposed now, to help train and mentor those forces.

But it is a line-ball call. Simply leaving ISIS alone is not the answer. We learned from our experience with Afghanistan that extremists can and do move on to other conflicts. They can and do return home and plot terrorist attacks. Eventually the problem needs to be dealt with.

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted. There needs to some assessment process, therefore, which looks at the legal grounds and prospects for pursuing returnees, but also looks at other factors as well. Hopefully it is something Australian officials are thinking about even as our combat aircraft taxi down the runway.

Photo by Flickr user Andos_pics.

Australia's Iraq deployment: Pragmatism over principle

The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.

Sea-based nuclear-weapons: Military needs and political consequences

How will the deployment of ballistic missile submarines by China and India affect the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape? What effect will these deployments have on stability in the region? 

Unsurprisingly, the contributions thus far have shown that the picture is, as Rory Medcalf put it, 'murky.' As Bruno Tertrais pointed out, much of the inmpact on stability from these deployments will depend on the quality of the submarines, the range and reliability of their accompanying missiles, and the skill of their crews, as well as on the anti-submarine warfare efforts of their prospective foes. At the same time, as Tom Mahnken noted, a greater sense of second-strike assurance may embolden rather than relax at least China's ambitions. Meanwhile, Rod Lyon has observed that, even with all the qualifiers, strategic submarines tend to make adversary decision-makers think twice about attempting a first strike.

Thus far, the debate seems to be clustering around a general view that the deployment of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is neither a panacea nor a catastrophe for stability, and that much will turn on how they are operated and on how much they are relied on for strategic advantage. 

One aspect of their deployment that has not been sufficiently remarked upon, however, is how the deployment of systems as strategically significant as ballistic missile submarines may influence regional naval doctrine and operating patterns, and even national strategic objectives more broadly. Lyon touched on this point when he wrote that 'even vulnerable SSBNs might have value if deployed in protected bastions, behind layered defensive screens, exploiting known seabed topographies, confusing the targeteer with diversionary noisemakers, and keeping the warhead loadings low per boat.'

The broader point is that effective deployment of a ballistic missile force is not simply about getting a boat into the water with operational missiles loaded.

Rather, attaining more than a bare bones second-strike capability at sea means ensuring those submarines are survivable, can communicate reliably with national leadership, and that their missiles can reach their assigned targets. This is by no means an easy task for a country like China when one faces a highly capable potential adversary like the US Navy, not to mention the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the Royal Australian Navy, and others. 

Accordingly, if China is really serious about achieving an assured second strike capability with its ballistic missiles submarines – by no means an unreasonable supposition, given the cost and scale of the effort – it will need to ensure that these submarines can meet the criteria laid out above. This might be done, as Lyon indicated, by developing sufficiently quiet submarines. We can presume the PLA Navy is working at that assiduously. But will they be sufficiently confident that their submarines are quiet enough to survive, and to survive for long enough? If not, the Chinese may look to other means of protecting their submarines, means that could have considerable strategic consequences. 

Let's look backwards to give some context. As Owen Cote has related, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet Union deployed its early cruise missile and ballistic missile submarines forward, into the Atlantic. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, the Soviets, alerted to the vulnerability of their submarines by the Walker spy ring, began shifting to a 'bastion' strategy in waters nearer to the USSR, protecting the valuable missile submarines from the US Navy's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities with layers of defences including air cover, surface ships, and so forth. This entailed a major shift in the doctrine and operating patterns of the Soviet Navy that changed the 'waterprint' of its naval forces. Protecting their boomers, in other words, drove major changes in how the Soviets operated their naval forces, in this case back from forward positions to zones closer to the homeland. 

If China were also concerned about the vulnerability of its missile submarines to the ASW capabilities of the US and its allies, it too might seek 'bastions' and/or other means of protecting these submarines. These efforts at protection could include establishing a higher military presence and even attaining greater control over airspace above the seas in which the PLA Navy would want to operate its submarines. This in turn would mean that Chinese forces might operate and train in seas and airspace that had not traditionally seen much PLA presence and at considerably higher tempos and in a more sophisticated fashion than in the past. China might even seek to obtain formal or informal control or operational dominance over certain seas and airspace – either through gentle means or through coercion – to ensure the security of its missile submarines. 

Such efforts would, of course, have significant political ramifications. But it would hardly be the first time military requirements had helped form political objectives. US requirements for bases during the Cold War drove much of Washington's alliance policy, particularly outside of Europe. And a good bit of Britain's policy in its imperial heyday was motivated by the need for coaling and refitting stations. 

This point should not be carried too far. China is sensitive to political constraints on the exercise of its military power, and we can assume that part of the appeal of SSBNs for Beijing is that they hold out the promise of being able to operate independently and without much fuss. 

Still, in thinking about the implications of China's ballistic missile submarines on stability, we should not ignore that the demands of survivability and operational effectiveness could also entail considerably broader military operational and ultimately political consequences. Much will depend on how much China values these submarines, how quiet it believes them to be, the effectiveness of US and allied ASW efforts, the intensity of rivalry in East Asia, and a range of other factors.

But the point is that the effort to deploy a genuinely survivable and effective ballistic missile submarine force could have consequences well beyond the narrow concerns of submarine quality, crew skill, and missile range.

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia.

Photo by Flickr user UK Ministry of Defence.

Obama's strategy: First thoughts

It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.


Indo-Pacific security links: US-China, private security firms, island building and more

The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.