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Weekend catch-up: Iraq, Vietnam-US ties, AUSMIN, WTO, China-Japan and more

Weekend catch-up: Iraq, Vietnam-US ties, AUSMIN, WTO, China-Japan and more
Published 16 Aug 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Rodger Shanahan's provocative piece on ISIS's 'strategic gift' to the Obama Administration got a lot of attention early this week:

Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

Anthony Bubalo looked at the domestic angle to the Iraq crisis:

The main reason the Islamic State has made such gains in Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not ruled for all Iraqis. In particular, by disenfranchising the Sunni minority, he created a fertile field for the Islamic State to plow. There is no way the group's relatively few fighters could have made the gains they did without the implicit and in some cases explicit backing of Sunni communities in Iraq's north.

That backing came not because these communities loved what the Islamic State was offering. Quite the contrary. In fact, the main threat to the Islamic State's gains is not the Iraqi Army (with or without US air cover), but the likelihood that ordinary Sunnis will chafe under the Islamic State's harsh rule. Indeed, it is a significant measure of Sunni discontent with Baghdad that Sunnis are prepared, for the moment at least, to do a deal with this particular devil.

Which brings us to Australia.

We also talked about the annual AUSMIN talks, held in Sydney this week. I warned about the implications of missile-defence cooperation, and here's James Brown:

...the long term issue of most importance to the alliance which needs to be discussed this year is the future force posture of the US Navy in Australia.

At the 2012 AUSMIN in Perth, then Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean was leading the US Navy to shift its attention to the waters off Australia's northwest coast. That AUSMIN meeting committed a joint working group of Australian and US officials to investigate options for the additional presence of US Navy vessels on Australia's west coast. A formal study didn't begin until December 2013, and the group will report its finding to the leaders over the next few days with a view to forging a way forward to new naval force posture arrangements.

Stephen Grenville looked at the crisis in multilateral trade negotiations and Mike Callaghan called on the G20 to save the World Trade Organization:

One of the threats to global economic cooperation that the G20 must confront is the impact of India's veto of the Bali WTO trade deal.

The G20 must respond and restore confidence in the multilateral trading system and the WTO. Tom Miles sums up much of the reaction to India's decision when he says that 'India has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the World Trade Organization's hopes of modernising rules of global commerce and remaining the central forum of multilateral trade deals'. Simon Evenett from the Swiss Institute for International Economics said that 'without a serious shake-up, the WTO's future looks like that of the League of Nations.'

The US military did some cozying up to Vietnam this week, reported Elliot Brennan:  [fold]

Hanoi has long pushed its brand of 'more friends, fewer enemies' foreign policy. Of course, a stronger American partnership now could be a counterweight to Chinese assertiveness and what some might see as a fitting punitive measure. But while this Pentagon visit offers a welcome window for greater cooperation with the US, it should not be overstated. Vietnam's 'orbit' is well populated. Indeed, that has been Vietnam's policy since 1988. For Washington, there is probably also a concern not just about Beijing's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea but also of Russia's increasing ties with Hanoi.

Julian Snelder discussed China's rough treatment of multinationals: 

International business people are often told here that 'they are not invited to China to profiteer; they are invited to make the Chinese better'. The guests are held to higher standards than locals, and they should be. Chinese officialdom is making a mighty effort to build future Chinese global champions like Immelt's GE. Knocking foreigners is part of their strategy, forcing them to be more responsive and competitive. Multinational companies are 'making China better', but China is making them better too.

Here's Mathew Sussex on that mysterious Russian aid convoy bound for Ukraine:

The idea that the Russian aid convoy really contains heavily armed soldiers, ready to pour out of their trucks and open fire, is probably better left to Hollywood.

The troops would automatically be discovered at the border and turned back. And if they decided to fight, they would be quickly cut down as they left their vehicles. Either way, it would be a public relations disaster for Moscow, with domestic as well as international consequences. Putin would have been caught out in a barefaced lie about humanitarian relief. And engaging in a shooting match from trucks makes for a senseless and unpopular waste of well-trained personnel.

It is almost definitely the case that the convoy does indeed contain aid, and it will continue to do so as it attempts to cross into Ukraine. The International Committee for the Red Cross was able to confirm, as the convoy moved towards the border, that the trucks were indeed full of relief supplies.  

But this raises a couple of scenarios much more likely than the idea of a series of Russian Trojan Horses.

Twitter loved Hugh White's question: Is China making a big mistake about Japan?:

One thing is for sure: China's conduct, especially over the Senkakus, is undermining Japan's post-war strategic posture, a posture which has served both Japan and China so well for so long. The foundation of that posture has of course been Japan's confidence that it can rely on America for its security, which in turn has seemed essential to Japan's unique version of 'national pacifism'.

As I have argued before (Explaining China's behaviour in the East and South China Seas), China's actions over the Senkakus seem deliberately designed to undermine Japan's confidence in American support by showing Japan that on a critical issue America is not willing to risk a clash with China on Japan's behalf. And that seems to be working. Despite President Obama's bold affirmation of US support over the disputed islands in Tokyo in April, Japanese confidence in US support against China does seem to have waned. The clearest signs are of course Mr Abe's steps to embrace collective self-defence and start looking for allies in Asia, including Australia.

These are exactly the kinds of steps towards normalisation that we could expect Beijing to want to avoid. So what is going on? There seem two possible alternatives to the conclusion that Beijing is just making a mistake.

Malcolm Cook disagreed, and there will be more on this debate next week.

Photo by Flickr user Hamster Factor.

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