This week the Obama Administration finally gave the go-ahead to PACOM to conduct a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of China's artificial islands in the South China Sea. On Tuesday, the USS Lassen executed a patrol near Subi Reef and was shadowed by two Chinese warships. Euan Graham wrote the first reaction to the patrol on The Interpreter, and noted that the operation was carefully timed:
The aim of the FoN operation is to physically demonstrate the US Navy’s legal right to operate in the area — including in proximity to low-tide elevations that are not entitled to generate a territorial sea — but not to challenge China’s sovereignty claims per se. FoN 'assertions' are meant to be conducted with restraint in order to emphasise their legal character, and to counter allegations that such operations amount to a modern form of 'gunboat diplomacy'.
In the background, however, the over-the-horizon presence of a US aircraft carrier group signals that the US takes the threat of escalation seriously and can respond if Chinese civilian or naval forces were to seriously challenge US warships or aircraft.
Nonresident Fellow James Goldrick urged that Australia should be conducting its own patrols, not because of Australia's alliance with the US, but to uphold international norms:
The transit should be undertaken by Australian units alone. The operation should be conducted without warning and it should not be a matter for an immediate press release. We need to be restrained in the publicising of our activities. Ideally, it is something we should be able to acknowledge after the event; in fact, it would be best if the acknowledgement came after several such events.
This is, despite the absolute alignment of our interests, not a question simply of supporting the alliance with the US, but of demonstrating our commitment to the rules-based global order. The nature of the Chinese claims — rather than the fact that China may have claims to particular islands and rocks within the South China Sea — is incompatible with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We cannot let them stand.
The patrol may lead to China militarising the islands, but Bonnie Glaser says this is already pretty much the case, and that the US response was justified:
In the short run, Beijing will blame the US for militarising the South China Sea and use the FONOP around Subi Reef as a justification to continue its own militarisation. Of course, Chinese military activity was well underway prior to the US. operation, notwithstanding President Xi Jinping's statement at a joint press conference with President Obama that China has no intention to militarise the South China Sea. US restraint until now did not stop China from engaging in a fast-paced program of land reclamation and construction over the past year and a half. It is undeniable that China's laying down of airstrips, dredging deep harbours, installing radars and building hangars for aircraft constitute militarisation.
Jackson Kwok tracked the reaction in Chinese media to the patrol, and particularly some interesting pieces from China's official state media:
The contention that none of the features are capable of generating EEZs is significant, as is the admission that some of the Chinese-occupied features have no territorial sea. Moreover the article ends on a conciliatory note, claiming that it is the 'US that helps us to build and reinforce' the 12 nautical mile concept and that 'we have no intention to accept 13 or more than 13 nautical miles.' This could be interpreted in different ways, and some of the references to UNCLOS are inaccurate, but it nonetheless hints at an attempt to position China's South China Sea claims as consistent with international law. Behind the hard-line messages and countermeasures, this could be viewed as a positive form of signalling to the US.
Jenny Hayward-Jones on some recent developments in Papua New Guinea:
Prime Minister O'Neill's ability to maintain his dominance is not as easy now as it was at this time last year. The dramatic fall in commodity prices, consequent budgetary challenges and the El Nino drought threaten his capacity to deliver promised nationally significant reforms such as free education and healthcare, and maintain the District Services Improvement Program under which MPs receive grants to administer services and development initiatives in their electorates and which secure their loyalty to the Prime Minister. O'Neill is also clearly concerned about his legal battles, which ultimately may present the greatest threat to his leadership.
Former Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott proposed eight ideas for the Turnbull Government's foreign policy, one of which is thinking deeper about ASEAN:
Another prospect in the longer term would be to reconsider joining ASEAN, although we would need ASEAN to welcome this. Mr Turnbull could consider private consultations at the head of government, foreign minister, defence and trade ministerial levels regarding possible membership of ASEAN. If New Zealand did likewise it would be mutually reinforcing.
This will not be easy. It is 41 years since Australia became ASEAN's first dialogue partner and I hosted the first meeting overseas of the then five ASEAN secretaries-general in Canberra. One course might be to start with seeking observer status as Indonesia's other close neighbours, PNG and Timor Leste, have had since 1976 and 2002 respectively. This would be a logical evolution of Australia's long-standing engagement with Asia. As early as 1970 I considered this and, as secretary of DFAT, discussed it with then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in 1990. Paul Keating had also suggested we should seek to join ASEAN. Unfortunately, the idea lapsed, partly because of other issues and following my retirement in 1992.
Are China's recent GDP growth figures reliable? Stephen Grenville:
On the demand side, dismantling the 'hukou' system restrictions would give all those involved more incentive to demand the urban facilities they are currently denied (housing, health services and education). Whatever the temporary over-building of dwellings or infrastructure, China needs to build perhaps 200 cities the size of Singapore, with all the deep infrastructure and modern dwellings seen in that country.
This week, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo visited the US for the first time since being elected last year. Aaron Connelly on how Indonesia has retreated under Jokowi:
Indonesia's retreat into down-to-earth diplomacy and the cynicism of non-alignment is unfortunate, for Indonesian diplomatic leadership has much to offer the region. Though it often frustrates those Americans and others in Southeast Asia who would prefer that Indonesia take a much harder tack against China, Indonesia’s independent foreign policy allows it to play the role of an honest broker in regional disputes; but only if it is allowed to be energetic and fully engaged.
I wrote a short post on two recent developments in China's military:
The other interesting development concerns the PLA Air Force. Earlier this month, China Daily reported that China's strategic bomber, the H-6K, had achieved a long-range precision strike capability. As the official said, the new capability will allow the main bomber of the PLAAF to now 'launch air-to-surface cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, which means it can take out multiple targets on the ground or sea within one mission.' There are also statements from officials that the PLA Air Force has conducted long-range training exercises with the bombers within the first island chain. The 'K' precision-strike variant of the H-6 has been under development for some time; notably its engines have been significantly upgraded and its range has been extended to a reported 3500km radius.
In a continuing debate about the economics of Australia's submarine choice, Alastair Cooper on how the discussion to-date has been too narrow:
Straight off the bat we have a siloed discussion from Grenville: 'I'm only too ready to leave it up to strategic experts such as Rear Admiral Peter Briggs to sort out how many submarines we need. I'll stick to the economics', he writes. Actually, it is not possible to draw sensible conclusions without understanding the national strategic basis for acquiring a given number of submarines, the impact the method of acquisition (continuous build vs a batch build) has on the operation of the Navy and the broader ADF, and the implications for national industry and manufacturing. While tackling those issues might be a challenge in a single Interpreter post, I think it is a challenge to be accepted, not ignored
New Caledonia has voted to allow nickle exports to China after significant internal debate, wrote Denise Fisher:
In August the economy of the nickel-rich French territory of New Caledonia ground to a halt as truck drivers set up barricades preventing movement at strategic points around the main island. The drivers called for new exports of raw nickel to China to save their jobs, after local authorities had sought to prevent exports beyond New Caledonia's existing customers Australia and Japan. The month-long stand-off, which saw the death of a young Kanak after a car collided with a truck, seriously divided local political leaders. It ended only when the French High Commissioner called for a special meeting of the locally elected Congress.
Catriona Croft-Cusworth wrote about one of the most outspoken and popular ministers in Jokowi's cabinet:
When Susi Pudjiastuti was sworn in as Indonesia's Maritime and Fisheries Minister this time last year, the local tabloids didn't think she stood a chance. Of the eight women in President Jokowi's 'Working Cabinet', Susi was singled out for her failure to conform to conventional ideas of how a woman, or indeed a minister, should behave. She was labelled an eccentric for having a tattoo, being a divorcee, and for smoking a cigarette outside the State Palace. She was described by local media as a poor example of Jokowi's promised 'mental revolution'. But since then, Susi has not only survived a cabinet reshuffle and transformed into a media darling, but has become by far the best-known and most widely liked of Jokowi's ministers. So how did she do it?
The short answer is: by blowing things up.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.