What the South China Sea Ruling Means for Australia

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post, 15 July 2016.

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Regional tensions have escalated sharply in response to this week’s finding in the arbitral tribunal hearing in The Hague, which has found in favour of the Philippines in their case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. In their strongly worded 11 page press release, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) presented a number of key findings regarding the Sino-Philippine dispute. This blog post outlines these findings, then interprets their implications for regional international relations and for Australia.

What was the tribunal’s ruling?

The PCA rejected China’s opaque nine-dash line claim to historic rights in the maritime spaces of the South China Sea. Significantly, the PCA ruling dismissed the notion of pre-existing rights to maritime resources in existing exclusive economic zones (EEZs), finding that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides states with only limited access to fisheries in an EEZ and no right of access to petroleum or mineral resources in other states’ EEZs. This finding is significant, given China’s growing need for energy resources and estimates of the substantial petroleum and mineral resources lying beneath the South China Sea seabed.

The tribunal also considered China’s claims that it has historic right of access to these resources based on its historical record of regional fishing. Whilst the tribunal agreed China had such a record, it found China was one of many littoral states with such a record and crucially, that prior to UNCLOS, these waters constituted part of the high seas, as opposed to territorial waters. Consequently China’s pre-UNCLOS use of these waters represented the exercise of freedom to use the high seas  for navigational and fishing purposes rather than exclusive use of sovereign waters. Moreover, the tribunal found no evidence that at any time in the historical record had China attempted to enforce its exclusive control of these waters or prevent other states from exploiting its resources.

More controversially, the PCA tribunal ruled on the legal status of the natural features of the South China Sea, ruling that none of these constitute ‘islands’ under UNCLOS. Accordingly, this means that none of these naturally formed features legally qualify for the 12 nautical mile territorial sea, 200 nautical mile EEZ or continental shelf claim to which features deemed islands under UNCLOS definitions are entitled.

Such a ruling denies China or other claimant states the legal basis to enforce such EEZs, which is significant not just for its implications for resource exploitation. This ruling also denies China the legal basis to deny maritime passage and overflight to states wishing to traverse the South China Sea, an outcome which will have legal implications should China wish to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over these waters, as it did in 2013 in the East China Sea over its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, as has been previously speculated.

What does this mean for regional international relations?

In the short-term, the PCA ruling – which was widely expected to favour the Philippines, though has surprised analysts by the extent to which it has dismissed Beijing’s claims – will further destabilize the region’s already tense political dynamic. The ruling from The Hague has already stirred domestic nationalist sentiment, both in China and the Philippines.

In China, this can be seen from the strident reporting in the domestic media, such as the China Daily and Xinhua News, with headlines such as ‘inherently biased and unjust’ being a fair summation of nationalist Chinese sentiment. Moreover, upon announcement of the ruling – which had been anticipated by Beijing – China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately released a policy paper rejecting the decision from The Hague, re-affirming the islands of the South China Sea (Nanhai Zhudao) as China’s ‘inherent territory’ in direct contradiction to the PCA’s findings.

Confusingly, in light of the PCA ruling, China has announced it will continue to abide by international law. However given that Beijing is a signatory to UNCLOS under whose arbitration this dispute was heard, and is hence legally bound by the ruling, it remains unclear which international law Beijing is referring to. Which gets to the crux: that as such rulings are unenforceable, they ultimately expose the delicate and unstable nature of international relations.

Similarly, news reports from Manila have been equally unequivocal in their support for the announcement from The Hague, and have predictably urged China to respect the decision and abide by the PCA ruling.

Both sides to the dispute have shown a lack of respect for the authority of the tribunal. Pre-empting a negative outcome from The Hague, Beijing announced it would reject the ruling prior to the PCA decision. Similarly Philippine President Duterte had previously been equally dismissive of the PCA’s authority. For example, in April Duterte announced he would only support a PCA outcome if it ruled in favour of the Phillipines, showing a similar contempt for the tribunal process as China.

More worringly, Duterte has shown his naivety in foreign affairs by flagging a preparedness to trade Philippine sovereignty rights in the South China Sea in return for Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in domestic infrastructure projects. The Philippines, chronically impoverished and with a history of poor governance and widespread corruption, is badly in need of economic development. Consequently, Duterte, who is keen to invest in railways, such as around Mindano and from Manila to Bicol, has flagged a willingness to ‘shut up’ about Philippine claims in the South China Sea if Beijing proves willing to foot the development cost.

This is both foolhardy and worringly naive. Scarborough Shoal is approximately 124 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon. Should Manila under Duterte allow China to establish a military foothold in the Spratlys, such an emplacement would present an existential threat to the Philippines, providing Beijing with a convenient launching pad from which it could project power. Hence, in the long term, the cost of ceding sovereign control of these islands  well exceeds any short term economic gains.

Elsewhere in the region this decision is reverberating. Given the favourable outcome for the Philippines, the PCA’s ruling may encourage other claimant states, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to seek international arbitration over their disputes with Beijing. This would mark a new forward-leaning approach to dealing with China, the rising regional power.

To date, the preparedness of regional states to counter Chinese assertiveness with more direct action has been moderated by the their trade ties with Beijing and their ongoing need for continued Chinese economic investment. However, recently Indonesia – which does not have a territorial dispute with China though does have a bilateral resource dispute regarding access to fishing waters surrounding the Natuna Islands – has taken a more overtly direct approach to dealing with states which encroach on its territorial waters. This approach has been marked by Jakarta’s willingness to enforce its sovereignty by impounding and destroying boats which fish inside its declared EEZ, regardless of their country of origin, as well as by planning to upgrade its Natuna military base.

Combined with the success of Manila’s case, such approaches might encourage increased pushback from claimant states against China’s regional maritime territorial claims. Certainly such states would be able to point to the PCA ruling and its rejection of China’s nine-dash line as potentially supportive of their claims, and encourage them to seek international arbitration, particularly given the ongoing failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a multilateral mechanism to resolve South China Sea issues. Indonesia’s willingness to defend its territorial waters might even encourage regional states to more vigorously defend their claims, given the failure of both diplomatic and multilateral approaches to coerce China into refraining from exploiting the maritime resources of other states’ claimed territorial waters.

All of which proves that ultimately, while providing a legal resolution to the Philippines’ case against China, the PCA ruling ultimately resolves nothing. If anything, regional tensions have increased due to the ruling, and while welcomed by most regional states, instability will increase as states digest the outcome and consider how best to shape their responses to China in light of the ruling.

What does this mean for Australia?

Canberra has been clear in its resolution to back international norms and laws in relation to South China Sea disputes. Though viewed by many as code for supporting Washington’s ongoing primacy as the predominant provider of regional stability, it is undoubtedly in Australia’s interests to continue to insist states abide by applicable international law, and in this instance this means UNCLOS.

Though rejected by China, the PCA ruling does provide states with a legal basis to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) within and above waters claimed as territorial by Beijing but rejected as such in The Hague ruling. Thus it is likely Canberra will increase the tempo of its FONOPS operations in the South China Sea, both in response to the ruling, and as a demonstrative means of exercising its freedom of the high seas.

Largely dependent on maritime trade routes through the South China Sea for its imported goods, Canberra will continue to resist any attempt by Beijing to reframe the South China Sea as Chinese territory. Australia will use the PCA ruling as providing a legal justification to assert its right to freely navigate the waters and skies of the South China Sea. This is important, for by continuing to do so – and by encouraging regional states to follow suit – Canberra will hope such actions have a normative effect on how these waters are viewed, and will provide an effective counter to Chinese claims recently disproven in international law.

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More US Airpower In Australia Is No Bombshell Given China Crisis

More United States Airpower In Australia No Bombshell Given China Crisis

By Andrew Reynolds

This post was first published in the Huffington Post, 10 July 2016.

boeing-b52-stratofortress-strategic-bomber-united-states-air-force-nasa-aircrafts-wallpaper-5.jpgRecent reports from Canberra indicate that the United States proposes to rotate long-range strategic bombers through Darwin. This should come as no surprise to security watchers. Australia has a history of working with foreign air forces in joint training operations on home soil.

For example, the UK deployed strategic bombers to Darwin for air defence exercises from 1966 to 1972. More recently the US deployed strategic bombers including B-52s to Australia for joint training operations with the RAAF, utilising the NT’s Delamere air weapons range.

During these exercises, B-1 strategic bombers and B-2 stealth bombers were also purportedly used. Hence there is nothing particularly new or surprising in this announcement or in its proposal.

Australia has a legal framework that underpins these operations. The Joint Force Posture Agreement between the United States and Australia, first signed in 2011, provides a legal basis for both rotational deployments of US Marine Corps and United States Air Force enhanced aircraft cooperation activities.

Under its aegis, Australian and United States air forces train jointly in combined air operations. Importantly, such activities have a strategic rationale, being perceived by Canberra as deepening the US alliance and furthering Australian support for the United States as the anchor of regional stability and security in the Asia-Pacific.

For Australian and US aircrews, such joint training operations are their vocational bread and butter. Foreign deployments enable aviators to gain valuable time familiarizing themselves with theatres in which they may in future be tasked. Working jointly with allied forces enables operational and support staff to gain experience in systems and aircraft, develop training and operational doctrine and develop capabilities to improve interoperability. In such ways both countries emerge better trained and better prepared to meet future regional security challenges.

Nevertheless the timing of this announcement is no coincidence. It never is. It is no surprise that the proposal comes hot on the heels of recent urging from United States naval leaders for Australia to launch freedom of navigation and overflight operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea.

Whilst framed diplomatically as reinforcing international rules and norms, there is no question that current South China Sea FONOPS are targeting China. Beijing’s recent land reclamation activities and subsequent developments, including staging advanced surface to air missile systems on disputed islands, have led to accusations of regional militarization.

In this context and at this time, the rotation of nuclear capable B-52 and potentially B-1 bombers through Darwin, within range of disputed South China Sea islands, is a clear signal to Beijing that Washington is prepared to back up its rhetoric with military muscle. Or such is the intention.

And this is not without precedent. Washington has form with such shows of force, including flying B-52s over South Korea, in 2013 and earlier this year, both times following North Korean nuclear tests. And just as those flights antagonized Pyongyang, the rotation of United States strategic bombers through northern Australia will undoubtedly vex China. For the diplomatic signalling symbolised by the use or threatened use of strategic bombers is unambiguous, and is intended to give even the strongest powers pause for thought.

The provision of Australian airfields and training grounds for joint training activities with the United States is arguably a necessary alliance cost. Through Australia’s alliance with Washington, Australia derives substantial benefits, including military aid and access to advanced American military hardware and weapons systems. Significantly, in 2007 Australia’s access to United States’ military technology was raised to the highest level, equivalent to that of Britain’s.

The advanced weapons systems to be installed in Australia’s future submarines are an example of this access. In return for such benefits come costs, and included in these is the provision of geographic advantage, such as that provided by Pine Gap, the Port of Darwin and Garden Island (WA) and it is also in this context that the current US proposal should be viewed.

Strategically, this announcement is important, for both Australia and for the region. As China’s rise continues to be characterised by prickly displays of assertiveness with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, escalating militarization, and a disdain for international rules and norms, local states are looking to Washington to continue to underwrite regional security as they have done since the end of World War Two. In the Asia-Pacific, states are seeking a greater US presence, not less, and this development is an example of the type of initiative that will deliver this.

Will China be pleased? No. Will China have been expecting it or something similar? Probably, but they will learn to live with it though we should expect more robust rhetoric from Beijing as this development unfolds.

South China Sea: Fiery Cross Reef a Signpost to Chinese Security Policy

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South China Sea, Paracel and Spratly Island groups

Map 1. Spratly and Paracel Island groups, South China Sea. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 5 December 2014.

Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s insistence on China’s “peaceful rise“, China’s ongoing program of island reclamations and infrastructure development in the Spratly Islands threatens regional stability. Regional states remain concerned about China’s long-term strategy for the South China Sea (SCS).


A recent IHS Jane’s article detailed China’s recent land-reclamation project on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands. According to the Jane’s report, China has raised a new island measuring 3,000 metres in length, with a width of 200 to 300 metres on the formerly submerged Fiery Cross Reef. This development is significant for many reasons.

Firstly, the dimensions of this reclamation project point to China’s intention to use this new island as an airstrip. The dimensions are significant. At 3 km in length, this airstrip would easily be large enough to land and base Chinese fighter jets and accompanying refuelling aircraft. By comparison, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Tindal base – home of the RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornet No. 75 Squadron in the Northern Territory, is 2,743 metres in length. Moreover, in addition to Fiery Cross’ potential use as an island military airstrip, Airbus Defence and Space imagery released by Jane’s  appears to depict the creation of a harbour at Fiery Cross large enough to accommodate warships, an observation also made by the New York Times recently. Such potential would significantly expand China’s reach and power-projection capabilities within the southern reaches of the SCS and highlights the asymmetric security imbalance between China and competing claimant states, thus adding to the already growing regional security dilemma.

Related to this is the geostrategic significance of this development. Such a development should come as no surprise to SCS observers. As noted by Ankit Panda over at The Diplomat recently, prior to this development China was the sole state amongst Spratly Islands claimants (Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Malaysia) without a Spratlys island airstrip. For a state which claims 90% of the South China Sea as sovereign territory, this omission is glaring. Such an airstrip would have geostrategic significance for China, as it would allow China to project power in the southern reaches of the SCS from an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” island base. Such a capability would address this imbalance and directly threaten the territorial claims of Vietnam and the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Malaysia. Known to mariners as “dangerous ground“, this revamped Fiery Cross would significantly raise the threat level within the SCS – to both claimant states and potentially to merchant shipping – and heighten rather than lessen regional tensions, adding to the growing regional instability.

These are the immediate threats. Viewed as part of an overarching Chinese grand strategy, these developments can be interpreted as part of China’s long-term plan to enforce its territorial claims to the SCS. According to this narrative, this airstrip is merely a building block, one piece of a larger infrastructure development program, which will see the progression of further similar reclamation/airstrip construction projects in the SCS. Additional recent developments would appear to add credence to this claim. As revealed by IHS Jane’s in April, officials from the China Ship Scientific Research Center (CSSRC) have disclosed efforts by China to build multifunctional floating docks to be deployed for use in the Paracel and Spratly islands. Such platforms are intended for use in the “creation and maintenance of an island”, according to Jane’s and would allow China to populate significant portions of the Spratly and Paracel islands, further strengthening their territorial claims. It would seem unlikely that such platforms would be constructed without their being embedded in a longer-term deployment strategy.

The underlying intention behind the construction of two or more such SCS island airstrips is, according to Bonnie Glaser – Senior Advisor for America’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – for China to implement an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) or zones over the South China Sea. According to this narrative, China’s November 2013 declaration of an ADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and significant portions of the East China Sea (ECS) was merely a foretaste of Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, a brief glimpse of what China has in store for the future of the SCS. As Glaser notes, in order to enforce an SCS ADIZ, China needs the capability to monitor the airspace over the SCS and to do this requires the construction of the enabling air bases. Significantly, construction of these island airstrips and accompanying harbours would provide China with this capability.

South China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone

Map 2. Possible Paracel and Spratly Islands ADIZs – superimposed over major oil shipping routes. Note how both zones overlap the major oil shipping route to Japan.

Moreover, when one overlays a map of the major oil shipping routes in the SCS (see Map 2) with what Paracel and Spratly island group ADIZs might look like, the full extent of this threat becomes apparent. Based on posited 200 KM Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ADIZs, it can be seen how the major oil route to Japan through the SCS neatly bisects these two ADIZs, thus graphically illustrating how these ADIZs would pose a significant resource security threat to Japan. Additionally, when one considers these possible ADIZs in the context of the existing East China Sea ADIZ over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, the threat of assertive Chinese sovereignty to Tokyo’s security interests becomes even more apparent. With this in mind, it seems likely that in 2015 we will see growing military modernisation and expansion of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

These observations would seem to fit with the recent “Asia for Asians” rhetoric emanating from Beijing recently. First referenced by President Xi in a speech delivered at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) in May, the security implications of this theme were further emphasised by China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at the recent Xiangshang Forum in Beijing in November. Xi’s words at the CICA conference were: “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia”. During his Xiangshang presentation, Zhenmin remarked: “Asian countries bear primary responsibility for the security of their region”, further elucidating Xi’s words. However, given the aforementioned dilemma – where China is both the major source of its neighbours’ economic security, and their major security concern – both President Xi and Foreign Minister Zhenmin appear to be conflating Asian security needs with China’s. Clearly the two are not the same.

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China’s J-31 Multi-role Fighter: Export Cinderella or White Elephant?

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Shenyang J-31 at the Zhuhai Airshow. Image credit: Wikipedia

By Adrian Calderaro, 4 December 2014.

China’s new J-31 took to the skies for its first ever public appearance at the Zhuhai airshow in late November, however of more interest is the plastic scale model that was featured inside the air-show exposition.

The less than envelope-pushing aerial display of the prototype J-31 did not reveal anything that was not already known about the aircraft. Its design appears to have capitalised on western design courtesy of intellectual espionage through the widely publicised attacks on secure US websites, including Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems – the manufacturer and sub-contractor of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Visually one can see a distinct similarity between the entire front fuselage section forward of the wings of China’s J-31 and the US F-35. The Divertless Supersonic Inlets, obtuse angled rather than 360˚view bubble canopy – omitted on the F-35 but traditionally a standard US Aircraft feature – are two very obvious features that appear to have been ‘borrowed’ from western design.

What is telling is the reliance and use of the smokey RD-93/RD-33 family of engines, the power-plant of the 4th Generation Russian MiG-29. It is unclear as to whether the engine is a locally produced WS-13 variant of the engine, but this detail is almost irrelevant; the engine itself whilst proven yet criticised for good reason, is 1970s – 1980s technology nonetheless and is a far cry for what should be powering a so-called 5th generation fighter. The use and reliance upon this engine is a clear indication to western intelligence that despite the advances in what we can speculate to be aircraft design and manufacturing processes; Radar Absorbing Material (RAM) technologies are perhaps utilised for J-31 airframe design, Chinese engine technology has a long way to go.

This point is reiterated by the debuting of China’s Y-20 heavy lift transporter aircraft, somewhat reminiscent of Boeing’s C-17 and Airbus A400M. While the prototype is a leap in China’s heavy lifting capability, the aircraft’s long, cylindrical engines suggest that it is equipped with what seem to be low-bypass turbofan engines with an integrated exhaust nozzle. This sort of power-plant/airframe combination was commonplace on early turbofan equipped transport aircraft such as the C-141 StarLifter, long-range bombers like the early B-52 Stratofortress and airliners like the Boeing 707 and 727. As technology advanced, high-bypass turbofan engines became commonplace, introducing lower emissions and noise pollution, increased thrust and serviceable life, lower maintenance costs and hours and higher fuel efficiency and increased range. These engines are the industry standard for any large aircraft, civil or military. According to some internet sources, a high-bypass variant is in development for the Y-20, however it will be interesting to see if Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) systems are under development and will be implemented.

The J-31’s manufacturer – Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) – displayed a 1/2 scale J-31 mock up sporting a two-tone camouflage not unlike that worn on the F-22 and F-35. Looking closely, and although a mock-up, it visually insinuates what technologies may be in store. The mock-up sports a golden metallic-tinted canopy, a measure utilised by US aircraft manufacturers to further reduce radar cross-sections emitted from the cockpit. Looking under the nose, there is another F-35 like feature: what seems to be an Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). Finally, the exhaust nozzles of the aircraft feature distinguishable low observable technology, like the F135 engine of the F-35 but completely dissimilar to the more advanced F119 engine of the F-22. The sorts of questions raised by this mock-up aircraft’s features are multifaceted. How far away are these technologies? How good are they? And who will have access to them?

The J-31 has been speculated to be an export fighter. It is not clear whether the J-31 will also be employed by the PLAAF and or the PLANAF. Domestically, the J-31 may be China’s first low observable aircraft with great potential to capitalise on various emerging technologies that will be made available throughout its service life courtesy of China’s burgeoning aerospace industry. Internationally, the J-31 may be China’s way of extending their comparative manufacturing  advantage into more unchartered territory, offering yet another alternative to the American, Russian and European multirole fighter offerings. A J-31 featuring an AESA radar suite could potentially be a very attractive alternative to the 4.5th/5th Generation American, European or Russian multirole fighter aircraft that are currently available.

A production version J-31 featuring the upgrades seen on the mock-up will add a new dynamic to Chinese air power development. Moreover a North Korea, Iran or Pakistan with access to low observable aircraft would be an interesting strategic consideration. Emerging blue water naval platforms such as India’s INS Vikramaditya may be better equipped armed with low observable J-31s than their current MiG-29Ks. Nevertheless contemporary aircraft design no longer requires brute aircraft performance as a prerequisite. Technological advancements have resulted in a strategic shift in design parameters.  Current design emphasises systems integration and AWACS enhanced situational awareness. Additionally aircrews’ ability to receive and share information in a dynamic battle space between other aircraft, ground crews and intelligence services rermains an important contemporary consideration. With these considerations in mind, several important questions remain unanswered. What degree of interoperability will the J-31 offer to potential foreign buyers’ current aircraft inventories? Will additional and costly additions on top of required investments in infrastructure and technical support be required (such as the Xian KJ-2000) to integrate the J-31 into a capable force structure equal to, or surpassing that of its contemporaries?

Finally and most importantly, does the J-31 highlight China’s new comparative advantage in contemporary fighter aircraft design, or will it end up being an expensive investment with problematic future repercussions in an already well-accommodated fighter market?

China-Australia FTA: What are the security implications for Australia?

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G20 Leaders at the recent G20 leaders forum, Brisbane, Australia. Image credit Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 24 November, 2014

The recently announced China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) – due to come into effect in 2015 – marks a significant step forward in the growing integration of Sino-Australian economic interests. Significant, because historically, the increasing economic enmeshment brought about by growing bilateral trading ties precludes – or at least significantly reduces- the likelihood of conflict. As regional littoral states in the South China Sea and more broadly – the Asia-Pacific region – continue to modernise their militaries, largely due to the security dilemma presented by a rising  China, regional instability and the chance of conflict inevitably increases. So more trade and less conflict is a good thing, right? Countries who trade together, rarely fight each other, or so democratic peace theory would have it. The reality is that regional Asia-Pacific states – particularly the small to medium powers and economies – increasingly find themselves on the horns of a shared dilemma – where their major trading partner and primary source of economic security – is also the source of their major security concern.

If the democratic peace theory indeed proves to be true, then ChAFTA ought to be good news for both Australia and China, and indeed it is, economically speaking – especially for Australia’s iron ore and concentrates exporters. However it would be naïve to simply take this most recent – though highly significant – FTA at face value. The ChAFTA is best viewed in the overall long-term Chinese strategic policy framework for regional South China Sea states. There is more at work here than simply China’s desire for Australia’s commodities.

China is well aware that given the regional security dilemma their expanding military (particularly the PLAN) is causing, regional states have little option but to hedge with the US against their rise. The asymmetric nature of the economic and power relationships between China and and other regional states leaves such states with little choice but to hedge with the region’s current hegemonic power. These states are simultaneously threatened by China’s rise and growing power, and ineluctably bound to China with embedded and imperative economic ties, which leads them to pursue a form of politics between the member-state, China and the United States, a three-way process which ANU academic Evelyn Goh has described as “triangular politics“.

China is also aware of attempts by regional states and the United States to enmesh them in regional multilateral institutions such as APEC, ASEAN, ASEAN Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the hope that such multilateral engagement will have an normative effect on their decision-making, acting as a form of multilateral institutional coercion to compel them to adhere to a raft of international laws and norms. For these reasons amongst others, China continues to resist such attempts and continues to pursue its policy of seeking bilateral engagement with regional states. Moreover, China continues to obfuscate both the precise nature of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its reasons for not adhering to accepted international norms and laws such as UNCLOS, despite being a signatory.

All of this is intentional by China and is part of a deliberate policy of calculated political obfuscation which serves its long-term security interests. Strategically, it is a continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s “24 Character Strategy” of hiding one’s power and biding one’s time, though arguably China’s recent growing assertiveness signals an end to the power-hiding component of this strategy. For the longer China can prolong the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, the more time it buys itself to grow in power in the hope that their eventual transition to regional major power status will become a fait accompli, self-evident to all regional states and unable to be resisted by a declining US military.

So where does ChAFTA fit into all of this? As we all know, Australia also finds itself in a well-known dilemma, where its major trading partner (China) is also the source of its major (state) security concern. However, Australia’s hedging with the US is not a consequence of this regional security dilemma, but more an institutional historic tradition. Since federation in 1901, Australia has always relied on major powers to act as external security guarantors. Originally Australia relied on Great Britain to fulfil this role, until it became apparent during the Pacific campaign during World War Two that the UK could no longer fulfil this role, at which point Australia turned to the United States. Australia continues to rely on the US as its security guarantor, with many politicians incorrectly assuming that under the terms of the ANZUS treaty the US is bound to come to Australia’s aid, should Australia’s security be threatened by another state, when in actual fact, as former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has correctly pointed out, ANZUS is a treaty to consult only, there being no compulsion for the US to come to Australia’s aid under ANZUS. Nevertheless, Australia’s security ties with the US continue to deepen, as evidenced by the estimated 2,500 US marines who regularly rotate through Darwin, and by Australia’s multi-billion dollar commitment to buy into Lockheed-Martin’s F35 Joint strike-fighter program.

By offering Australia virtually unprecedented access to China’s economy, it is clear China hopes to use ChAFTA to drive an economic wedge between Australia and the United States, potentially compromising future security cooperation between Australia and the US over East and Southeast Asian security concerns – concerns which might be best categorised as peripheral to Australia’s long-term strategic interests –  and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas in particular.  It may well be that China hopes that the importance of the economic ties which will emerge in coming years as the full suite of ChAFTA’s arrangements come online will become too important for Australia to risk in future by siding with the US against China over regional issues which may threaten this crucial economic partnership. Moreover, if indeed this turns out to be the case – as would seem highly likely – this is actually good for future Australian security policy. In effect, what this means is that ChAFTA will have the long-term effect of forcing Australia to adopt a more independent approach to national security policy, rethinking its traditional and institutionally embedded policy of reliance on external security guarantors.

 

The Analyst Returns

Photo on 6-11-2014 at 1.31 pm #2

The author

By Andrew Reynolds, 23 November 2014.

Some of you have been wondering at the lack of posts from me these past two months. Thank you for your interest.

Lately my efforts have largely been taken up by research and writing commitments, as I work towards completing my masters degree in international relations. Thankfully these commitments have ended for 2014, and the results have made the effort well and truly worthwhile.

For those of you interested in following up this work, I have uploaded my latest graduate research to my profile page on the the Academia.edu website. I have done this as I am a fervent believer in open-source research and the sharing of ideas.

Here are the links to my most recent work:

1. Goldilocks and the South China Sea: Why Viet Nam is hedging with the United States against a rising China – this paper articulates why Viet Nam fundamentally has no choice but to hedge with the United States against a rising China. As part of this paper, I examine the bilateral Sino-Viet relationship from historical, cultural, economic, theoretical and strategic perspectives.

2. An Examination of Australia’s Divergent Responses to ISIL and Ebola – in this paper I examine Australia’s divergent responses to the threats posed by ISIL and Ebola virus disease (EVD). I use the Copenhagen School of securitisation theory as an analytic tool to examine and explain these government choices. For my methodology, I conduct a discourse analysis to show how the threat posed by ISIL has been securitised by significant Australian political actors in contrast to the biosecurity threat of EVD, which, contrastingly, has not been securitised. I also demonstrate how the decision by the Australian government not to securitise EVD aligns with recent and current budgetary and policy choices, and further aligns with Australian institutional tradition.

Now this work is done, I look forward to posting again on contemporary IR issues. As ever, please submit your own articles – I look forward to reading them! To celebrate this return I have given The Analyst a new you look – I hope you enjoy it!

UN Resolution 2166 Proves the Worth of a Seat at the UNSC for Australia

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Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations | Image Credits Wikimedia Commons & DFAT

By Andrew Reynolds, 5 August 2014

Quiet painstaking diplomacy pays off.

If Australia’s successful UN resolution 2166 over the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 proves anything, it is the worth of having a seat at the table of international relations, in this case the UNSC.

Years of painstaking diplomacy paid off in a big way for Australia with 2166, largely thanks to the diligent work of Gary Quinlan and his team at the UN. Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop may have received all the plaudits but Quinlan and his team deserve a large slice of the praise.

To outside observers, it may have appeared as if Australia pulled off this diplomatic feat overnight, but the reality is years of meticulous planning went into this effort. Quinlan and his team have amassed considerable diplomatic credit at the UN, and many of these political chips were cashed in to achieve success at the UN with this resolution.

The need to be in the game of international diplomacy has never been clearer for Australia. A recent report from the Lowy Institute claims Australia is significantly under-represented in key strategic areas, including India, China, the Middle East and Latin-America.In order to address this imbalance, the Lowy Institute’s recommendation – amongst others – is for Australia to open 20 new diplomatic missions over the next ten years.

According to the Lowy Institute, this decline in Australia’s commitment to investing in diplomatic engagement reflects a global trend. The United States is currently reviewing the asymmetric nature of its budgetary expenditure, which has seen its diplomacy underweighted and security expenditure overweighted. The situation in Australia is similar.

The lesson here – hopefully learnt by all sides of parliament – is that you need to be in it to win it. UNSC resolution 2166 would not have been possible without Australia having a seat at the table – in this case, the UNSC table. Hence, the need for Australia to expand its international diplomacy in order to expand its influence has never been clearer. Diplomacy is a long term game. The relationships, networks and contacts necessary to achieve such feats as 2166 cannot be amassed overnight. The LNP coalition should be thanking former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on this one. Without Rudd’s efforts to gain the seat at the UN, UN resolution 2166 would not have been possible.

A salutary lesson but a necessary one.

 

MH-17 Responses

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BUK SA-11 Gadfly Anti-aircraft missile system – Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 19 July 2014

While much still remains disturbingly unclear about the current situation in eastern Ukraine, some things seem perfectly clear. Clearly this situation is now out of control. Ukraine has lost control of its territory. Russia has lost control of the separatists, and the separatist rebels themselves are a rabble. Shooting down a civilian airliner in legal airspace ten kilometres above the earth shows no degree of fire control whatsoever and a reckless disregard for the consequences. These are not the acts of a sovereign state.

Moreover the potential for this event to be a tipping point towards a broader conflict is deeply worrying. Measured responses are called for, not hot heads and finger pointing. Australia’s response to date has been unwise. Certainly, with 28 Australians killed, Australia has a right to be outraged. Our grief is real. Nevertheless, the speed with which Australia has pointed the finger squarely in Moscow’s direction has not been helpful. Without concrete proof to present to the world’s media to back up such claims, such a course is unwise. We’ve been through this before in Iraq. Strong claims must be supported by concrete evidence. Moreover, Australia’s Foreign Minister is now being ignored by Russia’s foreign ministry, which is also unhelpful. However this is not necessarily Australia’s fault. When dialogue ceases, conflicts deepen. More than ever, current events call for measured, engaged diplomacy from all sides.

Equally unhelpful has been Moscow’s response. The speed with which Moscow pointed the finger in Kiev’s direction when news of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 first broke, spoke volumes. Blaming Kiev won’t wash. Concrete evidence exists showing Russian military units training Russian separatists in Ukraine in recent weeks in the operation of anti-aircraft batteries, such as that which is believed to have been used to down flight MH17. These separatists are known to have already shot down Ukraine aircraft in recent weeks. In addition, the complexity of these units and the degree of training involved to operate them – these are no shoulder mounted point and shoot MANPADS – implies a degree of state complicity. It is clearly not Ukraine training these rebels, which leaves Russia. Russia’s denials of complicity are simply not plausible.

Finally,  Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge Australia’s grief, amongst that of many countries – most notably, of course, the Netherlands – has been equally unhelpful. Such refusal to accept the very real grief of the Australians shows a lack of respect for a sovereign state, a factor which rarely goes missing in diplomacy.

More interesting in this mess is the voice which is most notably missing – the Dutch. With 189 deaths at last count, the Netherlands more than any other country has the right to express their outrage, yet the Dutch response had been most marked by its absence.  We await their response with interest.

Lastly let’s not forget that intelligence used to detect such missile launches is likely to have come from the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, on Australian soil. It is possible that Australia’s access to such United States garnered intelligence has emboldened Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to boldly state “It’s clear that all the evidence at this stage suggests that this aircraft was shot down from territories controlled by Russian-backed rebels”. If this is the case, it would be helpful to present such evidence to the world’s media at the earliest opportunity.

How states choose to respond to such tragic events as MH17 speaks volumes about our values as nations. The language we use to express our response and convey our message is vital. At the moment it seems all sides to this escalating situation are struggling to find the right language to both express their position and escape this Escher-type puzzle from escalating into unwanted conflict.

Dangerous Allies

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Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, (Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2014).

By Andrew Reynolds, 30 June 2014

Malcolm Fraser is no casual observer of the Australian political system. As a former Australian Prime Minister, Minister for the Army and Minister for Defence amongst other postings, Fraser has been intimately involved in Australian political life for over six decades. In Dangerous Allies Fraser, together with ANU PhD candidate Cain Roberts, brings this to experience to bear on the Australian foreign policy debate, advocating a radical rethink of Australia’s bilateral relationship with the United States. Fraser boldly states the time has come for Australia to cut its ties with the United States and take a more independent approach to foreign policy, one where we are no longer viewed internationally as a “strategic captive” of the United States.

Surveying the evolution of Australia’s foreign and defence policy since federation, Fraser demonstrates how Australia has historically followed a policy of strategic dependence, supporting great powers – first Britain and then the United States – into a series of foreign conflicts in return for an assurance of support should Australia’s security be threatened. This has been a one-sided bargain, Fraser argues, with the cost being borne by Australia in terms of Australian lives, dollars and assets with Britain as a great power unable to deliver on its side of the bargain and come to Australia’s aid in our time of need in World War Two, resulting in Australia shifting allegiance to the United States.

The resultant relationship with the United States, Fraser argues, has drawn Australia into three failed conflicts: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and threatens to draw Australia into a fourth with China. Moreover, Fraser argues, should a conflict arise with Indonesia, it is quite possible the United States would side with our northern neighbour, given the size of their population, economy and strategic importance to the United States. The lesson, forcefully propounded by Fraser, is that in the final analysis, great powers will always act first in what they see as their own strategic interests, a lesson borne out repeatedly by historical events.

At a time when evolving events in Iraq, Ukraine and the East and South China Seas threaten to draw the United States into conflict, Fraser concludes that the current status of US—Australia relations makes Australian involvement in any action involving the US military virtually certain. Inexorably, Australia would be drawn into conflict in support of US strategic interests. Such an outcome, Fraser argues, would not be in Australia’s best interests, and may increase our insecurity, simultaneously testing our relationship with Indonesia whilst increasing the perception within Southeast Asia that as a strategic captive of the United States, Australia retains little real or genuine independence and is unable to say no to the United States.

2014 - 1 (1)In a detailed analysis of Australian foreign and defence policy since federation, Fraser argues that Australia’s strategic dependence on great powers was justified until the end of the Cold War. Fraser’s argument is that this marked the point when Australia’s and the United States’ interests began to diverge, and when there remained little strategic imperative for Australia to remain dependent on a security alliance with a great power, as the existential threat to Australian and world security posed by Soviet communism dissolved with collapse of the USSR. Moreover Australia’s reliance on the US security umbrella has been based on a false assumption, Fraser argues, with no security guarantee being ratified by treaty, the ANZUS treaty amounting to no more than a ‘treaty to consult. Consequently Fraser argues that the cost of this relationship now outweighs the benefits and it is in Australia’s interests to assert her independence by dismantling the architecture of our security relationship with the United States.

This move would include such measures as requesting the United States move its Marine Air-Ground Force (Darwin) from Australian soil; informing America that Australia will no longer automatically follow it into wars; slating the Pine Gap and North West Cape intelligence facilities for a phased closure over five years; and disentangling Australia’s various defence ties with the United States, including future materiel defence acquisitions, such as Virginia—class nuclear powered submarines and, presumably, the Lockheed-Martin Joint Strike Fighter.

Fraser argues that Australia has grown so entangled in America’s intelligence gathering and weapons deployment systems that we are now complicit in foreign offensive actions taken by the United States, whether Australian troops are involved or not. Critically, according to Fraser, the gradual evolution in the purpose and uses of both the Pine Gap and North West Cape intelligence facilities means Australia is now implicated in targeted US drone strikes involving the killing of citizens in countries with which we are not at war. According to Fraser, Australia’s continued permission for the United States to use Australian soil for the operation of its intelligence gathering and targeting facilities implies Australia’s concurrence with the use of these facilities for both defensive and offensive purposes, which now include a range of extra judicial killings, which places Australia in an untenable position. This is a bitter reality that Australia must now face. Fraser argues that wherever US targeted drone strikes occur, be they in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, whenever the Pine Gap facility is involved in the targeting process, Australia is involved too and remains liable.

Fraser’s contribution to this policy debate is timely. Following closely on ANU strategist Hugh White’s The China Choice, where White summarises America’s foreign policy choices in dealing with a rising China, Fraser starkly demonstrates how this policy, which served Australia well until the end of the Cold war, is now endangering Australia’s security regionally. According to Fraser, the reliance of Australia on America’s security umbrella is both false and a paradox.

Fraser addresses the argument that the ANZUS treaty compels America to defend Australia should our security be threatened by stating (repeatedly) that the ANZUS treaty is a treaty to consult only and does not – unlike America’s security treaty with Japan – compel the US to come to our defence. An examination of the ANZUS treaty bears this out, with Article III clearly articulating an obligation on both parties to “consult together”. In describing Australia’s security relationship with the US as a paradox, Fraser counters the argument that we need a strong United States alliance for defensive purposes by reiterating that it is precisely this close alliance with the United States which causes these defensive needs to arise in the first place – that it is in fact our close relationship with the United States which is increasing our insecurity.

Much of Fraser’s argument is broadly compelling. His reiteration of the evolution of Australia’s foreign and defence policy, in particular over the periods where he was directly involved in the events outlined, is both engaging and informative, and would serve as a useful primer for students of international relations and Australian political history. However some of the conclusions he draws are certainly questionable, such as the supposed legal culpability of Australians working at Pine Gap for deaths resulting from US drone strikes. Whilst such claims bear closer examination, they remain speculative and require more detailed legal analysis.

The main strength of Dangerous Allies is the boldness with which Fraser argues his case in the debate, for Fraser is correct: this a debate Australia needs to have. It is vital that at a time when Australia is investing billions of dollars in American military hardware and our defence force posture is becoming increasingly entwined with that of the US, that our defence relationship with the US be re-examined. As tensions between China and the United States develop within Southeast Asia, the likelihood of conflict and potential Australian involvement in such conflict increases. Given the scale of our current and future investments, it is worrying that speculation remains that this relationship is based on false assumptions. We should not wait until a war occurs for these assumptions to be tested.

More worrying is Fraser’s argument of Australia’s complicity in US drone strikes. It appears to be correct that both Pine Gap and North West Cape’s strategic uses have evolved considerably from how they were first conceived. If Australia remains unaware as to the full extent of the use of these facilities by the United States, and if these uses are in conflict with Australian policy, then this needs to be corrected. Whilst much of this for most of us remains speculative, it is important that such discussions be held publicly and initiated by books such as Fraser’s, for in the current political climate, it is unlikely that the government will be the instigator of such debates. Yet as these decisions ultimately involve Australian lives, it is important Australians have a voice in what they see as their own interests.

 

Should Australia Join a US Led Intervention in Iraq?

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 18 June 2014

Should Australia join a US led intervention in Iraq? Should this question be asked, Australia has much to consider. Australia needs to promote adherence to international law and in this case, explore all options with the United Nations Security Council before even considering any non UNSC-endorsed proposals. It remains in Australia’s interests to be seen as a supporter of multilateral rather than unilateral action.


Currently Iraq is in crisis. Groups of of Shiite militias belonging to the extreme Shiite Muslim al-Qa’ida splinter group ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Syria)’ (ISIS) have, in a short space of time, overrun much of Iraq. That ISIS – formerly known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq – could capture Mosul, Iraq’s second most important city in such a short space of time, is remarkable and has caught most of the world off guard. That Iraqi soldiers fled the ISIS attack in Mosul is even more disheartening and must be infuriating to the United States, who has invested US $25 billion in their training as part of their reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Moreover, seeing their state’s security forces fleeing must have been sickening to the thousands of Iraqis left behind, many of whom have died at the hands of the Shi’a forces.

With Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot in Washington meeting with President Obama at the time, Australia suddenly found itself immersed in the United State’s nerve-centre as events were breaking.  Inevitably, the urgency of these events and their humanitarian implications led prematurely to talk of intervention. Questions of Australia’s involvement in a US led mission, inevitably, were asked. This even before the United Nations Security Council had met to debate a possible response to the ongoing crisis. The UNSC subsequently met and on 11 June issued a press release condemning the terrorist attacks in Mosul.

That such events should so quickly lead to talk of intervention is disturbing. From an Australian perspective, it is even more alarming that our nation should be posited as a potential coalition partner – such is the speed with which such events now escalate. As a middle power, Australia has limited military forces to contribute to such coalitions, and as a Southeast Asian state, has limited economic interests in the Middle East.

Amongst such hasty talk of interventions, it is worth reflecting on their legal status. Firstly, we need to distinguish between humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping, for the two are often confused. Essentially, an intervention occurs without the consent of the state. Contrastingly, peacekeeping occurs with the consent of the state. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UNSC is authorised to recommend humanitarian intervention (usually military) when events within a state pose a threat to international peace and security. Given this would supposedly leave states free to commit acts of atrocity including genocide, the debate culminated in the 2005 UN World Summit on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which has been adopted by the majority of states.

R2P was formulated in a bid to protect citizens from ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, despite its altruistic motives, the overarching outcome of the 2005 World Summit was that R2P does not trump the authority of the UNSC. Overwhelmingly, the 2005 Summit demonstrated the desire of most of the world – including the vast majority of the developing world – for their fundamental sovereignty rights to be respected. This means the right to non-interference from external powers.

The Charter of the United Nations enshrines each state’s sovereign right to non-interference and non-intervention.1 Article 2(4) of the charter expressly forbids the use of power against another state with two notable exceptions: the state’s right to self-defence and under actions authorised by the UNSC. As previously stated, for the UNSC to authorise such intervention, it must be shown that the acts on the ground pose an international threat to peace and security. As with Syria, given the potential of the crisis within Iraq to engulf neighbouring states, this would be the only current basis on which an interventionist resolution before Council could currently be proposed.

Also as with Syria, it is all but certain that such a resolution would be vetoed by Russia, and probably, by China.  With any UNSC resolution, a veto (vote against) any resolution by a permanent (P5) member2 effectively sinks any proposal before Council. This axial divide within Council between East and West remains the major sticking point within the UNSC.

Which leads us to three major reasons why Australia should reject any non UNSC-endorsed proposal to intervene in Iraq. Firstly, the legality of a US led, non-UNSC-endorsed intervention remains questionable under international law. As a state who frequently urges other states such as China to abide by international law, we cannot be seen to be selective in our adherence to international laws and norms. Moreover, as a form of soft power, hypothetically were Australia to reject any US proposal to join a US led intervention in Iraq, we would be seen to be embracing multilateral rather than unilateral action. Such a refusal would help promote Australia as a supporter of law adherence. Contrastingly,  supporting unilateral action would risk isolating us further from the developing world, particularly from our regional and neighbouring states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the majority of who are developing states.

Secondly, as we have learned from the 1990s decade of interventions, there is no such thing as a quick fight and interventions inevitably end up taking longer and costing more than first anticipated. Also inevitably, deposing one power – and in the case of Iraq,  where we have a jihadist network and potentially a failed state to address, two powers –  such interventions inevitably mire the intervening state in state—building  and reconstruction efforts, tasks which take years and which would be better left to multilateral institutions to address. Also as we have learnt, and most recently from failed US—led interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, such interventions simply do not work. Both Afghanistan and Iraq remain hotbeds of terrorism and exemplars of failed governance. Solving the world’s crises requires more than bullets and money.

Finally, overwhelmingly the developing world does not want such interventions. As the 2005 UN World Summit showed, interventions have a place, but only as a tool of last resort, and only after every alternative non—interventionist option has been exhausted. In the case of Iraq, we are seeing non—UNSC endorsed interventions being posed as a tool of first resort, a move which contradicts both international law and the expressed wishes of the developing world. Australia would do well to think long and hard before signing on to such interventions. Hopefully, we won’t be asked.

End Notes

  1. Alex J. Bellamy, Nicholas J. Wheeler, ‘Peace Operations and Humanitarian Intervention’ in Nick Bisley and Mark Beeson (ed.), Issues in 21st Century World Politics (1st edn., Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 149.
  1. UNSC permanent member (P5) states: China, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and France