Tag Archives: Indonesia

The Indo-Pacific ‘region’ and India; 29 November 2013



The Indo-Pacific ‘region’ and India;      29 November 2013

‘Indo-Pacific’ has recently entered security and international relations terminology. While the term means different things to different people—a formal map representing this amorphous ‘region’ does not yet exist—the concept basically seeks to tie the Pacific and Indian oceans into one arc or region. Significant trade passes through these two major world oceans. Most importantly, major energy supplies are transported from the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, as some Arabs call it) region to North-East Asia. For China, Japan and South Korea, this makes both oceans, their strategic ‘choke’ points (entrances/exits), and the Indo-Pacific concept, significant.

For Australia, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ comprises the area between the western Pacific Ocean and the western Indian Ocean up to, and including, the entire east coast of Africa. For nations in North-East Asia, the Indo-Pacific stretches from somewhere in the Indian Ocean to the North Pacific Ocean. For the United States, the ‘region’ goes from Hawaii to the west coast of the Indian peninsular. This includes US territories, such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to the east of the Philippines, and coincides with the area of responsibility for US Pacific Command (PACOM), although this doesn’t include the strategically important Persian Gulf, which is CENTCOM’s responsibility. PACOM’s commander apparently uses the term ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’. This begs the question: what comprises Asia (which has varying definitions)? Equally, it may suggest the real purpose behind the concept: engaging or enticing India into an active maritime role in this ‘region’, possibly in relation to negating China.

One nation that is cleverly using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is Indonesia. While the ‘Indo’ refers to the ‘Indian’ in the Indian Ocean, it also could be short for Indonesia. Geographically, this nation, along with Malaysia and Singapore, sits astride the important Malacca Strait waterway linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. For Jakarta, the Indo-Pacific is ‘bounded by Japan in the north, Australia in the south-east and India in the south-west, notably with Indonesia at its centre’. For Jakarta, a major issue is how to keep this region ‘pacific’, given that it confronts a deficit of ‘strategic trust’, unresolved territorial claims, and the rapid transformation of regional states and their relationships.[1]

The difficulty with the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is that it appears to be a Western construct. It supports the US’s ‘pivot’ of its foreign policy focus from the Middle East/South-West Asia area back more easterly to the Asia-Pacific. Australia particularly, which suffers from deep feelings of insecurity, appears to be pushing the term’s use, partly to ensure that its ‘great and powerful friend’, the US, remains actively involved in Australia’s area of prime strategic concern. Increasingly, this area includes the Indian Ocean, mainly because of the rise of India and this nation’s increasing maritime capabilities. India already has strategic reach because it possesses the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an offshore territory astride the western entrance to the Malacca Strait. It also is enhancing its ability to project maritime power by building a ‘blue-water’ navy. This includes aircraft carriers (which Australia had long ago) and nuclear-powered and/or nuclear-armed submarines (which Australia has never had). India’s increasing maritime capability makes Canberra nervous. Australia’s population is largely based on the eastern Pacific seaboard, with populations (Perth, chiefly) on, and territories in, the Indian Ocean. Australia therefore needs a two-ocean navy. Canberra doesn’t (openly) see any malevolent Indian intent in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, it is prudently watching India and trying judiciously to engage this increasingly important nation. Canberra is partially doing so through its pragmatic use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’.

This term, however, is problematic for China, particularly as a Melbourne-based body considers the ‘Indo-Pacific’ to be a ‘US-centric … regional security construction’ that omits China. Beijing is wary of China being encircled by hostile nations and dislikes the strong, ongoing, presence of the United States in the region. China will resist being contained in the way that the US achieved with the USSR. Beijing therefore is being vigilant as Washington attempts to rebalance US foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific. To maximise long-term regional security and make this body more inclusive, the Melbourne body suggests that the term should be made the ‘New Indo-Pacific’,[2] in which China would clearly be a participant.

Nevertheless, because the ‘Indo-Pacific’ includes both the Pacific and the Indian oceans—which is one point of agreement for all users of the term—China effectively has been given permission for its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN; a convoluted term, if ever there was one) to operate in, and throughout, the latter ocean. This, conversely, gives India approval to operate in the Pacific Ocean, including the volatile South China Sea where serious territorial disputes involve China and some Indian friends, such as Vietnam. To placate all nations involved with this concept, the Indo-Pacific needs to be inclusive, transparent and open. Misunderstandings could be costly.

If India is serious about operating freely in the Indian and Pacific oceans—which aspiration is not certain, but which the US and Australia seemingly welcome—its ability to do so would be enhanced by India having settled land borders. The US enjoys this major advantage over both China and India. Settled land borders enables the US Navy to operate freely throughout the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans without the US having to ‘watch its back’ on land. Conversely, India has longstanding border and territorial disputes with China and Pakistan, against which nations, potentially, the Indian military may need to fight a two front-war. Should PLAN ever decide to attack a strategically over-stretched Indian Navy in the South China Sea, India might need to fight a three-front war. Similarly, China, which has a number of potential or actual inimical neighbours (Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, India;), plus the US Navy to deal with, might face a similar dilemma with PLAN in the Pacific or Indian oceans.

The faddish Indo-Pacific concept offers possibilities. Equally, more circumspection, and less circumlocution, is currently needed. Circumspice!

Christopher Snedden
29 November 2013

[1] See H.E. Dr. Marty Natelagawa, An Indonesian Perspective on the Indo-Pacific, Washington D.C., 16 May 2013, available at http://csis.org/files/attachments/130516_MartyNatalegawa_Speech.pdf.

[2] Dennis Rumley, editor, The Indian Ocean Region: Security, Stability and Sustainability in the 21st Century, Melbourne, Australia India Institute, March 2013, pp. 13, 29


Spying and Intelligence; 20 November 2013

Spying and Intelligence; 20 November 2013

The issue of spying is topical, with the United States recently exposed for tapping the phone calls of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Australia is currently in trouble with Indonesia because an Australian intelligence agency sought to monitor telephone conversations made by senior Indonesians, including President Yudhoyono. For both Merkel and Yudhoyono, these activities—which amounted, pure and simple, to spying—were repugnant and unacceptable, especially given that so-called friendly nations had undertaken them.

Spying is an activity undertaken clandestinely, with or without the knowledge of the person, people or nation being spied on. Certainly, anyone operating at a high political or bureaucratic level needs to assume that foreign intelligence agencies, probably hostile (although friendly nations also spy on each other), will attempt to monitor his or her activities and conversations. To think otherwise would be naïve; to act otherwise may weaken a nation’s security. I use the word ‘naïve’ because a quick Internet search on ‘Australian intelligence agencies’ reveals that Australia has six intelligence agencies. Indonesian authorities also could make such searches. Similarly, they should have informed Indonesia’s leaders to be diligent and prudent when talking in non-secure environments, on non-secure devices, and with foreigners.

Australia’s major intelligence agencies comprise:

  • Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which collects human intelligence overseas;
  • Australian Signals Directorate, which collects information electronically (and which allegedly, and almost certainly, has ‘monitored’ Indonesia’s senior officials’ activities);
  • Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, which collects imagery and geospatial intelligence;
  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which collects and analyses intelligence about threats in Australia by Australians or foreigners, including diplomats;
  • Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO; for which I once worked), which analyses intelligence provided by other agencies, Australian and non-Australian, chiefly for a military audience;
  • Office National Assessments, which does similar work to DIO but at a higher level for Australia’s prime minister and cabinet.

Each intelligence agency has its own website, which discusses its supposed capabilities and operations. I say ‘supposed’ as intelligence personnel will only tell you what they want you know, not the whole story.

Other Australian intelligence operatives collecting and/or analysing material include civilian and military diplomats stationed overseas in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and intelligence bodies in the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force. There also are law enforcement-type intelligence agencies, including the Australian Federal Police (AFP), intelligence bodies in state and territory police forces, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Australian Crime Commission, and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC). Some of these, such as DFAT, AFP and AUSTRAC, also collect information overseas or from sources overseas.

To some extent, these abovementioned organisations engage in clandestine activities. This ‘spying’ may create intelligence, although not necessarily. Certainly, in my experience as an intelligence analyst in the 1980s—which was before the powerful Internet came into being—there was secret or classified intelligence that was not terribly useful. Much of what was obtained clandestinely could have been obtained through open, unclassified sources, particularly from an enterprising journalist with a wide and well-informed network. A lot of information also was just that … information, without the added analysis or inclusion of other details that might make it relevant.

Secret intelligence did provide two things, however. First, some otherwise-unobtainable phone intercepts: I recall reading the captured conversations of some South Asian leaders. While ‘juicy’, they were not really useful or informative. (Mr Yudhoyono may therefore possibly have little to worry about.) Second, timeliness. In my days, the large and sophisticated worldwide communications network that Australia and its intelligence partners (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand) possessed meant that we usually received advanced warning, only by an hour or two, of a major international event. DIO did have wire services, but these invariably reported events after the classified network. This advantage has probably now faded, given that communications have advanced significantly worldwide.

There are other issues with intelligence agencies. First, it is almost impossible for an outsider to determine whether these bodies are good, bad or indifferent. They are ‘closed shops’ not subjected to open parliamentary and media scrutiny. We therefore have to take on face value that these secretive entities are efficient, ethical and do good work. Hence their great fears when people like Ed Snowden leak ‘highly sensitive’ information that may show them in a poor light. This relates to the second point: paternalism and trust. Intelligence agencies tell us that we are at risk, but that they can’t tell us from whom or why, as this may betray their sources or compromise their operations. We therefore have to trust that what they say has veracity. This convenient, self-serving argument is difficult to counter. This relates to a final point: in my experience, intelligence agencies tend to over classify information. This adds to their mystique—and our inability to scrutinise them and their material.

One could get paranoid about all of this spying activity, particularly when realising that other nations, including Indonesia, have similar bodies. We all are being watched—possibly excessively. However, a point to remember is that intelligence agencies do not necessarily fully protect or save nations. Despite their worldwide reach and resources, the US’s intelligence agencies did not prevent ‘9/11’. (We may, of course, have been saved from other serious security or ‘terrorist’ threats, but intelligence agencies can’t, or won’t, tell us.) Despite its fearsome reputation, the Soviet Union’s KGB (Committee for State Security) failed to stop the USSR from totally disintegrating. Ultimately, a nation’s openness and transparency may be a far better defence than it being closed, secretive and choosing to engage in clandestine activities that antagonise its neighbours and cause them to retaliate—invariably clandestinely, of course.

Christopher Snedden
20 November 2013