Tag Archives: United States

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


Line of Control, Contention and Contestation 7 November 2013



Line of Control, Contention and Contestation               7 November 2013

Recently, the Line of Control (LOC) dividing contested Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has again become contentious. The ceasefire that Indian and Pakistani military forces declared in November 2003 has been essentially abrogated, while the number of cross-LOC incidents has increased to pre-ceasefire levels. The reasons for the increase in incidents are unclear, but there are a number of possibilities.

According to the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24700088), India claims almost 200 LOC violations this year. Pakistani counter claims of Indian violations are similar. (See http://tribune.com.pk/story/622293/loc-violation-indian-firing-injures-three-in-sialkot/). Even though the United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan was established to observe and monitor LOC violations, it does not publicly report or discuss these. Therein, therefore, lies one of the great challenges of India-Pakistan relations: verifying exactly who did what to whom and when.

LOC incidents seemingly start for no reason, after which there is an equivalent response by the other side’s militarily. Exchanges involve small arms fire, artillery barrages and, lately, deadly sniper fire, including against civilians. Last January, my blog piece titled ‘A LOC-al affair …’ etc. (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2013/01/25/a-loc-al-affair-and-india-lacks-a-covert-capability-for-use-against-pakistan/) discussed why there had been increased ‘aggression and hostilities’ over the LOC, including in relation to the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier. I predicted, correctly on this occasion, that ‘if history tells us anything, there indubitably will be more [incidents] in future’.

With the benefit of a further nine months of cross-LOC incidents, a number of factors appear to be promoting the current upsurge of violence. On the Pakistan side, a new Chief of Army will be appointed later this month. Possibly, some ‘rogue’ commanders either have been operating pro-actively or they are trying to impress leaders in Islamabad. Equally, the Pakistan Army may be trying to show Pakistan’s politicians, especially Nawaz Sharif, who is currently serving as the prime, foreign and defence ministers, that the military is the paramount power in relation to India-Pakistan relations. Sharif, who wants civilian control over the military, has a battle on his hands that he may win, but probably only on the margins. The Pakistan Army is too big and powerful to be tamed by Pakistani politicians.

Another factor may be Muslim Taliban-type militants, ‘encouraged’ by their Pakistani religious and military ‘supporters’. With Indian forces having made the LOC almost impenetrable, these men from south-eastern Afghanistan or north-western Pakistan may be proxies fomenting problems for ‘Hindu’ India on the LOC. This seems unlikely. Afghanistan is currently so unstable that Taliban-type elements need to be there to militarily advance their own group’s position, particularly as the bulk of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will leave Afghanistan next year. Equally, the Pakistan Taliban is under significant pressure, as Hakimullah Mehsud’s recent death shows. It has little spare capacity to operate outside north-western Pakistan. Only militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba appear able to do so, although they currently are keeping a low profile, possibly to help Pakistan appease the US. Equally, these groups’ leadership may be waiting to see how Pakistan fares under the new Sharif government or they are keeping their ‘powder dry’ in order to influence events in Afghanistan in 2014.

Increasingly, Islamabad is becoming anxious about the post-ISAF situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan is nervous about its neighbour’s future stability and about whether the Afghan regime will be sufficiently amenable towards Pakistan. A more pressing problem is whether the United States and other Western nations, such as Australia, will still be interested in Pakistan after 2014. Islamabad is realising that Pakistan may become strategically isolated and/or irrelevant. Such feelings are heightened as India-US relations converge, because India-Afghanistan relations are strong, and as India and China normalise their relationship, including via strong bi-lateral trade and, most recently, the signing of their Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.

Put simply, Pakistan is again feeling deeply insecure. Many Pakistanis have felt this way since 1947, particularly in relation to India. One cost-effective way for Islamabad to shore up Pakistan’s strategic situation and keep the world interested in this economically- and socially-troubled but nuclear-armed nation is to try (to again) internationalise the Kashmir dispute. This crude strategy worked in 1999 with the Kargil War, after which Washington sought to ramp down tensions in J&K. This time, the strategy seemingly involves creating incidents along the LOC. Thankfully for Islamabad, the active Indian (and foreign) media is happy to publicise such incidents. In response, Islamabad claims mis-reporting, Indian bias, or bellicose Indian nationalism.

Two factors drive India. Politically, next year’s national election is making both the Congress-led government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition want to appear to be strong about defending the nation. With the BJP currently appearing to be the electoral front runner, Congress may be ordering the Indian military to be pro-active and respond strongly to all Pakistani provocations. Militarily—and this may be the most significant factor—after the beheading of the Indian soldier in January, India’s Chief of Army, General Bikram Singh, told his troops to be aggressive when replying to any Pakistani violations of the LOC. For Indian soldiers, this unacceptable Pakistani act was not just ’cricket’. It went beyond the pale of what was acceptable on the battlefield. Indian soldiers have taken Singh’s order to heart, as evidenced by the recent statement by Major-General V.P. Singh (photo above), who is commanding forces in Indian J&K, about giving a ‘befitting reply’ to Pakistan at a time and place of India’s choosing. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGaMejgcxE4&feature=c4-overview&list=UU6RJ7-PaXg6TIH2BzZfTV7w.)

Consequently, the Line of Control is now a ‘line of contestation’. This situation is unlikely to change until after India’s elections next May. Then, a new, more politically-secure, Indian government may tell the Indian military to tone down its rhetoric and LOC activities. This may partially help Pakistan deal with its anxieties of feeling isolated and left largely alone to deal with an increasingly buoyant and self-assured India.

Christopher Snedden
7 November 2013

Unleashing Monsters 29 October 2013

Unleashing Monsters                                                                    29 October 2013

It is interesting teaching undergraduates. My students generally are young—mostly under twenty-years old—with little knowledge about many world issues or events that I take for granted. One matter is the long finished, but strategically challenging, Cold War. Many young people do not realise that, in 1988, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had 45,000 nuclear warheads. Its competitor, the United States (US), ‘only’ had 22,000, although these apparently were technologically superior. Both superpowers could deliver these highly-destructive weapons using long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Surprisingly for my students, the USSR had probably targeted Australian cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. A certain target was the important Australia-US intelligence facility at Pine Gap, Northern Territory. Some Western strategists considered that, given the closeness of Australia-US relations, Moscow could send a strong message to Washington by ‘nuking’ an Australian city. The Soviets may have believed that such an act might not have provoked any US retaliation. Thankfully, this ‘monster’ was never unleashed. Nevertheless, my students’ unease continued when I told them that Russia, the chief inheritor of all things Soviet, still has 8,000 nuclear weapons. (The US ‘only’ has about 5,000 nukes.) Post-Cold War, a Russian nuclear attack against Australia is highly unlikely. Equally, Australia’s ability to deter any nuclear attack has not improved one iota. Australia still does not have nuclear weapons, while North Korea, India and Pakistan are now possible nuclear threats. Canberra still considers that Australia is under the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, and therefore is protected. What this arrangement fully entails has never been tested.

Another matter that my youthful students know little about is how some nation-states create organisations that come back to ‘bite’ them. Consider Al-Qa’ida (‘the Base’). Western nations, including Australia and the US, funded, armed and/or trained mujahideen fighters who fought, and ultimately defeated, the Red Army that the USSR deployed in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. In the context of the Cold War, Afghanistan offered Washington a great opportunity to use proxies to weaken its global rival. The US also may have been seeking revenge for its defeat by Communist forces, supported by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, in south Vietnam. Thus, the US used Pakistan as its chief conduit to funnel arms and ammunition to the vehemently anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen. Soon after the USSR withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the ‘evil [USSR] empire’, as Ronald Reagan called it, collapsed and the Cold War ended. The resilient mujahideen had played an important part fighting the Red Army, draining the USSR’s exchequer, creating war fatigue among Soviet citizens, and in showing that the USSR was not as strong or benevolent as its propaganda suggested.

Interestingly, some mujahideen had been inspired to go to fight in the anti-Soviet jihad (holy war) Afghanistan by Muslims living there. This included two men in Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK; ‘Services office’), a group formed in 1984: Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian ‘father of global jihad’, and Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi Arabian. Their intention was to garner funds and gather Muslims to fight the ‘Godless’ Red Army. More importantly—at least in the current context of world terrorism—MAK morphed into Al-Qa’ida. It benefitted from MAK’s network, contacts and skills, which have produced ‘kills’. This ‘monster’ was responsible for the complex and well executed—but terrible and tragic—terrorist incidents that stunned US and world citizens on 11 September 2001.

In explaining Al-Qa’ida’s motives, my students struggle to understand some things. First, that a small number of Muslims on the extreme fringe of this generally peaceful religion are so disenchanted that they plan and attack innocent civilians. Second, that these anti-social Muslims justify their stance because they believe that the West has long exploited, suppressed or denigrated Muslims and/or has excessively, unquestioningly supported Israel or repressive pro-US regimes in the Middle East/South-west Asia. Third, that the morals and activities of the West are not always superior to those of the terrorists. Indeed, the Wests’ pursuit of the ‘moral high ground’ is sometimes questionable, as evidenced by the current spying saga involving the US’s National Signals Agency’s spying on supposed US allies. (Equally, in the West’s defence, we know about such activities because Western citizens generally enjoy a free media, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.)

Al-Qa’ida is not the first organisation, or ‘monster’, unleashed on people that has come back to ‘bite’ its initial supporters. In the 1980s, a Sikh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and his followers who sought an independent Sikh state of ‘Khalistan’ in north-western India, allegedly were creations of Indira Gandhi—as Bharatiya Janata Party leaders again recently claimed. The Sikh bodyguards who assassinated India’s prime minister in 1984 did so because Mrs Gandhi had ordered the Indian Army to enter Amritsar’s Golden Temple and ‘remove’ Bhindranwale holed up there. Similarly, India may have trained dissident Tamils from Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. These Tamils, particularly those in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, nevertheless willingly killed soldiers in the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent by New Delhi to pacify northern Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. Most significant is the Taliban. In the 1990s, Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate ‘empowered’ talibs (religious students) in north-western Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent times, Islamabad has clumsily classified these men as ‘good Taliban’, comprising those who support Pakistan’s position in/re Afghanistan, and ‘bad Taliban’, who attack Pakistanis and destabilise Pakistan. The bad Taliban’s ‘successes’ possibly include the devastating assassination of Ms Bhutto herself in 2007. Most recently, they may have been responsible for assassinating Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Law Minister, Israrullah Gandapur. Unleashing brutal covert organisations whose members are loyal chiefly only to themselves can be dangerous.

Christopher Snedden
29 October 2013

Fluidity in South Asian matters 23 October 2013

Fluidity in South Asian matters                                                   23 October 2013

Currently, there is considerable fluidity in South Asian matters. Various South Asian nations, and their leaders, as well as other nations involved with South Asia, chiefly the United States, are considering the region’s future and their nation’s situation in this. Nations also are attempting to shore up their strategic positions in relation to their neighbours and other ‘players’. It is interesting times in South Asia.

Starting with Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in Washington talking with United States’ Secretary of State, John Kerry. He also is scheduled to talk with President Obama. Discussion items include the US’s use of drones to attack targets in north-western Pakistan and the strategic and economic aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship. The use of drones is an emotive issue in Pakistan, with many Pakistanis disliking the ‘collateral damage’ that these unmanned, silent, indiscriminatory killers cause to non-combatants. One consequence is that disenchanted Pakistani youth have joined ‘fundamentalist’-type organisations that oppose both the United States and Pakistan. These extra-legal groups have mounted significant attacks throughout Pakistan. Pakistan would like these attacks, and drone strikes, to lessen.

No doubt, Mr Sharif also has been trying to ascertain what presence—actual and emotional—that US forces will have in Afghanistan after their drawdown next year from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This involves pondering how much the US will choose to engage with Pakistan. Mr Kerry recently had talks with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, with 10,000 being the possible number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan post-US drawdown. This will mean that Afghans will chiefly be responsible for ensuring Afghanistan’s security. Mr Karzai intends to call a Loya Jirga of senior Afghans to ratify any US-Afghanistan agreement, thereby spreading the political responsibility and possibly not impairing the electoral prospects of his elder brother, Qayum Karzai, who is one of ten remaining candidates for Afghanistan’s important presidential election next April. Already, however, Afghan security forces are confronting serious problems with the far-from-placated Taliban, with soldiers defecting in large numbers, and with an inability to maintain hi-tech equipment supplied by ISAF. Afghanistan also confronts an unstable political situation, a poor economy with limited prospects, and unhelpful meddling of outside nations in its affairs.

Pakistan hopes that, post-ISAF, US involvement with it will continue. Pakistan has significant troubles with its economy and with terrorism. For many Pakistanis, however, the US is a ‘fair weather friend’ unable or unwilling to proffer major support on an ongoing basis in the way that Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’, China, does. The US has its own budgetary difficulties. Equally, Washington first and foremost acts in the US’s best interests. During the ‘Global War on Terror’, this necessitated the US having a strategic relationship with Pakistan, chiefly to facilitate the movement of materiel across Pakistan to its remote neighbour, Afghanistan. Pakistan’s strategic importance will reduce dramatically after the bulk of ISAF’s forces leave Afghanistan next year. History also suggests that the US’s interest in Pakistan will thereafter diminish. Aggrieved Pakistanis point to Washington’s lack of support in Pakistan’s 1965 and 1971 wars with India and the US’s rapid withdrawal from Pakistan after the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Washington will have to work hard—and be generous—to placate Islamabad’s great fears.

Whether the US chooses to do so remains to be seen as there also is disenchantment in Washington with Pakistan. Some US policy makers consider that Pakistan has played a double game with the US: it has facilitated the movement of US materiel to Afghanistan while also supporting and protecting pro-Pakistan/anti-Afghan/anti-ISAF forces such as the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban (whose shura (leadership) allegedly has obtained sanctuary around Quetta), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. For Pakistanis, these covert actions amount to Islamabad acting strategically in the national interest. Pakistan perpetually fears an unstable Afghanistan in which inimical forces, particularly Indian, meddle to Pakistan’s disadvantage. Islamabad therefore must shore up Pakistan’s position there, in whatever ways possible. The use of proxies has been reasonably effective and cost-effective. Similarly, however, Afghanistan, which seeks good relations with India, may have been using proxies in border areas against Pakistan.

For India, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is currently in China where he will sign an agreement to reduce tension along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) separating both nations. Despite their complex strategic situations, China-India relations are good: two-way trade is burgeoning; LOAC tensions are being managed; rivalry is downplayed. Certainly, neither aspiring great power wants an economically-devastating ‘hot war’. Singh’s business in Beijing follows his visit to Russia, where he and President Vladimir Putin reiterated that India and Russia enjoy a ‘strategic partnership’ that should be enhanced in key areas such as rocket, missile and naval technologies. Depending on which political coalition wins next year’s Indian elections,* the India-Russia relationship should continue to be strong, if only because India chooses to have relations with a variety of nations rather than totally and unwaveringly aligning with one nation in the way that Pakistan has done with China or Australia has with the United States.

*(Bangladesh also is to have general elections later this year-early next year if the ruling Awami League government can agree to caretaker arrangements; the Maldives is to have presidential elections in early November if the Police allow these to take place; Nepal is to conduct its long-delayed constituent elections on 19 November.)

Despite a longstanding commitment to non-alignment, some Indians and Americans want their nations to embrace, or even align, economically and strategically. This chiefly is because of China, although this is rarely openly stated. Pakistan will be a major loser out of any Indo-US strategic arrangement, along with Russia, if only because India could obtain access to significant US weaponry and technology. Not surprisingly, therefore, both Pakistan and Russia have engaged in some high-level discussions in recent months to develop their relationship which, previously, has been cool because of Pakistan’s better relations with the US and India’s with Russia.

This relates to a further factor compounding South Asian matters: President Obama’s conversation in September with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and supposedly less hardline president. Any US-Iran rapprochement makes Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, and Israel, very nervous. Conversely, this may make things easier for Pakistan and India, both of which have high energy needs that Iran could partially supply via the Iran-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) gas pipeline. The pipeline has been built on the Iranian side, but not in Pakistan, which section Russia has offered to build. Because of US pressure, India had decided not to join IPI. However, given improving Iran-US relations and the desire to strengthen India-US relations, this might change. Such a move also might start to bring Iran ‘in from the (international) cold’.

In strategic affairs, anything is possible. There are (at least) three maxims: each nation acts in its own national interests; nothing stays the same forever; and, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

Christopher Snedden
23 October 2013

Changes in Australian Foreign Policy 11 September 2013

Changes in Australian Foreign Policy                           11 September 2013

Australia had national elections last Saturday. As a result, there is a new government, a new prime minister and a new foreign minister. These are the Liberal-National Coalition (LNC), Mr Tony Abbott and Ms Julie Bishop. Mr Abbott will announce his new Ministry next week, with him possibly creating a new Trade and Investment portfolio. Traditionally, the Nationals, who tend to be more protectionist, have provided the Trade Minister. It remains to be seen whether a National will be given this new ministry.

Under the LNC, Australia’s foreign policy is likely to move further to the right. While the LNC and the Labor Party (that formed the previous government) both agree that Australia’s relationship with the United States is of paramount importance, the Coalition is more unequivocal. Under the previous Liberal prime minister, Mr John Howard, Australia readily and rapidly joined the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ formed to fight terrorists in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Traditionally, LNCs have taken Australia into wars, with the most recent being Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. Apart from Vietnam, these wars had general bipartisan support, although, arguably, the Labor Party has been less ‘gung ho’ in wanting to deploy Australian forces. Australia’s overseas engagements have been justified for strategic reasons. Chiefly, this has been to shore up the Australia-United States relationship.

Under the new government, trade opportunities will be pursued before human rights or other foreign policy concerns. This partly reflects the new incumbent’s constituency: it received strong support from Australian businesses, business people and primary producers, for whom trade is important. The new government probably will be more interested in a range of bilateral relations, whereas Labor governments tend to engage more multilaterally. It intends to pursue, first and foremost, ‘economic diplomacy’ and negotiate bilateral free trade agreements with an array of nations, including China and Japan, with which Australia already has strong trade relationships. Indeed, Australia’s top five two-way trading partners are (in order of size) China, Japan, United States, Republic of Korea, and Singapore.

Foreign affairs is not a strong suite for the new prime minister. All of his former government ministries had strong internal focuses. That said, Mr Abbott has stated that his first overseas visit will be to Jakarta. This reflects his stance that Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta, not a Geneva, focus. This also reflects a peculiar phobia whereby many Australians (falsely) believe that Indonesia is a military threat to Australia. (See The Lowy Institute Poll 2013: http://lowyinstitute.org/files/lowypoll2013_web_corrected_p5.pdf, pp. 12-13.) For too many years, I have met Australians who fear that Indonesia wants to invade Australia, despite Australia being an island-continent that is difficult to reach, let alone successfully invade. These Australians believe that Australia, which has a small population compared with Indonesia’s, has land and resources that others desire. However, the only nation currently with the capability—but not the intent—to mount and sustain a military lodgment in Australia is its greatest ally, the United States.

Hopefully, the methodical Mr Abbott can allay these Australians’ fears, magnified and politicised by the dramatic increased arrival of some 25,000 ‘asylum seekers’—in Australia, they are often called ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal immigrants’—in the last financial year. (In 2011-2012, there were 8,000 arrivals; in 2010-2011, there were 5,000.) Many of the often-dilapidated boats transporting these human beings have left from Indonesian ports. Mr Abbott and his prospective Immigration Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, have promised to ‘stop the boats’ in the Indian Ocean. For them, and many Australians, this is seen, rather emotively, as a crucial national problem. It certainly is important, as some asylum seekers have drowned at sea. However, compared with Pakistan, which third world nation is still housing some 1.5 million Afghan refugees, first world Australia’s problem of dealing with some 60,000 illegal immigrants, the bulk of whom actually have overstayed properly-issued visas, is relatively small. Furthermore, some Australians see a strong need to address the problem much further away, such as in nations from which many of Australia’s ‘boat people’ come: Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. This will be difficult, given that Australia looks set to cut its aid budget (see below).

Foreign affairs also is not a strong suite for the new foreign minister. To date, all of Ms Bishop’s government ministries have had internal focuses. Unlike many of her predecessors, this very formal, almost coldish, lawyer does not display an instinctive passion for foreign affairs. She obtained this portfolio by default after doing poorly as shadow treasurer in 2008-2009. Since then, she has not become a high profile foreign policy advocate in Australia, or overseas. Rather, her high profile has arisen because she has been deputy leader of the Liberal Party and deputy Opposition Leader in the House of Representatives since 2007. In relation to South Asia, little is likely to change. Ms Bishop will pursue stronger trade, including allowing uranium sales, and the furtherance of a somewhat mythical strategic relationship for Australia with India; Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain important while Australia has military forces in Afghanistan, after which both will likely become peripheral; the other South Asian nations will probably be of minimal importance.

Ms Bishop has got off to a difficult start. The new government intends to slash Australia’s aid budget by $4.5 billion to help fund ‘essential infrastructure’ and to help the economy become stronger, after which, for Australia’s new leaders, Australia could be more generous in future. However, compared with those nations to which it gives aid, Australia already has a strong economy. Unfortunately, Ms Bishop has also strongly and consistently linked trade with aid, with makes Australia sound mercenary, rather than humanitarian. Hopefully, Ms Bishop, with the help of the capable Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will grow into the role. It remains to be seen.

Christopher Snedden
11 September 2013

Strategic ‘Greyness’ 26 August 2013

Strategic ‘Greyness’                                                          26 August 2013


Above: Kautilya, author of the ancient Indian political treatise ‘Arthasashtra’ (Economics). www.kautilyavidyalaya.edu.in/sites/default/files/banners/kautilya_header.jpg

One matter that many Westerners appear to find difficult to deal with, and which impacts somewhat on South Asia, is strategic ‘greyness’ (as against things being ‘black and white’).
I have been thinking about this matter because an Australian recently asked me if Pakistan chose to deal with either (Shia) Iran or (Sunni) Saudi Arabia. I answered that it was not an ‘either/or’ choice, but an ‘and’: Pakistan had good relations with both nations. So too does (supposedly ‘Hindu’) India. Similarly, for strategic reasons—not necessarily because they liked them—Pakistanis were prepared to support a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. For pragmatic reasons, China has long had relations with all sorts of nations, including military-dominated Myanmar, which until recently was an international ‘pariah’.

For many Westerners, the strategic and diplomatic ‘flexibility’ that some Asian nations engage in is difficult to accept. Consciously or otherwise, they appear to subscribe to George W. Bush’s oft-repeated and unequivocal statement: ‘You are either with us or against us’. While this credo specifically related to the United States’ ‘War on Terror’, it emulated the US’s frequent Cold War stance whereby Washington desired that nations subscribe to membership of either the Western or Soviet ‘camp’—not the confounding Non-Aligned Movement that sought independence from both blocs. Australia strongly supported this US stance. This narrow Western view of international relations made, and makes, life strategically simple. However, it also partly explains why the US and Australia have struggled with post-colonial India. They could not accept that this developing, non-Communist democracy would not be unequivocally pro-Western in its strategic alignments.

Post-USSR, the United States and Australia still struggle on occasions with India’s strong desire to keep itself aloof from Western alliances and military entanglements, many of which, while generally unstated, appear to be focused on limiting an economically powerful and militarily expansive China. Thus, in its own national interest, India will sign an important and ground-breaking civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, but, unlike Australia, it will not contemplate giving the US military staging rights through its territory. Such independent strategic thinking irks some ‘black-and-white’ Americans and Australians. They would prefer to see ‘argumentative’ Indians, as Amartya Sen has described them, simply toe the Western strategic line. Conversely, they seemingly fail to understand India’s complex geo-strategic situation and its volatile post-colonial Indian history, culture and politics.

Similarly, both the US and Australia have struggled to deal with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Their distaste of China lessened as the PRC increasingly, and more obviously, became anti-Soviet from the late 1950s. Beforehand, many considered Communism to be inherently hostile (which it was) and unpenetratingly monolithic (which it wasn’t). When the West finally digested that the USSR-China equation had become irredeemably antipathetical, US President Richard Nixon saw it as strategically beneficial to abruptly ditch Taiwan and embrace PRC as the ‘real’ or legitimate China. Concurrently, Australia did likewise, although not necessarily for the same reasons. Similarly, in recent years, India has become a nation worthy of Western wooing, while, pragmatically, Pakistan has been of use in relation to Afghanistan. With Western forces soon to leave Afghanistan, both this nation and Pakistan worry about their ongoing strategic ‘worth’ to the West. Meanwhile, China is moving into Afghanistan economically, while Pakistan and India continue to shore up their positions there.

Thinking further about the China-India-Pakistan strategic triangle, India successfully has enjoyed fair-to-good relations with China, with two-way trade currently flourishing. This is despite both nations having fought a war, having a major territorial and border dispute, and having increased maritime rivalry. Indeed, India has a far better relationship with China, with which nation it has little in common, than with Pakistan, with which it has much in common. One complication for India is the closeness of China-Pakistan relations, an alliance that started in the mid-1960s when China was still diplomatically ‘on the nose’ with the West. For Islamabad, China is now Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’ from which it receives significant military, economic and nuclear support. Beijing is not as unequivocal, with one concern being the spread of radical Islam from Pakistan to western China’s Muslim-populated Xinjiang Province. Conversely, the issue of ‘terrorism’ gives China and India something in common. For its part, India also must consider the possibility of having to fight a two-front war against Pakistani and Chinese military forces. Equally, although far less likely, China could have to fight a five-front war if some of its neighbours (e.g. Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India) colluded in anti-China hostilities.

Few Western nations have to contemplate such strategic complexity. In terms of defending their homelands, most are either island nations (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom) or continental nations (Canada, US), or they are part of the peaceful European theatre (France, Germany, Italy, etc.). Apart from Japan, almost all have settled borders, while they also are distant from major international ‘hot spots’. It therefore would seem to follow that a ‘black and white’ strategic outlook occurs when one’s strategic environment is fairly simple and relatively benign. Conversely, nations such as India, China and Pakistan are forced to ‘walk and chew gum’. In other words, diplomatically and strategically, they must deal with complex situations that demand a variety of relationships. This might make these nations appear somewhat contrary in their international engagements. Equally, it makes them difficult to strategically ‘pin down’, something that often frustrates those Western minds that are clinical, linear and black-and-white. Perhaps they need to read some Kautilya or Sun Tzu, the respective Indian and Chinese strategists who long preceded their Italian counterpart, Machiavelli. Summarising their arguments very simplistically, strategic ‘greyness’ is totally explicable, even desirable.

Christopher Snedden
26 August 2013