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Japan's Pacific Islands strategy counters a rising China

by guest blogger – blank

By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Philippa Brant, a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

Japan held its 7th meeting with Pacific Islands Leaders (PALM7) on 22-23 May. All members of the Pacific Islands Forum were represented, including Australia and New Zealand. For the first time since his coup in 2006, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was invited and attended.

There was particular interest in whether Japan would expand its foreign aid to the Pacific Islands region in light of evidence of an increased Chinese presence over the last few years and the possibility that China might soon overtake Japan as the region's third-largest donor.

At the meeting, Japan promised ¥55 billion (approximately US$450 million) to the region over next three years. Prime Minister Abe declared that Japan had fulfilled a pledge to spend more than US$500 million over the last three years (2012-14). Because of the fluctuating exchange rate, the amount of Japanese aid has in reality been fairly constant over the past decade.

The fact that Japan hasn't dramatically increased aid to the region in the face of increased attention from China suggests Japan is not seeking to engage in explicit chequebook diplomacy with China in the Pacific Islands. Instead, Japan is trying to position itself as the partner of choice on issues of key concern to Pacific Islanders grappling with the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Importantly, Japan is focusing on issues which matter to the region and where Japanese assistance can make the most difference.

Leaders agreed to seven priority areas for cooperation over the next three years: (1) disaster risk reduction; (2) climate change; (3) environment; (4) people-to-people exchanges; (5) sustainable development (including human resource development); (6) oceans, maritime issues and fisheries; and (7) trade, investment and tourism.

Some media sources are reporting that Japan's entire aid pledge will target climate change and disaster risk reduction, although the communiqué doesn't specify this. In his keynote address Prime Minister Abe said that aid support was to help 'foster resilient capabilities that will not be defeated by climate change or disasters'. Japan's assistance to Pacific Islands continues to include support for infrastructure development, such as constructing new port facilities in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and assistance for improving radio broadcasting services in Fiji.

Japan's commitment to assisting the region with adaptation to climate change will be welcomed by Pacific Island states. In addition to bilateral assistance, Japan will also be supporting the development of the Pacific Climate Change Centre and other capacity-building initiatives at a regional level. 

Japan's US$1.5 billion contribution to the international Green Climate Fund last week means the Fund can now be made operational. The Fund needed to raise 50% of pledged funds in order to commence operations. This stands in contrast with Australia's A$200 million commitment to the Fund over four years. Japan's commitment is valuable for the region as the Fund will be an important source of additional funding for Pacific Islands seeking support for adaptation projects. 

Climate change is an issue which unites the region and affects many countries deeply. The priority Japan has placed on it is also symbolic at a time when Australia's approach internationally is ambivalent.

Japan has long been an important partner for Pacific island countries. Development cooperation is a valuable aspect of its engagement but trade and investment is also significant. Japan is also a source of tourists for some countries in the region. Japan is a major client for PNG's LNG and Japanese companies are continuing to invest in Papua New Guinea. Shinzo Abe visited Papua New Guinea last year with a large business delegation.

In another sign that Japan is trying to distinguish its role in the region from that of China, the communique made clear reference to a maritime order that should be 'maintained in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)', and called for countries to exercise self-restraint and peacefully resolve international disputes 'without resorting to the threat or use of force'.

Some Japanese media have connected this language to concerns about Chinese maritime behaviour in the Pacific Islands. However, it should really be read as applying to Japanese concerns about Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas. It is likely that the Japanese focus on a peaceful maritime order and a sustainable Pacific Ocean in this meeting is part of its wider diplomatic strategy to counter rising Chinese influence. 

Japan has signaled that it is in tune with the priorities of Pacific Island states and is hoping this will help position Tokyo favourably in the eyes of Pacific Island leaders, who are courted by an increasing number of international partners.

Photo courtesy of the Facebook user Prime Minister's Office of Japan.


Al Jazeera poll shows alarming levels of support for ISIS

by Anneliese Mcauliffe

'Do you support ISIS victories in Iraq and Syria?' This is the question being posed by Al Jazeera Arabic news channel in one of its regular Arabic language polls.

So how many Al Jazeera Arabic viewers are willing to give their anonymous vote in favour of an ISIS victory? At time of writing the poll had attracted more than 36,000 votes, with a staggering 81% in support of the ISIS and only 19% rejecting the group.

What, if anything, does this tell us about support for ISIS in the Arab world?

Most of Al Jazeera Arabic's audience comes from the Sunni Muslim world, with high viewerships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera Arabic is owned by the Qatar Government and, despite claims of independence, follows Doha's foreign policy diktats closely.

The Government of Qatar has an ambiguous record when it comes to supporting ISIS. The official line is that Qatar supports the moderate (Sunni) Islamist opposition, and Qatar has joined the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. But concerns have been raised that funding from loosely defined 'private donors' from Qatar (along with UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) has been funnelled to Sunni militants including Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force, as well as ISIS.

Al Jazeera Arabic has operated as an unofficial mouthpiece for various Sunni opposition voices, much more so than its arch-rival, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya. It is perhaps no coincidence that President Obama earlier this month snubbed Al Jazeera Arabic and instead gave his second interview to Al Arabiya.

So far, more than 30,000 votes have been cast in favour of ISIS. Anonymous online polls can of course be manipulated by motivated groups, but this result does reflect a silent support base that may not voice its thoughts publicly. In his recent book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explain the strange allure of ISIS to many Sunni Muslims.

Those who say they are adherents of ISIS as a strictly political project make up a weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base. For people in this category, ISIS is the only option on offer for Sunni Muslims who have been dealt a dismal hand in the past decade — first losing control of Iraq and now suffering nationwide atrocities, which many equate to genocide, in Syria. They view the struggle in the Middle East as one between Sunnis and an Iranian-led coalition, and they justify ultraviolence as a necessary tool to counterbalance or deter Shia hegemony. This category often includes the highly educated.

So, despite the atrocities, despite the touted international support for crushing ISIS, and despite the efforts policy-makers put into distancing ISIS militants from the religion of Islam, there remains a large body of public opinion in the Arab world which sees ISIS as the warriors of Sunni Islam and the defenders of the Arab world against the scourge of Shi'ism and the interventionist West.

This poll is a small snapshot of dissent, but a potent warning to those who think defeating ISIS on the battlefield will lead to the group's demise.

Photo by Flickr user Day Donaldson.


Kevin Andrews' Defence White Paper preview

by Nick Bisley

Given that the forthcoming Defence White Paper will be the third in six years, one could be forgiven for being slightly cynical about the overarching political exercise. Labor clearly felt the messaging, both domestic and international, of the 2009 White Paper was sufficiently problematic as to warrant a rewrite in 2013. Then, upon coming to office, the Abbott Government announced it was commissioning yet another White Paper but did not really explain why this was needed beyond a vague justification for its commitment to make defence spending 2% of GDP.

More than a year has passed and the Paper's publication remains some way off. But in a speech in Melbourne last Friday, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews provided the first official hints about just what we might expect. There was more detail than one might have anticipated – it was more Powerpoint than dance of the seven veils – yet none of it marks a meaningful break with the recent past.

Indeed, for a government that has put defence and security squarely at the heart of its purpose and electoral messaging, it is striking how similar the ideas set out in the Ministers' address are to the 2013 paper. Some notable points:

The Indo-Pacific is back

During the Rudd-Gillard governments the notion of the Indo-Pacific strategic arc became steadily more prominent in official thinking. Yet since 2013 the Coalition Government has tended to keep the idea out of strategic discussions.

But the Minister's speech suggests the Indo-Pacific has found redemption and looks to be once again the regional framework for Australia's international engagement. Yet notwithstanding the reasonable idea that the Indian and Pacific oceans are ever more connected through the energy, commodities and goods trade, it's not clear that the Indo-Pacific headline will lead to a properly Indo-Pacific Australian strategic posture. This is particularly true given the emphasis on East Asia in the Minister's remarks and the single-sentence reference to India.

China: Competition and cooperation reaffirmed

The 2009 White Paper pointed the strategic finger at China as a disruptive influence, and consequently one of main purposes of the 2013 paper was to signal that Australia no longer believed this to be the case, at least not officially and not in public. Minister Andrews reaffirmed this view of the regional outlook. Competition among major powers will occur but the risks of this becoming conflict are low because the region's states will cooperate more due to their thick web of shared interests, he argued.

Military modernisation required

But this sits a little uneasily with other messages the Minister sent. The major piece of strategic communication that the 2015 White Paper needs to achieve is to explain why Australia needs to increase defence spending and why it needs to be the magic figure of 2% of GDP.

The Minister's comments indicate that Australia needs to spend more on defence for two main reasons. First, Australia will have to write bigger cheques to retain its strategic advantage in a region where defence spending is growing dramatically. As the region invests in greater military capability, Andrews said, Australia must up its commitments in order to stay ahead of the curve (although we are not yet in an arms race dynamic, this is very much how they begin). Second, transnational terrorism is back in business. Transnational security challenges will be growing risks for all states, Andrews said.

The Minister also took the opportunity to state publicly Australia's opposition to China's recent reclamation activity in the South China Sea. The language (Australia opposes 'any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo') echoed the Foreign Minister's December 2013 statement responding to China's announcement of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone. Of course these maritime disputes turn on precisely what the status quo entails. Australia is once again siding with the US and its allies to oppose China's actions.

Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions from short ministerial speech. But based on these hints, it seems clear that there will be no major surprises in the White Paper.

The language will be carefully calibrated not to offend, the alliance will remain at the heart of defence, Australia will be an active participant in Asia's defence modernisation process and we will continue to acquire a greater capacity to project force and maintain air and informational superiority in our immediate surrounds. Some of the recent events in the East and South China Sea, as well as Russia's adventurism in Crimea, will be deployed to justify the increase in spending, but those commitments have long been made.

Apart from packaging and domestic political signaling, not much has changed since 2009. Indeed, if anything, this White Paper process invites more cynicism, as it appears designed to be a post facto justification for spending and policy promises made some time ago.


Why Obama is losing interest in the Middle East

by Rodger Shanahan

Spare a thought for Barack Obama.

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.

President Obama at Cairo University, 2009. (Flickr/US Embassy Kabul.)

Hence his moves to limit the military support he gives to the Iraqi Government. It's a way of forcing the Iraqi Government to take military responsibility for the fighting and political responsibility for establishing a functioning, unitary state not caught in sectarian, tribal and ethnic identity politics. It is also why he has limited his support to the Syrian opposition until it too establishes a military force that is not religiously inspired and presents a viable political alternative (one that is not simply reflective of the policy desires of regional sponsors).

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it relies on your partners acknowledging that they need to earn legitimacy and not have it accorded to them. The rise of ISIS and other Islamist variants is due to a range of factors, but the perceived lack of government legitimacy is a significant element. And when he looks at the region, Obama sees his allies and their policies fueling the legitimacy problem by prioritising short-term interests over long-term solutions.

In Syria, for instance, frustration over perceived US intransigence appears to have brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia together to fund and coordinate Islamist opposition groups whose ideological orientation is about as far from Western secular liberal values as they can be. And Riyadh's apparently aimless air campaign in Yemen has dragged Washington into a conflict it would rather have avoided. It is likely that Riyadh's desire for a Gulf air coalition for Yemen has led to a diminution (if not complete loss) of Gulf air support for anti-ISIS missions in Syria.

Then there's Iraq. Washington's frustration with Baghdad was evident in Obama's recent interview, in which he noted that 'if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.' The sentiment was echoed by his defense secretary, Ashton Carter.

Accountability and introspection are not characteristics often ascribed to Middle Eastern governments. It remains their default position to blame external forces for the problems of the Middle East. There is of course some merit to this, but the region's fractures owe more to internal dynamics than external ones. President Obama has been pretty consistent about how he views government legitimacy. For those in the region who fear the US is losing interest in the Middle East and its problems (and my attendance at the Doha Forum two weeks ago left me with that distinct impression) but can't understand why, they would do well to read President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said that:

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Perhaps he, like many others, is getting tired of the region and its inability to put any premium on inclusivity and legitimacy. Few could blame him for expecting more of those who seek Washington's help.


B-1 bombers in Australia: Red lines and green lights

by Iain Henry

There isn't much detail on the public record about the agreements that govern the presence of US forces in Australia, but it seems that under the Force Posture Agreement, the presence of these forces is subject to bilateral consultation conducted 'in accordance with Australia's policy of Full Knowledge and Concurrence'.

This policy was conceived to ensure that Australia knows everything happening at places like Pine Gap. Former Defence Minister Stephen Smith described Full Knowledge and Concurrence as 'an expression of sovereignty, of Australia's fundamental right to know what activities foreign Governments conduct in, through or from Australian territory'. Interestingly, Smith stated that 'Concurrence means Australia approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia in support of its mutually agreed goals. Concurrence does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken'.

Now that this policy is being used to cover not just intelligence-gathering but military operations that might be launched from Australian territory, this careful definition of 'concurrence' will become problematic. The recent controversy over Pentagon official David Shear's comments (quickly retracted) that the US was about to place B-1 strategic bombers on Australian soil, and that the US might use these aircraft in shows of force in the disputed South China Sea, illustrates the potency of the issue.

Much of Australia's future usefulness as an American ally will depend on what real estate we provide and what conditions are attached. It will be impossible to claim that Canberra's concurrence to a US operation does not constitute approval.

In the future, if B-1 bombers are stationed in Australia, and if they conduct freedom of navigation exercises over the South China Sea, then this will occur only because Australia has concurred in US forces using Australian bases for that purpose. It could be said, just as accurately, that the operation occurred only because Australia chose to not veto it.

In such circumstances, it will be harder to say that the alliance is 'not directed at any one country'.  Because US forces could only operate from Australian soil with our concurrence, we would essentially be enabling the operation. Our alliance is not 'directed against China', as some have claimed, but if such an operation were to occur it would definitely be directed against Chinese activities. Would the finer points of this distinction matter to the leadership in Beijing? 

It is not clear where the real point of decision lies — whether it is in allowing the US to station B-1 bombers in Australia, or whether an additional green light (ie. specific approval for US aircraft to conduct freedom of navigation operations over the South China Sea) would be required. One agreement could cover both the deployment and operation of USAF aircraft, or separate agreements could be negotiated. As this recent report suggests, when David Shear misspoke earlier this month, it's possible he was talking about some form of agreement nearing completion.

Given that Australian politicians have explained how Full Knowledge and Concurrence works for the intelligence facilities, perhaps they could also explain how this policy applies to the military forces that are already here, and those yet to arrive.

None of this is to argue for or against Australia supporting American actions in the South China Sea. But the factors assessed above are critically important to how the alliance will operate in the future. It's hard to be sure with so little information publicly available, but it seems that whether B-1s are 'based', 'stationed' or 'deployed' to Australia is less important than what missions Canberra chooses to approve (or veto).

If America ever wants to use Australian bases in an effort to enforce red lines in the South China Sea, they'll expect a green light from Canberra. No matter what traffic signal we choose, there will be consequences.

Photo by Flickr user


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