Tomorrow is Anzac Day, a day of national remembrance in Australia and a public holiday. We will have our usual India links for you tomorrow morning and the Weekend Catch-up on Saturday. Normal blogging resumes next Monday.
Photo by Flickr user Luke Redmond.
The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.
- The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea has been signed at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao, China. Signatories include Japan, China, the US, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia.
- China may be working on establishing its own hydrophone system to bolster its anti-submarine capabilities, a long-standing weakness of the PLA Navy.
- The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments' Iskander Rehman interviewed on Indo-Pacific geopolitics for European Geostrategy.
- Joseph Nye and Kevin Rudd give their recommendations on how to navigate the East China Sea dispute in this Washington Post op-ed.
- On Saturday, the Shanghai Maritime Court ordered the seizure of a Japanese cargo vessel over the outstanding pre-war debts of its parent company.
- Do words matter? Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Lieberthal thinks so with regards to the US ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific.
- Obama in Asia: Brookings has a roundup of their analyses here. Scott A Snyder at CFR argues that the success of the trip hinges on President Obama's ability to build a network of alliances. CSIS has released its own analysis detailing what the President needs to accomplish on each leg of the trip. And Japan-news.com has released a handy guide to Obama's travel itinerary.
The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.
Earlier this month, the secretariats of the Commonwealth and la Francophonie (the French-based equivalent of the Commonwealth) met with G20 representatives in Washington, DC to consult on their respective agendas. A press release was issued in advance of the meeting and interested journalists were invited to contact the Commonwealth office if they wished to attend.
And yet, a Google news search reveals that precisely one follow-up story was written on the outcomes of the dialogue (such as they are). Not even a single disgruntled anti-globalisation activist was incensed enough to launch a derogatory tweet. To paraphrase a certain Irishman, there is only one thing worse than being protested about, and that is not being protested about.
Who's at fault for the lack of interest? The G20? The Commonwealth? La Francophonie? And is there anything we can glean about the relevance of these bodies?
On this occasion I would say the G20 is deserving of little blame. After all, as the body which can bring together all the world's major economic players, the G20's reputation had the least to gain from the engagement. Conversely, while the empire clubs certainly bring together a lot of players, it is not immediately clear what they have in common. You no longer even need to be a former British colony to be a member of the Commonwealth.
I had the pleasure of participating in a Commonwealth Study Conference earlier this month in London, and while the event itself was brilliant, I would attribute this more to having the opportunity to network with 100 globally-engaged individuals rather than being able to tap into a uniquely shared Commonwealth temperament (the most unifying moment may have been a reception held for us at the Commonwealth's epicentre, Buckingham Palace, if only because it reminded us of the conference's challenge to work towards a more equitable society).
If the Commonwealth was prepared to revitalise itself as a straight-up networking community, it has a reasonable case. But how much longer can it really hold on to its claim that 'the potential of and need for the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – has never been greater'? (emphasis mine).
Some took Rwanda's admission into the Commonwealth in 2009 as vindication of the forum's vitality, but it is worth noting that Rwanda is always on the lookout for opportunities to embarrass it's former French masters, apparently even if it means swimming away from one sinking ship to join another.
Last year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka did attract a decent amount of protest and press coverage, but that had much more to do with the host government's 'opaque' human rights record and the bizarre decision to host the meeting in Colombo in the first place. Leaders from Canada, India and the Mauritius boycotted, while David Cameron insisted his attendance was driven by the opportunity to threaten the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with a UN inquiry, should Sri Lanka continually fail to hold a single person to account for the death of 40,000 civilians in the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 (of note, Tony Abbott both attended and donated two Navy surveillance craft to Sri Lanka, and also refused to endorse the eventual UN human rights probe, launched last month). This is all a sad indictment on a forum that played a much more activist role in the 1980s against South African apartheid.
In fact, it appears that the last 'tangible' diplomatic outcome from a CHOGM meeting occurred in Perth in 2011, where Commonwealth leaders granted royal first-born girls equal hereditary rights to those of sons, and lifted the ban on monarchs getting married to Roman Catholics.
The Commonwealth may have a future, but less in state diplomacy than in the worthy but unglamorous objective of breaking down cultural barriers between the citizens of states big and small.
President Obama with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo yesterday. (REUTERS/Larry Downing.)
Among journalists and pundits, there is little agreement on the status or prospects of President Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, the Asia Pacific pivot, or as it is more thoughtfully but less memorably known, the rebalance: is it dead? Is it in need of revival? Is it doing just fine, thank you? Or in a particularly Slatelike pitch, was it ever even a thing to begin with?
How to account for such different conclusions? First, most of those arguing the rebalance has fallen short are merely impatient. This is a long-term project. The rebalance is intended to guide American actions and resources over many years. Some 30 months after President Obama outlined the strategy in his address to parliament in Canberra, that project naturally remains unfinished, as the Administration continues to deliberately move the economic, military, and diplomatic pieces into place:
- Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are tough going, but still going. The degree of difficulty is directly related to the stakes: the promise of TPP is in its potential to lay down a liberal trade order for the region for the 21st century. Meanwhile, other agencies of the US government continue to pour energy and resources into the region. In June, for example, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will lead a delegation of American CEOs on a swing through Southeast Asia, the second of her brief tenure. Meanwhile, her department is opening two new offices, in Yangon and Wuhan.
- As Bates Gill and Tom Switzer noted last month, the US military is undeniably reallocating assets to emphasise the Indo-Pacific: Marines are in Darwin, Littoral Combat Ships are deployed to Singapore and Global Hawks are in Japan. But there's more to come. By 2020, the US Navy will base 60% of its surface combatants to the Indo-Pacific; the US Air Force will base 50% of its fifth generation fighters here; and the Marine rotations to Darwin continue to grow in size, on target to reach 2500 by 2017 (Slate's Joshua Keating dings the Administration for not having 2500 there now, but that was never the plan). At his stop in Manila, Obama may sign an agreement to rotate more US forces through the Philippines.
- Perhaps most importantly, and contra Landler and Sanger in the NY Times, the US has stepped up diplomatic engagement dramatically. The US signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, joined the East Asia Summit in 2010, and hosted APEC in 2011. The State Department is steadily boosting the number of its diplomats in the region, including by establishing a new permanent mission to ASEAN in Jakarta in 2010. Cabinet-level visits have increased. In addition to Pritzker's visits, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just spent three days with the assembled ASEAN defense ministers (Secretary of State John Kerry's record is a rare exception in this regard). There has never been more presidential attention. Following Obama's current Asia trip, which will include stops in Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama will have visited Southeast Asian countries more than any of his predecessors at this point in their terms, and he will return again in just seven months.
None of this is to say there is no reason for uncertainty regarding the US commitment to Asia. The real risk to the pivot is congressional dysfunction.
Congress' inability to agree to a budget deal in 2011 resulted in indiscriminate defence budget cuts which threaten the ability to sustain new military commitments in the medium term. Tea Party activism sunk the last big push to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2012, which would have given the US additional credibility when making its case for a rules-based order regarding maritime disputes (the US Navy has long abided by its rules anyway).
Congress could prove an even bigger obstacle in the year to come. Democrats in the House have promised to obstruct passage of any new trade agreements, including TPP. The House Foreign Affairs Committee leadership over the past year has sought to limit US engagement with some governments in Southeast Asia due to human rights concerns – limits that would prevent the Administration from effectively addressing those concerns. Individual Senators continue to block Administration nominees for key posts as a way to extract Administration concession on unrelated issues, leaving the Administration without a confirmed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs for much of its two terms. There are no remaining members in Congress with the deep knowledge of the region boasted by giants like Dick Lugar, Bill Cohen, Daniel Inouye or Jim Webb, and few junior members on the horizon interested in following in their footsteps.
President Obama's trip to Asia this week provides an opportunity for him to clarify that the rebalance remains his policy, and that he intends to follow through. But a more important and more difficult trip would also be a much shorter one: down Pennsylvania Avenue, to convince Congress of the merits and singular importance of his strategy.