The Hard Truth about Syria

Mohsin Zeb

They are the most shocking images I have ever seen, as far removed from my life in a quiet college town suburb as is feasible. Children withering on the ground in pain, grown men wailing over the dead bodies of their children, women screaming and piles and piles of bodies – too many to count. Seas of white shrouds as the survivors bury their dead – almost all it would seem innocent people. I cannot imagine that the child shaking on the ground – aged perhaps five or six, or the little girl on a hospital bed, fighting for life as she turns blue represented any serious threat to Assad’s criminal regime.


Each time a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes, the world declares “never again” – never again will such actions be tolerated, never again will the world sit back and watch war crimes take place. As ever, nothing will ever happen. This is the hard truth of Syria – no one is going to save the civilians. No one will stop Assad and his backers, or his paid mercenaries from butchering civilians, from bombing innocents with chemical weapons. The moral indignation of the wider world has become meaningless- red lines come and go, now so unclear as to be invisible for all practical purposes.

Now this is not to say I support the Free Syrian Army. I recognize that both sides have unsavoury characters – but it is not the opposition that commands a complete, modern military machine that is conducting war crimes every week. It is not they who drop bombs on civilians from MiG fighters, or they who fire scud missiles into neighbourhoods. Sometime ago I wrote of the need for intervention – to bring a war that was then still quite young to a swift end – to avoid this very outcome. The passing of time has resulted in untold horrors, scores of thousands of extra deaths and now once again the use of chemical weapons. However it seems moral outrage is meaningless – the political powers that be in the Middle East and the West and within those states such as China and Russia that back Assad care not for any personal loss or about the conduct of war. All that matters is the bottom line – the strategic outcome of a proxy war being fought within Syria between the various states involved. That the tab for this conflict and strategic tussle is being paid by little girls and boys, old women and the like is immaterial.

It is doubtable that Syria as a state can be saved now. Should the guns fall silent, who amongst the masses will forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated against them by the faceless ‘other’? Who will accept the status quo when so much blood has been spilled to change just that? How can the people accept Assad in power when much of the state has been physically destroyed and an endless stream of Syrians seek refuges abroad all as a result of his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power?

I cannot imagine a post conflict Syria will be stable. This civil war is to a large degree shaped along sectarian lines. Assad is a Shia, Iran and Hezbollah – his key backers are Shia. The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni – as are those who provide them with materials, recognition and support – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This war has exacerbated the delicate fault lines within Syrian society – and the Muslim world more broadly. The likes of Russia have geopolitical reasons to prop up Assad and the West too has reasons to oppose him – all of it amounting to a complex web of factors that keeps anything from bringing this conflict to a swift end. Perhaps a stable country under a tyrant is better than the current situation – undoubtedly to any sane person it would be, but who will accept this tyrant again? Is a new strongman the solution? Or perhaps it is better for all if the Alawite community simply secede from the Syrian republic into a new state? Assad and his father before him have perpetuated Alawite dominance over the masses of Sunni Syrians and will never willingly allow natural demographic pressures to shape Syrian politics and such a situation would see his Alawite community forever outnumbered.

Perhaps then a swift partition is better than endless war. The Alawites would have their own state – a land where they can feel empowered, whilst the rest of Syria can get on without them. The issues of disempowerment and discrimination they as the minority fear should their grip of power weaken would become mute. Syria – then free from its sectarian division could proceed to rebuild as a democratic state representing the will of the majority of its peoples.

I am not calling for partition, just opining that it may be better then constant war. Whatever they decide, the sad truth is that the people of Syria will have to reach their own solution. No one is going to step in and save them from the horrors of war; no one takes more than a customary note of war crimes. For their own sake, the people of Syria need to fix or they will continue to bury their future one shrouded child at a time.

Mohsin ZebPhD candidate University College London.

The Kra canal: A dream one step closer to reality?

Ben Moles

Almost a month ago the Nicaraguan Congress, with little fanfare, announced that they had approved a proposal for the construction of a US$40 billion canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a rival sea route to the existing Panama canal that if it comes to fruition, will mean the eventual realisation of a nearly 200 year old dream.


Little fuss seems to have been made of this potential ‘game changing’ news either in the press or by analysts which surprises me, considering both the potential game changing nature of it and perhaps to a greater extent the fact that the company chosen to carry out the construction of the project (and whom have been granted a 50 year concession to build the waterway with an option of extending the concession for another 50 years once the canal is operational) is the Chinese Hong Kong based ‘Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Co’- an enterprise owned entirely by Beijing businessman Wang Jing.

Big news in itself, what really interests me in relation to this story is what this could mean for another centuries old canal project dream closer to home, one also linked to a Chinese push to construct it, and the serious game changing implications this would have strategically in the Southeast Asia region.

The Kra canal is a centuries old vision to connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans through and across a narrow stretch of southern Thailand. To some degree mirroring current geopolitics, the last great push for the project came during the 1930’s from the regions’ then rising power Japan. But influence and pressure on Thailand, or Siam as it was at the time, from the dominant regional colonial power Britain- fearing what this would mean for Singapore- and the onset of World War Two and de-colonisation that followed, ensured that the project would remain but a dream.

Concerns regarding the Kra canal have never entirely dissipated and have bubbled away beneath the surface ever since, with fears most prominently and recently highlighted under the George W. Bush administration. In 2005 a paper prepared by Booz Allen Hamilton (the same company contractor and ‘whistleblower’ Edward Snowden was employed by) for US secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was leaked to the Washington Times, it stated:

China is considering funding construction of a $20 billion canal across the Kra Isthmus that would allow ships to bypass the Strait of Malacca. The canal project would give China port facilities, warehouses and other infrastructure in Thailand aimed at enhancing Chinese influence in the region.”

This paper formed the foundation for the ‘String of Pearls’ theory, the US proposition that China was seeking to strategically strangle India by encircling it with leased naval bases- the theory these days having largely been debunked as a myth, though some like James Holmes maintain the realist position that despite not being a threat now, don’t discount it not being the case in the future- an always impossible position to refute and pertinent to the point that follows.

There are no clear signs at present concerning plans to start constructing the Kra canal, or any new indication that China is pushing ahead or pressuring Thailand into negotiating approval for such a project. But the announcement of the approval for construction of the Nicaragua canal should make us stop and think about what the strategic implications for the region would be if the Kra canal ever was to get the go ahead- because, as the Nicaraguan canal announcement proves, what once seemed but a distant dream can fast become a reality, and potential game changing nightmare for some.

To name only a few of the potential implications stemming from the Kra canal getting the ‘green light’: Mainland Southeast Asia and maritime Southeast Asia would be physically divided by the canal symbolically splitting ASEAN members; Thailand’s troubled separatist south would also be divided and may further fuel domestic Thai ethno-religious security issues with potential spill-over effects a worrying concern for neighbouring Malaysia; the shift in maritime traffic from the straits of Malacca would mean certain economic ruin for Singapore and have a massive economic impact on Malaysia and Indonesia, again impacting and straining ASEAN relations; and finally Chinese perceived control or influence over such a pivotal sea lane and transport route (and massive potential choke point) would concern and trouble many in the region- in particular the US.

William J. Ronan, reflecting on the idea of a Kra canal wrote“…the whole project of the Kra canal is one which is capable of suddenly developing from rumour and speculation into a serious attempt to alter the present strategic and economic balance of the Far East.”

And so very well it would. That these concerns by William J. Ronan were voiced in 1936 and the realisation of a Kra canal hasn’t happened yet shouldn’t foster or allow for complacency that it won’t. Real consideration should be given to the fact that although it hasn’t happened yet it still could, and would be a serious regional game changer with wide reaching ramifications if it did.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. He can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

Book Review: Understanding China’s International Behaviour.

Ben Moles

On Friday night I attended the Lowy Institute’s ‘New Voices’ cocktail event at the Art Gallery NSW. Having been both a former New Voices attendee (2010) and Intern at the Lowy Institute (2012) it was great to meet both past and current affiliates of New Voices and Lowy and see that both, and International Policy in Australia more broadly, have such strong futures.









The Key note speaker at the event, the recently returned to Australia, China Correspondent for Fairfax John Garnaut (a former New Voices attendee too) delivered a blinding speech summarising his experiences in China, reflections of which can be found here. Of the many issues he discussed the one that particularly found resonance with me was the gargantuan task he faced understanding how foreign policy is made in China. John made reference to the ‘octopus’ that is China’s policy apparatus and how difficult it had been at times to make sense of it all. Experience would eventually enable John to overcome this hurdle; for those seeking a slightly more immediate solution to understanding China’s International behaviour I have another suggestion.

Despite being a few years old now, one of the best reference tools for deciphering China’s international behaviour I found while completing my Maters degree was Evan Medeiros’ 2009 book by that very name ‘China’s International Behaviour’- a book review of which follows and that I wrote as part of my Chinese Security and Foreign Policy module I took back in 2011. I would encourage anybody with an Interest in China and China’s International Relations to read this book, which can now be down loaded for free from RAND here.

China’s International Behaviour: Activism, Opportunism and Diversification. Evan. S. Medeiros. ISBN 978-0-8330-4709-0 Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2009, 224pp.

China’s International behaviour comprehensively and objectively provides a frame work for analysis enabling the reader, from inquisitive enquirer to academic scholar, to understand and scrutinise the content, nature and implementation of China’s international behaviour. Medeiros provides both a framework and  the essential analytical tools necessary for understanding the Chinese specific approach that underpins China’s international behaviour, enabling the reader to examine ‘the end’, a Chinese policy, and trace and understand its origins and its creation process.

Medeiros’ main arguments are: that China’s international behaviour is inextricably interconnected with its need to maintain domestic stability; that China can accept the US as a regional hegemonic power and will not seek to challenge the US for the next two decades, however, will oppose US hegemonic behaviour when it conflicts with China’s defined core national interests. The purpose of this book is to inform US policy makers, evident in its final policy suggestions, that they need be cognisant of these considerations when formulating US-China policy.

Medeiros begins by detailing 3 historic lenses (National Revitalisation, a Victim Mentality and Defensive Security Outlook) through which China views its external environment and that has a significant bearing on how Chinese Foreign Policy is formulated and enacted. These help form a narrative that goes some way to explaining China’s five core national interests (Economic Development, Reassurance, Countering Constraints, Diversifying Access to Resources and Reducing Taiwan’s International Space) and the three guiding principles or China’s strategy for securing these interests (All round Diplomacy, Peace and Development and Harmonious World).

Medeiros continues by examining the expanding diplomatic tool kit that China employs to facilitate securing its interests (Economic Diplomacy, China’s Alternative Development Model, Leadership Diplomacy, Multilateral Diplomacy, Strategic Partnerships and Military Diplomacy). He then analyses how these, utilised in conjunction with the key determinate drivers of Chinese International behaviour (domestic stability, the three lenses, China’s five core national interests and three guiding principles), actually manifest into China’s Foreign Policy through analysing and examining China’s relations with regions and other states and international institutions and organisations.

Medeiros concludes by examining the challenges to both China, from the unique way it approaches the formulating of its Foreign Policy, as the subtitle of the book suggests through Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification, and the challenges which await the international community, in particular the US, as China continues its transition and rise. Medeiros observes and spells out for US policy makers that China’s International behaviour is a reflection of cost-benefit calculations which seek to secure Chinese core national interests. Despite these interests being fixed Chinese International behaviour is not, it is fluid, and as China ‘finds its feet’ as a rising regional power it is within this space that the US can assert its greatest influence on the nature of China’s rise.

Throughout, Medeiros presents a logical, methodical and objectively balanced argument, an aspect that can sometimes be found lacking from some of his North American counterparts as they grapple with, or are indifferent to, some of the specific Chinese historical and cultural aspects that help distinguish Chinese international behaviour from that of other ‘Great Powers’. His arguments are persuasive and are backed using relative examples to substantiate his points. On the occasional instance where a more subjective opinion is forwarded alternative arguments are offered to balance the position.

Furthermore, as well as successfully providing and demonstrating a usable and workable framework for examining China’s international behaviour explaining what China is doing and why, Medeiros should be commended for drawing attention to the important signal and message being transmitted from Beijing regarding what China is not doing despite being in a position to do so and why, examples include not pushing a ‘new security concept’ and not seeking a more confrontational US policy. Medeiros’ ultimate success rests in the reader’s ability to take a given Chinese Foreign policy decision or position, that might otherwise to an outsider seem unpredictable or erratic, and determine and understand the myriad of interests that factored into how (the process) and why that decision or position was arrived at.

Medeiros adopts a macrocosmic view of the actual policy making process, choosing to give a generic overview with the mentioning of specific leaders and drawing attention to the transition from ‘single leadership’ to ‘collective leadership,’ whereas a chapter or section solely dedicated to the microcosmic aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision making process would certainly add an extra layer to his analysis and be of value to the reader. Adding to this point could be the inclusion of important International Relations theories and perspectives, a plethora of which exist amongst the growing number of important stakeholders that the collective leadership are increasingly accountable to (a good recent example of such work can be found in: David Shambaugh, ‘Coping with a Conflicted China,’ The Washington Quarterly 34:1, 2011, pp.7-27).

However, these minor absences do not detract in anyway from Medeiros’ worth as essential reading for those looking to understand China’s international behaviour and the important message it sends to US–China policy makers should not be underestimated: Although from the Chinese perspective the US-China relationship may no longer be’ key of keys’ it is still key, and while it remains so the US retain an element of influence over China, and the’ rise of China,’ that it might not uphold to the same extent over the long term future.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at or or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

DFAT and touching the void: A case for establishing an Australia Council.

Ben Moles

This opinion piece has previously been published by On Line Opinion, and for her contribution to that piece I wish to thank Alex Oliver for her time and comments. An updated version of the original piece appears below, which includes a number of suggestions from my colleague, Guy Roberts of the University of Melbourne- to whom I also wish to extend my gratitude.

In a piece I’d previously written, which questioned the utility of Australia claiming the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our own, I acknowledged that Australia simply isn’t doing enough in a regional and global diplomatic/cultural context. This is yet more proof that DFAT is simply over stretched and under resourced (The Lowy Institute’s Alex Oliver has consistently warned that underfunding may invite unexpected peril). Even as the latest Defence white paper looks to plant itself in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Asian Century, there is no sign that DFAT will have sufficient funding to meet this objective. With every developed nation scrambling to engage the Global ‘South’, there is a real danger that Australia might get left behind. One short-term, cost-effective way to triage the situation is through cultural soft-power. In this sense, building an Australia Council (modified and modelled on the British Council) might well provide an effective platform to project Australian economic and diplomatic interests – even if it is no substitute for an adequately funded DFAT.


Beyond the official Australian diplomatic missions stationed abroad, Austrade currently facilitates trade and investment initiatives, promotes the Australian Education sector, and, in some cases, provides limited consular services. Less well known is DFAT’s International Cultural Council that focuses purely on the promotion of Australian arts and cultural exchanges.

So why an Australia Council? Simply put, Australia needs to increase the breadth and depth of its global footprint; to spread across all nations and seep beyond the capital cities and consulate addresses. DFAT doesn’t have the resources to do this, leaving a void – and an opportunity – in our current foreign policy thinking. An Australia Council (modelled on the British Council) might offer a low cost temporary solution, and provide a foundation for more substantial future investments in soft-power diplomacy; an Australia Council could touch and fill that existing void.

Created in 1934, the British Council’s ongoing activities creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.” Essentially it is tasked with promoting British culture, language and business around the world. In diplomatic speak it is a ‘quango’, an independent not-for-profit (albeit 1/3 government funded) charity with a 2011/2012 turnover of £739 million.  Unlike some parts of the British Establishment, the Council has effectively embraced the information age, with wide ranging social media engagement and proactive use of IT and youth culture. Joseph Nye would consider the Council a fine example of ‘soft-power’ projection: a means of positively and effectively promoting ‘Brand UK’ around the around.

Of course, the British Council has not been without its critics; creating an Australian Council should indeed consider these issues, as well as acknowledging Australia’s own unique needs. Essentially, examining the British Council gives Australia the opportunity to learn, adapt and create something far more effective and competitive.

For example, the results driven organisational culture that emerged (and largely stymied) Britain’s public sector departments in the mid 2000’s, wherein short-term results and public accountability became paramount, form the core contemporary criticism of the British Council. The problem vis-à-vis the British Council was the expectation that measurable ‘analogue results’ (think of the eye-rolling ‘Key Performance Indicators’) be extracted from a ‘digital age’ cultural agent.  Essentially, the operating environment and soft-power goals of the British Council are unique; the metrics of its success are not, and should not, be immediately measured in binary terms, but by appreciating the Council’s longer-term, and broader-focused impact across multiple areas of cultural, diplomatic and social engagement over time.

Accusations have also been levelled against the British Council that it directly and aggressively competes with the UK’s language training sector; in some areas holding a monopoly that excludes the very industries it claims to represent.  In reply, the Council attempts to justify such behaviour as a result of Government funding cuts and a subsequent need to shore up its finances in order to sustain and promote its broader objectives. While these funding cuts might imply a decline in its overall significance and standing in Whitehall, they have been in line with other austerity measures and should  no means indicate the irrelevance or impotence of the British Council. Transcending the bureaucratic contextualisation of KPIs and inputs/outputs, some commentators recognise the work of the British Council represents “One of the great bargains on the Treasury’s list”.

On the global stage, the British Council is certainly not alone in the soft-power/public diplomacy work. A plethora of nations have recognised the benefits of cultural ‘sexiness’.  Examples include the Goethe-Institut, Alliance-Francaise, and even the comparatively recent Confucius-Institute. In this context, Australia’s Walkabout Pubs don’t quite cut it for global cultural recognition – nor do other examples of Australia’s relaxed contribution to global cultural activities. Jokes aside, the soft-power efforts of other countries is highlighting Australia’s public diplomacy deficiency, further strengthening the case for establishing an Australia Council. Essentially, if others can and are doing it, why aren’t we?

What would the Australia Council do? Similarly to its British counterpart, it would promote Australia across the region, and strengthen host state links and ties with Australia across culture, education and business. Where there is a need, and where Australia is currently absent, the Council could touch and temporarily fill the void. The Australia Council could also act as a facilitator (a node between Australian Embassies/Consulates and the public) and be established as a first point of contact for those locally who have an interest in Australia and visiting Australians with local inquiries, potentially relieving some of the burden from Australia’s already under-strain Embassies and Consulates.

Who would it do it? From a pragmatic, cost-benefit analysis, the cheapest and most enthusiastic ambassadors of the council would be Australian tertiary students and graduates. Generally, they are capable, enthused, and culturally-proactive while possessing relevant skills, keenness to work and a hunger for Resume relevant work experience. Many Australian students already take a gap year before, during or after their study, thus creating a fertile, pre-seeded environment for quick, decentralised, oak-tree-style Australian Council creation. Furthermore, International students/graduates returning home from Australian universities could also provide a potentially rich resource for engagement, as they possess valuable local knowledge and networks and all-important language skills. What better ambassadors for the lucky country, than youthful, open-minded and idealistic young people?

Australia Councils could be run on minimal full-time staff, predominantly consisting of recent graduates to keep costs low, creating and utilising an internship program to satisfy its other specific work requirements and needs. Having been an intern myself, I know many students/graduates would jump at the chance to take part in such a program – perhaps receiving a minimal per diem to cover basic living costs (which factoring many of Australia’s potential target countries, wouldn’t be much) or would even be happy to cover their own costs to get there (DFAT already offers some such internship opportunities under similar conditions) and the charitable status of such an enterprise would mean interns would be volunteering – negating work visa requirements. Perhaps a logical progression would be, over time, the nomination a full time Australia Council employee, at each Australia Council, and create Honorary Consuls of them, enabling them to take on more consular service duties. The key point to remember is independence – although the Australia Councils could be an extension of Australian foreign policy in terms of cultural, diplomatic and economic engagement, it should not be an organ of the state (few things would so effectively kill the entrepreneurial, idealistic volunteerism upon which the scheme would be fuelled than the dead hand of official bureaucracy!).

How would such an enterprise be funded? Similarly to the British Council. The British Council receives less than one third of its funding from British Government grants. The Australian Government would have to do likewise. A mix of revenue from commercial activities and sponsors/benefactors should be the primary focus.

Creating a network of Australia Councils could be a potential win-win situation: As an auxiliary to official engagement, an Australia Council would support and enhance the pursuit of national goals – serving at a second, third or fourth tier of international engagement. The Australian Government would see Brand Australia, and Australia’s diplomatic soft-power ‘reach’ expanded ‘on the cheap’. Council sponsors would get to positively promote themselves through sponsorship association; the host state would have a new outlet for establishing closer links to Australia at no incurred cost to itself; and students/graduates would have an opportunity to gain valuable ‘real life’ beneficial work experience. Doing so would achieve, in the short term, many of the benefits of an actual diplomatic mission to a country, at a fraction of the cost, and in places where (funding considered) Missions would not be likely to exist.

There are, of course, a plethora of such soft-power activities in place, including the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the social entrepreneurial Language Connection and even the venerable Colombo Plan itself. The Australian Government, having recognised the benefit of such activities in and of themselves, should embrace the opportunities that a broader, global, proactive engagement driven Australia Council could create. The Australia Council would support, not supplant DFAT; it would be a little something directed in the right place, and would certainly be better than the non-engagement that exists in so many critical places of the world. At the very least, the case for establishing an Australia Council exists and warrants further investigation.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at or or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

The Price of Uncertainty: Effects of US Grand strategic clarity on the alliances in the Asia-Pacific.

Andrew Kwon

Confronted by a rapidly evolving global environment, the United States of America (US) is faced with difficult long-term existential questions. Since coming to office in 2009, the Obama administration has sought the answers in the Asia-Pacific, made apparent by President Obama’s 2011 speech before the Australian Parliament. However, it has been 18 months since the 2011 address and the US struggles with its options whilst its allies watch on with some perplexity.


With some of the world’s largest economies and militaries, the strategic need to establish a stronger role in the Asia-Pacific is understandable. However, despite the considerable ambition and complexity of the “Rebalance” initiative, there remains concern over its coherence and clarity. At the root of the clarity-coherency problem lie several issues. First is the nature in which US strategic policy is formulated. Second are the effects of recent national trauma to strategic thinking.

The American Way Professor Richard K. Betts noted in his Centre for a New American Security article “American Strategy: Grand vs. Grandiose” that “the US Constitution is, in effect, anti-strategic”. Before clamouring to assert the heresy of Professor Betts’ statement, a moment should be taken to understand the reasoning. The constitution insures the diffusion of power so that no single man or group may gain complete control nor that power itself rest too long in a single place. However, though checks and balances insure the integrity of US democracy, the nature of the constitution endows a logic and rhythm counter-intuitive to strategic thought. Faced with constant changes and beset with internal rivalries, the legislature and executive will produce strategy that is often unclear, diffuse and the subject of contestation. Admittedly, further debate has been helpful, as the drive and tussle towards consensus sharpens the coherency and applicability of ideas. However, Grand Strategy requires a careful and consistent process coupled with a unity of vision. Again, according to Professor Betts this is “not because of stupidity, but because of democracy”.

It is here we return to the Obama Administration. Faced with a political system which seems to encourage anti-strategic tendencies, the outcome of incoherence and lack of clarity on the Rebalance to Asia seems almost inevitable. However, the administration has at least achieved a baseline unity in vision as noted by the acceptance of the need of the rebalance by members across the aisle. Nevertheless, given the current circumstances facing the US, it is clear that there will be a reluctance to expend further political capital on the issue for the foreseeable future.

Blood and Money The US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Great Financial Crisis, has left an indelible mark on the national psyche. The effects of these recent traumas will serve as a demotivation for national leaders to work towards long-term grand strategy. Firstly, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will hinder considerations into policies that could be perceived as ‘aggressive’. Given the loss of manpower, prestige and treasure due to the aforementioned conflicts, the reluctance to engage too deeply in a relatively contested region is palpable. Secondly, the Great Financial Crisis as well as the more recent Budget Sequestration has done much to dampen the short-term economic prospects of many Americans. Faced with an unhappy electorate, politicians will be unlikely to invest or tout a series of policies which provide too little in the way of immediate gains and risk too much for long term ones.

Leave you holding the bag An often forgotten fact in the politics of a Superpower, are the effects of its policies or lack thereof on smaller powers. As the nature of the Rebalance remains in flux due to the earlier mentioned issues, there has arisen an increasing awkwardness with which the Asian US Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) must confront their own national issues. MNNAs such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines each calibrate their key policy areas to varying degrees based on what is decided in Washington DC. Whether it is major military acquisitions to minor adjustments in trade preferences, very few regional arrangements have more influence than the US Pacific alliance system.

Therein lies the issue. As strategic policy as large as the US Rebalance to Asia experiences flux it will leave states such as the US MNNAs particularly vulnerable. Though each state no doubt creates and delivers its own policies, substantial consideration is made on behalf of US strategic alignment. Hence, in the absence of this certainty comes a correlative increase in other behaviour such as risk-taking and hedging. Ultimately, if the US seeks to achieve President Obama’s tentative goal of playing a “larger and longer term role” through the Rebalance, it should start with clarity and coherence as the lack thereof may in fact be undermining its attainment.

Andrew Kwon is a 2012 Masters graduate in International Security from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed are exclusively his (

Flashing a little flesh: A few observations in relation to my piece yesterday and the released Australian Defence White Paper today.

Ben Moles

The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper is available hereand here’s yesterdays piece.


No new Air Warfare Destroyer, but the Australian government has made a commitment to (eventually replace the already decaying and obsolete Collins Class by 2038 perhaps?) build its new submarine fleet in Adelaide:

8.46 Due to the strategic value and importance of Australia’s submarine capability, the Government remains committed to replacing the existing Collins Class fleet with an expanded fleet of 12 conventional submarines that will meet Australia’s future strategic requirements. The future submarines will be assembled in South Australia. The Government has ruled out consideration of a nuclear powered submarine capability to replace the Collins Class fleet.

Strangely at a time when the Government ‘buzz phrase’ seems to be all options are on the table; where Australia’s submarine future is concerned only one option is left on the table, and in the whole scheme of options, it’s not a particularly good one! Domestic politics, and a political cost-benefit analysis, has trumped strategic need, and a defensive cost-benefit analysis:

8.50 The Government has also taken the important decision to suspend further investigation of the two Future Submarine options based on military-off-the-shelf designs in favour of focusing resources on progressing an ‘evolved Collins’ and new design options that are likely to best meet Australia’s future strategic and capability requirements

Australia will take 12 new Super Hornets (EF-18G ‘Growler’ electronic warfare models) and reduce its JSF F-35 order to 72, from the 100 it had indicated it would require:

8.17 Recognising the importance of winning the electromagnetic battle, the Government announced in 2012 its commitment to a future fleet of 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft for Australia. Since this announcement, the Government has decided to acquire 12 new-build Growler aircraft and retain Australia’s 24 existing F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft in their current configuration. This decision takes advantage of a valuable opportunity to assure Australia’s air combat capability during the transition period to the Joint Strike Fighter.

Expect to see the number of Super Hornets increasing overtime relative to a decrease in (interest, as the price soars) JSF F-35’s.

Concerning ‘what do we want to be able to do’ and ‘where to we want to be able to do it’- the latter seems to have been addressed, worryingly- without too much thought being given to the former:

2.5 The 2009 Defence White Paper made clear Australia’s enduring interest in the stability of what it called the wider Asia-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific is a logical extension of this concept, and adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India though Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends.

2.6 The Indo-Pacific is still emerging as a system. Given its diversity and broad sweep, its security architecture is, unsurprisingly, a series of sub-regions and arrangements rather than a unitary whole. But over time, Australia’s security environment will be significantly influenced by how the Indo-Pacific and its architecture evolves.

The Indo-Pacific, a strategic colossus (from an Australian perspective) I’ve warned about before, is now Australia’s apparent region of strategic interest. How we shape our interests and influence what happens there, remains to be seen. A point acknowledged in the paper is:

2.11 For Australia, this more complex environment will make it more challenging for us to achieve or influence outcomes. Asian countries will balance a broader range of interests and partners, and Australia’s voice will need to be clearer and stronger to be heard.

How will this be achieved? Well, no clear answer is provided. With a diminishing defence budget and an already under resourced Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade- we’ll have to make do with hope for the time being, or perhaps there remains a certain amount of intent to attempt to cling onto the coattails of a powerful friend as we get dragged along and through the Indo-Pacific Asian Century?

On the Alliance. If an ANZUS Alliance reliance is to remain the foundation of Australia’s defence strategy (which the White Paper seems to indicate that it is), as we largely continue to attempt to free-ride off the US relying on our demonstrated unwavering loyalty and ‘special relationship’ with them, then Australia will have to be prepared to ‘show a little more leg’- so to speak, to ‘keep them on board’ and this Australia has signalled we are prepared to do, sowing the seeds for a gradual but greater US military ‘footprint’ on Australian soil and in/on our waters soon:

6.14 The second force posture initiative involves enhanced aircraft cooperation, which is expected to result in increased rotations of US Air Force aircraft through northern Australia. This will enhance bilateral collaboration and offer greater opportunities for combined and multilateral training and exercises.

6.15 At the Australia-US Ministerial Meeting (AUSMIN) in Perth on 14 November 2012, Australia and the United States welcomed the success of the first rotation of US Marine Corps personnel and agreed to continue to progress the initiatives in an incremental and considered manner.

6.16 In recognition of the importance of the Indian Ocean and our combined focus on the global strategic significance of the region, Australia and the United States also agreed to continue exploring cooperation on Indian Ocean matters, reflecting our combined focus on the global strategic significance of the region. This will include potential opportunities for additional naval cooperation at a range of locations, including HMAS Stirling, Australia’s Indian Ocean naval base.

6.23 The Government will explore further opportunities to support US defence communications capabilities, including through hosting capabilities and the possible establishment of a Combined Communications Gateway in Western Australia, which would provide both Australia and the United States greater access to the Wideband Global Satellite Communications constellation in which we are partners. This cooperation will build on the longstanding defence communications relationship, including at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station at Exmouth which provides support to US and Australian submarine fleets, and which will host the C-band space object detection and tracking radar to be relocated from the United States.

Whether our powerful friend will take the bait and will be enough, remains to be seen.

Reflecting the overall theme of the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper- for now we will just have to wait, treading water in the Indo-Pacific while we do, and hope for the best!

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at or or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper: A Paper with ‘Teeth’ or a ‘Toothless Wonder’?


Ben Moles

“What do we want [fill in the blank] when do we want it [blank,,, but sooner preferably to later]”. 

And so the old chant goes. The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper is expected to be released tomorrow. Anticipate the first blank to be filled with a list of things Australia can’t really afford or doesn’t really need (at least another Air Warfare Destroyer, at least a few Super Hornets as a ‘filler’ for delayed JSF F-35’s, where it appears to be the case that in terms of the price, the sky literally is the limit), or for domestic political purposes won’t determine where they will come from (think- Australia’s submarine odyssey, I cant see why a feasibility study is even necessary, Australia excels at many things; building and maintaining reliable submarines really isn’t one of them). Expect the second blank to be, well non too committal.

There are two issues that will stymie the overall effectiveness and utility of the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper: This White Paper will largely remain overshadowed by the failings of its predecessor, the 2009 Defence White Paper (which was a debacle) that promised much and delivered little and that an anticipated likely change in Australian Federal Government in September this year will likely lead to a decision to produce a new Defence White Paper- rendering this one redundant soon anyway.

But an even bigger failure, than what has been cited above, and a problem that looms large over Australian Strategic Defence Planning is the failure to ask the precursor to ‘what do we want’ and ‘when do we want it’- that being: ‘what do we want to be able to do’ and ‘where to we want to be able to do it’, followed by ‘what can we afford‘ and ‘what can we afford not to do‘?

The key aspect absent from Australian Strategic Defence Planning is vision and this may, or may not, be linked to an inability to look beyond Australia’s ANZUS alliance reliance, the ANZUS alliance being a factor which will feature prominently in tomorrows White Paper I am sure. I also anticipate the ground will be set for a larger US ‘foot-print’ on Australian soil, and perhaps in our waters, in the not too distant future- however, we will just have to watch this space and wait until tomorrow on that front.

For Australia to produce a Defence White Paper of substance, of value and worth, something with ‘teeth’ it must grapple with and set out to answer these paramount questions as its starting point; a failure to do so in combination with the factors above will likely render the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper, and any future Defence White Paper for that matter, a ‘toothless wonder’.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at or or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles



First prize is a $500 Westfield voucher, and the best submissions will be considered for publication on Australia’s foremost foreign policy blog, the Lowy Interpreter. The competition is open to all undergraduate (including honours year) students currently enrolled at an Australian university.


Entrants are required to submit an op-ed piece of no more than 800 words on one of the following topics:

  • An election is looming: what foreign policy area is most in need of political leadership?
  • What is your best value-for-money foreign policy proposal for Australia?

For references, use hyperlinks rather than footnotes.

Please submit your entries before 5pm on 24 May 2013.


New Voices

The Lowy Institute is now welcoming applications to participate in this year’s New Voices event, to be held at the Institute in Sydney on 14 June 2013.

New Voices is an annual event that attracts some of the most talented young leaders in business, academia, government, and the not-for-profit sector. New Voices seeks to provide a platform for young professionals to offer fresh insights and perspectives on important questions of Australian and Asia-Pacific foreign policy and international affairs.

The event will  allow participants to partake in an exclusive two-hour panel discussion, followed by a cocktail event with keynote speaker John Garnaut. The panel topic —’Foreign policy my dear? Why Australians should give a damn’ — aims to tackle the broader question of why Australians and Australian political parties are not more motivated to engage with foreign policy issues.

This year’s speakers include:

  • Dr Michael Fullilove — Executive Director of the Lowy Institute;
  • Michael Ware — A journalist and former war correspondent based in Baghdad for TIME Magazine and CNN;
  • Alex Oliver — Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute; and
  • David Pocock  — Australian rugby union player and co-founder of not-for-profit organisation Eightytwenty Vision.

Applications must be submitted by COB Monday 20 May 2013. Successful applicants will be informed before COB Monday 22 May 2013.

Please note that you must be 35 or younger to apply.


In the Aftermath: Sequestration and the Rebalance to Asia

Andrew Kwon

Andrew Kwon is a former AIIA NSW intern (Semester 2 2012) and completed a Masters of International Security at the University of Sydney in 2012. He is currently based at the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington DC and has been observing the budget crisis since sequestration negotiations between Congress and the Obama administration in February 2013. The following is a short piece he has written on the issue and its potential effects on the US Rebalance to Asia. The views expressed in this article are his own.


It has been some weeks since the passing of a 6 month continuing resolution (CR). Though the bill provides only sufficient spending to avoid a government shutdown, life in Washington D.C. (and the USA at large) has returned to normal. However, with almost $85 billion in automatic cuts remaining in place, academics and practitioners in the capital continue to ponder the ramifications of this daunting political-economic conundrum. A key issue in the debate is the effects on major initiatives such as the rebalance to Asia.

What are the stated goals of the Asia Rebalance?

Based on various official documents such as the US 2012 Department of Defence (DOD) Strategic Guidance Paper, the rebalance has been interpreted as:

  • An Asia-Pacific orientated US strategic policy framework which equalises defence, diplomacy and development;
  • A continuing of established trends in key policy areas such as trade e.g. Trans-Pacific Partnership as an expansion of the George W. Bush Era Free Trade Agreement drive; and
  • A heavy military reorientation e.g. Special emphasis placed on assessing the readiness of US Pacific Command (USPACOM) under Section 346 of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) as well as the 2012 DOD Strategic Guidance Paper shortly thereafter.

What are the automatic and projected cuts in some relevant areas to the Asia-Pacific under sequestration?

Department of Defence:

  • To meet sequestration obligations, the DOD budget must undertake an annual cut of 11% till 2021.
  • The immediate impact on the DOD budget for FY2013 would be a hard sum reduction from the FY2012 level of approximately $650 billion to under $600 billion.
  • Although no military personnel will be affected, civilian personnel face forced unpaid leave. Additionally, the pay increase freeze from FY2010 has been extended.
  • Areas such as research and development into advanced capabilities could face approximately $33.5 billion over the next 5 year to meet sequestration obligations, the lowest since FY2002.

Department of State:

  • According to White House Office of Management and Budget calculations based on Sequestration requirements and current CR provisions, State Department foreign operations will face a $2.7 billion or 3% reduction from FY2012.
  • Of particular note is the reduction of approximately $317 million in Foreign Military Financing as well as approximately $400 million in US economic and development assistance.
  • Unpaid leave notifications have not been implemented. However, a hiring freeze and reduction on capabilities investment has been enacted in key agencies such as USAID.

What has sequestration highlighted and what does it affect?

Sequestration has further highlighted and reinforced the difficulties that were confronting the US government over the Rebalance to Asia. A key difficulty was the inconsistency between formulation, composition and perceptions of the Rebalance.

The rebalance means different things to different states. An issue of particularly concern is the considerable confusion caused by how the rebalance is being explained in varying terms throughout the region. An example of this is the perceptions within the Republic of Korea that the rebalance is a reinforcement of the existing defence-centric US regional alliance framework. This perception is given shape by Republic of Korea hesitancy to participate in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the purported tip of the spear of the economic side of the rebalance. With sequestration, pressure from the region has grown to clarify the purpose of the rebalance. The resultant confusion not only feeds into uncertainty over US commitment to its allies but also suspicions held by key powers such as the People’s Republic of China.

Amidst this time of austerity, the DOD (more specifically USPACOM) feverishly pursues its goals of rebalancing as mandated by the president under the NDAA. Concurrently, various government departments are also pursuing the goals of rebalancing to Asia in their own way. A pressing question arising amidst the financial tightening; what does the Rebalance to Asia actually mean when it is perceived and interpreted so differently?

This post was reproduced with the permission of Andrew Kwon. The post originally featured on the Australian Institute for International Affairs (NSW) blog, the Glover Cottage Portal. Andrew can be contacted at


Understanding what Terrorists want: is there such a thing as non-political terrorism?

Ben Moles

The events in Boston yesterday got me thinking about terrorism, as part of my Masters degree at Sydney University I studied terrorism under the immensely knowledgeable, interesting and experienced terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton.


After shock, my initial reaction to what happened was: this looks amateur, two small explosions that went off almost simultaneously, and if some reports are to be believed, others that didn’t detonate at all; why Boston, a small (by US standards) city and why the Boston marathon, it’s hardly a symbol of western capitalism – this made me consider that the perpetrator/s will likely be local, with local knowledge and a local grievance, not the hallmark of international terrorists. Finally, the sceptic in me linked the likely reaction to the aftermath of such an event, a justifiable right and need to bear arms, to the current attempts to pass gun legislation in the US- on all accounts I am prepared to accept I may be wrong.

President Obama’s initial reaction to the bombings was, thankfully, cautious in tone. However, he has since declared this an “act of terror”. But without knowing what this/these ‘terrorist’s’ want this isn’t strictly true. For this heinous crime to be determined a ‘terrorist act’, it remains necessary to understand both what the terrorist’s want (their political message) and recognise the interconnection between the essential communication of that political message- to the act.

“War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

Carl Von Clausewitz famously states war to be a continuation of politics via other means. Terrorism is a strategy and example of asymmetric war. It is a strategy employed by a weaker party seeking to negate an opponent’s strength through exploiting their weakness. It is a strategy utilised as a means of achieving a political end and if a political end is not being sought then the phenomenon being examined is not terrorism, it is something else. Simply put, there is no such thing as non-political terrorism.

For the purpose of analysis it is both important and necessary to set parameters and define exactly what it is that we mean when we say terrorism, again borrowing from Clausewitz ‘we must understand its true nature: not mistaking it for, or trying to turn it into, something it is not.’  Language specificity is important to both effectively analyse the phenomenon of terrorism and, through understanding and research, produce effective means to combat it.

Inhibitors to achieving a globally accepted definition of terrorism have included disagreements over specific terminology that would include/exclude groups that certain governments support/denounce and disagreements amongst analysts over the certain nuances of terrorism, for example: whether the 2000 attack on the USS Cole was a terrorist attack because it was directed against a military vessel and not a civilian target and whether actors working alone, ‘lone wolves’, are considered terrorists or whether a terrorist prerequisite is group membership. Without an accepted framework these points are open to be debated and left to individual interpretation. However, furthering the extant knowledge within the academic field of terrorism, a consensus has emerged amongst a body of scholars that achieving political objectives and communicating what those objectives are is a defining element and key aspect of terrorism, an absence of which would negate it to being something else, for example a purely criminal act.

Former Harvard Professor Louise Richardson defines terrorism as “…deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes.”  Richardson prescribes a coherent framework for analysis which has at its core the pursuit of political objectives. Utilising her analytical framework enables a foundation for building an understanding of terrorism. She maintains that terrorists are rational, non-state actors. Based on core realist assumptions: understanding that the international system is anarchic, that they operate within a self-help system, and that they have limited power-recognising their power relative to that of the state, terrorists exploit a weakness in the system to attempt to coerce states to recognise their political objectives. They bring into question the sovereignty of the state and its ability to protect its citizens through violent, symbolic acts, terrorising both, through fear.

Thomas Schelling describes the threat to use violence as ‘dirty bargaining’, that it is a tool of diplomacy that is most successful when threatened and not used “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Terrorism is a vehicle for conveying a political message. Richardson identifies the political aspirations of terrorist groups falling into one of two categories. Firstly temporal political goals: those that can be achieved without overthrowing the political status quo, such as anti-abortionists desire for the outlawing of abortion clinics. Secondly, transformational political goals: those that seek to create a new order through abolishing the existing state system, such as the desire of Jemaah Islamiyah to establish a regional caliphate in South East Asia.

Terrorism is not an ideology, it is a method and category of politically motivated violence which can be viewed on a scale from low level violence, including the throwing of Molotov cocktails to extreme violence with intent to seriously injure or kill. Through perpetrating violent acts, or the threat thereof, the intended target audience, of the aforementioned message, is the larger political community, the state. It is an attempt to change and influence the behaviour and policies of the state by terrorising, through such acts of violence, those whom the state claims to be representative of. Brian Jenkins categorises terrorists falling into one of two groups, and the level of violence they use is determined by which category they fall into. Firstly, there are terrorists who, concerned about public opinion, will limit their actions to maintain popular support. Secondly, there are terrorists who believe in the righteousness of their cause and that the end will justify their means irrespective of public support and opinion.

The use of terror as a strategy is not a new phenomenon, however, terrorism as we currently understand it to be, has followed a pattern and the achieving of political objectives has been an observed feature throughout. David Rapoport has analysed and views modern terrorism as waves, cycles of activity over a given time period propelled by political motivation “’Revolution’ is the over-riding aim in every wave… Revolutionaries create a new source of political legitimacy.” Rapoport states that we are currently in the fourth wave, or ‘religious wave’, of terrorism and that its defining feature is the shrouding of political objectives in religious terminology. One group which is representative of this fourth wave is Jemaah Islamiyah, whose ambition is to radically change the existing political structure of South East Asia through revolution and the eventual establishment of a Caliphate. Al Qaeda is another example of a fourth wave terrorist group, and in particular Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula whose objective is to establish a Caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula, interestingly though it has been suggested that their failure and lack of success stems in part, from an inability to articulate a better political alternative to that which currently exists and their excessive use of violence, a failure to achieve political legitimacy amongst those they claim to be representative of.

Ambiguity and overuse of the word terrorism, in particular over the past decade, means that without a framework for analysis, there is a real danger that its overuse will lead to a dilution and loss of all utility to the term. Richardson’s framework for analysis enables a precise understanding and facilitates a distinction between what is, and what isn’t terrorism. Political objectives are an integral aspect to understanding terrorism and as such there is no such thing as non-political terrorism.

I am confident over the coming weeks the political message that the abominable criminal act of the Boston Marathon bombings was intended to convey will emerge (transforming it into an ‘act of terror’) and the perpetrators caught. I narrowly (by a couple of hours) avoided being caught up in an IRA bomb explosion in London in 1992. This is a sad and untimely reminder that terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11; that it existed before and shall unfortunately continue after.

Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. ( or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles