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. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


Taiwan isn’t a ‘Dirty Word’: We need to talk about Taiwan. (Part III of III).

Ben Moles

In parts I and II of this three part post I made a case for the need to talk about Taiwan, today. Here, in this final instalment  I shall continue to outline why (linked to Australia) and from where we (Australia) might begin.


Why aren’t we talking about it? Taiwan, since the 2004 Alexander Downer ‘incident’ has been a politically sensitive topic in Australia and ‘thin ice’ that very few dare venture out on to.

The Australian connection? Australia, concerning Taiwan and more specifically a Taiwan crisis scenario, is an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of; the US, our greatest security partner, that we would militarily and diplomatically support them and China, our greatest trading partner, that we would not.

Australia’s interests? In a 2005 paper ‘Balancing Act: Taiwan’s Cross-strait challenge’ published by the Lowy Institute, Malcolm Cook and Craig Meer state that Australia’s Taiwan interests rest in maintaining the status quo. I disagree. From a purely Machiavellian perspective and to borrow from Deng Xiaoping: ‘black or white, if cats catch mice that’s all right’. Australia’s national interest in Taiwan simply rests in the issue not being resolved through force in which Australia is called upon to take sides. In correspondence with US China analyst David Shambaugh, he posited that Australia (and the US) will abide by whatever agreement the two sides (Taiwan and China) can come to providing it is: 1, peaceful and 2, has the consent of the Taiwanese people.

But what of the Taiwanese people? According to statistics provided by the Taiwanese Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), 60.5% of people wish to maintain the status quo (28.3% indefinitely and 32.2% with a yet to be determined decision to be made in the future). A further 23.3% of people wish to maintain the status quo now but with a definite decision to be made later (15.8% calling for independence later and 7.5% unification later). So all up, in one guise or another, the majority of Taiwanese people support the status quo.

However, irrespective of whether the goal is maintaining the status quo or something else, and a point reiterated throughout this series of posts, we really need to start talking more about Taiwan, today. From an Australian perspective, here are three suggestions for where we (Australia) can begin:

i) Clarify Australia’s existing Taiwan Policy and state it in response to questions relating to Australia’s Taiwan position.  

I remember, as I was writing my thesis at the time, an ABC Late Line interview with Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith (28/04/2011) who flatly rejected to even discuss Taiwan as an issue, perhaps he didn’t know it but how easy would it have been for him to state Australia’s actual Taiwan policy. In my various attempts at correspondence with the Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary for the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade not once was Australia’s Taiwan policy stated to me.

Australia can de-mystify Taiwan and its discussion by simply acknowledging that it has a policy, the one China policy, and stating it: “Australia recognises the Government of the PRC as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC.” An abject failure to do so, maintaining Taiwan as a ‘dirty word’/‘taboo’ topic, adds unnecessary gravitas to the situation that we should and need to be able to talk about. Australia needn’t and indeed shouldn’t publicly speculate what it would or wouldn’t commit to in a hypothetical ‘Taiwan conflict scenario’ but shouldn’t be afraid to admit that it has a policy position and to state it. An easy first step.

ii) Convey what Australia supports and doesn’t support to the essential parties concerned: China, Taiwan, and the US.

Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia must, as Bruce Jacobs said in a statement to a 2006 Senate report committee on the subject, “stand up and clearly state [its] position to all sides without fear or favour, this can be done quietly but it must be done.”

To Taiwan: Australia must make clear that Australia doesn’t support Taiwanese independence, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. To China: Australia must clarify that it doesn’t support a Taiwan resolution sought by the use of military coercion or armed force, however, supports the continued peaceful development in relations across the Taiwan Straits. And to the US: that Australia doesn’t support continued US arms sales to Taiwan, however, supports the US position to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.

Why shouldn’t Australia support continued US weapons sales to Taiwan? For four reasons: Firstly, they really ‘piss’ the Chinese off. US-China relations sour when they occur, and when they happen they only add to the extant security dilemma; the Chinese rattle their sabres and aim a few more missiles at Taiwan, to prevent their own position being undermined, causing the Taiwanese to seek increased security and the US justification to provide it- in the form of more arms transfers (a vicious cycle). Secondly, in the 1982 Communiqué the US said they would eventually phase out arms transfers to Taiwan. Now would be a good time to phase them out and set a deadline to end them in exchange for a Chinese concession which I’ll go on to discuss. Thirdly, it would encourage Taiwan, as global technology leaders, to further develop their own indigenous defence capabilities and systems. And Fourthly, a US pledge of security (combined with that of their regional allies to support them) in the face of unprovoked military force is an adequate deterrence to a solution sought through force.

iii) Use Australian diplomatic influence with both the US and China to clarify the significance of a Taiwan resolution/ settlement to easing Asia-Pacific regional security anxiety and promote such an agreement to both parties.

Again, Australia has, as an actor that both the US and China have certain expectations of, a right to have its voice heard. Australia needn’t mediate negotiations, merely be an advocate of ideas. The risk of conflict over Taiwan can simply be reduced by both China and the US settling on an agreement that unifies and clarifies their objectives, reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.

In a joint US-China statement, the US could state that: “The US would not be opposed to Taiwan’s eventual, peaceful, consensual, reunification with China.” This is a policy statement proposed by Hugh White (with the exception that he believes the statement should commence “The US would support…”- in my conversations with a number of US security analysts ‘supporting’ isn’t a term many felt comfortable with, however, ‘not opposing’, it was felt, would be acceptable). White believes that such a statement would be a low cost, low risk means of recognising China’s position, that doesn’t concede anything to China more than it does under the current US Taiwan position, and I agree with him. Who is to say that there might not be, at some moment in the future, through peaceful means, determined by consensus of people on both sides of the straits, a decision for unification- under these circumstances who either would or could prevent it from happening?

However, the US must maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force against Taiwan, and this Australia and other regional allies, as previously stated, should support too (This can not be included in a joint-statement because it would undermine the Chinese position, but must be made clear, quietly, to China). The proposed statement with clarity defines what the US would not oppose, and by inference, what the US would oppose.

China, in return for a US commitment not to support Taiwan’s independence under any circumstance, which is already US policy, coupled with Taiwan’s commitment and assurance to drop any independence aspirations (No independence is already one of President Ma’s three No’s policy), would agree to renounce the force aspect of the anti-secession law, China could state that: “China will renounce the use of military force to pressure reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.”

To reduce the effect of, and end, the extant security dilemma both the US and China should agree a quid pro quo reduction and eventual ceasing of arms sales to Taiwan and missiles deployed against Taiwan respectively. Through removal of the security dilemma China and Taiwan are better positioned to resolve their differences through a more peaceful and mutually determined settlement, the US supported position since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué.

An initial understanding might be that through removing the Chinese force aspect from the anti-secession law, Taiwan can make the concession of removing the ‘No unification’ statement from President Ma’s current three No’s policy (No independence, No unification, No cause for war), leaving in combination with China’s policy: ‘No force, No independence, No cause for war.’

Through such an agreement both the US and China can maintain face, the status quo can be sustained and Chinese military action against Taiwan would be less likely because China would be less anxious about the US and more relaxed about Taiwan’s trajectory.

“It’s good to talk”. These are ideas; they offer some food for thought. We have another 4 years until another round of Taiwanese/US elections. Taiwan isn’t a ‘dirty word’. At the very least, we simply need to talk more about Taiwan, today.

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. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

Taiwan isn’t a ‘Dirty Word’: We need to talk about Taiwan. (Part II of III).

Ben Moles

In part I of this three part post I stated that we need to talk about Taiwan, today. Here, I will continue to outline why.


But why today? Simply put, we have four years until another cycle of Taiwanese/US elections comes around; so instead of ‘kicking the can’ 4 years down the road and holding our breath and crossing our fingers again before the next elections, lets talk about Taiwan now.

And one more thing. For a number of years, as former US Ambassador to China James Lilley referred to it, Taiwan has been thought of as “…the cork in China’s bottle.” The US has believed and is concerned that if China were to no longer be constrained by its primary focus on Taiwan then it would aggressively challenge and pursue other interests, including the disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, that would greater undermine regional stability. In writing my thesis I pointed out something that seemed obvious to me at the time “However, what remains problematic is an emboldened China, as it increases its capabilities, might hedge, declare increasing numbers of interests and pursue them all.” This, China appears to be doing. The genie and cork are out of the bottle.

China’s already out in front. China, in March 2005, through passing the Anti-Secession Law marked its ‘red lines’ concerning its Taiwan position with clarity.

What is Taiwan’s current position? ‘No independence, No unification, No cause for war’.

So, what should the US do? The US’s Taiwan policy position of ‘Strategic ambiguity’ now needs replacing with ‘strategic clarity’; ‘strategic ambiguity’ has been successful over the past 3 decades but cannot continue to serve into the future as it has done so well in the past- the consequences that now stem from miscalculation are too great. I made this point in my thesis and agree with Michael Cole: “The best way to avoid war over Taiwan… is for Washington to put an end to its strategic ambiguity and to clearly state that it will defend Taiwan should China threaten force against it. By doing so, the U.S. would not only ensure that Beijing does not miscalculate by believing it can use the military option on the cheap — thereby lowering the probability of armed conflict — it would also provide Taipei with the backing it needs to negotiate with Beijing as an equal rather than a weaker party coerced into making political concessions against the wishes of its population.”

So what next, what can we do? A hangover from the Cold War, Taiwan remains a potential ‘flashpoint’ with far reaching, regional ramifications. Taiwan has the potential to place Australia, and other regional states, in a ‘nightmare scenario’ of being forced to choose between the US, our greatest security partner, and China, our greatest trading partner. It is surprising to me that at a time when the US is ‘pivoting to Asia’ (although I still hold serious reservations regarding the ‘P2A’) and Australia is considering its own role in the ‘Asian Century’, Taiwan has received such little attention. We really need to reverse this trend. Taiwan isn’t a ‘dirty word’, we need to clean up our act; ultimately, ‘we’ need to talk more about Taiwan, today.

(Part III and how we can begin to do this to follow).

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. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

Taiwan isn’t a ‘Dirty Word’: We need to talk about Taiwan. (Part I of III).

Ben Moles

I’ve just returned from Taiwan as a guest of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs taking part in a ‘soft-power’ trip that they host annually, inviting ‘Emerging Leaders’ from around the world to get a taste for Taiwan, it was interesting- I intend to write up some (borrowing from Bill Bryson) ‘notes from a small island’ soon, but this isn’t the kind of talking (my travel journal, restaurant/food tips and anecdotes) about Taiwan I refer to in the title to this piece, there is an issue that is slightly more pressing: Taiwan, in East/Southeast Asian International Relations terms, is a ‘dirty word’, it shouldn’t be. With clarity not ambiguity, we need to start talking about Taiwan, today.


Last year I completed my Masters degree in International Security studies writing a thesis titled “Understanding why Taiwan remains the most dangerous security challenge in the Asia-Pacific region; should Australia clarify its Taiwan policy position?” Looking ahead to this year, 2012, and the potential leadership lottery outcomes (elections in Taiwan and the US and leadership transition in China) I stated that the coupling of maintained ambiguity that surrounds the ‘Taiwan issue’ with the various potential outcomes from this leadership lottery could lead to miscalculation:

“It is widely anticipated that in the instance of Obama’s re-election, with increasing domestic social problems, US policy would become more introspective; China could calculate that then would be an opportunity to apply greater pressure to Taiwan. If a Republican President is elected, then pursuing the domestically popular policy of opposing and containing China is a greater possibility. If Ma is re-elected China may pressure Taiwan more in recompense for Beijing’s ‘softer’ Taiwan approach during his first term, if he is not, the election of the more traditionally independence minded Democratic Progressive Party candidate might invoke a strong ‘pre-action’ from Beijing. With a CCP leadership change current leaders are considering their legacies, emerging leaders are jockeying for position and contemplating making their mark, while the PLA, anticipating an initial period of leadership weakness, extant in any government transition, and who have acted independently of the party previously, the 2001 EP3 incident and instrumental role within the 1996 Taiwan straits crisis, cannot be seen as a benign, and subordinate to the CCP, variable in the equation.”    

As former Australian Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd commented in the lead up to the Taiwanese election earlier this year “You know with every Taiwanese election, we always take a deep breath and hope for the best because this is one of the red line issues for Beijing, that is, the future status of Taiwan… So, the key thing with this election is obviously if the Democratic Progress Party wins, there’ll be an audible sucking in of breath in Beijing, and if Ma Ying-Jeou from the Kuomintang, the KMT, win, then it will be business as usual.”

For stability (for now), or maintenance of the status quo, the best possible situational outcome eventuated: President Obama was re-elected for a second term in the US; the Chinese leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jingping seems to have been smooth (despite some concerns over the re-appearance (almost from the dead) of Jiang Zemin); and President Ma was also elected for a second term in Taiwan. Following on from the results of this years elections and leadership changes  the world exhaled, but the obvious question that arises is can we afford to sweep the ‘Taiwan issue’ back under the carpet for another 4 years and just simply return to business as usual?

The simple answer is no: business as usual is a policy of hope and hope is no policy at all. On the issue of Taiwan, if the real threat of future miscalculation is to be reduced absolute clarity not ambiguity is called for and required. For there to be clarity, we must be able to talk (frankly), say what we really mean and, more importantly, ensure that it is clearly understood. In order to achieve this, we really need to start talking, with clarity, about Taiwan today.

(Part II and why ‘today’ to follow)

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. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

‘Twin Peaks’ and one long Trough: ‘Operation Parakram’ a decade on.

Ben Moles

This year marks an important yet largely forgotten tenth-year anniversary. A decade ago, the nuclear armed states of India and Pakistan were on the brink of a nuclear war, the closest the two, or any two states for that matter, had come to initiating a nuclear exchange since the US-Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Remember it? No, not that many people do: largely because escalating events on the India-Pakistan border and around the line of control (LoC) in Kashmir were eclipsed and overtaken by others happening on Pakistan’s northern border, in Afghanistan. 

On the year of the tenth anniversary of Operation Parakram, or the ‘Twin Peaks’ incident- so called for two distinct peaks of high tension (when war seemed particularly imminent) during the ten month standoff, it remains important to reflect on and revisit those events. A decade on, paradoxically, much and yet nothing has changed. I wonder, if a rapid escalation of events occurred similarly between India and Pakistan today, would the course of those events and outcomes, due to regional geopolitical change and ‘Great Power interest’ shifts, conclude the same or might events follow a terrifying alternate course and perhaps end very differently indeed?

Prelude: Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, at the time of their independence from British rule, Kashmir has been and remains a salient and unresolved issue between the two states, both claiming Kashmir as their respective sovereign territory. The 1998 Indian and Pakistan nuclear weapons tests exacerbated these existing tensions and for a period of ten months from December 2001 to October 2002, India and Pakistan came close to engaging in a war, centred on Kashmir, involving nuclear weapons.

Peak One (December 2001-January 2002): The major catalyst for the events that would transpire was the December 13th 2001 Indian Parliament bombing, carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (also later blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Jaish-e-Muhammad, Indian claimed terrorist organisations operating out of Pakistan with the knowledge and support of the Pakistan Intelligence Service or ISI. India initiated Operation Parakram in December 2001 and subsequently one million men were mobilized around the India-Pakistan border, mostly centred along the LoC in Kashmir, where small scale skirmishes persisted including artillery, mortar and small arms exchanges that resulted in small numbers of loss of life on both sides.

In a deadly ‘cat and mouse’ game, India and Pakistan routinely moved their respective nuclear capable, Hatf-I Hatf-II and Prithvi, missiles around the Punjab region and on January 1st 2002 as tensions continued to escalate, and in accordance with the agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities, India and Pakistan exchanged their lists of nuclear facilities- only the day prior US intelligence reportedly predicted that war between the two would commence within days. In an attempt to defuse tensions, but far from meeting the Indian expectation and request that Pakistan hand over 20 wanted terrorists based in Pakistan, on January 12th President Musharraf made a speech insisting terrorists wouldn’t be able to hide in Pakistan. India remained sceptical and maintained mobilization, Pakistan too, but the gesture marked an important turning point during the initial first peak of the crisis.

Peak Two (May 2002-October 2002): On May 14th 2002, following a brazen and provocative militant attack on the families of mobilized Indian soldiers at Kaluchak in Jammu, India pointed the finger of blame firmly at Pakistan and once again tensions rapidly escalated between the two. A week after the attack, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, addressing front-line troops in Jammu, declared “…the time has come for a decisive battle, and we will have a sure victory in this battle.”  The US sensing that war was once again imminent and whose primary focus was on Afghanistan at the time (requiring Pakistan’s assistance to intercept Taliban and Al-Qaeda suspects fleeing across their border and out of concern regarding what the impact of a war between the two, let alone a nuclear exchange, would have on the US-led mission in Afghanistan and its wider geopolitical implications) sent Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage to the region in an attempt to mediate an expedient resolution.

The US’ primary fear was that the maintained mobilisation of troops around the LoC, combined with continued ‘sabre rattling’, coupled with unclear goals and poor communication of them could easily lead to misperception of ‘the others’ red lines, leading to the situation unintentionally spiralling to an actual nuclear exchange- through misunderstanding and miscalculation. De-escalation of tension during the second peak occurred only on June 7th 2002, Richard Armitage having secured and publicly announced whilst in New Delhi a pledge from Pakistan’s President Musharraf to do his utmost to permanently cease infiltration across the LoC, allowing India strategic wriggle-room (and an all important face-saving opportunity) to back down from confrontation and war, which thus slowly and reciprocally occurred. India officially ceased Operation Parakram on October 16th 2002. Nuclear war had only narrowly been abated.

One long Trough (2002- Present): Since 2002, paradoxically both nothing and much has changed. India and Pakistan both still see the other as their respective greatest external existential threat to state security and the issue of Kashmir and its sovereignty remains unresolved. With US and NATO forces looking to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, what level of importance will be placed on continued US-Pakistan relations beyond 2014? What will China’s ‘rise’ and its own ‘all-weather’ friendship with Pakistan (and regional ‘Great Power’ rivalry with both India and the US) mean in the context of changing regional dynamics? As the US ‘pivots’ or ‘re-balances’ to Asia, is China’s ‘rise’ actually pushing the US and India into a growing partnership and if so how might and what will India seek to leverage in return for tentatively moving away from its traditional position of foreign policy independence- if it does at all? Can and will India ever be a reliable balancing partner?

I wonder, ask and invite your response: what may transpire and how might events unfold differently, factoring in some of the above considerations, if under similar circumstances India and Pakistan were to once again rapidly find them selves at loggerheads over Kashmir today?

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. A version of this post originally featured on The East Asia Forum and can be viewed here(bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

Australia in the ‘Asia-Pacific’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’ Century: Great, Greater, and yet Greater-still Expectations?

Ben Moles

“Sometimes the wildest notion, the most apparently impossible idea, takes such a firm hold of the mind that at length it is taken for something realisable… More than that: if the idea coincides with a strong and passionate desire, it may sometimes be accepted as something predestined, inevitable, foreordained, something that cannot but exist or happen!” Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has recently slipped into the lexicon of Australian policy makers et al, in quiet supplement to the ‘Asian Century’ and the ‘Asia-Pacific Century’ that went before that, with relative ease and with little questioning as to what this semantic shift actually means and achieves. But is there very much utility, from an Australian perspective, of defining ones region and thus strategic interests in such increasingly broad terms?

There are some at Australian International Policy think-tank the Lowy Institute, a long term advocate of the term, that certainly believe so. However, this could be more in keeping with Lowy’s mandate to promote Australia Internationally- with the term placing Australia in the spotlight and geographic centre of these two oceans and vast region, cementing Australia’s identity and role as a potential key actor in this emerging epoch- and there is nothing particularly wrong with wanting to do that; yet I would suggest that there is limited utility in defining Australian interests so broadly. We should remember that ‘it is wise to look forward yet foolish to look further than one can see’. With two definitive Australian Government White papers to be released over the coming year, ‘The Asian Century White Paper’ and the ‘2013 Australian Defence White Paper’, I wonder how our region and strategic interests will be characterised and to what extent this dictum will be remembered.

The ‘Asia-Pacific Century’, ‘Asian Century’ and now seemingly ‘Indo-Pacific Century’ are terms that have been introduced to the common vernacular and superseded to define ‘our’ region and Australia’s place within it. I find this problematic on two fronts: on both temporal and spatial planes.

On a temporal level a Century is an attractive quantifier of time because it allows for the acceptance and acknowledgement of much to do whilst dangerously allowing for much time in order to set about doing it. Looking ahead too far fosters complacency, detracts from the sense of urgency required to ‘get the ball rolling’ now, and distracts one from the opportunities that currently exist under our noses- an inescapable problem with looking too far ahead is that you miss the extant opportunities, and risks, in front of you. Furthermore, we are acutely aware of the problems inherent in trying to make predictions regarding the short-term future (<5-10 years), so why continually look so far ahead?

Spatially or geographically: if you accept the broad concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, and there would be many that would fall at this first hurdle, it would be hard to refute the importance of what happens both on land and within the maritime domain encapsulated by its vast boundaries (from the shores of East Africa to the western seaboard of the United States). However, what is of primary importance when defining our own region and area of strategic interest is our ability to influence and shape what happens within that region, an ability to shape those interests and create favourable outcomes.

Australia has grappled for many years now with both defining what it wants and determining how it can achieve it within our near-neighbourhood, a recognised necessary-evil to overcome raised by Donald Horne as far back as 1964 in ‘The Lucky country’ and more recently by Michael Wesley in 2011 in ‘There goes the neighbourhood’(in which Wesley also defines Australia’s region as ‘Indo-Pacific). If we cant decide what we want and how we can exert influence in-order to achieve it within an area at relative close proximity to us, I wonder how do we then plan to project it further afield in accordance to our increasingly greater defined areas of strategic interest as characterised by the moniker ‘Indo-Pacific’?

There are three primary factors important to determining where Australia’s actual ‘general’ region of strategic interest is and what our strategic interests should be and they are: geography, capacity and will. Geography is an absolute and pertains to where we are and whom and what is within proximity to us. Capacity relates to who we are and what we have. Will is what we want- and to a certain extent how much we want it. Finally, the realisation of limitations imposed on us by these three factors, geography, capacity and will, should determine what we can do and where we can do it, or what our region of strategic interest is (and its limits) and what our strategic interests are (and there limits). Factoring these variables into our strategic calculus, we can then rationally and realistically recognise what is possible and thus set about achieving it, through the converging of both means with ends.

Key to exerting influence and creating favourable outcomes is presence and presence credibility. Two core tools that enable states to project this successfully are reflected in both the strength of their diplomatic representation (and overseas presence), and military strength and capabilities (including actual and perceived ability to have and sustain overseas presence). Geographically characterising and increasing Australia’s strategic region to the wide expansive theatre of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ would require quantum shifts, on both these fronts, in both will and capacity; two things that prima facie under the current environment look unlikely to happen.

Australia, on comparative global terms, is diplomatically under-represented sitting 25th out of 34 OECD states on a comparison of overseas diplomatic networks. DFAT’s budget remains modest and despite recent gestures made in the right direction, looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future. With deep cuts to the Australian defence budget, debate rages on as to defining the ADF’s core capabilities and what we want and expect the ADF to do with them; a shrinking defence budget shouldn’t precipitate increasing expectations on the ADF and increasing the perimeters of the region within which we expect it to successfully and credibly operate.

It is sometimes a far easier endeavour to determine what something isn’t rather than what something actually is. Australia, as much as we might like it to be, certainly isn’t an ‘Indo-Pacific actor’ nor is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ our strategic region, what is lies much closer to these shores; there is clearly still confusion and a need to determine and define exactly what that area is. In addressing this question and in seeking an answer we must assess and consider our geography, capacity and will, recognise our limitations and remember and heed the advice: that it is indeed wise to look forward but foolish to look further than one can see. In so doing, we might discover that the answer, and it might very well begin with Indo…, sits under our very noses.

Ben Moles completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. An edited version of this post appears here on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s ‘The Strategist’. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

The Perils of Continuing an Unquestioning ANZUS Alliance Reliance:

Ben Moles

ANZUS has been the cornerstone of Australian security policy and the foundation upon which Australian identity has been built for the past 60 years. However, Australia must rid itself of the fear that to say no to the US would be the ruin of the ANZUS alliance, when saying yes without critically analysing and questioning the demands being made on Australia, could lead to Australia’s own ruin.  

Forward to the past: Alliances have remained a cornerstone of international relations for millennia. The offensive realist paradigm characterises the international system as anarchic, stating that in absence of an international arbiter: states seek to maximise their power through achieving relative gains in pursuit of attaining hegemony. However, not all states possess the capabilities necessary for competing. The cost of internal mobilisation is too high a burden for many states to carry alone and in a competitive international environment, where the ultimate duty of the state remains to maintain sovereignty and state survival, states will seek to balance the power of hegemons, or those with hegemonic aspirations, through the formation of alliances until power equilibrium is achieved, or so balance of power theory posits.

However, Stephen Walt observes that balance of power doesn’t adequately explain the formation of modern alliances such as those extant under the US San Francisco system, of which ANZUS is a part, and claims that “It is more accurate to say that states tend to ally with or against the foreign power that poses the greatest threat.” Walt claims that states seek to balance threats, not power. The most important threat that states calculate against, of which he lists aggregate power, geographical proximity, and offensive power, is aggressive intentions.

Back to the future:  The ANZUS alliance is central to Australia, both in terms of identity and security and has been since it was signed in 1951. ANZUS is integral to the construct of Australia’s Asian identity; it remains the foundation upon which is built Australia’s status as an Asia-Pacific ‘middle power.’ Australia’s connection to the US, and some believe influence in Washington, bestow upon Australia a standing that enables Australia to ‘punch above its weight’ in regional affairs.

From a security perspective, Australia places great faith in the belief, although it has never been tested, that if Australia were ever attacked the US would come to its aid. In recompense, or the price paid for maintaining this safety net- if you like, Australia has been and remains in PM Julia Gillard’s own words “…an ally in war and peace, an ally for hardship and prosperity, an ally for the 60 years past and an ally for all the years to come.”  However, great danger exists in continuing to walk down the path of ANZUS alliance reliance without surveying the current and rapidly changing strategic landscape that surrounds us. It would be extremely foolhardy to believe the path to a secure and prosperous Australian future in this rapidly transforming geopolitical region within which Australia sits, will be as easy to traverse advancing into the future as it has been throughout our recent past. A more nuanced government approach will be required, one characterised by creative policy dexterity. Australia needs to progress cautiously and should seriously begin to question its policy of ANZUS alliance reliance.

In a move seen as strengthening the ANZUS alliance, in April 2012 the first 200 US marines arrived in Darwin and this will eventuate in a rotational troop deployment of a full 2500-strong Marine Air Ground Task Force to Australia. The move was initially announced when president Obama visited Australia back in November 2011. The ANZUS alliance receives bi-partisan political support in Australia and is furthermore, largely supported by the Australian public. In a recent Lowy Institute poll, 74% of people asked were in favour of up to 2500 US troops to be based in Darwin. Interestingly 46% were in favour of allowing more US troops to be based in Australia; a number that increased to 51% if Indonesia or China objected to the move.

So, what was the reaction of Indonesia and China to the news of US troops being deployed to Australia?  It was largely one of bafflement. I have sat in on many roundtables and work-shops of late, where it has often been said that it wasn’t the substance of the message that drew the ire of Beijing and Jakarta, but the delivery. I don’t think this is entirely correct, I believe it was both and the failure on behalf of the delivery stems from not really understanding the true implications of the message (or what the message actually was entirely) and how, more importantly, it might be interpreted by others within the region. Here, Australia certainly slipped up.

The US asked Australia to base/rotate US troops in Australia. Prima facie, this appears a low cost initiative for Australia to agree to and engage in that would enhance the ANZUS alliance and strengthen Australian security. However, Australia failed to ask, or fully understand the implications of, how might this be interpreted and be seen by others? Yes, it strengthens the alliance (two allies working side by side deepening and demonstrating their commitment to one another is natural and nothing new) but what is it that has altered, where is it that balance equilibrium has been lost that means there now exists a need and requirement for basing/rotating US troops on Australian soil when there previously was none? Ultimately this is a question of balance, which returns us to a theme this piece began with. What is it the alliance seeks to balance? It isn’t power because in both latent and military terms the US remains the regional preponderant power. Is it then threat? If so, who is the threat and where is it originating from? Despite protestations stating otherwise, it was and remains clear to many whom that perceived threat is.

Stationary in the present: Australia is now very much on the strategic radar of China. Australia now grapples with balancing a desire to be noticed with the consequences that stem from the actuality of that desire being recognised. At the moment Australia appears to be dangerously band-wagoning with the US at a time when many regional states are hedging, thus drawing not only the attention of China but also that of other regional states. China is not a threat to Australia and even if it ever were, does anybody seriously believe that the US would go to war with China to protect Australia. Former Australian PM Malcolm Fraser, with a firm grasp and understanding of realpolitik, certainly doesn’t. I believe, in accordance to Lord Palmerston’s dictum, that this would very much be dependent on the perception of US interests at that moment in time, and it could never be said with any degree of certainty that US interests would align with those of Australia, irrespective of the loyalty and permanence of Australia’s friendship. At the very best, or worst, the policy of ANZUS alliance reliance represents one of hope, but as Richard Armitage, a former US Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, has noted before- hope is not a policy at all.

Before Australia walks down the path of allowing US Carrier Strike Groups and Virginia Class submarines to berth/rotate out of Western Australia (an unthinking decision that could easily be arrived at considering Australia’s Defence budget cuts and the perception of large public support for the alliance), or inviting increasing numbers of troops to rotate through Australia, questions must and need to be asked of the alliance and serious eventualities must be considered. The most obvious that springs to mind is in the instance that- for whatever reason- Australia wants US troops off Australian soil while the US wishes to remain- this would certainly signal the end of the alliance. As the US increases its military presence in Australia- without being asked to, the US will only ever leave when it wants to and when it wants to would most likely be the time Australia needs its alliance partner most, a US exit under such circumstances would, at the very least, signal the end of the alliance…

Finally, and certainly something to think about. Quentin Crisp- the British playwright once warned on the matter of relationships “It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.”

Perils certainly exist in continuing Australia’s unquestioning ANZUS alliance reliance.

Ben Moles completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year. (bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles