Updates for 2017

I haven’t got around to blogging for a while, so this is a quick post to update things.

Some updates about my projects:

  1. I have an article coming out in the next issue of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, tracing the evolution of jihadism in Australia from the 1990s to the era of the Islamic State.
  2. I’ve released a few terrorism-related episodes of Sub Rosa, the podcast created by Kate Grealy and I. The two most recent episodes present a conversation I had with Levi West about terrorism in Australia. You can listen to Part 1 or Part 2.
  3. I’m returning to the PhD soon, after a period of leave, and have been working on some side-projects (including an article on the 2015 Anzac Plot in Melbourne) which I will post about when they are more solid.

Some updates about Australian counter-terrorism:

  1. Nicola McGarrity and Jessie Blackbourn have set up a new website on Australian national security law. It covers a lot, including every terrorism prosecution so far.
  2. We have a new Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), James Renwick.
  3. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is seeking submissions on ASIO’s questioning and detention powers.

Finally, something that struck me:

The Joint Counter-Terrorism Team recently arrested someone in rural New South Wales for allegedly supporting Islamic State. But unlike most arrests of IS supporters, he is not alleged to be funding them, facilitating the flow of fighters, or attempting to travel to join them. Instead, he allegedly supported them by “researching and designing a laser warning device to help warn against incoming laser-guided munitions used by forces in Syria and Iraq; and also by researching, designing and modelling systems to assist with Islamic State efforts to develop a long-range guided missile”.

I have a strong interest in transnational support for armed movements, particularly the different roles individuals can play when providing support. This sort of technical support appears rare compared to funding or fighting, but it seems to be a significant and under-acknowledged form of support. In 2012 John Pollock gave this account (mentioned in Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains) of a Libyan rebel leader getting technical advice from supporters in Europe:

After weeks of skirmishes in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli, Sifaw Twawa and his brigade of freedom fighters are at a standstill. It’s a mid-April night in 2011, and Twawa’s men are frightened. Lightly armed and hidden only by trees, they are a stone’s throw from one of four Grad 122-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers laying down a barrage on Yefren, their besieged hometown. These weapons can fire up to 40 unguided rockets in 20 seconds. Each round carries a high-­explosive fragmentation warhead weighing 40 pounds. They urgently need to know how to deal with this, or they will have to pull back. Twawa’s cell phone rings.

Two friends are on the line, via a Skype conference call. Nureddin Ashammakhi is in Finland, where he heads a research team developing biomaterials technology, and Khalid Hatashe, a medical doctor, is in the United Kingdom. The Qaddafi regime trained Hatashe on Grads during his compulsory military service. He explains that Twawa’s katiba—brigade—is well short of the Grad’s minimum range: at this distance, any rockets fired would shoot past them. Hatashe adds that the launcher can be triggered from several hundred feet away using an electric cable, so the enemy may not be in or near the launch vehicle. Twawa’s men successfully attack the Grad—all because two civilians briefed their leader, over Skype, in a battlefield a continent away.

This will be an interesting case to watch.

Far-right violent extremism in Australia: what’s new?

Yesterday, an alleged terrorist had a hearing at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. He had been arrested in a Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team raid on 6 August. Counter-terrorism raids in Australia are usually directed against suspected jihadists, but this time the suspect was on the extreme right. Investigators said he had been:

linked to the far-right groups Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Patriots Defence League Australia, the True Blue Crew and a ‘neo-Nazi, self-confessed militant group’ called Combat 18.

He allegedly planned to make improvised explosive devices and targeted left-wing activists. He was charged with Commonwealth terrorism offences and the allegations will all be tested in court.

After he was arrested, Justice Minister Michael Keenan noted that this was the first time terror charges had been used against someone on the extreme right.

I want to disentangle what is, and is not, new about this.

The alleged plot, if proven, would not be the first case of far-right violent extremism in Australia. To choose some recent examples, in 2010 self-described Combat 18 members fired shots at a mosque in Perth. In 2012 two Melbourne neo-Nazi skinheads were sentenced to jail for brutally assaulting a Vietnamese student.  In 2013 a former soldier and self-described neo-Nazi was jailed for weapons and explosives offences. Most recently, a reported white supremacist was charged for allegedly setting fire to a church, though again it’s important to presume innocence and wait to see what comes out in court.

However, what’s unusual about the arrest is that far-right violence in Australia doesn’t usually reach a threshold where terrorism legislation can clearly be applied. Someone with particular beliefs engaging in violence does not automatically become terrorism under Australian law. The law is quite specific and makes it hard to prove a terrorist act (or planning or preparation for one) because it depends on intentions.

In terrorism cases, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

(b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause;

They must also prove that:

(c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

(i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

(ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public.

A subsection then states that an act does not count as terrorism if it:

(a)  is advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action; and

(b)  is not intended:

(i)  to cause serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or

(ii)  to cause a person’s death; or

(iii)  to endanger the life of a person, other than the person taking the action; or

(iv)  to create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.

So proving a terrorist act doesn’t only require evidence of someone’s actions but a lot of evidence about their intentions. This often requires the prosecution to present recordings of conversations between suspects, intercepted during long pro-active investigations.

The current case appears to be the first time, since terrorism offences were introduced in 2002, that authorities had the sort of evidence against a suspected far-right violent extremist that would enable terrorism charges. Usually they have been dealt with through other laws such as assault, weapons possession, and criminal damage.

In that sense, this is a new development. But this does not mean that the alleged plot, if proven, should be regarded as the first case of far-right terrorism in Australia.

First, there are many definitions of terrorism and there is no intellectual obligation to stick to purely legal definitions. There will always be political debate over what is and isn’t terrorism.

Second, some cases of far-right violent extremism before 2002 amounted to terrorism even though we did not have specific terrorism legislation at the time. For example, the first fatal terrorist attack in Australia this century was Peter James Knight’s attempted anti-abortion massacre in 2001. There was also the Australian Nationalists Movement’s wave of violence in Perth in the late 1980s, for which the judge said when sentencing:

It is, in my view, no overstatement or exaggeration to term your campaign of those months a terrorist campaign and again it is no exaggeration to say that in that period you waged a guerilla war against the public.

Another issue also makes the current case less of a remarkable development. The potential for renewed far-right terrorism in Australia had been apparent for a while, particularly as such activity had increased elsewhere.

In the early 2010s, far-right terrorism became a bigger issue in Europe. Prominent incidents included the murders of 69 people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, alleged Breivik-copycat attempts in Poland and the Czech Republic, the murder of two Senegalese street vendors in Italy by someone linked the far-right CasaPound. There was also the exposure of the National Socialist Underground, responsible for a murder spree across Germany from 2000 to 2007. In the UK, far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn murdered a Muslim man and bombed several mosques in 2013, and there was a reported extreme-right connection to the recent murder of popular MP Jo Cox.

There was a similar surge in the United States, with the most visible examples being the murders of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by a member of the neo-Nazi Hammerskins in 2012, of three people at a Kansas Jewish centre by a white supremacist in 2014, and of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. In October of this year, the FBI foiled an alleged terror plot by self-styled “Crusaders” to murder Somali immigrants.

Australia has traditionally experienced much less of this, but as such violence became more prominent in Europe and America, agencies expressed concern about the situation here. The ASIO annual report for 2010-2011 noted:

There has been a persistent but small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves…. Local racist and nationalist extremists maintain links and draw inspiration from like-minded overseas extremists, and much of their rhetoric and activity is derivative, heavily influenced by developments overseas.

Of course, developments in Australia do not necessarily follow those abroad. ASIO’s next annual report concluded that:

Over the reporting period, the rise in right wing extremism in parts of Europe was not reflected, nor did it gain large-scale support, in Australia.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to hold true. In the most recent Senate Estimates hearings, ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis made that clear:

Senator  McKim: Mr  Lewis,  I  just  want  to  follow  up  on  my  last  question.  Would you say that the threat to national security from radical anti-Islamic groups in Australia is growing at the moment?

Mr Lewis: Yes, off a very low base. It has come off a low base. But it has presented, really, probably in the last 18 months or so. So, yes, it is, but I would not describe it as going up in any vertical way. But it has come off a low base and it is now more present than it was.

By “threat to national security” they would be referring to violence or the potential for violence (non-violent protest is not a national security concern under ASIO’s charter, and they are obviously not referring to national security threats like espionage).  This suggests that ASIO’s view is that the far-right violent extremist threat is not large but has recently become larger than it was.

What does all this tell us about this significance of this counter-terrorism prosecution?

Mainly, that it is only a new development in one sense. The use of Commonwealth terrorism offences against an Australian extreme-right activist is unprecedented.

However, terrorism legislation only covers a specific subset of violent extremism; usually that for which the authorities have enough evidence to prove a plan for life-threatening violence intended to intimidate a wider audience to further a political cause. That the legislation was never used before against anyone on the extreme right did not mean there was no potential threat.

Australia had experienced far-right violent extremism before, including quite recently. We experienced more of it, sometimes amounting to terrorism, further in the past. Far-right violence had escalated in Europe and America and many, including security agencies, were concerned it could escalate here.

For these reasons, while an Australian counter-terrorism prosecution against a suspected far-right extremist is a new development, it should not be a surprising one.

Podcast news

Kate Grealy and I are slowing down production for our podcast, Sub Rosa.

Turns out making a podcast is a lot of work, so we’ve decided to release around one episode per month instead of one per fortnight. That may change later, depending on circumstances. For example, we record several interviews in a short time period we might release them closer together.

Our next episode will be out on Thursday. It will be an interview with Zabi Mazoori, who coordinates the Afghanistan project for Physicians for Human Right’s International Forensic Program.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, listen to some our past episodes below. We have a great range of topics and guests, and there are few Australian podcasts covering the mix of security and human rights issues that we do.


Episode 8: Conflict and Muslim-Christian relations in Papua, with Umar Werfete

Episode 7: Social media and the Australian Army, with Mick Cook (mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald)

Episode 6: Gender politics in Indonesian media, with Firly Annisa

Episode 5: Signals intelligence and counter-terrorism, with David Wells

Episode 4: Refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, with Trish Cameron

Episode 3: Understanding terrorism in Indonesia, with Noor Huda Ismail

Episode 2: Muslim women and the War on Terror, with Shakira Hussein

Episode 1: LGBTI refugees in the Asia-Pacific, with Jaz Dawson

Australia’s counter-terrorism tranches

The new parliament will soon pass more national security (mainly counter-terrorism) legislation. This has happened every few months from late 2014, following the increased terrorist threat resulting from the Syrian civil war and the rise of the “Islamic State”.

Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis has popularised the term tranche for each of these new sets legislation. These tranches can be hard to keep track of, and generate a lot of controversy. So this post outlines the tranches so far, with a few thoughts on the debates about them.


Tranche 1: National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014

The first tranche was mainly about implementing the recommendations of the 2012 national security inquiry, and most of it was reasonable. Some of the critical commentary was way off the mark, with unfounded claims that the bill would legalise torture and allow ASIO to monitor “the entire internet” with one warrant.

I only had a few objections to this bill. For example, it made sense to allow ASIO officers to conduct “special intelligence operations” (that is, to infiltrate terrorist cells without the fear that they could face prosecution for breaking laws in the process), but I objected to the disclosure restrictions in Section 35P which went beyond the AFP’s disclosure restrictions for controlled operations, but with less oversight.

The disclosure restrictions have since been eased, to some degree, following the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM)’s inquiry into Section 35P.


Tranche 2: Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014

The second tranche was much more worrying. It introduced the declared area (or “no go zone“) offence, where Australians returning from declared areas in Syria and Iraq would have to prove they weren’t terrorists. The tranche also merged foreign incursions offences and terrorism offences together in a very blunt manner, and introduced new restrictions on speech.

However, this tranche also had bits I strongly agreed with (particularly relating to passports and foreign evidence) and bits I was wary of but acceptted (such as lowering thresholds for several existing powers like control orders, though this was done without adding the control order safeguards recommended in the COAG CT review).


Tranche 2.5? Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014

This was quickly followed some small changes that were not announced as a “tranche”, because they were mainly about tweaking some of the previous tranche. So they could be considered a sub-tranche, and they mainly involved more adjustments to control orders and intelligence-sharing.

One problem with this tranche, which was fortunately fixed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), was that its initial draft would have removed some of the judicial discretion on control orders. Traditionally, a judge who approved a control order could scrutinise each proposed restriction on the suspect’s liberty and reject any restrictions that the police couldn’t sufficiently justify. Read the Harun Causevic ruling to see this process playing out.

The original version of this bill would have taken that discretion away, meaning that a judge could either say yes to a control order, accepting every restriction the Federal Police called for, or say no altogether. Fortunately the PJCIS rejected this, and the government accepted that, so each restriction on liberty can still be argued over in court.


Tranche 3: Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014

Then there was the third tranche, data retention. I wasn’t instinctively opposed to data retention but was largely sceptical, given the risks it carries for personal liberties, doubts that the data would be kept securely, the risks posed to press freedom and the poor record of data retention in some other countries.

I’m also sceptical of several arguments from the anti-data retention side, such as that no counter-terrorism or public safety benefits will result at all from it. The UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s latest report found benefits from bulk data collection(though that’s not quite the same thing).

But on the whole, I’m still unconvinced that the benefits will outweigh the risks.

Now that we have data retention, a big question is how to evaluate it. What sort of review could be done to examine the first year or more of data retention and test the arguments of each side? It would probably be too big for the INSLM, who’s job only goes for 60 days per year. We are due for another external review of Australia’s intelligence agencies (the Flood Review recommended one every five to seven years and the last one was in 2011), civil society groups could push for it to include an examination of what difference data retention has made so far.


Tranche 4: Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015

Next came the fourth tranche, the citizenship-stripping bill. For the first time ever, I was 100% opposed to a piece of national security legislation.

The PCJIS’s amendments have removed many of its worst aspects. The original draft could strip the citizenship of Australians within Australia who hadn’t been convicted of a crime, and listed “damage to Commonwealth property” as one of the offences that could result in this. It also may have had an evidence threshold lower than that of confiscating passports (it’s unclear, see pages 6-7 here).

Thanks to the PJCIS’s changes, the bill that ended up passing is not nearly as bad. However, it still allows for Australians suspected of terrorism (provided they are dual-nationals and overseas at the time) to lose their citizenship without being convicted, thanks to a “self-executing” clause. This obfuscating term caused a lot of debate in the PCJIS hearings and hid that a group public servants (which we know now will be in the form of the Citizenship Loss Board) will decide which dual-national Australians will lose their citizenship, without guilt being proved.

Within Australia, it can only be used against dual-nationals who have been convicted. However, even if the law is used only against undeniably genuine terrorists, I don’t see merit in it.


Tranche 5: Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2015

Then we had the fifth tranche, which we are still in the middle of. It mainly involves adjustments to control orders, such as lowering the age of who they can be used against (from 16 to 14) and allowing the use of secret evidence in control order proceedings.

When the PJCIS released its report on the bill, the government announced it would pass it. This then got put aside, presumably because the double dissolution election got in the way or because they were waiting for Part 2 of the INSLM’s report on control order safeguards.

On Thursday, Turnbull said that the bill’s new version would be presented soon. We haven’t seen it yet, but if the “special advocates” recommendations are implemented (so that the secret evidence can be challenged), I don’t find this tranche a huge worry in itself.


Tranche 6: indefinite detention?

There will soon be sixth tranche, which I’m deeply apprehensive about.

In August a COAG meeting of Attorneys-General agreed to introduce legislation to detain convicted terrorists who had served their sentences if they were deemed to pose an unacceptable risk. Their detention would be reviewed periodically, and could be indefinite. On Thursday Turnbull announced that these laws would be presented to Parliament soon, along with other changes.


So these are the tranches that we have had, or are about to have. Given the threat, several of the changes were justified. However, the overall trend is excessive and illiberal, and looks set to continue.

Resources: hypotheses on violent extremism

Following on from my two posts about terrorism studies, looking at internal assessments of the field as well as critiques, I want to provide some posts that help people navigate the field.

As both posts mentioned, the most well-founded criticism of terrorism studies is the field’s inconsistent quality. There is rigorous work, there is terrible work, and there is much in between. It’s been improving a lot over the past decade, but in some ways remains a mess. It’s not well-institutionalised within academia, attracts a lot of transient interest, is internally competitive, and politically contentious.

This makes it quite a sprawling and disorganised field and, as Richard English shows, people will work on similar topics without engaging with (or being aware of) the other’s work. This also means that it’s hard for anyone new to the field to be confident of what research is out there and where the strongest research is. It’s not easy for a newcomer to find an answer to “what does the field say about X?” or “I keep hearing Y, but what is the actual evidence for that?”

So I plan to do a few posts pointing to resources that help curate and consolidate the available research. For this post, I’ve chosen two systematic literature reviews which draw out hypotheses, judge whether they are well-supported or not, and summarise some of the literature for each hypothesis.


The first resource is this RUSI report, Drivers of Violent Extremism: Hypotheses and Literature Review (2015).

The paper lists 17 hypotheses on violent extremism, and categorises the evidence for them as: strongly supported / supported / mixed / not supported.

It finds the following 5 hypotheses to be strongly supported (all dot points are direct quotes):

  • The search for personal and group identities among those who feel this has been undermined by rapid social change can increase the vulnerability of the young to radicalisation.
  • The growth of religious and ethnic identities (particularly if they compete with loyalties to the state) can be exploited by extremist ideologues.
  • Government failure to provide basic services (health, education, welfare) allows extremist groups to meet these needs and build support as a result.
  • In the absence of peace and security, populations are often ready to accept any entity that offers stability.
  • Where inequality and institutionalised discrimination coincide with religious or ethnic fault-lines, there is an increased likelihood of radicalisation and mobilisation.


The second is this START resource, the Influencing Violent Extremist Organizations (IVEO) Knowledge Matrix (2011).

It presents 183 hypotheses on violent extremist organisations, and ranks their empirical support from -1 (clear empirical findings against the hypothesis) to 9 (multiple empirical analyses, including at least one qualitative and one quantitative study supporting the hypothesis).

Only eight of the hypotheses reach Level 9, which are:

  • Metal detectors and increased law enforcement at airports decreases hijackings.
  • In a country/issue context with multiple VEOs, negotiating with one VEO may lead to increased bad behavior by VEOs left out of negotiations.
  • On the whole, positive inducements seem more effective than negative ones in deradicalizing/disengaging.
  • If “buyers” (meaning the audience the organization seeks to serve) find the social and/or political change on offer by the VEO unattractive, VEOs will modify their behavior.
  • VEO ‘targeting errors’ can lead to erosion of popular support for the group.
  • Political reforms can lower VEO activity.
  • VEOs may be manipulated through five channels: suppliers, buyers, rivals, substitutes, and new entrants.
  • If the adversary sees that there are no benefits to restraint, it will work against the deterring party.

While these twelve reach Level 8 (multiple quantitative analyses supporting the hypothesis):

  • State use of legitimate and limited force is less likely to increase public support for VEO activity.
  • Widespread government repression (e.g., torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment) will increase transnational VEO activity.
  • Retaliation against foreign targets for VEO attacks against the US increases VEO activity.
  • Content of media attention influences VEOs.
  • Negotiating with VEOs can lead to more terror as a result of spoilers.
  • When VEOs change ideological platforms, it may alienate current constituent support base and suppliers.
  • Governments that maintain law and order will be more effective at reducing VEO activity.
  • Groups and individuals prefer to have an optimal level of uniqueness and distinctiveness; a group that is similar will threaten the group’s distinctiveness which may prompt intergroup issues.
  • When VEOs change ideological platforms, it may reduce competition within the constituent base.
  • As US military aid to and intervention in foreign countries increase, terrorist attacks by VEOs from those countries on US citizens increase.
  • Indirect counterinsurgency methods are more successful than measures that interfere with the population (e.g. occupying forces increase VEO activity).
  • Competition over resources leads to intergroup conflict.

Videos: ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s 50th anniversary conference

I recently went to the 50th anniversary conference for the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, which was a lot of fun.

The videos are all up on the ANU’s YouTube channel, but for convenience I’ve embedded them here, with the lists of speakers.

There were five sessions, all included below. I particularly recommend the talk by Evelyn Goh. Her question, about whether grand bargains between great powers are actually possible, is hugely relevant for Australia given growing tensions between the US and China. I’m sceptical of her argument (I’m pessimistic about grand bargains and consider the idea to be a huge gamble), but it’s an important position to debate. I also really liked Amy King’s talk, as economic aspects of security are something I wish I knew better. The talks about strategic studies as a field (of study and practice) by Peter Ho, Eliot Cohen, Hew Strachan, Amitav Acharya and Robert O’Niell are also great.

Also, some people have recently asked me if my PhD is in strategic studies, because I’ve had so many blog posts on strategic and military issues this year. It’s not. I’ve just taken a lot of interest in strategic studies this year, in part because it’s not part of my PhD, but also because the history of its contentious relationship with both the state and the academy fascinates me (which has obvious parallels with terrorism studies).


Session 1: Strategy and Power
Chair: Professor Michael Wesley

21st Century Strategic Order – Dr C. Raja Mohan

Economics and Strategy – Dr Amy King

Elements of National Power and Strategic Policy – Major General John J. Frewen

Great Power Grand Bargains: Myth or Reality? – Professor Evelyn Goh


Session 2: Strategic Thinking: Concepts and Challenges
Chair: Emeritus Professor David Horner

Old Wine in New Bottles? The Continued Relevance of Cold War Strategic Concepts – Professor Robert Ayson

Alliances After the Cold War – Professor Thomas Christensen

Nuclear Strategy After the Cold War – Dr Nicola Leveringhaus


Session 3: Strategy and Domains
Chair: Professor Joan Beaumont

The Return of Geography – Professor Paul Dibb

Maritime Strategy in Asia – Dr Euan Graham

The Evolution of Military Capability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region – Dr Tim Huxley


Session 4: Strategic Studies in Practice
Chair: Admiral Chris Barrie

Strategic Studies in Practice: The Australian Perspective – Professor Hugh White

Strategic Studies in Practice: The Southeast Asian Perspective – Mr Peter Ho

Training the Next Generation of Strategic Thinkers – Professor Eliot Cohen


Session 5: New Directions in Strategic Studies
Chair: Professor Daniel Marston

US Grand Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era – Dr Hal Brands

The Future of Strategic Studies: Lessons from the Last Golden Age – Professor Sir Hew Strachan

An Asian School of Strategic Studies? – Professor Amitav Acharya

The Future of Strategic Studies: The Next Golden Age – Professor Robert O’Neill

Great expectations in the South China Sea

When Australia’s last Defence White Paper was released, Hugh White declared that “it’s time we talked about war with China”.

Hugh White has long been calling for discussion on this hopefully remote, but unfortunately real, possibility. And he’s absolutely right. I’m going to talk about it in this post, and highlight voices on this topic that I find valuable.

First, because I’ve enjoyed venturing outside my research area recently. Second, because the prospect of war in the Asia-Pacific poses a greater threat to Australia’s national security than terrorism. Third, because I recently listened to a Perth USAsia Centre podcast episode where Kim Beazley said something about this which really struck me.

In the episode, Beazley and others discussed the latest Shangri-La Dialogue. This is a summit in Singapore where representatives of Asia-Pacific governments, along with academics and other participants, discuss the region’s security and defence issues. Beazley said that Australia stood out by failing to attend the Dialogue. He speculated that this could have been because America has big expectations of Australia in the future, and that the government has hesitantly signed Australia up without bringing the public along:

We don’t understand how significant we are, and if we ever approach, mentally, a comprehension of that we run away from it. … So we weren’t there. We had officials there, but we did not have a minister there. That’s simply absurd………

The Americans arrived with messages for us. I have a fear that maybe that’s what we were trying to avoid. The American message for us was really quite strong. It’s the first time I’ve heard this expression, and that was ‘well now Australia is a global ally’ and we engage in a variety of activities around the globe. We have become, from the American point of view, the ally they want to deal with. Because we’ll commit. We’ll commit forces, we’ll commit diplomacy, and I think there’s a sort of, bit of a hesitancy now, in Australia, on that point.

Is that actually where we want to be? If you read the White Paper yes it is where we want to be. The White Paper mentions a priority of support for a global rules-based order, it mentions it as often as [US Secretary of Defense] Ash Carter did in his speech.  And that would seem to be logically the point of intersection, but there was no Australian there to give that definition. And we always get mentioned in American speeches, but not in a way that singles us out and actually puts us up, elevates us, in discussion, pretty much above most other American allies. [Emphasis added]

These increased expectations on Australia need to be understood in light of the possibility that war could break out with China. That dark prospect lurks in the background of all the discussions of a “global rules-based order”, that America, Australia and other countries are vowing to uphold.

US Aus navies(Ships from the American, Japanese and Australian navies in a joint training exercise)

Before going into Beazley’s comment, I need to set the scene. The “global rules-based order” refers to the current system of international law for resolving territorial disputes, which has come under challenge in the Asia-Pacific. Global economic power is shifting to the region (hence the Asian Century) and it’s strategic importance is growing with it. Asia-Pacific countries have increased their military spending, nationalism and territorial competition are growing, the United States is perceived to be in decline, and military tensions are flaring up.

Many of these centre on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which caused some tense moments in the Shangri-La Dialogue this year. China had been militarily asserting a claim to territory claimed by the Philippines. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague was considering the dispute, and was anticipated to rule in the Philippines’ favour. China was expected to reject this, and made that clear at the summit when Admiral Sun Jianguo declared “China will not recognize nor honor any award”.

The Philippines is not the only country China is making territorial claims against, hence Hugh White’s argument that this “is a contest over the future of the Asian order, and we should not for a moment assume that China is any less committed to building a new order than we are to preserving the old one.” Tanner Greer similarly expresses pessimism about the likelihood of China being bound by the Western-led “global rules-based order”:

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. …..

Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America’s imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese’s ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

Tanner Greer quotes Bilahari Kausikan’s account of how these ambitions are tied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to retain power:

China’s use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China’s sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong’s phrase, “stood up” under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China’s “Great Rejuvenation”.

The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing’s rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan’s long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China’s interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification.

That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP’s version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China’s “new normal”. The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose.

This is extremely plausible, and not unique to this part of the world (Curtis Ryan and others have described how regime insecurity drives foreign policies and conflict in the Middle East). Barry Buzan similarly links the Chinese government’s commitment to retaining power at home to its military assertiveness abroad:

As Jonathan Fenby has argued, the CCP remains unbendingly committed to remaining in power in perpetuity. Yet as knowledge, wealth, organization, information and connectivity spread through Chinese society, that society becomes increasingly diverse, opinionated, and able and willing to mobilise in its own interests.

The CCP increasingly, and correctly, feels threatened by this society, which it does not understand, and does not like. As a consequence, China’s domestic and foreign policies are extremely closely linked, with the insecurity of the CCP as the central concern (see work by Susan Shirk and David Shambaugh). ….

The CCP has successfully cultivated nationalism for several decades, and while it has drawn legitimacy from that, it has also become trapped it into a ratchet effect of strong foreign policy responses. Because of its domestic insecurity, the CCP cannot afford to look weak abroad lest it invite comparison with the decaying Qing dynasty during the nineteenth century and lose the mandate of heaven.

On that basis, we can predict, and indeed we can already see happening, that in the coming years China will become more nationalist, more xenophobic, and probably more assertive in foreign policy terms (on a more assertive Chinese foreign policy, see Yan Xuetong and Zhang).

The Chinese government rejects the accusations against it, and they could certainly point to many hypocrisies. They could argue that as the largest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions, and as a country that that didn’t invade Iraq without UN approval in 2003 or carry out regime change in Libya in 2011, it’s hypocritical for Western countries to call China a threat to global order. They could argue that as a country that provides aid to others with few strings attached, and whose imports have driven economic growth for many countries (such as Australia’s mining boom), it’s ungrateful of others to rebuke China for seeking increased military strength in proportion with its growing economy. They could also argue that Australia itself spurned international arbitration during its oil and gas disputes with Timor-Leste, and that China is not the only country that could be accused of making problematic claims in the South China Sea.

But there’s little doubt that China’s maritime claims have been more ambitious, and its actions more aggressive, than the other countries involved.


To assert its claims, China has been constructing artificial islands in disputed territory and building military bases on them. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative provides plenty of satellite photos of this. China has also been intruding into waters that unambiguously belong within other country’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and provoking confrontations:

China has carefully—but aggressively—pursued its goals in Asia. It has seized territory (the Scarborough Shoal) from the Philippines and refused to withdraw  despite promising to do so.3 It stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, and established an East China Sea air-defence identification zone without first consulting its neighbours. It has intercepted US aircraft and naval vessels in reckless  ways, thus risking a repeat of the April 2001 EP-3 crisis. The Chinese Coast Guard continues to  aggressively defend Chinese fishing vessels operating in the waters of Southeast Asian countries, like Indonesia.4

This  approach has spurred countries such as Singapore and the Philippines to seek closer military ties with the United States, when they had grown wary of such military ties not long ago (the Philippines closed US military bases in the 1990s). Even the Cold War enemy Vietnam is seeking military support from America. This does not mean that conflict is inevitable (the new Philippines government may well accommodate China), and it is not necessarily even likely. But the pieces are in place for a potential confrontation, and there’s a real possibility that things could get out of control.

China does appear to sternly reject the current international order, viewing it as a Western trap, while the US and others appear determined to maintain this order. Unless one or both sides change their approach, the region’s future could be bleak.

This is the context to understand Beazley’s comment in. He paints a picture of Australia becoming further embedded in the US alliance system, in which the US would have high expectations of Australia in any conflict with China. But he suggests that governments have done this without having brought the public on board.

Several other foreign policy observers have also pointed this out. The Lowy Institute’s Aaron Connelly wrote this valuable post arguing that US government officials, who deal mostly with their counterparts in Canberra, don’t realise that the Australian public (and businesses) largely don’t share the US government view of a threatening China. Indeed a recent survey showed that Australians are calm about China’s rise and see the prospect of war as unlikely. The United States Studies Centre’s Simon Jackman viewed this as “Australians taking the US relationship for granted”.

If America indeed has great expectations of us, to help enforce a global order that the Chinese government appears to have emphatically rejected, then the alliance certainly can’t be taken for granted. Either the government will need to temper America’s expectations in line with the Australian public’s, or the government will have to persuade the public that committing more to the alliance is necessary.

In the latest Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War, James Brown similarly warns about the risk of war with China and highlights the gap between successive Australian governments’  integration into the US alliance system and public hesitancy. He argues that the government needs to more open than it has so far, so that an informed choice can be made:

Australia’s politicians, seldom comfortable discussing military strategic issues, did little to address the growing chorus of alarm. In fact, they did little to explain the measures agreed to with the United States at all. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed the Force Posture Agreement formalising the Darwin presence [of US Marines] in 2014, there was no accompanying attempt to explain to the public what it meant.

Brown ties this into a broader theme, arguing that Australia has limited public engagement with, and scrutiny of, military issues. He states that our defence community is more closed than that of America and some other democracies, and that it’s rare for politicians, journalists and academics to have deep military knowledge.

That said, there are signs of this changing: the increased public consultation behind the latest Defence White Paper, the Army’s “intellectual pivot” (a factor behind the rise of Australia’s online strategy-sphere), and the chorus of voices calling for more discussion of defence issues in this election.

But this could go much further. If, as Beazley worries, America does indeed have great expectations for Australia in the event of war with China, it certainly doesn’t appear to be in the public consciousness. It’s indeed time we talked about it more.