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UK-Japan Cooperation in Preserving the Liberal Order

Asia Pacific Bulletin, 11 January, 2018

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While much has been written on the apparent diminishment of the liberal global order, and on the rise of Chinese and Russian revisionism in Ukraine and the South China Sea, comparatively little has been written about how liberal democracies around the world have responded to these mini-attacks on the international system. One of the most prominent and interesting trends has been in the security realm, where new “virtual” and “quasi-alliances”, trilaterals, and quadrilaterals have sprung up between states with previously-weak security ties. While few of these relationship can be defined as actual alliances – they lack mutual defense commitments after all – they have many “alliance-like” features, including cooperation in sensitive intelligence and defense sectors. Australian scholar, William Tow, calls them a “unique theoretical challenge” for international relations theorists since they do not accord with our traditional understanding of what constitutes an alliance.

The foreign and defense ministerial (2+2) meeting between Japan and the United Kingdom is one such grouping, and shares a number of common features with its counterparts in the Indo-Pacific region. The first of these is the evolving nature of security cooperation, with London and Tokyo developing ever-closer levels of strategic dialogue and interoperability. A second feature is that both countries are in formal alliances with the United States, and theses dyads lead to trilateralism with Washington across a range of sectors. However, one key difference between the UK-Japan, UK-Japan-US, US-Japan-Australia trilateral, and US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral, are that the latter two are both centered in and around the Indo-Pacific region. It is therefore, worth examining the strategic rationales for the UK-Japan bilateral as well as the UK-Japan-US trilateral, while also discussing challenges to future cooperation.

So, what exactly are the strategic rationales and challenges for closer UK-Japan and UK-Japan-US security cooperation? As has already been mentioned, the driver for much of this is the insecurity created by Russian and Chinese challenges to the traditional rules-based order. Beijing’s military takeover of the South China Sea – a major global trade route connecting Europe and Asia accounting for 12% of total British trade and 19% of total Japanese trade – has promoted strategic discussions between Britain and Japan. The Joint Statement of the 3rd UK-Japan 2+2 explicitly raises concerns over the South China Sea as well as a commitment to a “rules-based order in the maritime domain based on the principles of international law, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and to the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes through diplomatic and legal means.” Such messaging is an important component of showing the resolve of states, and could potentially check or at least slow future Chinese expansion.

Another strategic rationale for both nations is to relieve some of the pressure on their defense industries. Given defense budgets must deal with ever-increasing defense inflation and rising research and development costs, cooperative ventures are touted as cost-saving. They can also exploit pooled technologies. A UK-Japan study on a new Joint New Air-to-Air Missile (JNAAM) Phase 2, promises to put a Japanese engine in British Meteor missiles, creating what some experts predict will be the best missile in allied inventories. There is also ongoing research in chemical and biological protection technology, and there could also be further cooperation in amphibious capability, giving UK forces – slated for cuts – an urgently needed lifeline. Then there is cyber security cooperation that becomes more urgent as each year passes, as advances in technologies like artificial intelligence create new emerging threats to national infrastructure and national economies.

Finally, there is the ability for closer UK-Japanese cooperation to pave the way to trilateralism with the US, creating a healthy synergy between three liberal democracies vested in the current global order. There is a sort of geostrategic logic to this, with all three sharing intelligence about their respective hemispheres. There are also other drivers. The United States and the UK are part of the Five Eyes intelligence group, and can help shape Japan’s ongoing quest to develop a strong intelligence community institutionalizing cooperation and socializing Japan’s intelligence agencies in Five Eye’s standards of intelligence-sharing, operations, and classification. The three also rely on the maritime global commons for trade. The signing of a trilateral naval agreement in November 2016 indicates increasing attempts to control such spaces, and a willingness for the three to resist such efforts.

Despite the apparent strength of these various drivers toward cooperation, sceptics of the budding UK-Japan bilateral point to the disparate set of security goals and the geographical challenges. London and Tokyo differ, for example, in how they regard Russia and China. Post-Brexit Britain, for example, still views China as an important trade partner, and Russia as its most pressing security issue. Tokyo, in nearly perfect contrast, views Russia as a diplomatic opportunity, and China as its most pressing security challenge. Other naysayers point to the scarcity of resources that each can commit to the other’s region. The visit of four British Eurofighters to take part in the Guardian North 16 exercise in Japan seemed underwhelming, while Japan – for its part – has tended to view the relationship as a means of bring Britain to Asia rather than helping to contribute more to Britain’s own regional security. For those policymakers at the forefront of such debates, justifying the time and resource expenditure seems to push bureaucracies toward short-term, “low-hanging fruit” objectives, but states must start somewhere, and these relationships allow for incremental evolution.

Perhaps the largest challenge to future UK-Japan-US trilateralism is a lack of sustained interest in Washington. Part of this is geostrategic – American policymakers are yet to grasp the benefits of such a partnership  – and part of it is bureaucratic. It may sound simplistic, but the co-location of regional desks in the Pentagon and State Department made Indo-Pacific trilaterals (under PACOM leadership) much less troublesome than a trilateral that stretches across two different regions and unified combatant commands. The original trilateral – the US-ROK-Japan variant – was relatively easy to do since DOD desk officers who worked on Japan and Korea shared an office. Similarly, Washington think tanks tend to frame research by sector or geographic region. So few of the influential think tanks that currently research trilateralism (like CSIS, Brookings, and AEI) have researchers with a background in both UK and Japanese security policy. It is a larger leap than Japan–India security policy.

Despite these challenges, it is clear that US-Japan-UK and UK-Japan security cooperation will continue to be a growth business. This is primarily because the international system is going through a deeply unstable period, and insecure states naturally seek out allies and partners to help alleviate their insecurity. As long as Russia and China continue to use salami-slicing tactics and the threat of military force to break down the liberal rules-based order, democratic allies of the United States like Britain and Japan will continue to develop these loose security ties. The real question is whether such relationships are sufficient. Will they actually deter would-be aggressors when all is said and done? It is a truism of modern history that alliances caused the First World War. In actual fact, we know that Great Britain remained uncommitted to its Triple Entente partners, France and Russia, in 1914 and to France, again, in 1939. In both cases, London was compelled to go to war despite its wishes. It all depends on the level of commitment and the level of messaging that status quo powers are willing to commit. The more committed the UK and Japan are, the stronger the message.

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Just living with a nuclear North Korea shouldn’t be an option

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The Telegraph30 November, 2017

The story that came from a diplomatic backchannel between the US and North Korea during the early months of the Trump administration was telling. A group of American experts travelled to Stockholm to meet a group of North Korean officials in order to get a sense of what Pyongyang wanted, what its bottom line was.

Facing North Korean diplomats across the table, they asked, “what do you want?”, “What will persuade you to put down nuclear weapons?”. According to someone in the room, the North Korean diplomats were extremely self-composed, cocky even. Their position to the American team was stark:

“Accept us a nuclear state. Then we either talk about a peace treaty…or we’ll go to war.”

According to a former US official in the room, it was a breath-taking indication how far apart the two sides had drifted from their near agreement during the 2007 Six Party Talks.

To continue reading, please click here.


Diplomatic initiative revived to counter China’s growing influence

The Financial Times, Kiran Stacy, Jamie Smyth, 14 November, 2017

“John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think-tank, says: ‘We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region?'”

To read the full article, please click here.


A Reborn Quadrilateral to Deter China

The Interpreter, 9 November, 2017

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Recent news that Australia’s Foreign Minister has indicated interest in taking part in a resurrected US-Australia-Japan-India quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN Summit is to be welcomed. It is an indication how much the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific has shifted. Positive as this latest development might be, it should nonetheless be regarded with caution.

The ‘Quadrilateral’ was never an alliance. It was a loose geostrategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests, but simultaneously, unwilling to provoke China by assuming the obligatory mechanisms of an alliance. Even then it buckled under pressure. Accused of being a NATO-in-the-making, it was far too full of self-doubt to be effective.

Chinese diplomatic opposition to the forum was keenly felt in June 2007 after Beijing issued demarches to all four countries, but Canberra’s asymmetric economic dependence meant that Australia felt it more than most. Within months of winning the election in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith unilaterally withdrew Australia from the quadrilateral during a February 2008 meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. While Australia was not the only country suffering internal divisions about the issue – there were doubters among the senior-most levels of the US Department of State and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs – it was the first to break ranks.

At the root of Australia’s indecision has been something common to all the great and middle powers in the region: how to apportion China a regional leadership role while attempting to shape its choices away from illiberal or hegemonic designs.

Sadly, in the years since, China has shown ever-increasing signs of assertiveness in its approach to the region. It has used military coercion and an unprecedented militarisation of maritime sea lanes in the South China Sea; its strategy is both at odds with regional practice and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite regional attempts to resolve disputed maritime claims peacefully, Beijing has cynically played for time over the establishment of a Code of Conduct while using economic leverage to prevent ASEAN unanimity.

China’s geostrategic ambitions have become global with the massive, multi-billion dollar, decades-long Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It promises a new age of Chinese leverage over the Asian heartland, as well as a real attempt at internationalising the RMB without giving over political control.

No doubt, this dialogue on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit will feel the full weight of China’s diplomatic pressure. Even in announcing its openness to a meeting, Bishop’s language was ambiguous: ‘…it’s natural that we should continue to have such discussions, but there is nothing formal. There is no decision on that.’ Chinese diplomats are likely to issue demarches and make phone calls to all four capitals.

While no one wishes to have a China backed into a corner, fearful of a NATO in Asia, is that really what is taking place? From one perspective, a rising power with quasi-hegemonic designs is trying to prevent a loose coalition of states from organising themselves in a constraining and deterring bloc. And while it is absolutely in China’s interests to do that, is it in ours to acquiesce?

If the quadrilateral format is embraced, the four may find that despite initial protests, Beijing will ultimately accept that each have their own interests and the power to define those interests. This week we have seen Beijing accept – after a year of diplomatic pressure – Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD missile-defence systems on its soil. South Korea stuck to its ground while simultaneously seeking to ameliorate China’s concerns, eventually winning China over.

The quadrilateral members should adopt that lesson as their own. We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region? We must choose actions that meet our own strategic concerns and not China’s. For this reason, the quadrilateral makes sense.


As Trump visits Asia, is China replacing US power in the region?

The Telegraph, 8 November 2017

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Donald Trump’s trade policy is making America’s allies vulnerable to Chinese pressure, but this doesn’t signal the end of American dominance

As Donald Trump continues his long tour around Asia, the question is whether the President will be able to articulate a strategy toward the region at a critical time in its history. Having rejected Barack Obama’s signature policies – the Pivot to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which were meant to balance China’s rise with continued American leadership – it is not clear what he will put in their place.

It is not even clear if the region will wait for him to make up his mind, with a number of states asking very serious questions about the US’s staying power in the region. Given the fact that some predict that Asia will make up 40 per cent of the global economy by 2050, the question of who leads the region will have global implications.

In terms of regional integration, Trump’s brand of “America First” economics is looking distinctly at odds with Asia’s move towards ever-closer liberalization. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made sure the president felt welcome in Tokyo on Monday, he did not budge on the possibility of a bilateral trade deal.

He and other leaders have decided to press on with the TPP without the US. Abe and the other 16 national leaders are expected to announce the continuation of TPP at the next APEC summit. The Master of the Deal may leave the region without getting one, it seems.

And US strategy is not only floundering in the economic sphere. Just days before Trump embarked for the region, America’s ally South Korea buckled under Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure with regards to the THAAD missile system.

Some estimates put the total damage to Korean business at $10 billion, and Seoul eventually agreed not to host any additional THAAD systems, to not participate in a US missile defence system, and finally, to avoid participating in a US-Japan-South Korea alliance. Meanwhile Trump’s insistence on renegotiating the Bush-era KORUS free trade agreement adds economic tensions to this blow to military interoperability.

China’s attempts to loosen Washington’s alliances is evident throughout the region. In addition to Seoul’s recent reversal, Beijing has applied economic leverage with great success to Australia and the Philippines. A growing clique in Canberra argue for an “independent” foreign policy that does not upset Beijing.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s noncommittal stance toward a revived US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral last weekend was clearly meant to avoid antagonizing China. Similarly, the Philippines – a crucial state in the geostrategic struggle over the South China Sea – has openly shifted closer to China under the leadership of its president, Rodrigo Duterte.

In all this, China is giving a warm welcome in Beijing to the American President, but it may be the consoling arm of a state that sees itself in the ascendancy. In the wake of October’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stands in marked contrast to his American guest.

At the pinnacle of the Chinese state, Xi has amassed more power around himself since Chairman Mao Zedong and is fostering a surge in Chinese nationalism and pride. He has helped push through a number of organizational reforms that have strengthened China’s increasingly modern military and commands an economy that still grows at a healthy 6.3 per cent.

Yet despite this gloomy prognosis, it is not at all clear that Beijing will succeed in becoming the region’s or the world’s greatest superpower.

For one thing, Xi’s brand of anti-Western authoritarianism and hard-nosed mercantilism may actually increase pressure on China’s structural weaknesses, as Chinese universities experience brain drain to their Western competitors.

Furthermore, China’s policy of pushing its inefficient state owned enterprises (SOEs) to invest into the landmark Belt and Road Initiative risks worsening China’s debt of $22 trillion, by lending billions to states who will be unable to repay them.

Hedge fund manager Kyle Bass estimates that in a debt crisis, Beijing’s loses could total five times those of the US subprime crisis of 2007-10. Then there is the demographic challenge, which threatens to make China old before it becomes rich. Its working population began declining in 2015 and according to Chi Ho, a senior economist, China’s share of population over 65 will increase from 9 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040.

Geostrategically, China can capitalize on the loosening of ties between regional states and the “untrustworthy” Trump administration in the near-term. However, Beijing will be undone by its own long-term grand ambitions.

Encroaching on the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and India’s northern border, Beijing has needlessly made firm geopolitical opponents where before there were none.

Tokyo, Delhi, and Hanoi all view Chinese encroachment on their territory with likeminded resolve and have begun to develop closer defence links with each other and with Washington. Australia notwithstanding, the most interesting news this year is that the US-Japan-India trilateral will be reinvigorated by closer defence cooperation.

By comparison, the US has much to offer – despite the president’s personal lack of popularity – in structural terms if not soft power. As Joseph Nye noted in a recent Financial Times piece, US shale-energy independence and currency advantages contrast favourably with China’s vulnerable shipping lines and its weak currency.

While China has attempted to internationalize its renminbi currency, 64 per cent of international foreign reserves are in the dollar, with only 1.1 per cent in renminbi. Furthermore, US liberalism contrasts very well with China’s authoritarian-style interference in the region, and this will only increase as Xi’s China becomes more authoritarian.

Australia was hit by revelations this year of Chinese interference in its education and political system. Polls taken in 2017 also show that 3.1 per cent of Hongkongers identify as Chinese.

Finally, in its rise, China has attempted to side-line the region’s second largest power, Japan. While this sounds trivial, Japan’s still-sizable population, regional diplomacy, strong defence capabilities, and place as the world’s third largest economic power show the depth of this mistake.

Trump’s warm welcome in Tokyo may well serve as a metaphor for how Japan will keep the US in the region over the next four years; even now, Japanese diplomats have fostered relations with the Philippines to balance against a total shift toward China.

Aides close to Abe admit to keeping a space on the TPP for the Americans to “dock in” in some future date. Whatever the case, the stakes could not be much higher in a region set to be the engine of the global economy. How Trump and the United States get through the trip – and the next four years – remain critical.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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