This week’s DRI Asia Review focuses on some of the key extant security hotspots in the Asia-Pacific, and measures “likeminded” nations are adopting to meet the challenges posed by a resurgent China. It presents an analysis of why Beijing must worry about Australia and India as geopolitical actors, summarizes South Korean views on a recent submarine-launched ballistic missile test by North Korea, and introduces two new DRI products: a webinar as well as a podcast on Australia’s future and AUKUS, respectively. And we leave you considering the notion of “vulgar balancing.”
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DRI Asia Review
October 29, 2021dri.thediplomat.com
Asia-Pacific Security Churn
Australia and India: What Should Worry Beijing?
South Koreans on North Korea’s SLBM test
Australia’s future and AUKUS
Vulgar balancing

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s DRI Asia Review focuses on some of the key extant security hotspots in the Asia-Pacific, and measures “likeminded” nations are adopting to meet the challenges posed by a resurgent China. It presents an analysis of why Beijing must worry about Australia and India as geopolitical actors, summarizes South Korean views on a recent submarine-launched ballistic missile test by North Korea, and introduces two new DRI products: a webinar as well as a podcast on Australia’s future and AUKUS, respectively. And we leave you considering the notion of “vulgar balancing.”

THE BIG ONE

Australia and India: Indo-Pacific Frontlines
In this November 4, 2019, file photo, Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk after posing for a group photo during the East Asia Summit in Nonthaburi, Thailand.
— AP Photo, Wason Wanichakorn, File

One of the most striking strategic developments over the past couple of years is the extent to which Australia and India have emerged as frontlines in the push-back against Chinese aggression and revisionism in the Indo-Pacific. Simply put, while Australia represents the maritime frontier in the Pacific, India is, simultaneously, the continental frontier as well as the fulcrum that will determine the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. As such, their capability to work together bilaterally—but more crucially jointly with the United States, the region’s preeminent military power—will determine the extent to which Beijing’s ambitions can be contained.

There is little point in recapping the degree to which both Canberra and New Delhi have come together in the recent past to meet a shared threat from China; a recent article by Brookings scholar Tanvi Madan does an excellent job in providing a concise overview, situating the relationship within the larger reorientation of Indian strategic policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Australia’s concerns about India’s nuclear weapons program as well as—barring a few rare, but highly publicized, instances—of Indian perception of racism in Australia have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Since 2019, both Australia and India have been targets of Chinese coercion. In case of the former, it has been economic, while the latter has faced—and continue to face—significant military pressure from Beijing. What is interesting, however, is how both have, in their own ways, taken the fight to the Chinese.

Consider China’s attempt to compel changes in Australian foreign policy last year by imposing a slew of barriers that would hurt Australian exports to China, often on manifestly spurious grounds. And yet, as DRI Asia Review wrote in July, “[…] Australia has refused to back down. If anything, it has redoubled its efforts to strengthen its defense and security posture, including by visibly brandishing its military alliance with the U.S. and deepening relations with key American allies and partners such as India and Japan.” The three-way Australia-United Kingdom-United States “AUKUS” security partnership announced last month serves as a further case in point.

Or consider China’s attempt to shift the Line of Actual Control—the de facto though formally undefined border—that separates it from India, in Ladakh. While it is undoubtedly true that the situation is yet to be resolved to India’s satisfaction even after 13 rounds of military commanders’ talks, not to mention instances of actual skirmishes between both sides (the most serious one being in last August), the fact of the matter remains that a Chinese fait accompli still remains some distance away, as Indian forces—as well as the political leadership in New Delhi— refuse to let go of the situation. At this point the best outcome for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is a stalemate—a scenario hardly befitting a power that aims at Asian hegemony.

Between Australia’s and India’s demonstration of resolve—and refusal to be cowered by Chinese power—it is safe to say that both countries (as well as their close ties with the United States) should be of serious concern to strategists in Beijing whose thinking are increasingly out of touch with how others might react to China’s bullying.

But there are additional, more fundamental, reasons that should give China a pause when it comes to Australia and India, and they have to do with geopolitics in its original, technical sense.

Both countries are large, resource-endowed economies; Australia-India cooperation on critical minerals may indeed—should it fructify—remove a crucial geoeconomic card from China’s hand. When it comes to demographics, while Australia’s population is projected to “grow slower and age faster than anticipated,” as a June Guardian article reported, a revamped program to attract skilled working-age migrants anchored around Australia’s economic needs will help “offset the effects of an ageing population,” as it has done in the past. Meanwhile, the current median age in India remains a little above 28 years. Even though this number is likely to increase to almost 35 years in 15 years’ time, in 2050 India will have the world’s largest working group population, with more than 1.1 billion people in the 15-64 age group.

Geographically, Australia and India are the sixth and seventh largest countries on the planet in terms of their size. But while size matters, it is only part of the story. A large-scale land invasion of either is impossible for two simple reasons. First, Australia is—well—an island; similarly, as long as the Himalaya is around (which is to say, forever), a massive Chinese invasion of India remains equally impossible. And then, second, of course there are nuclear weapons: India’s nuclear weapons capability, numerically, is robust, while Australia is covered under extended U.S. nuclear deterrence (a relationship that involves more give and take than what immediately meets the eye).


— Data: SIPRI. Graphics: DRI

Beyond questions of existential threats, both countries are acquiring—or planning to acquire—significant long-range strike and power-projection capabilities. In India’s case, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands serving as a powerful natural platform to choke off Chinese maritime (especially, energy) trade in event of an all-out war. India could also offer Australia (and the United States) basing rights to the islands from where both could “project fighter aircraft, P-8 maritime surveillance, and aerial refuelers.” Militarily, in event of a conflict with China that involves either Australia or India, the two could work in tandem (or even convey the impression that they could do so) to create “two front” dilemmas for Beijing. As an example, in event of a continental war between China and India, Australian and Indian strategists should ensure that Beijing can’t discount the possibility that Australia along with the United States and Japan would not opportunistically launch all-out assaults on China’s outposts in the South China Sea, or hold its other equities at risk.

BABEL

South Korean Voices on North Korea’s SLBM Test
A man watches a TV screen showing an image of North Korea's ballistic missile launched from a submarine during a news program at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, October 20, 2021.
— AP Photo, Ahn Young-joon

On October 18, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from waters in the east of the country which landed in the Sea of Japan. According to media reports, the SLBM apparently travelled a distance of around 450 kilometers and at a height of 60 kilometers. According to a news report published by South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo on October 20, the United States State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim had held a three-way discussion on the development with Roh Kyu-deok, head of the Korean Peninsula Peace Negotiation Division, and the chief of Japanese intelligence Hiroaki Takizawa. It also reported the White House’s offer to resume negotiations with North Korea after the October 18 test.

Interestingly, the news report noted that the “U.S. keeps sending this message in an attempt to restart a dialogue with North Korea without any preconditions, but is clear that it has reached the limits of its patience when it comes to North Korea’s missile launches.” It also went on to say that “[it] is reported that Japan is also insisting on the need for a hard response, given that Japan is within range of North Korea's short-range ballistic missiles.” However, an editorial published by Dong-a Ilbo on October 19—the day after the North Korean SLBM launch (the second one, since the first such test in October 2019) noted: “It remains to be seen whether this military demonstration will lead to a bigger provocation, or whether it is the usual Pyongyang way to raise the stakes ahead of the start of dialogue.”

Given that the United States (and Japan) seem to have their hands full with China— a fact the North Korean leadership is certainly aware of—it may just be that Kim Jong-un is simply testing waters without fear of any meaningful reprisal, and this is his way of paving way for renewed negotiations with the U.S. on his own terms.

DRI Report

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0:
International Security and Geopolitical Implications

In an upcoming edition of the DRI Monthly Report—the second and concluding part of a major Diplomat Risk Intelligence project on Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15—we look at the Taliban’s relationship with key terrorist organizations and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors. We also examine the Taliban’s convoluted relationship with major regional powers who could prove to be key in granting the new regime in Kabul a veneer of international legitimacy provided, of course, that their own interests are guarded by Taliban 2.0.

FROM OUR STABLE

Where Is Australia Headed—And What Good Is AUKUS?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joins U.S. President Joe Biden and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison from No. 9 Downing Street at the launch of the AUKUS Partnership.
— Andrew Parsons, No. 10 Downing Street

While Australia’s recent hard-edged security posture—including the recently announced AUKUS pact— is what drives the headlines across the region, and agitates the imagination of the Indo-Pacific strategic commentariat, it is not immediately clear where the country—whose leading defense intellectuals define it as a “middle power”—is headed in the long run. For example, where does Canberra stand on questions of global governance (including climate change)? On its relations with Southeast Asia on one hand, and Indian Ocean behemoth India on the other? And finally, what a new modus vivendi between Australia and China could look like, if it is at all possible.

In latest edition of DRI Majlis, Diplomat Risk Intelligence’s monthly webinar, three leading experts who have an established track record of keenly probing Australia’s role in the world—Kate Clayton, Ian Hall, and Erin Watson-Lynn—discussed these questions and much more.

Watch the webinar

At the heart of AUKUS lies a commitment by both the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). Recall that since 2016 Canberra had been trying to acquire 12 diesel-electric subs with French help, a process that proved to frustrating to say the least. An Australian SSN capability—coupled with its commitment to acquire long-range strike capabilities, as announced in a major policy document last year— enables Canberra to emerge as a major security actor in the Western Pacific. These technical developments, bolstered by Australia’s vigorous diplomacy with other major regional powers including India, in many ways marks Canberra’s coming to age, strategically speaking. But AUKUS—an alliance of allies, so to speak— is much more than a sub deal, involving, as it does, three-way cooperation on emerging tech such as cyber, quantum tech, artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities as well as developing much greater interoperability between the three forces

In the latest episode of DRI Future Tense, the Diplomat Risk Intelligence’s twice-a-month podcast, IISS Singapore’s Euan Graham discussed the significance of AUKUS, the politics surrounding it (and France’s over-the-top reaction to the agreement), as well as views on the partnership from Southeast Asia.

Listen to the podcast

DRI TRENDLINES

The Soundless Wailing Water, Climate Change, and Security Risks in the Asia-Pacific

In the context of national and international security, climate change acts as a threat multiplier and exacerbates existing issues and geopolitical conflicts such as conflicts between states over natural resources (most commonly, water), migration due to scarcity/sudden extreme weather events (floods, droughts) causing undesirable/illegal influx of “climate refugees,” and conflicts over territories with abundant natural resources (for example, conflicts over upper riparian regions). Climate change will also give rise to new, unprecedented situations which could potentially lead to competition and conflicts among nations. In this edition of DRI Trendlines, we analyze multiple streams of data to show security in the Asia-Pacific stands to be transformed by climate change.

Read excerpt

Access report here

DIGESTIF

Vulgar Balancing
— Flickr, Philippa McKinlay

While AUKUS has excited large sections of the Indo-Pacific strategic commentariat, there are interesting dissenting notes as well. One of them came from New Zealand-based American academic Van Jackson who termed the pact an example of “vulgar balancing,” which he defines as “strategic decisions justified in the name of the balance of power but without an underlying concept or a [military] ‘theory of victory’.” While Jackson does not have any inherent problem with the United States and the United Kingdom providing Australia capabilities to acquire SSNs, his beef with AUKUS is elsewhere:

There are use-cases for submarines (and every other weapon in the known universe), but Australia lacks a theory of victory that tells us why the marginal benefit of this specific capability is both worth the cost and better than some alternative capability. Knowing that information is essential for honest analysis, and to weigh whether the associated risks (of, for example, making oneself an object of PLA targeting planners) is worth the potential gain.

Read Jackson’s thoughtful essay alongside Indian academic Rajesh Rajagopalan’s paper that demonstrates India’s penchant for “evasive balancing,” where, on one hand, India seeks to balance China by pursuing a plethora of strategic and defense partnerships (including with Australia and the United States) “while simultaneously pursuing a reassurance strategy to convince Beijing that India is not really balancing China.” To be fair to Rajagopalan, his paper was published in January 2020—months before India’s position towards China considerably sharpened (after the Galwan Valley clashes of June 2020, and discovery of a large-scale Chinese intrusion in Ladakh) and became far less evasive. Nevertheless, a “political” theory of victory (that is, a map of how a given diplomatic strategy achieves clear-cut, set, political goals) is equally missing for countries that adopt evasive balancing as a posture.

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej and Research Analyst Malvika Rajeev contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translation of Korean media articles were provided by an in-house linguist.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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