Narcosubmarines: Nexus of Terrorism and Drug Trafficking?  

By John Stryker

One year after the ratification of their historic peace agreement, the Colombian government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) continue to make joint steps towards the peaceful demobilization and assimilation of former FARC members into Colombian society. A few hiccups aside, the deal has seen the reintegration of over 7,000 former fighters into camps designed to facilitate their transition into society.1 While countless points regarding FARC’s innovation and longevity merit examination, one infrequently analyzed item stands out: FARC’s drug submarines. Drug submarines (hereafter referred to as narcosubmarines) are manufactured in the thick jungles of eastern Colombia and are not the primitive vessels of one’s imagination. FARC’s narcosubmarines boast sophisticated anti-detection features and navigation, can haul up to 10 tons of cocaine, and can cost upwards of ten million U.S. dollars. Narcosubmarine development has spurred many scholars into hazy gesticulations of narco-terrorism. This paper provides an expose of the issue and more thoroughly considers its implications. 

The Development of Narcosubmarines

Narcosubmarines did not appear overnight. They are the technological byproduct of a shifty competitive relationship between trafficking groups and those that pursue them.2 As security forces improved their tracking strategies in the 1990s and 2000s, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) responded in kind to avoid them. They are notoriously flexible. Once Caribbean mainstays, DTOs switched to Pacific trafficking routes to avoid detection. They often utilize other clever modes of cocaine transport, such as underwater containers bolted underneath the hulls of boats. Originally, creatively-named ‘go-fast’ boats were the first vehicles of choice in moving cocaine up the coasts of Central America. Yet improvements in radar surveillance as well as increased patrolling saw more speedboats interdicted. The development of sub-surface vessels became increasingly attractive. Sub-surface activity was first documented with the 1993 discovery of the ‘San Andrés’ self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) near the San Andrés islands of Colombia.3 A crude ship, it was smaller and slower than contemporary subs and could be easily spotted by air. SPSSs were soon supplemented by low profile vessels (LPVs), which avoid detection by riding just above water level. Meanwhile, the first fully-submersible submarine was discovered dense jungle terrain near the town of Facatativá, Colombia in 2000. This Russian-designed sub was not completed, but was predicted to feature advanced navigation equipment, a carrying capacity of 150-200 tons, and the ability to dive to over 300 feet underwater.4 While a precise estimate is impossible to establish, analysts have theorized that dozens of these subs are being churned out every year.5

Supremacy of the Submarines

While high-profile submarine seizures garner attention in the press,6 the combined efforts of U.S. and Central American governments have been unable to seriously address the overall stream of drugs.7

For one, drug trafficking events are extremely difficult to detect:

“American operations analysis shows that given good intelligence of a drug event and a patrol box of a certain length and width, a surface vessel operating alone has only a 5 percent probability of detecting (PD) that event. A surface vessel with an embarked helicopter increases the PD to 30 percent, and by adding a Maritime Patrol Aircraft to the mix, the PD goes up to 70 percent. Analysis by the Colombian Navy shows that adding one of their submarines to the mix raises the PD to 90 percent.”8

Even with the luxury of advanced warning, a resource-intensive, multi-faceted, and (ideally) intergovernmental effort is needed to make interception of the vehicle likely. Sufficient resources are not in place for these missions. Due to budget cuts, “SOUTHCOM is unable to pursue 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking.”9 General John F. Kelly of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) lamented to Congress in 2014 that:

“I simply sit and watch it (drug trafficking) go by…”10

Further still, when narcosubs are actually interdicted, crew members will typically scuttle the vessel via a system of sophisticated drainage valves.11 Millions of dollars’ worth of evidence can be sunk in a matter of minutes. The recovery of cocaine then morphs into the recovery of the crew members which sank it. Although the United States’ Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 now incriminates unidentified submarine crews for attempting to evade authorities, law enforcement cannot typically prosecute for the submarine and its cargo lying on the ocean floor.

Crew from the US Coast Guard Cutter Stratton stop a Self-Propelled Semi Submersible (SPSS) off the coast of Central America. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Finally, in a general sense, interdiction is a problem of scale. 30 percent of the maritime flow of drugs from South America up through Central America is estimated to make use of narcosubmarines.12 Given that maritime routes are roughly estimated to account for 80 percent of drugs shipped north,13 narcosubmarines carry around 24 percent (0.8 x 0.3) of total product, almost a quarter of the entire drug stream. While a single narcosub interdiction may eradicate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, DTOs’ diversified drug portfolio still renders their cost-benefit analyses profitable. Yet their innovation with respect to narcosubmarines poses challenges for more than the U.S. Coast Guard and regional partners. It raises compelling concerns for U.S. national security.  

Narco-Terrorism?

The wealth garnered by DTOs undermines national security through the endemic corruption and poor rule of law it breeds in its host countries. Many DTOs are powerful enough to form pseudo-states, areas of military primacy (especially in rural or isolated areas) where centralized federal government authority is weak. In this vein, FARC has been characterized as possessing:

“…an enormous capacity to leverage economic resources, to control some territory, and to maintain a superficial presence in others…[as] their local, armed patronage and their ability to take advantage of rural youth unemployment keeps them afloat and even enables them to establish pockets of legitimacy and support in many regions of the country.”14

Narcosubmarines also pose international security threats. While a more sophisticated analysis of these threats may exist in the classified sphere, open source literature provides a useful primer of the issue. Lamentably, analyses of terrorism are always an exercise in a sort of speculative predication which may very well fail to materialize. A narcosubmarine-based attack on the United States might be shelved as a ‘black swan’ event, a game-changing development difficult to even contrive hypothetically.15 Still, a number of points are difficult to dismiss. Three factors must be considered: the establishment of motive, the acquisition of a narcosub, and the execution of an attack.

Motivations

Many scholars have posited that South America provides fertile ground for terrorist groups and their ideologies. While some have cited widespread disaffection amongst Latin America’s citizenry as a possible motive for terrorism, frustrations with policy, inequality, corruption, and other shortcomings related to governance provide conditions that promote insurgencies. A 2016 congressional report on the subject noted that “most terrorist acts occur in the Andean region of South America,” specifically FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia and the Shining Path (SL) in Peru.16 Kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, and the killing of civilians and local authorities are common tactics. With a focus on domestic politics, grassroots terrorism has not accompanied drug shipments in their northward journeys to countries like the United States. Latin America does not present the United States with extreme, anti-Western ideological sentiments common in other regions afflicted with insurgency. Nor is the measurable level of anti-Americanism amongst the general populace especially high.17

Putting domestic terrorism aside, the intersection of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and DTOs must subsequently be considered. FTOs have been active in South America in their own right. Two bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine-Israeli mutual association took place in Argentina the early 1990s.18 Venezuela has been frequently accused of collaborating with Iran and funding extremist groups like Hezbollah, which holds documented connections with FARC.19 Russian engineering was responsible for the birth of the Facatativá sub, and Russia has maintained connections with the Cali cartel, another Colombian DTO.20 In 2001, three members of the Irish terrorist group the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA) were arrested for “training FARC militants in the use of explosives, including homemade mortars.”21 FARC utilized this kind of training in its subversive campaigns against Colombian urban centers. Most importantly, South America’s security framework has difficulty preventing these kinds of events. Counterterrorism efforts with respect to FTOs have been plagued by “corruption, weak government institutions, insufficient interagency cooperation, weak or non-existent legislation, and a lack of resources.”22 In this globalized environment, the insertion of FTOs into the narcosubmarine context is entirely plausible.  

While terrorist attacks in Latin America are relatively infrequent and usually domestic in nature, the combination of weak government authority in isolated regions and verified connections to well-established terrorist organizations cannot conclusively rule out the possibility of a group plotting a narcosubmarine-enabled attack on the United States.  

Submarine Acquisition

On a basic level, the acquisition of a narcosubmarine is a purely pecuniary issue. Given a prospective buyer operating near the location of the submarine and the means to negotiate an exchange, purchasing technological blueprints or the submarine outright would only require a monetary transfer. Yet the story is much more complex. First, in all likelihood, terrorist organizations would need to purchase an entire sub. Obtaining the necessary materials and chartering the technological know-how to bring them together would be burdensome and time-consuming. At best, the finished products – which would also require familiarity with local supply chains and the tropical terrain – would be far inferior to the original submarine models. Secondly, Donald Davis stresses that for a DTO such as FARC, the “opportunity cost of a single voyage could exceed $275 million USD.”23 In other words, DTOs would need to reap a profit greater than that which the sub could otherwise garner, calculated to approach a whopping three hundred million dollars. These sums are well beyond the means of the wealthiest terrorist organizations. Further still, a successful terrorist strike on the United States would immediately engender “a swift and decisive military response…[that] could significantly alter the DTO’s ability to function…”24 Inciting retaliatory measures would cut into profits if not totally destroy the DTO. In this way, the chartering of a narcosubmarine appears beyond the means of even the most fanciful ITO.

The most compelling threat is the break-up of FARC, a wild-card variable that presents an uncertain trajectory. FARC’s demilitarization has created a power vacuum in rural Colombia. The Colombian NGO Indepaz has predicted “a territorial reorganization of the ‘narco-paramilitary groups’ in the aftermath of a peace accord with the FARC with the Bacrim (Spanish acronym for ‘bandas criminales’) groups vying to take over FARC drug and illegal mining businesses.”25 Relegated to the peripheries26 under FARC, these groups are competing amongst themselves for dominance in the emerging power vacuum. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), fighting amongst competing groups “has resulted in more than 56,000 displacements in the first half of 2017.”27 These paramilitary organizations include the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN; National Liberation Army) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL; Popular Liberation Army), as well as a host of smaller gangs. Even indigenous communities — many of which are hostile to the federal government and its efforts to eradicate coca production — are prone to violence.28 At least one narcosubmarine has been produced post-demilitarization.29 In July, the Colombian military seized a narcosubmarine built by the ELN.[30] With the opportunity generated by FARC’s retirement and less formalized, looser hierarchical structures, peace agreements with these organizations a la FARC appears unlikely.31 Finally, one must consider FARC’s organizational structure. Prior to the settlement, FARC was “divided into six different commands, each composed of at least five fronts that represent different geographic territories,” all relatively decentralized and autonomous.32 Breakdown of the structural hierarchy raises the probability that individual members33 transfer submarine technology to external agents. When not trafficking cocaine, the aforementioned cost-benefit scenario changes: why not profit from the sale of idle narcosubmarines or the jungle laboratories that built them? Like the ‘loose nukes’ unaccounted for after the breakup of the USSR, control of narcosubmarines, the expertise related to their production, and their assembly sites post-accord is unclear. With FARC’s abdication and continued power swings amongst old and emerging groups in present-day Colombia, the sale of a loose narcosub remains a serious concern.

Although DTOs and FTOs have many reasons to shun technological exchanges, the uncertainty with respect to changing power dynamics amongst sub-national groups in Colombia today cannot rule out FTO acquisition of a narcosubmarine.

Execution of an Attack

How might a drug submarine be used in a terrorist attack? Transportation and detonation of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) would clearly represent the gravest of scenarios. On paper, many narcosubs are large enough to carry a WMD.34 Delivery on the water additionally allows submarines to reach urban centers on both the East and West Coasts. Yet the list of prohibitive hurdles involved in such an endeavor is enormous, the most pressing of which are not specific to submarines. The use of narcosubmarines for improvised attacks is most concerning.

Described by Admiral James Stavridis in 2008 as “…clearly the next big thing,”35 autonomous narcosubmarine technology has outpaced anti-submarine defenses. They are particularly difficult to expose. Kenneth Sherman notes that “submerged submarines are detected almost exclusively acoustically, and unlike the louder Soviet nuclear subs of the Cold War, modern diesel-electric submarines are extremely difficult to detect, localize, and track.”36 The electric subs FARC regularly employed37 are “virtually impossible to detect using passive acoustic measures.”38 Amid sequestration and budget cuts, the U.S. Coast Guard’s defenses are even less likely to detect and neutralize a narcosubmarine on their own.  

Navy sailors ride atop a 10-meter submarine packed with 5.8 tons of cocaine, as it is being towed into the port of Salina Cruz, Mexico, Friday, July 18, 2008. Navy vice admiral Jose Maria Ortegon said the submarine, seized off Mexico’s southern Pacific coast on Wednesday, was equipped with GPS and a compass and had planned to drop off its shipment on Mexican shores. Four Colombian crew members were taken into custody. (Luis Alberto Cruz Hernandez/AP)

An attacking blueprint could take many forms. In 2000, the USS Cole was rammed by a small boat laden with explosives.39 Seventeen Americans were killed and scores more injured in this suicide attack. An attack on a Navy vessel like the USS Cole in this style is altogether feasible.40 A sub-surface approach with a large payload could do even more damage with little to no warning. In this sense, U.S. harbors on both coasts could be susceptible. And the target need not be military-affiliated. Large groups of people (often headed by and including American citizens) frequent cruise ships which regularly traverse the Caribbean and Pacific coastline. These cruise ships are bulky, difficult to maneuver, and possess no inherent defense systems. Stavridis reiterates the point: cruise ships are ‘lucrative’ targets for terrorists.41 Total destruction of a cruise ship, the worst-case scenario, could result in hundreds of deaths and almost $2 billion dollars’ worth of damages.42 The fallout from such an event would be unprecedented. Even a failed attack with respect to cruise ships could send worldwide cruise markets into sharp decline, as evidenced by the infamous ‘Poop Cruise’ of 2013.43

Above all, the definitive features of a terrorist attack are the reverberations it induces in society. Here narcosubmarines would add a unique and powerful twist to the panic. As Davis dryly remarks, “the overall shock value would be stunning.”44 Submarines possess a tangible mystique which borders on enchantment. Gliding silently along the depths of the ocean, submarines represent a sort of impalpable yet eerily present threat, alarming if activated. In the public eye, characterization of a narcosub attack could read as follows:

A lone submarine built painstakingly by hand in the dense jungles of South America by a demilitarized non-state entity traveled thousands of miles north utterly undetected to successfully strike the shores of the United States, which boasts the strongest and most technologically advanced Navy of all time.

Given the improbable establishment of motive and the acquisition of the necessary technologies, a submarine-based terrorist attack on the United States is not inconceivable given the scenarios considered here and envisaged elsewhere.45

Conclusions

Given the difficulties charting modern submarines post-USSR,46 the security forces of the United States should pay special attention to the evolving world of external submarine development by non-state actors. Narco-terrorism in Colombia follows a fairly intuitive procedural logic on paper. While the idea may seem far-fetched, prudent U.S. policy should continue to plan for the possibility of such an attack.  

John Stryker is a senior studying International Relations and Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. 

Bibliography

Austin, Christina. “Disaster Timeline: How Carnival Went from ‘Fun Ship’ To ‘Poop Cruise’.” Business Insider. February 20 2013. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/how-carnival-went-from-fun-ship-to-poop-cruise-2013-2>. 

Baker, Andy, and David Cupery. “Gringo Stay Here!” Americas Quarterly. Spring 2013. Web. <http://www.americasquarterly.org/gringo-stay-here>.

Cragin, Kim, et al. “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies.” RAND. 2007. Web. <https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG485.pdf>.

Crisp, Wil. “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.” Al Jazeera. October 24 2017. Web. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/struggle-colombia-countryside-farc-171023111815468.html>.

Davis, Donald. “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security.” Naval Postgraduate School. September 2013. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/37609>.

Farley, Robert. “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?” Prospect. June 11 2009. Web. <http://prospect.org/article/submarines-cocaine-and-aquatic-terrorism>.

Ferkaluk, Brian. “Latin America: Terrorist Actors on a Nuclear Stage.” Global Security Studies. Fall 2010. Web. <http://globalsecuritystudies.com/Ferkaluk%20Latin%20America.pdf>.

Jaramillo, Michelle. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines.” University of South Florida Scholar Commons. Web. <http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/jss/vol9/iss1/6/?utm_source=scholarcommons.usf.edu%2Fjss%2Fvol9%2Fiss1%2F6&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages>.

Kraul, Chris. “Colombia Has a Peace Deal, but Can It Be Implemented?” LA Times. March 13 2017. Web. <http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-colombia-peace-outlook-2017-story.html>.

Pelcastre, Julieta. “Colombian Military Forces Attack Drug Trafficking in Operation Barbudo.” Dialogo Americas. October 6 2017. Web. <https://dialogo-americas.com/en/articles/colombian-military-forces-attack-drug-trafficking-operation-barbudo>.

Perez, Janelle. “Fighting Terrorism with Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued US Assistance in Latin America.” John Hopkins. January 5 2015. Web. <https://jscholarship-library-jhu-edu.proxy.wm.edu/handle/1774.2/37232>.

Ramirez, Byron, and Robert Bunker. “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes.” Scholarship at Claremont. 2015. Web. <http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=cgu_facbooks>.

Ramirez, Byron. “Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology.” CIMSEC. August 2 2014. Web. <http://cimsec.org/narco-submarines-drug-cartels-innovative-technology/12314>.

Sherman, Kenneth. “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?” ProQuest. July 2003. Web. <https://search-proquest-com.proxy.wm.edu/docview/206603319?pq-origsite=summon>.

Sullivan, Mark, and June Beittel. “Latin America: Terrorism Issues.” Federation of American Scientists. December 15 2016. Web. <https://fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RS21049.pdf>.

Szoldra, Paul. “A Retired Navy Admiral is ‘Very Concerned’ about Terrorists Attacking Cruise Ships.” Business Insider. June 30 2017. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/stavridis-terrorist-attacks-at-sea-2017-6>.

“U.S. Coast Guard Intercepts Semi-Submersible Vessel Packed with 3,800 Pounds of Cocaine.” USA Today. December 11 2017. Web. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/12/11/u-s-coast-guard-intercepts-semi-submersible-vessel-packed-3-800-pounds-cocaine/939668001/>.

Vargas, Ricardo. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade.” TNI. June 7 1999. Web. <https://www.tni.org/en/publication/the-revolutionary-armed-forces-of-colombia-farc-and-the-illicit-drug-trade>.

Watkins, Lance. “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability.” Naval Postgraduate School. June 2011. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/5629/11Jun_Watkins.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.

References

[1] Kraul, “Colombia Has a Peace Deal, but Can It Be Implemented?”.

[2] Ramirez, “Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology.”

[3] Note that SPSSs are not true submersibles, although they are equally difficult to detect, as discussed further on; Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 29.

[4] IBID, 34.

[5] IBID, 12.

[6] “U.S. Coast Guard Intercepts Semi-Submersible Vessel Packed with 3,800 Pounds of Cocaine.”

[7] Note that “the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction in the transit zone, responsible for the apprehension of cocaine transporting vessels …”; Wakins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 6. 

[8] Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 47.

[9] IBID, 7.

[10] IBID, 7.

[11] After successful missions, the vessels are also sunk this way; IBID, 25.

[12] IBID, 7.

[13] IBID, 6.

[14] Vargas, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade.”

[15] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 39.

[16] Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” Summary.

[17] Baker and Cupery, “Gringo Stay Here!”.

[18] Ferkaluk, “Latin America: Terrorist Actors on a Nuclear Stage” 115.

[19] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 24.

[20] IBID, 24.

[21] Cragin et al., “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies,” 71.  

[22] Perez, “Fighting Terrorism with Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued US Assistance in Latin America,” 52.  

[23] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 45.

[24] IBID, 45.

[25] Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” 4.

[26] Although significant actors with notable histories in their own right.

[27] Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”

[28] IBID.

[29] It is impossible to predict how many narcosubs continue to be produced. Retroactive seizures, as seen with sporadic interdictions of drug subs since the 1990s, are a poor proxy for an overall estimate.

[30] Pelcastre, “Colombian Military Forces Attack Drug Trafficking in Operation Barbudo.”   

[31] Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”

[32] Jaramillo, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines,” 53.

[33] Especially those hard-liners unwilling to participate in the surrender, or even de-militarized members wishing to return the previous way of life given difficulties reintegrating into everyday society. 

[34] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 42.  

[35] Watkins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 51.

[36] Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.

[37] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 25.  

[38] Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.

[39] Farley, “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?”.

[40] IBID.  

[41] Szoldra, “A Retired Navy Admiral is ‘Very Concerned’ about Terrorists Attacking Cruise Ships.”

[42] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 52.

[43] Austin, “Disaster Timeline: How Carnival Went from ‘Fun Ship’ To ‘Poop Cruise’.”

[44] Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 39.  

[45] Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor’s “Insurgent Submersibles” provides a favorable (albeit subscription-based) account of the issue. 

[46] See James Moltz’s piece “Submarines and Autonomous Vessel Proliferation: Implications for Future Strategic Stability at Sea.”

Featured Image: Seized narcosubmarine (Christoph Morlinghaus)

A Conversation with Belfer Center Director and Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

By Andrew Poulin

Andrew Poulin: Good afternoon, my name is Andrew Poulin, President of the Center for International Maritime Security. I am privileged to be here today with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter here at Harvard University. Mr. Secretary, if you would in traditional CIMSEC fashion, please briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

Secretary Ash Carter: Thank you, Andrew. I’m Ash Carter, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former Secretary of Defense.

Andrew: Thank you Mr. Secretary, it’s an honor to sit down with you today at the Belfer Center. The first question we have for you is that, today many senior defense leaders and scholars have described the current international security environment as the most complicated since WWII. How do you see the security environment, and are there latent threats that haven’t received enough attention?

Secretary Carter: The threats that are immediately apparent and that the Secretary of Defense needs to pay attention to today – I always describe it as “the Big 5” – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. All different. Some actual enemies, some only potential enemies. But, these are all the things we need to have operations plans at the ready for protecting ourselves and deterring today. When you’re the Secretary of Defense, you’re also the Secretary of Defense of tomorrow. And that means, making sure that the two principal things that make the U.S. military the finest fighting force the world has ever known – namely our people and our technology – will be as good tomorrow as they are today.

That’s why Force of the Future was so important to me as a personnel management tool, and why working with the tech sector and acquisition reform was so important to me. And responsiveness, like the MRAP in Afghanistan, was so important, because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow and somebody’s going to be your successor. You will need to have left for them as fine an institution as you inherited from your predecessors. So, you are the Secretary of Defense of today and tomorrow.

Andrew: Great, if I could follow up on that, Mr. Secretary, on the five threats you mentioned, certainly they are all getting a lot of attention nowadays. Is there something that you think is not getting enough attention today that could impact the security environment – whether it’s climate change, a biological threat, or something else?

Secretary Carter: There are other things that are not matters of imminent threat that require immediate war plans or action which you keep an eye on for the future. Arctic security is an example of that, it’s not an emergency, but it’s not something we’re ignoring either. It just doesn’t make it to the list of the top five in terms of imminent threat.

Andrew: You were right at the epicenter of the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific – since you have left office, there have been a few developments, such as withdrawal from TPP, North Korea nuclear tests, to name a few. What are your thoughts on the evolving relationship between the U.S. and the region? 

Secretary Carter: Well, this is the single part of the world of greatest consequence for Americans of the future, and the rebalance was a way of recognizing that. The Middle East is tumultuous but fundamentally isn’t as important to our future because half of the world’s people, half of the world’s economic activity, is in the Asia-Pacific. And there are two big issues there – one is China and one is North Korea. Now North Korea has always been a kind of separate issue – everybody in the region treats it as geopolitically separate from the big issues of China, United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia. Those are the big moving parts. So, let me set aside North Korea for a moment.

The rebalance was really about the change in power dynamics, which the Chinese like to say is about their rise, but they’re not the only rising Asian military power. Japan is rising from its post-WWII mentality of defeat and pacifism. India is emerging as a military power. Vietnam has no love lost with respect to China. And in general, this is a region that has no NATO, where the wounds of the past are not healed, and there is no automatic way that peace is kept. And the United States has been one of the principal factors that has kept that stability. That stability will continue to be something we need to work on. China in particular, needs to be pushed back on where it is overweening. So that’s the principal strategic dynamic behind the rebalance.

Separately with respect to China, which gets to TPP, it is the economic arena, which is not entirely separate from the strategic arena, which is why I would say as Secretary of Defense that TPP is a strategic issue. It is for the following reason: China is a communist country and a one-party state, we all need to be realistic about that. Insofar as trade is concerned, that means China can behave in ways that we do not behave – anti-competitive, intellectual property theft, exclusion of American companies, and repression of the Internet. Unilateral decision-making is an advantage that allows China to coercively pick off one company or one country at a time, it’s the reason that they’ll win a game that simply becomes one of no rules and bilateral trade deals.

And that is why abandoning rules-based multilateral schemes like TPP is bad for American companies. We are leaving them and all of the people they might trade with, in Southeast Asia and so forth, to the mercy of the Chinese, acting as though China is like a big France. It’s not. It’s a communist country, let’s be realistic.

Andrew: A great deal of your career has been focused on nuclear weapons and reducing the threat of proliferation, how do you think the U.S. should approach the solution to North Korea?  There have been widespread discussions that any military solution would not be a solution at all and would have catastrophic consequences. How do you look at the problem and how can the military better support diplomatic efforts?

Secretary Carter: In the real world, there are not diplomatic solutions and military solutions, there are just solutions. It needs to be said, before we get to what I call coercive diplomacy, which is what I hope we would do at this juncture: the other things that we must do, because any form of coercive diplomacy may not work, are deterrence and defense. These need to come first. And that’s where missile defense comes in, and our forces on the peninsula, and what weapons we’re willing to place there and give to South Korea. So, deterrence and defense first and foremost.

Secondly though, we should give diplomacy a try, both because it might work, and because if the worst is to come, we will be better positioned for having tried it. The way that should work, to my way of thinking, is that you say to North Korea, “If you test another missile, here’s what will happen to you. If you don’t, here’s what the Chinese might do for you.” You work that out in advance with the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Chinese and us. And you pose it as their choice before they act. Right now, we tend to go to the UN to punish them, or go to the Chinese to punish them after they do something, which is certainly justified and emotionally satisfying, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. So, we should try to get out in front of their decision cycle with the carrots and sticks, that’s what coercive diplomacy should be – and it’s coercive because there are sticks as well as carrots. That’s what I hope we will do.

Andrew: Innovation has become a buzzword in the Defense Department today. What is your definition of innovation, and how can leaders up and down the chain of command really encourage and foster that environment?

Secretary Carter: Well, that’s a really good question because a lot of people only think about technological innovation, but that’s only one kind of innovation. There’s doctrinal innovation, there’s innovation in how we recruit, train, and retain talent. Just to take that one – out in the world around us, there is a revolution going on in how talent management is done. We can’t use all of those techniques, but we ought to pay attention to them and draw upon them.

Doctrinal is meant by, and we can’t go into detail on this but your readers will know some of this, that I was constantly telling our people who draw up our war plans that they need to look at them again and again and say ‘Is this really the best approach?’ And we had some that were not up-to-date in that regard. I, for example, did not think our China plan was where it needed to be until Sam Locklear and Harry Harris began working on it. Mike Scaparrotti and Vince Brooks did a great job with the plans for the North Korean peninsula, of which there are several.

And then of course is the matter of technological innovation. The key is to keep us connected to the commercial and international tech base, because we have a big tech base of our own, but it’s not enough anymore. It was enough 50 years ago because there was nothing much outside of the Pentagon’s five walls, but now there’s a lot and we’re not going to be the “firstest with the mostest” as Lyndon Johnson would say, unless we’re connected to the big world of tech out there.

Andrew: One issue I’ve heard you speak and write about before is that you seem very passionate about is developing the next generation of leaders. Not many people would come from your background of being a double major in physics and medieval history, and then go on to be Secretary of Defense. Can you briefly walk us through your own life of service and what lessons you took that now informs how you look at developing the next generation of leaders today?

Secretary Carter: As there are in the lives of all people, a certain amount of chance and accident. You don’t plot this out – you don’t start out at twenty-two years old and say “I think I’ll be Secretary of Defense of the United States.” I had no knowledge of or ambition for public life at all. I was asked as a young physicist to work on a technical problem of importance to defense where my knowledge was thought to be able to make a contribution. That was the issue of how to base the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. And it was supposed to be for just one year…36 years later I walked out of the Pentagon last January!

But I was struck by the seriousness of the issue with which I was dealing. It was the height of the Cold War, so nuclear annihilation was at stake. I could make a difference, in this case, because of my technical knowledge, and if that knowledge were not present in the room, a good decision would not have been made. And I thought, “Well, that really is a good feeling.” It mattered that I was there for something that was big. What better feeling in life can you get than that? So, you can go out and sell stuff and that I’m sure that is satisfying, but that’s not the same as saving the world from nuclear annihilation! Or, you can be a cog in the wheel of government and feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re there or not there.

And I had those two things come together for a moment, and that grabbed me. The other thing that was big was that there were people, military and civilian, in the generation above me that reached down and identified me and said, “Hey, keep doing that.” One of them was Jim Schlesinger who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and another one was Brent Scowcroft who was George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, and another was Bill Perry, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.  

Andrew: Good mentors to have!

Secretary Carter: They were wonderful. They were everything that you would want – they were people of tremendous ability, patriotism, and dedication, but also very decent people who cared about tomorrow and not just today. It mattered to them that they developed the people who came after them. And so, they spent a little of their time and their energy paying attention to somebody who was a nobody because maybe I would stick with it. So, you ask, how do I have such a strong interest in our people in the military and DoD generally? It’s because somebody paid attention to me and it made a difference.

Andrew: Following up on that, how would you characterize your leadership philosophy – is it what you just outlined – take care of your people – is it reach forward while also reaching back?

Secretary Carter: I think my leadership philosophy is, have very high standards but also get the best out of people. And that means being strict when their conduct is not up to standard. But also making sure that you’re always getting them to do their best and giving them attention and credit so they are doing their best. The people that work for you are force multipliers. And I had the great fortune of having 2.8 million of them, and I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world, because if I only gave them a chance they would do spectacular things, and they did time and time again. That’s the way to do it. Of course, on the other end, it takes the excellent people that we have there and that’s why I’ll be proud to have been part of the Department of Defense of the United States of America for the rest of my life.

Andrew: One last question, is there anything you are reading currently or books that you read in the past that shaped you or are influential in looking forward?

Secretary Carter: I read the memoirs of people who came before us. And it’s good to remember that we owe something to those who come after us. And it matters that we do the right things. It also matters that we act decently and that we behave ourselves because our children our watching.

Andrew: Great, well thank you so much for your time Mr. Secretary, it was an honor to have you join us today.

Secretary Carter: Good to be with you Andrew. You have a great organization.

The Honorable Ash Carter was the 25th Secretary of Defense and is currently serving as the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 Andrew Poulin is the President of CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to attendees of a ceremonial swearing in in the Pentagon Auditorium, March 6, 2015. (DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released)

How Australia’s Maritime Strategy and Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Upset China

By David Scott

Introduction

On 4 September 2017, an Australian naval task group departed from Sydney  and embarked on a unique deployment called Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 to participate in a series of key naval exercises with a variety of partners in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific – i.e. the Indo-Pacific. Its commander, Jonathan Earley, oversaw six ships and over 1300 personnel, making it the largest coordinated task group from Australia to deploy to the region since the early 1980s.

The immediate purposes of the exercise were given by the Australian Department of Defence as two-fold; namely soft security “focused on demonstrating the ADF’s Humanitarian and Disaster Relief regional response capability, as well as hard security “further supporting security and stability in Australia’s near region.” The latter was described as demonstrating “high-end military capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare.” Geopolitically this reflected what the Defence Minister Marise Payne called “heightened interests in the Indo-Pacific” for Australia, with frequently recurring China-related considerations.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment. However, the Chinese state media was certain on Australian motives, running articles like “Australia-led military drills show tougher China stance” (Global Times, 7 September). In the article, Liu Caiyu argued that “Australia’s largest military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region show it has toughened its stance toward China, especially on South China Sea issues.” The People’s Daily wondered, pointedly, given this deployment into the South China Sea and East China Sea, “What does Australia want to do with the largest military exercise encircling China in 30 years?

It was revealing that Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 was explained by the Australian Department of Defence as enhancing military cooperation with some of Australia’s “key regional partners”; specifically named as Brunei, Cambodia, the Federated States of Micronesia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. Politically the absence of China as a partner was deliberate but accurate, and in which the range of other countries represented a degree of tacit external balancing on the part of Australia.

The Itinerary

The naval group was led by HMAS Adelaide, Australia’s largest flagship, commissioned in December 2015. HMAS Adelaide was joined at various moments by HMAS Darwin (guided missile frigate), HMAS Melbourne (guided missile frigate), HMAS Parramatta (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), HMAS Toowoomba (anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate), and HMAS Sirius (replenishment ship). These units highlighted Australia’s unique Indo-Pacific positioning given it faces both oceans, as units from Fleet Base East at Sydney (HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, HMAS Melbourne, and HMAS Parramatta) and from Fleet Base West at Perth (HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Sirius) participated.

The task force’s first engagement activity announced on 8 September was for HMAS Adelaide to conduct aviation training with USS Bonhomme Richard, a large American amphibious assault ship, on the east coast of Australia. HMAS Adelaide then completed further amphibious landing craft and aviation training with the Republic of Singapore’s amphibious ship, RSS Resolution while deployed further up the east coast of Australia off the coast of Townsville.

The first external port call was carried out on 20 September as HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, and HMAS Toowoomba steamed into Dili, the capital of East Timor, to deliver a portable hospital ahead of Exercise Hari’i Hamutuk. This engineering exercise involves Australian, Japan, U.S., and East Timor’s military forces working side-by-side to build skills and support East Timor’s development. This set the seal nicely on their reconciliation over claims in the Timor Sea, achieved when the two sides reached agreement at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

HMAS Parramatta proceeded northward to conduct joint patrols from 22-26 September with the Philippine Navy in the Sulu Sea, as part of the annual Lumbas exercises running since 2007. HMAS Parramatta sailed eastwards to Palau for a three-day stop from 22-24 September. Significantly Palau recognizes Taiwan (ROC) rather than Beijing (PRC) as the legitimate government of mainland China. A further extension saw HMAS Parramatta visit Yap on 27 September. Its stay at Yap included cross-deck training with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) Patrol Boat FSS Independence, an Australian-gifted Pacific-class Patrol Boat. Both stops showed Australian naval outreach into the so-called “second island chain” (dier daolian) which Chinese naval strategy has long shown interest in penetrating, as with deployments of underwater survey vessels around the Caroline Islands in August 2017.

Philippine Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Allan Ferdinand Cusi and his staff with their host, Commander Joint Task Group 661.1, Captain Jonathan Earley RAN on the flight deck of HMAS Adelaide as it sails into Manila Bay for a visit to the Philippines during Indo Pacific Endeavour 2017. (Australian Ministry of Defense photo by LSIS Peter Thompson)

Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Toowoomba paid a port call to Jakarta from 24-26 September. It was significant that this brought to an end a previous period of coolness between the two governments, at a time when Indonesia was becoming more assertive in its own claims over maritime waters in the South China Sea, renaming waters around the Natuna archipelago (which also fall within China’s 9-dash line) as the North Natuna Sea.

HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Parramatta then rendezvoused at the Malaysian port of Port Klang from 1-5 October to carry out joint Humanitarian and Disaster Relief exercises and demonstrations on 4 October. Relations with Malaysia have remained strong, anchored through the Australian presence at Butterworth Airbase under the Five Power Defence Agreement (5PDFA) and the bilateral 25-year old joint defense program between Australia and Malaysia.

 Australian naval units then retraced their steps and entered the South China Sea. These waters are mostly claimed by China within its 9-dash line, which includes the Spratly Islands (disputed in varying degrees with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Vietnam) and with Beijing in control of the Paracels (disputed with Vietnam) since 1974. China viewed the arrival of the Australian Navy in the South China Sea with some unease, with the state media warning that the “Australian fleet must be wary of meddling in South China sea affairs” (Global Times, 24 September).

Having paid then a friendly port call to the small, oil-rich state of Brunei from 30 September to 2 October, HMAS Melbourne then moved up with HMAS Parramatta to Japan, where they arrived on 9 October to take part in the bilateral Nichi Gou Trident exercise with the Japanese Navy off the coast of Tokyo. The ships practiced anti-submarine warfare, ship handling, aviation operations, and surface gunnery. This exercise has been alternatively hosted between Australia and Japan since 2009. Security links with Japan have been considerably strengthened during the last decade since the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed in March 2007.

Simultaneously, further deployment into the Indian Ocean was carried out by HMAS Toowoomba which carried out a four-day goodwill visit to Port Blair from 12-15 October. Port Blair is the key archipelago possession of India dominating the Straits of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal, and the site for India’s front-line Andaman and Nicobar Command. Various joint exercises were carried out between the Indian Navy and Australian Navy. This reinforced the strengthening naval links between Australia and India, flagged up in the Framework for Security Cooperation signed in November 2014, and subsequently demonstrated with their bilateral AUSINDEX exercises in June 2017 off the western coast of Australia and in September 2015 in the Bay of Bengal.

Meanwhile, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin proceeded to the Philippines for a further goodwill visit from 10-15 October. Maritime links have been further strengthened of late with the donation of two Balikpapan-class heavy landing crafts by Canberra in 2015, and nominal-rate sale of three more in 2016. Australia’s concerns had been on show in Defense Secretary Marise Payne’s discussions in Manila on 11 September. These have been partly to bolster the Philippines against ISIS infiltration into the Muslim-inhabited southern province of Mindanao, but also to bolster the Philippines’ maritime capacity in the South China Seas against a rising China. With regard to the South China Sea, Australia has called for China to comply with the findings of the UNCLOS tribunal in July 2016, in the case brought by the Philippines, which rejected Chinese claims in the South China Seas.

HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin then re-crossed the South China Sea to pay a port call at Singapore on 23 October. This maintains the regular appearance of Australian military forces at Singapore, which have been an ongoing feature of the 5 Power Defence Forces Agreement (5PDFA). While HMAS Darwin returned to Darwin, HMAS Adelaide paid a friendly port call at Papua New Guinea’s main port of Port Moresby on 11 November. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, a former colony, and (like East Timor) the subject of Chinese economic blandishments.

HMAS Melbourne and Parramatta and a P-8A submarine hunter aircraft moved across from Japan to the Korean peninsula for an extended stay from 27 October – 6 November. This included their participation in the biannual Exercise Haedoli Wallaby, initiated in 2012, which focuses on anti-submarine drills with the South Korean Navy. This also reflected a reiteration of Australian readiness to deploy forces into Northeast Asia amid heightened tensions surrounding North Korean nuclear missile advancements. Naval logic given by the Task Group commander, Jonathan Earley was that “as two regional middle powers that share common democratic values as well as security interests, Haedoli Wallaby is an important activity for Australia and the ROK.” Wider trilateral activities were shown with the Melbourne and the Parramatta then carrying out anti-missile drills with U.S. and South Korean destroyers in the East China Sea on 6-7 November.

Australia’s Strategic Proclamations as Context

The general context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was the explicit focus on the “Indo-Pacific” as Australia’s strategic frame of reference stressed in the Defence White Papers of 2013 and 2016, and rising concerns about China’s growing maritime presence.

This strategic context for the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment was elaborated at length by the Defence Minister Marise Payne at the Seapower Conference in Sydney on 3 October. Payne’s speech contained strong messaging on Australian assets, deployment, and the Indo-Pacific focus of Australian defense strategy.

With regard to assets, Payne announced and welcomed “the most ambitious upgrade of our naval fleet in Australia since the Second World War” to create “a regional superior future naval force being built in Australia which will include submarines, frigates, and a fleet of offshore patrol vessels.” She also noted her own pleasure in commissioning Australia’s “largest warship” (HMAS Adelaide, commissioned on 4 December 2015) and “most powerful” air warfare destroyer (HMAS Hobart, commissioned on 23 September 2017). Australia’s second air warfare destroyer, Brisbane, began sea trials off the coast of southern Australia in late November 2017. This current naval buildup could be seen as demonstrating external balancing, but of course this raises the question of external balancing against whom – to which the unstated answer is China.

With regard to deployments, Payne enthused on decisive opportunities for a fifth generation navy:

“Altogether these and those future capabilities will transform the Australian fleet into a fully operational, fifth generation navy. The RAN will be able to deploy task groups equipped with a wide range of capabilities, from high-end war fighting to responsive and agile humanitarian assistance … To envisage that future, high-end war fighting to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, we also only need to look at the ADF’s Joint Task Group Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 that’s currently underway in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Finally, the whole Indo-Pacific nature of Australian maritime strategy was stressed:

“From the Malacca, the Sunda and Lombok Straits to the South and East China Seas, many of the most vital areas of globalisation and sources of geopolitical challenge are in our backyard. If the twenty-first century will be the Asian Century, then it will also be the Maritime Century. Just as surely as the balance of global economic and military weight is shifting in the Indo-Pacific, so too is it focused on the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With established and emerging maritime powers across the region rapidly expanding their naval capabilities, the waters to Australia’s north are set to teem with naval platforms, the numbers and the strength of which has never been seen before […] In a crowded and contested Indo-Pacific maritime sphere, Australia must present a credible deterrent strategy, and to do our part in contributing to the peace, stability and security, and to good order at sea […] Our naval capabilities will therefore be integral […] to the preservation of the rules-based global order, and safeguarding peace in the maritime Indo-Pacific.”

China was not specifically mentioned but was the unstated reason for much of these Indo-Pacific challenges that Australia felt it had to respond to, with its behavior in the South China Sea frequently the subject of the strictures on maintaining a “rules based” order.

The South China Sea issue was on public view at the Australia-U.S.-Japan trilateral strategic dialogue (TSD) meeting on 7 August 2017 where Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joined her Japanese and U.S. counterparts in expressing “serious concerns” over “coercive” actions and reclamation projects being carried out and urged China to accept the ruling against it by the UNCLOS tribunal. Finally they announced their intentions to keep deploying in the South China Sea, into what they considered were international waters. In June 2017, Australia had already joined Japan, Canada, and the United States for two days of military exercises in the South China Sea.

As Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, Australia’s Chief of Naval Staff, noted in his speech on “Law of the Sea Convention in the Asia Pacific Region: Threats, challenges and opportunities,” despite “the increasingly aggressive actions taken by some nations to assert their claims over disputed maritime boundaries …[…] the Navy will continue to exercise our rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight.Australian commentators were quick to point out its significance. In effect China was in mind as a threat and challenge. Although Australia has not taken a formal position on rival claims on South China Sea waters, it had strongly criticized Chinese reclamation projects and military buildups in the South China Sea, hence Global Time articles like “South China Sea issue drags Sino-Australian ties into rough waters” (20 June 2017).

Australian naval chief of staff Vice Admiral Tim Barrett (L) and Chinese naval chief of staff Admiral Shen Jinlong shake hands during an engagement in December 2017. (photo via ABC.net.au)

Even as Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 units ploughed across the Western Pacific, Australia officials joined their U.S., Japan, and Indian counterparts on 12 November in a revived Quad format on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. Australian concerns, shared with its partners, were clearly expressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT): “upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation […] and upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.” The official Chinese response at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was minimal, “we hope that such relations would not target a third party” (14 November), followed by sharper comments in the state media on Australian participation being unwise (Global Times, “Australia rejoining Quad will not advance regional prosperity, unity, 15 November). The so-called Quad had emerged in 2007 with meetings between officials on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, with Australia joining in the Malabar exercises held in the Bay of Bengal by India, Japan, and the U.S. Australia subsequently withdrew from that format, though continuing to strengthen bilateral and trilateral naval links with these other three partners. This renewed Quad setting is likely to see Australia rejoin the Malabar exercises being held in 2018.

It was no surprise that this Indo-Pacific setting was reinforced with the Foreign Policy White Paper released on 23 November with its listing of “Indo-Pacific partnerships” in which “the Indo–Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of Korea are of first order importance to Australia” as “major partners.” China’s absence from this listing of Indo-Pacific partners was revealing. Balancing considerations were tacitly acknowledged in the White Paper:

“To support a balance in the Indo–Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive, and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with  the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings. In addition to the United States, our relations with Japan, Indonesia, India, and the Republic of [South] Korea are central to this agenda.”

China was again absent from this listing, which was no surprise given how the White Paper noted that “Australia is particularly concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.” In China this was immediately rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue. We are gravely concerned about this…” and also in the state media (Global Times, “China slams Australian White Paper remarks on South China Sea,” 23 November). This explains the extreme sensitivity China had shown over the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment into the South China Sea.

Conclusion

Consequently 2017 ended by palpable Australia-China maritime friction, when China’s Ministry of Defense gave details of discussions between China’s Navy commander Shen Jinlong and his Australian counterpart Vice Admiral Tim Barrett. The Chinese statement said that “in the last year, the Australian military’s series of actions in the South China Sea have run counter to the general trend of peace and stability. This does not accord with … forward steps in cooperation in all areas between the two countries.” In retrospect Australia’s maritime strategy shows itself to be primarily Indo-Pacific oriented, with its increasing concerns over China generating a response of external balancing through naval exercises and cooperation with India, Japan, the U.S., and a multitude of other partners, and with an increasing focus on restraining China in the South China Sea. China has been upset.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: HMAS Adelaide sails the Timor Sea to deliver a mobile hospital to Dili, Timor Leste, as part of a multi-national Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief exercise. (Australian Ministry of Defence photo by LSIS Peter Thompson)

Reminder: Take the CIMSEC Survey and Share Your Ideas

Dear CIMSEC Members!

As we start a new year, please remember to take the Membership Survey so that we can make CIMSEC even better in 2018. The survey is just eight questions long, and will close in early January. It can be found below.

Thank you for being part of the CIMSEC community, and we look forward to a bright future together promoting the discussion on international maritime security! 

Cheers,
 
Michael Madrid
Director of Membership

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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