For the last year, the people of Timor-Leste have expected – and received – little from their government except deadlock.
From a political standpoint, there’s been gridlock for nearly a year after the Fretilin party eked out a victory in parliamentary elections last July, kicking independence hero Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party out of power for the first time in a decade.
However, Fretilin’s minority government found itself blocked at every turn by CNRT and its allies. It finally collapsed in December, forcing the beleaguered president to call for new elections, to be held on Saturday.
At the same time, there’s been economic deadlock, as well. The vast riches of the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea have been locked away due to Timor-Leste’s seemingly intractable negotiations with the Australian government over a disputed maritime boundary.
In March, a boundary treaty was finally signed between the countries, which could lead to billions in royalties for Timor-Leste. But disagreements remain on how to develop the untapped Greater Sunrise basin that lies across this boundary.
In the past, Timor-Leste governments have focused on a “big development” economic strategy to exploit the country’s limited fossil fuels, which José Ramos Horta, the Noble Peace Prize laureate and former president and prime minister, has called “an absolute necessity for the future well-being of this country”.
The recent political impasse has put serious discussions about the future of the country on hold. For starters, the tenor in the run-up to the election has been acrimonious and personal, with the leaders of each party trading insults and playing up their contributions to the war of independence against Indonesia instead of debating policy.
Candidates have focused their campaigns on voting for the best “fatherly” figure of the revolution, with little regard for the country’s youth, who suffer from high unemployment rates and have largely been marginalised from the political process.
The economic development of the country, meanwhile, has been left out of the debate. The candidates all stress the need for “big resource development” and the need to build massively expensive gas processing infrastructure on the south coast of the country. But what’s lacking is any indication of whether gas can (or will) be developed in the long term by any multinational gas producer.
Also lacking is any real discussion about the future of the economy and how best to wean the country off its reliance on fossil fuels to drive economic growth. This has long been seen as a risky and unsustainable strategy.
Based on my own research in the country, as well as the work of other academics and development experts, the new Timor-Leste government will need to take a different strategy more in line with the [United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals], encouraging private investment and developing non-oil exports in agriculture, community forestry and coffee exports. Timor-Leste has committed itself to these SDGs, even if it is struggling to meet them.
According to tradition, a sacred house in Timor-Leste is formed by four pillars. If two of those pillars are in a sloping position or broken, it will impact the house as a whole. When that happens, the elders will ask the young people to find new pillars to replace the ones that are damaged.
Timor-Leste now finds itself with two broken pillars – the leadership of the country and the dysfunctional parliament. The situation requires the attention of all Timorese to help fix the broken pillars and right the country.
The big question is whether the politicians who are elected on Saturday will listen to the people and bring an end to the deadlock holding the country back.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution made to my article by Victor Soares, Lecturer in Public Policy, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL), Dili
The treaty, signed at the UN in New York by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Agio Pereira for Timor, will enter into force once all relevant domestic processes have been completed in Canberra and Dili.
This is the latest development in the saga of the Timor Sea, which has been contested for more than 45 years by Australia, Portugal, Indonesia and Timor Leste.
Ownership and control of significant oil and gas reserves, some of which remain undeveloped, are at the centre of the dispute. This partly explains why, despite previous treaties, there has never been a conclusive settlement of the maritime boundary.
The 2018 treaty seeks to permanently settle the Australia/Timor Leste maritime boundary, albeit with the potential for future adjustments subject to negotiations between Timor and Indonesia.
A long time coming
Since the 1970s, Australia has been engaged in negotiations first with Portugal, then Indonesia, and finally Timor Leste over the maritime boundary. Portugal rebuffed Australian approaches in the early 1970s, mindful of developments in maritime law that promised them a better deal.
Indonesia, which occupied Timor from 1975, was more willing to negotiate. A joint development zone was agreed on that broadly shared oil and gas revenue on a 50/50 basis, but set aside a permanent maritime boundary for future settlement.
That arrangement collapsed following Indonesia’s 1999 withdrawal from Timor, and was replaced in 2002 by the Timor Sea Treaty between Australia and the newly independent Timor Leste.
However, the Timor Sea Treaty was again based on a joint development regime –though with a 90/10 revenue split in favour of Timor – and negotiations on a permanent maritime boundary were set aside for up to 40 years.
The treaty also did not satisfactorily deal with the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the north east quadrant. While a subsequent 2003 unitisation agreement sought to provide some commercial certainty for the multinationals wanting to develop the field, Dili remained firmly of the view that it was getting a bad deal.
In particular, the generation of Timor’s leaders who led its independence movement placed great importance on the new country having settled land and maritime borders. That the Timor Sea boundary with Australia was not settled remained contentious in Dili. The situation was exacerbated by allegations of Australian spying during treaty negotiations and a Greater Sunrise revenue split that favoured Australia.
The 2018 treaty contains six prominent features. First, it provides for a southern boundary between Timor Leste and Australia that approximates a mid-way between relevant coastal features. This is consistent with the modern law of the sea.
Second, there is a straight line western lateral boundary that runs from the western terminus of the 1972 Australian Indonesian Seabed Boundary south to the median line.
Third, the eastern lateral boundary comprises a number of segments that extend much further to the east and north east than the 2002 treaty, ultimately giving Timor Leste much greater entitlements over the Greater Sunrise field.
Fourth, a Greater Sunrise Special Regime is created in which the two countries agree to share the upstream revenue either on a 80/20 basis in favour of Timor, if processing occurs by way of a pipeline to an Australian LNG processing plant, or 70/30 in favour of Timor if a pipeline runs to Timor.
Fifth, Timor gains 100% access to the future upstream revenue of the existing oil and gas fields that were previously part of the 2002 Joint Petroleum Development Area.
Finally, taking into account these new arrangements will ultimately need to accommodate any maritime boundaries that Timor may negotiate with Indonesia, there is some capacity for adjustment of the eastern and western lateral boundary lines, though only after the commercial depletion of seabed resources in the area.
Unique, but still unresolved
The conciliation process has yielded a unique treaty. It is the first of its type that not only involved the two states, but also the Greater Sunrise Joint Venture partners, including Woodside, Conoco Phillips, Shell, and Osaka Gas.
Timor initiated the conciliation, engaging an independent third party in an effort to break the maritime boundary impasse. It succeeded in getting Australia to abandon its long held opposition to a permanent Timor Sea maritime boundary, and has been able to substantially modify the development regime for Greater Sunrise.
Notwithstanding these achievements, some matters remain unresolved, including the location of the LNG processing plant. Whether the plant is located in Australia or Timor is ultimately a commercial decision, but could become the source of ongoing bickering given the significant downstream benefits at stake and implications for Timor’s economic future.
As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?
Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.
I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.
Government problems hobble South Sudan
These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.
My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.
The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.
A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.
It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.
Did aid make a difference in Iraq?
After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.
Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.
I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.
We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.
Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.
East Timor didn’t lack money – just sense
From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.
A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.
We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.
The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.
Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.
The lessons learned
Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.
Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.
The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.
It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.
When Malcolm Turnbull sits down in the White House later this month for the Australian prime minister’s first substantive discussion with Donald Trump on American soil, Afghanistan will almost certainly be part of the conversation.
Whatever is said – and agreed – about that conflict, neither the Americans nor the Australians have much cause for satisfaction over progress in efforts to stabilise that country.
As 2017 gave way to a new year, the news from Afghanistan for the NATO-led effort to counter the Taliban, and other militant groups, was mostly bad.
Terrorist attacks in Kabul and other cities, which killed more than 100 people and wounded dozens in the first weeks of 2018, underscored the lack of progress in establishing a stable environment. Afghanis are losing confidence in the ability of US-backed Afghan security forces to hold insurgents at bay.
This lessening certainty in an Afghan administration, propped up by America and its allies, including Australia, has serious implications for the future of the country and the conduct of what is now America’s longest war.
All this makes it notable that Trump, in his State of the Union address, devoted just 40 words to the Afghan conflict, in contrast to other foreign and security policy preoccupations, inclduing America’s campaign against Islamic State (IS).
This is what he said about a war that has outstripped by half a decade America’s previous longest war, in Vietnam:
As of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have their new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.
That was it. It was as if Washington had resolved not to talk about a war that shows no sign of an endpoint, although it could be observed Taliban advances are creating what might prove to be an inflection moment.
Whether this will lead to a more concerted push to engage the Taliban in a regional settlement remains moot. However, it is hard to envisage an end to the Afghan nightmare without some sort of Taliban involvement, unpalatable though that may seem.
Robert Malley, newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, sharply criticised US Afghanistan strategy in an assessment of 2018 trouble spots. He wrote:
The strategy faces serious obstacles. While hitting the Taliban harder might bring tactical gains, it is unlikely to change the war’s course or the incentives of a locally rooted and potent insurgency … Battlefield losses in the past have not impacted Taliban leaders’ willingness to negotiate.
And then this:
As the battlefield tempo increases, the Trump administration should keep lines of communication to the insurgency open and explore the contours of a settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers, however slim prospects currently appear. US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation. Afghan civilians will pay the price.
All this has been further complicated by growing IS and al-Qaeda involvement in the conflict, with those entities seeking alternative battlefields to Iraq and Syria.
Suspicions Iran and Russia are providing some level of support to the Taliban are adding to concerns. America’s estrangement from Pakistan – Trump has taken Islamabad to task for not doing more to combat the Taliban – is compounding an already fraught environment.
To say that Afghanistan in 2018 is a witch’s brew would be an understatement.
What seems clear is that the Trump administration and its allies are conducting something of a holding operation in the hope that a protracted war plays itself out. This strategy might be placed in the faint hope category, given Afghanistan’s history of resisting foreign involvement going back to the armies of Alexander the Great.
Trump might have escalated the conflict by freeing up local American commanders to fight more aggressively, but it is not clear this is paying dividends, given the level of violence that is manifesting itself.
American sensitivity about progress – or lack thereof – in the war was exposed recently when the its own ombudsman, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reported it had been ordered not to report details of how much territory was under the control of the Afghan government or insurgents.
Information released to CNN by US forces in Afghanistan indicates that 56% of districts were under government control or influence in October. A further 30% is contested, with the balance under the influence of militant groups, including the Taliban.
These figures indicate a significant slippage since 2015, when the government controlled about 72% of the country, and insurgents 7%.
On top of territory yielded to the insurgency, more than 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed last year. This is an attrition rate that would be demoralising in any circumstances.
In an assessment for Foreign Affairs, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, observed that Taliban “presence and influence are likely at their highest levels since the group lost power in 2001”.
Last August, Trump announced a revamped strategy in Afghanistan, which included a commitment of additional forces. Numbers were not specified at the time, but are in the order of 4,000, taking the American involvement to 16,000.
This compares with 100,000 at the time of Barack Obama’s “surge” in 2009, which was intended to deal a killer blow to the Taliban. This has not materialised. As noted, the Afghan government has been losing ground since the US wound back its commitment in 2011.
From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
This prompted the following observation from analyst Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations:
The Trump administration has concluded that it can live with a situation that even US generals describe as a ‘stalemate’, because the cost of victory – sending hundreds of thousands of additional troops – is too high for the United States to pay and might be impossible to achieve in any case, given that the Taliban continue to enjoy outside support, not only from Pakistan but also from Iran and Russia. In short, a war that started 16 years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative.
In response to the Trump speech, including the president’s unwillingness to set a timeline for an end to America’s involvement, Malcolm Turnbull observed the “coalition commitment to Afghanistan … would be very long-term”.
This might be regarded as an understatement on the eve of Turnbull’s visit to Washington, where the subject of Australian troop levels in a training capacity in Afghanistan will almost certainly arise.
In 2017 we finally realised that the four decades of geopolitical stability enjoyed by Asian countries and societies had come to an end. In 2018, the major patterns that will come to dominate the region will become increasingly clear.
China and the United States worked out a way to live with one another in the 1970s, and that paved the way for the region’s remarkable economic growth. The US actively sought to engage China in the belief that Chinese economic integration with the world would eventually lead to the liberalisation of China’s political system.
But as Xi Jinping’s first five years in office have made clear, that optimism was misplaced. A more affluent China has become more authoritarian, more nationalistic, and increasingly intent on changing the international environment to one it perceives better reflects its interests.
In his first year in office, US President Donald Trump surprisingly played a gentle hand with China. In contrast to this campaign rhetoric, his administration approached China with moderation, focusing principally on establishing a good personal relationship with Xi and trying to garner Chinese help to manage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The active engagement of China by the US, even one tempered by a degree of containment, is coming to an end. China is viewed now as a country that seeks to mould the international environment in its own image. Expect the US to increasingly contest China’s power and influence, both in the region and globally.
This is likely to take both military and economic forms, as China is increasingly viewed by the US as a full-spectrum adversary. This will mean some kind of action on what the US perceives as China’s predatory trade policy, as well as a ratcheting up of military steps to push back on Chinese activities, particularly at sea.
China will not respond to the likely increase in American pressure with equanimity. Indeed, one real risk in 2018 is that China will overplay its hand. Its lesson from 2017 is that Trump is a paper tiger. Trump is perceived as being neither able nor willing to match his bombastic words with deeds. China could be emboldened to act provocatively because it miscalculates how the US might respond.
The disputed islands in the East China Sea are probably the most likely place for this to happen. The South China Sea disputes have a slightly lower risk in 2018, as China has largely achieved its objectives in that area, and while the US would prefer that this hadn’t occurred, it can live with the consequences for the time being.
While Sino-American competition will increase the regional temperature, it is by no means the only way in which great power rivalry will shape the region.
Last year’s Doklam crisis reminds us that the extensive border between China and India is highly contested. Expect India’s ambitions and China’s confidence to lead to further tensions in the Himalayas.
China was slightly surprised by India’s response in Doklam, and will have learned from that occasion. When, and not if, China next tests India, it will probably involve a higher level of military risk.
The move is publicly framed as efforts to coordinate policies of countries that value an open and free Indo-Pacific. In substance, it is about collaborating to limit Chinese influence and sustain the liberal order. The “new quad” will take further steps in 2018 and China will respond in ways that will further heighten regional tensions.
This year will also see a further decline in the stock of liberalism in Asia. For a period in the early 2000s, liberalism seemed ascendant. China joined the World Trade Organisation, democracy was on the march in Southeast Asia, and economic globalisation was seen as an unalloyed good thing.
No longer. There are no democracies in continental Southeast Asia. Rodrigo Duterte is undermining liberalism in the Philippines, shutting down a vibrant news website, and some fear that the martial law he imposed in the restive south may be expanded across the country in 2018.
Cambodia has stripped away its thin democratic veneer, while Myanmar’s democratisation process remains highly limited. Even in Japan and India, liberal ideas are under challenge from thin-skinned nationalists.
In 2018, liberal ideas in Asia will face an increasingly difficult environment, particularly as the geopolitical competition will encourage erstwhile champions of liberal ideas to put interests ahead of values in order to manage that contest.
This year will sadly see the Rohingya crisis linger on, with insufficient political incentives for international actors to help end the crisis. The alignment of interests between the military and the government in Naypidaw will mean the region’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades will continue.
There is also a good chance that in 2018 we will work out how to live with a nuclear North Korea. The US will ultimately realise that it has no options for managing the crisis – or at least none that carry acceptable costs – and that a nuclear north can be managed. Indeed, a North Korea that feels secure may finally undertake the kind of economic reforms that its populace needs, and which could integrate the isolated country into the regional economy.
Contested Asia has become a geopolitical and geo-economic reality. In 2018 we will see just how sharp the contests will become. The wounded nationalism of China, the erratic and unpredictable US, and the weak political leadership in many regional powers mean the coming year in Asia is going to be even more challenging than 2017.
Donald Trump has just attended his first APEC leaders’ summit following bilateral state visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. After the NATO summit and G20 earlier in the year, in which he displayed his inexperience and lack of affinity for multilateralism, many feared the worst.
But the comfortable rapport he established with leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as the less formal structures of APEC, meant there was no repeat of the northern hemisphere summer.
APEC was established in 1989 with the leaders’ summit added in 1994, with an ambition to drive economic co-operation and in particular trade liberalisation across the region. While it has been modestly successful in the unglamorous area of trade facilitation – involving largely regulatory streamlining to make the business of international trade smooth – as a co-operative framework it has not achieved any major outcomes.
So when looking at APEC, the real interest is not on the grouping’s economic policy process, but what occurs on the platform that the leaders’ summit provides, as its convening power remains impressive. What did we see in 2017?
Once again, APEC was a forum for discussing a non-APEC trade agreement. The TPP had regularly figured in previous meetings, and this time the 11 remaining members met to try to craft an agreement without the US. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to attend one of the meetings, but it does appear that the 11 have salvaged some kind of a deal.
A string of meetings occurred on the sidelines. Of greatest interest was Trump’s conclave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mostly focused on relationship-building, particularly important given the slate of new leaders in the club. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Moon, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen were all making their debut.
Despite the evidently warm personal relationship that Trump has developed with Xi, the smiles and diplomatic tourism in Beijing are the pleasant facade of what has become a more overt competition for influence in the region. At the 2017 iteration of the meeting Gareth Evans famously described as “four adjectives in search of meaning”, this was plainly in sight.
At keynote speeches to the APEC CEO summit, Xi and Trump laid out their views on the region’s future. Trump’s speech was the second setpiece, following Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS in October, which outlined a belated US strategy to the region. The US aims to sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and Trump’s focus at APEC was on the economic dimension.
Continuing the themes raised in his UN General Assembly speech of September in which Trump declared he expected all countries to pursue their own interests first, he continued his walk away from core principles of its economic engagement of the region. In the past it had pursued large scale multilateral agreements, initially chasing a big free-trade agreement of the Asia Pacific, and more recently the TPP.
Trump said very plainly that there would be no more big agreements, and only bilateral deals based on strict and fairly narrow ideas of reciprocity. The other notable element was a direct statement that the US would no longer put up with predatory practices of other countries, such as IP theft, subsidies and not-enforced trade rules. While he did not name China as his main concern, he didn’t need to.
Trump’s effort to reconcile US rhetorical commitment to an open economic order in the region with his mercantilism stood in contrast to Xi’s approach. Xi painted a picture that seemed much more in keeping with the longer-run trends in Asia’s economic order.
Xi repeated the promise made at Davos that China was committed to economic openness. More specifically, he said China would seek to make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced.
Interestingly, he said China would uphold regional multilateralism as the best means to advance the region’s common interests that were “interlocked”. He also presented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open mechanism that would help advance regional connectivity and even, somewhat surprisingly, described it in fairly economically liberal terms.
To be clear, Xi’s speech was a declaration of what China would do – whether it actually follows through is an open question. Nonetheless, Xi presented a China that would lead an open and inclusive economic order, in some ways as a defender of the status quo. Trump, in contrast, seemed to break with that tradition. Trump’s economic nationalism was on display, and he encouraged others to follow his lead.
Quite where this leaves the region is unclear. We still have to wait to see whether the two speeches of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” becomes an actual strategy. US policy remains hindered by a lack of resourcing in key branches of government.
Equally, we have to wait to see what China will actually do. But make no mistake, at APEC 2017, the region’s two biggest powers presented clearly different visions of the region’s economic future.
Not for several presidential cycles, and perhaps not since Richard Nixon’s visit to China to initial the Shanghai Communique in 1972, has a visit to Asia assumed such significance – and one that is potentially fraught.
US President Donald Trump leaves Washington late this week for a 13-day tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam for APEC, and the Philippines before returning home via Hawaii.
In these two weeks, Trump will be exposed to an Asia-Pacific – or Indo-Pacific – that is undergoing a wrenching transformation against a background of risks to a “long peace”. It is one that has survived more or less intact since the end of Korean War, leaving aside Vietnam.
From an Australian perspective, the Trump Asian tour could hardly be more important, given Canberra’s challenge of balancing its security and economic interests.
An American wrecking ball in the region is the last thing Australia needs, especially one that risks mishandling a North Korean nuclear threat to regional security.
In this regard, Trump’s every utterance, including his contributions to social media, will be scrutinised over the next two weeks by a nervous region.
What is striking about this latest period is the velocity of a geoeconomic shift that is challenging long-held assumptions about US authority in the regional power balance.
Seemingly, the Asia-Pacific region can no longer take for granted a US stabilising role.
As China’s power rises, so does US leverage ebb. This is not a zero-sum game.
The question is how pieces of a kaleidoscope will settle, if indeed they do.
Trump’s Asia tour will enable an assessment of the extent to which the US will remain a reliable regional security partner and a participant in various regional forums.
Former president Barack Obama talked about a “Pacific Century”, involving as it did a US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Trump has not used such terminology.
Indeed, one of his first executive acts was to undo work that had been put into US participation in a region-wide trade initiative – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – aimed partly at countering China’s geoeconomic dominance.
This was a hasty, ill-considered decision that sent all the wrong signals about US commitment to building an Asia-Pacific trading and security architecture.
The other 11 TPP signatories, including Australia, are pressing on with attempts to finalise the trade liberalising protocol, but US absence significantly lessens its weight.
It may be unrealistic – given Trump’s bellicose “America First” pronouncements on trade – but Washington would do its regional credibility no harm if it reversed itself on TPP.
On a visit to Australia last month to launch the first volume of his memoir – Not For The Faint-Hearted – former prime minister Kevin Rudd warned of the risks of the end of a period of relative stability.
This has been a crisis long in the making, beginning with the Soviet training of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers after the second world war, the north’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2002, and the subsequent series of ballistic and nuclear weapons tests.
The uncomfortable truth is that for the last quarter of a century, the international community has simply been kicking the can down the road. And now, at one minute to midnight, everyone is scrambling on what to do about it.
In Rudd’s view, the Asia-Pacific needs to develop a security understanding – like the Helsinki Accords in Europe – to deal with security challenges, including North Korea and, more broadly, territorial disputes that threaten regional stability.
His preferred option is to bolster the East Asia Summit (EAS) as a regional forum to promote peace and stability. He makes the valid point the EAS has, potentially, the regional heft to undertake such a stabilising role.
Disappointingly, Trump is not planning to stay in the Philippines an extra day for this year’s EAS gathering. It might have been time well spent.
Membership, including the ten nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations, plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US, means all the main Indo-Pacific players are participants.
This is how Rudd puts it:
The EAS has the mandate to expand its activities in the security domain. The Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 2005 is clear about this. Furthermore, members of the EAS have all signed the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which commits partners to peaceful dispute resolution. Moreover, the EAS uniquely has all necessary players around the table.
What is required in all of this is American leadership, but as things stand there is little sign of Washington possessing an overarching vision of where it might take the region in the next stage as China continues to expand its power and influence.
In this regard it is hard to disagree with a Lowy Institute paper – East Asia Policy under Trump. It identified a serious case of drift in American engagement with the region under a president whose knowledge of – and interest in – the Asia-Pacific appears limited at best.
US policy on East Asia is thus on autopilot, which presents two distinct risks. First that of a crisis, whether created by the president or events.
The US faces challenges to its economic leadership from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a program of massive infrastructure investment that will enmesh the economies of China and its Asian neighbours, challenges from Chinese attempts to shape regional institutions to its advantage, and to shape a narrative of the region’s future that puts Beijing at its centre.
It also faces challenges from an increasingly capable Chinese military. All this in a region that is becoming increasingly illiberal – and doubtful of US staying power.
This is a fairly bleak assessment of a US ability to engage the Asia-Pacific constructively in this latest period. In fairness to Trump, he remains on a steep learning curve. How all this will play out is anyone’s guess.
What is the case is there is no more important stop of Trump’s itinerary than his visit this coming week to China to engage the newly reinforced ruler Xi Jinping.
The China talks, in the lead-up to APEC in Vietnam, are the linchpin of Trump’s Asian foray. The two leaders exchanged a visit in April this year when Xi visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago.
On that occasion, a novice American president was feeling out his main rival for global leadership. This was a getting-to-know-you opportunity.
However, on this occasion more will be expected of a Trump-Xi encounter on issues like North Korea, concerns over China’s mercantilist behaviour, and its assertiveness in the South China and East China Seas.
While it would be unrealistic to expect a “grand bargain” to emerge between the leaders of a new bipolar world, what is needed is some clear guidance about US priorities amid the confusion that has accompanied Trump’s nine months in the White House.
Laying out some sort of vision for US engagement in the region should be a minimum requirement at a time of considerable uncertainty.
Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in a CFR blogpost:
The president can allay regional fears that the United States is commitment-phobic, by reinforcing at each step Washington’s allies and partners are the cornerstone of US engagement in the region. Reiterating the US commitment to freedom of navigation, free trade, and political freedoms will also reassure regional actors that it still makes sense to buy into a regional order underpinned by a US alliance system. Of course, this trip is only the first step in putting the United States on firmer ground in Asia, after many months of confusing signaling and disruptive initiatives.
Expectations for Trump’s engagement with the region may be low, but the same could not be said for the stakes at a time of considerable uncertainty and risk.
The announcement on the weekend by the Timor Sea Conciliation Commission is the first indication that Australia and Timor Leste are making real progress towards resolving their maritime boundary dispute.
If this process reaches a successful outcome, a permanent maritime boundary will have been drawn in the Timor Sea between Australia and Timor Leste for the first time. However, the conciliation still has some steps to complete. A formal treaty will need to be negotiated, signed and ratified before a new legal framework exists.
The catalyst for the dispute was the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, negotiated by Australia and the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) in the lead-up to East Timor’s independence. That treaty was based partly on a precedent – the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia.
The 1989 treaty agreed on a joint development zone for the Timor Sea, providing for a 50/50 sharing of oil and gas revenue. Importantly, existing continental shelf boundaries concluded in 1972, which lay to the east and west in the Timor Sea, were not disturbed. The result was an unusual set of maritime boundary arrangements for the region.
However, this approach was justified because of developments in international law, following the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the contested oil and gas riches of the Timor Sea.
The 2002 Timor Sea Treaty was a variant of this approach, though the joint development area was smaller and the royalty split was 90/10 in favour of Timor.
While the treaty provided some continuity from the previous regime, it left many issues unsettled. There was no permanent maritime boundary and no clear timetable for one to be finalised. There was no clarification of the status of the Greater Sunrise field that straddled the northeastern quadrant, and no clear framework for oil and gas development for the direct benefit of Timor Leste.
These issues formed the basis of Timor’s campaign of the past decade to bring to an end what Dili considered to be an unjust series of associated treaties.
Since October 2016, the Timor Sea Conciliation Commission has met with the parties on six occasions. The most recent meeting concluded on August 30 in Copenhagen. There a breakthrough occurred, which has given confidence that a maritime boundary delimitation in the Timor Sea will be concluded.
Final details remain to be settled, but it seems a package of measures has been agreed. This includes the legal status of the Greater Sunrise gas field, the establishment of a “special regime” for Greater Sunrise, and mechanisms for resource development and revenue sharing.
It is anticipated that the conciliation will conclude by October. By this time the parties may have negotiated a treaty instrument to give effect to these arrangements. If not, treaty negotiations will still be able to take place independently of the conciliation. At this rate of progress, a treaty signing ceremony could take place by the end of the year.
This outcome represents a considerable political victory for Timor Leste. It has been able to force Australian into a third party conciliation, thereby circumventing Australia’s preference for negotiated maritime boundaries. It has also been able to force Australia to abandon its support for joint development in the Timor Sea in favour of a permanent maritime boundary.
While the direction of that boundary remains unknown, international law would support a median line midway between the Australian and Timor coasts, subject to some technical adjustments.
It would appear that Australia has also made concessions on Greater Sunrise. The extent of these remains confidential.
Whether the eastern lateral boundary of the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty has been modified in favour of Timor Leste is unknown. Whatever that outcome, legal mechanisms will be required to resolve the transfer of sovereign rights to Timor from the previous arrangements.
The outcome will be a major achievement for Timor Leste’s goal of settled boundaries, both land and maritime, with its major neighbours Australia and Indonesia. How Indonesia will react to these proposed arrangements remains unknown.
Australia’s most complex maritime boundaries are with Indonesia. These have been carefully negotiated since the early 1970s, but reflect evolving legal rights and entitlements, some of which are out of step with international law in 2017. The challenge that may loom is whether Indonesia will use the precedent of a new Australia-Timor Leste treaty to reopen previously settled maritime boundaries with Australia.
Conflict was almost baked into Asia’s post-1945 international order. Taiwan’s contested status following the communist victory in China’s civil war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula are only the most obvious and volatile of Asia’s military hotspots.
Yet one of the region’s most striking features was the way in which, from the 1970s, it was able to foster a remarkably stable international environment in spite of the visible flashpoints in almost all corners of the region. The growth and prosperity enjoyed by so many people would not have been possible had the countries of the region not worked out how to manage their often vast differences.
The high altitude military stand-off between India and China at the Doklam Plateau, near the tri-border of Bhutan, India and China, is an acute example of how these old problems have been reinvigorated by Asia’s geopolitical flux.
India and China share a border in excess of 3,000 kilometres in length, much of which is disputed by the two behemoths. This has long been a source of friction, including a short and nasty war in 1962 that India lost in humiliating fashion. Most of these have occurred in India’s north on the Chinese side of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Doklam stand-off is notable because it is in the north-east of the country. It started on June 16 when Chinese PLA engineers began work to extend a road that is within territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but in which Beijing has been operating freely since at least 2005. The work appeared to be an effort to extend the road closer to India’s border.
In response, Indian military forces crossed the border on June 18 into what it regards as Bhutan – a country with whom Delhi has an agreement to guide its foreign policy – and prevented the road from being constructed.
Beijing’s response to the deployment of Indian forces has been incandescent rage. This is in stark contrast to previous cross-border tensions and standoffs, when China has generally approached the matter with a degree of caution and calm, in public at any rate.
The fulmination is the result of China’s belief that the PLA is operating on sovereign Chinese territory and that India has intervened in its affairs for strategic advantage. This is a particularly neuralgic issue for the PRC.
Since then, both sides have mobilised their forces with at least 100 soldiers on either side eyeballing one another, while India has moved thousands more into close supporting positions.
The public rhetoric on either side is hardening. China has carried out military drills and declared that it is easier “to move a mountain than to shake the PLA”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly stated that the standoff was entirely India’s fault, and that the troops had to get out of China.
India in turn has accused China of reneging on its agreement not to change the status quo and has rallied international support by using the standoff as another example of China acting as a disruptive force.
Neither disputes the basic facts – China was building a road towards India’s border, while India does not deny contesting PLA forces beyond its own borders – so what motivated their risk-taking?
Delhi’s reasoning is slightly easier to discern. India is at a military disadvantage in most of the border disputes with China. This area is one in which Delhi has the upper hand. It believes China was taking preparatory steps to negate that advantage.
India is also acutely aware that the tri-border area is very close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land that physically connects India to its eastern states that lie between Bangladesh, China and Burma. Defending the corridor is a first order priority for India.
China’s claims that it was merely road building in its own land are disingenuous. It knows that the territory is in dispute with Bhutan and is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. This was not just a bit of civil engineering, nor was it a case of a rogue PLA unit operating without central clearance.
Many think that China’s move is punishing India for its tilt to Washington and its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. The timing was unmistakably intended to embarrass Modi.
It was not by accident that the incident was timed so that it would cast a shadow over the prime minister’s participation in the G20 summit and a meeting with Xi Jinping. It also signalled that, contrary to his strong-man persona, Modi is not able to control the country’s borders and core interests.
Some also see the effort as an attempt to wedge Bhutan. Beijing has been courting Thimpu in the way it has successfully cultivated other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. This appears to be a fairly Machiavellian means of pushing another of India’s close partners into the China column.
MIT’s Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes, has argued that while China probably did intend to push some strategic agenda, it probably miscalculated the strength of India’s response.
Both have positioned themselves in ways that will make backing down quickly very difficult. This crucial bilateral relationship is now at a low ebb, and as the standoff is likely to drag on for a long time, a frosty Sino-India relationship looks set to remain in place.
When we think of difficult great power relationships in Asia, US-China and Japan-China ties tend to predominate. But the crisis in the difficult terrain of the Doklam Plateau reminds us not only that India is an Asian great power, but that the tenor of its relations with China is of crucial strategic significance.
Equally, the tension is a sign of Asia’s new contested and complex geopolitics. This is a world in which American influence is marginal – not just because US Asia policy is on autopilot – and one in which old and long running animosities have been revived by the combustible blend of ambition and wealth.
How Doklam is resolved will tell us a good deal about the extent to which Asia’s great powers can accommodate one another’s interests and recreate the stability of the past. The prospects do not look good.
The first week of July is not normally one that brings great events in world politics. Around that time, the northern hemisphere normally shifts into summer holiday mode.
Recently, this has become less true. Coups in Egypt, Turkey, and a terror attack in France have bucked the trend. Asia’s early part of July 2017 has also defied the languorous tendencies of the seventh month.
Presenting it as a gift to the US on its national day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved his isolated country now has the ability to fling death and destruction across the Pacific. Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s declaration that it “won’t happen”, North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and is now within touching distance of a viable nuclear weapon capability.
China’s approach to the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong sought to underscore Beijing’s power and prestige. But it only succeeded in reminding us of the party state’s insecurities and increasingly militarised approach to its regional dealings.
The over-the-top martial parades, China’s first aircraft carrier sailing into the harbour city, and President Xi Jinping’s powerful warnings not to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland” made clear China’s intent to signal that it is firmly in charge of the upstart entrepot.
However, Xi did so in a manner which reminds us of the party-state’s military instincts and its thin skin.
In the Himalayas, China and India had another of their high-altitude standoffs as Chinese military engineers constructed roads and buildings in territory that is disputed, as well as in land that no one regards as anything other than Bhutan.
Tensions have escalated, with China’s ambassador in New Delhi reminding India of the “bitter lesson” of the 1962 border war.
And in the South China Sea, the US deployed B1 bombers to fly over the disputed features – much to China’s chagrin.
The Trump administration stayed its hand in trade and the South China Sea in the belief China could restrain North Korea. But North Korea’s test shows the White House either that Beijing wasn’t trying hard enough, or that it does not have necessary leverage over Pyongyang.
Either way, the Sino-American relationship, which had seemed in reasonably good condition following the “citrus summit” at Mar-a-Lago, is entering a much more difficult phase.
It is hard to recall a time at which Asia’s geopolitical circumstances have been this fraught – at least since the 1970s. The region, which had enjoyed one of the most settled strategic circumstances, is now in a period in which its great powers not only don’t trust each other but are beginning to contest one another’s interests militarily.
Over the past 40 years, American leadership has been vital to Asia’s stability. Its dominant military power provided public goods and kept regional rivalries in check. Economically, it provided much-needed capital, and its large home market was open for export opportunities.
But US leadership is visibly waning. The credibility of US power and influence is openly questioned while its economic openness is also in doubt. Rising powers realise this and are jostling for advantage.
In response, defence spending is on the rise, as countries take steps to secure their interests in an increasingly uncertain world. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test is only the most visible example of a region that is arming itself in the face of a shift in the balance of power.
Declining US leadership predates Trump’s election. But the sense of uncertainty has been badly exacerbated by the absence of a coherent Asia policy from his no-longer-new administration.
US policy in Asia is largely on autopilot, with the direction set by the Obama administration remaining in place. But this is due to inertia; it is not a considered strategy. If this continues, it will amplify the destabilising actions taken by those across the region who are unsettled by this uncertainty.
China’s position in the region is changing swiftly. Its gains in the South China Sea are unlikely to be reversed, and its infrastructure initiatives – both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative – are being widely welcomed.
Equally, China has taken the opportunity of Trump’s unwillingness and inability to lead to present its rise as a positive force on a range of issues – most obviously on climate change and the global economy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s globe-trotting efforts to build the country’s reputation has seen him complete more than 60 trips abroad since his election in 2014. While there is some way to go to turn his ambition for India’s international heft to match its demography and civilisational legacy, it is modernising its military capacity and expanding its international influence.
As the standoff with China shows, it will be no pushover. Crucially, India sees the current period of flux as one of historic opportunity.
The region’s lesser powers are also playing their part in this geopolitical drama. Like Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe sees opportunity in these circumstances. He is pushing for Japan to be able to do far more militarily – something that is contentious at home and abroad. And even with its very limited capacity, Japan is proving a thorn in Chinese ambition.
Many others, such as Australia, the Philippines and Korea, are positioning themselves in relation to a larger contest for influence in Asia.
For decades, Asia’s countries took comfort from a stable balance of power underwritten by US might and economic openness. This allowed rapid economic growth. But that wealth is now powering ambition that, when paired with America’s declining influence and sense of purpose, has created an increasingly unstable Asia.
Unfortunately, there will be many more months and weeks ahead like July 2017’s first week.