Russia is a rising military power in the Asia-Pacific, and Australia needs to take it seriously


Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Many analysts have seen China’s rapidly growing naval power as a sign that Australia needs to rethink its defence strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, China has made remarkable strides in building up its defence capability. But it is worth noting that another military power is increasingly making its presence felt in our region – Russia.

The Coalition government does not give Russia much consideration at all in its current strategic planning. None of the recent Australian defence white papers, including the 2016 paper, considered Russia a significant military power. This perception stems from post-Cold War assumptions that Moscow has little political influence due to its reduced military power and limited economic engagement with our region.

Perhaps these assumptions were true in the 1990s or even ten years ago. However, current strategic realities are very different.

Putin’s game plan for military prowess

In the 2000s, Russia’s military began to gradually rebuild its combat potential. Under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the once cash-strapped military force received a massive financial boost and, more importantly, full political support.

After years of decline and neglect, Russian military power in the Asia-Pacific region is making a major leap forward. According to my research, Russian air force units deployed to East Asia received some 300 new upgraded aircraft from 2013-18. This is about equal to the total strength of the current Royal Australian Air Force.

By 2019, the Russian Eastern Military District (the military arm responsible for operations across the Pacific) is expected to receive more than 6,240 pieces of new and upgraded military equipment. This will include battle tanks, missiles and heavy artillery, aircraft, electronic warfare systems and more.




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The Russian Pacific Fleet, the main means for Russia to exert power in the region, is expected to receive some 70 new warships by 2026. This will include 11 nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines, and 19 new surface warships – nearly the same number Australia is planning to add over the coming decade.

Russia is also increasingly showcasing this new-found military power in the region.

From late August to mid-September, the Russian military carried out the largest single show of its military power in 37 years, the Vostok 2018 war games. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the war games involved 297,000 personnel, more than 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. A sequence of large-scale exercises was held across eastern Siberia, the Russian Far East and parts of the Arctic. The maritime component was staged in the Okhotsk and Bering seas on Russia’s Pacific coast.

The Vostok 2018 strategic manoeuvres in Siberia and along the Pacific coast.

Condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for “large scale conflict”, the war games signalled that Russia’s military is prepared for possible confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. This reinforces what many analysts believe is Putin’s intention – to reassert Russia’s status as a global power.




Read more:
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Russia’s ‘soft’ military power on the rise

Russia also continues to be a key provider of advanced military technology in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, Russia supplied 52 countries globally with US$45 billion worth of arms – making it the world’s second-biggest arms supplier, behind the US. Over 60% of Russian arms exports go to Asian countries, with Southeast Asia accounting for most of that total.

Putin meeting Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi this month.
Harish Tyagi/EPA

The Russian military is making its presence felt. This month alone, the Russian army staged joint exercises with Pakistan, while Russian warships were operating in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Through these arms sales and joint activities, Russia is increasingly bringing Asian countries into its orbit and altering the balance of power in the region by increasing their military capabilities.

In addition to existing security and defence relationships with China, India and more recently Pakistan, Russia has been actively seeking to build ties with other countries on Australia’s doorstep – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Fiji.

Australia should closely follow Moscow’s growing strategic intimacy with Beijing. In contrast with Western countries, Russia has been willing to share its military expertise with China. And China has taken up the offer. The PLA, for instance, took part in the Vostok 2018 war games under Russia’s command.

Russian activities in and around Australia

Finally, we should not be ignorant of Russia’s activities in Australia and near our shores, which have intensified in recent years.

In 2009, Australian intelligence reported a sharp increase in Russian intelligence-gathering activities in Australia. Russia continues to have an interest in Australia’s national intelligence, especially highly sensitive information shared by the US and its NATO allies.

In November 2014, a Russian naval task group staged operations near Australia’s north at the same time Putin attended the G-20 summmit in Brisbane. This triggered a brief media storm, and was seen by some as a projection of Russia’s naval power.

Last December, Russian strategic bombers conducted exercises out of an Indonesian airfield close to Australia, forcing Australian Defence personnel in Darwin into a state of “increased readiness”. There were concerns the exercises may have been aimed at information gathering.

Then in March, two “undeclared intelligence officers” were expelled from the Russian embassy in Canberra, raising more questions about Russian covert activities in Australia. Two months later, a Russian training warship visited Papua New Guinea – the first visit of its kind for the Russian navy.

Australia-Russia relations at a low point

Russia is making its presence felt in the region for the benefit of its regional allies and clients, and as a form of deterrent to its geopolitical rivals.

Australia’s strategic alliance with the US is clearly on Moscow’s radar. Russia has a keen interest in our joint defence facilities and intelligence sharing, as well as our latest defence technology and operations.




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Russia’s grand strategy: how Putin is using Syria conflict to turn Turkey into Moscow’s proxy


Australia’s hard stance on issues related to Russia, such as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK, further complicates our relations with Moscow.

In October, Canberra also joined London in condemning the Russian military for its ongoing cyber-operations against the West, including Australia.

Australia’s relations with Moscow are at their lowest point in decades. And while Australia is by no means a priority for Russia, the country is still being viewed as a geopolitical and security rival. The time has come for us to appreciate a power north of the Great Wall, as well.The Conversation

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Trump’s tour of Asia-Pacific is vital for the stability of the region



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From an Australian perspective, Donald’s Trump Asian tour could hardly be more important.
Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

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.

His warnings were based on a paper produced by the Asia Society Policy Institute – Preserving the Long Peace in Asia – of which he is president.

In a contribution to the East Asia Forum, Rudd asked the question: how can we save Asia’s “long peace” in light of North Korea’s attempts to develop a ballistic missile nuclear capability?

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.

The ConversationExpectations 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.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pence visit reassures that the US remains committed to the Asia-Pacific


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Mike Pence and Malcolm Turnbull meet at Admiralty House in Sydney.
AAP/Jason Reed

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Viewed through the lens of a traditional relationship between close allies, all might have seemed well as US Vice-President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sprinkled emollient words on a media contingent gathered on the lawns of Sydney’s Admiralty House. The Conversation

Ferries traversed Sydney Harbour in the background, yachts tacked back and forth, and the sun shone. But that pastoral scene hardly shielded a troubled world beyond, and one that is weighing on the US alliance.

In the age of Donald Trump and “Trumpism” – defined by its unpredictability – Pence’s mission was to reassure an alliance partner the US remained committed to an Asia-Pacific presence, and America’s relationship with Australia in particular. Pence put it this way:

I trust that my visit here today on my very first trip the Asia-Pacific as vice-president of the United States and the president’s plans to travel to this region this fall are a strong sign of our enduring commitment to the historic alliance between the people of the United States of America and the people of Australia.

Importantly, from Turnbull’s perspective, Pence put his imprimatur on a refugee deal that would see asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island resettled in the US subject to severe vetting.

The plain vanilla former Indiana governor and long-term congressman – polar opposite of the flamboyant Trump – did a reasonable job in his efforts to calm concerns that might be held about a new administration’s commitment to the region.

His message was similar to those delivered on previous stops in Japan and South Korea. America would stay the course, and it would stand with its allies against threats to regional security. If anything, it would act more assertively in seeking to preserve Asia-Pacific peace and stability.

Pence made no reference to the previous administration’s “pivot” to Asia, or its commitment to broaden engagement in the region via diplomatic means. If there is a defining characteristic of the new White House in its early months, it is that the threatened projection of American power is back more overtly as a diplomatic tool.

Had former vice-president Joe Biden been standing on the Admiralty House lawns, his words of reassurance to an Asia-Pacific ally would not have been much different. But the context has shifted significantly – and so, too, has the rhetoric.

North Korea’s belligerence, its provocations, its prosecution of a potentially deadly game of bluff, its quirkiness, its threats to launch ballistic missiles against the west coast of the US and as far afield as Australia, all are hardly new. But what has changed are the players: or to put it more bluntly, one player in counterpoint to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Trump’s arrival in the White House has added a new layer of unpredictability to a set of circumstances North Korea’s neighbours have lived with for many years – that country’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.

The world might regard Kim as a cartoonish figure. But the reality is that he presides over a country whose firepower could leave swathes of the Korean peninsula in ruins.

More than half-a-century after the end of the Korean war, the Korean peninsula remains on a hair trigger. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is in split-second range of the north’s artillery and missile batteries.

If a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens provided the first significant foreign policy challenge for a new administration, North Korea’s bombast represents a test of a different order.

No responsible public official can afford to ignore such threats, whatever judgements might be made about that country’s endless displays of brinkmanship.

Speaking of brinkmanship, America’s allies would be foolish not to recalibrate their own expectations of American behaviour under a Trump administration. In this regard Australia is – or should be – no exception.

While Turnbull might have emphasised his fealty to the alliance, the reality is that the Asia-Pacific – or as Australian officials emphasise these days, the Indo-Pacific (to include India and the Indian Ocean that laps at our shores) – has to accept that regional security increasingly will depend on Chinese engagement, whether we like it or not.

Both Turnbull and Pence made it clear they were looking to Beijing to help lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring North Korea to heel. China has proved reluctant to assert its influence over its neighbour, but indications now are the Chinese accept that it is in their interests to calm the situation.

China has taken several significant steps to put Pyongyang on notice, including turning back coal shipments.

If Chinese and US pressure proves able to calm current tensions – and even bring about a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – this may come to be regarded as an historic moment in regional security. It may also be a possible forerunner to the development of more formalised regional security arrangements.

American media reported that Pence’s visit to Australia and other regional countries was prompted partly by concerns in Washington that relations needed to be smoothed to combat reservations about the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, his criticisms of China so-called “currency manipulation”, his threats to launch a trade war with China, his description of efforts to combat global warming as a “Chinese hoax”, and other intemperate statements have rattled traditional allies.

If the American embassy in Canberra had been paying attention to local media it would have reported back to Washington that there is a groundswell of opinion in Australia that would like to see the country reposition itself between its traditional ally and its most important economic partner.

Influential voices, including those of former foreign minister Gareth Evans, have been calling for less “reflexive” support for US policies. Opinion polls indicate the majority of Australians have a poor regard for Trump.

Whatever Pence and Turnbull may have said on that sun-filled day on the shores of Sydney Harbour, the world is changing fast and with it the context within which Australia interacts with its security guarantor. And perhaps just as importantly, with its principal economic partner.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.