Security Scholar suggests: AUKUS and Southeast Asia edition (updated)

[Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore sections updated Wednesday 29 September] Welcome back! With AUKUS dominating the news, I took a small break from Suggests to write for The Strategist (more on that below). Today’s a small hit of Southeast Asian views on Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and the new security pact announced on 15 September as well as some interesting things to sink your reading teeth into.

Check yo’self. Officially Indonesia is viewing the submarine decision “cautiously” and was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. There is, of course, more than one view in Jakarta so also check out this excellent thread by friend and colleague Evan Laksmana who raised important questions from an Indonesian strategic perspective and rounded up all op-eds and statements by former foreign ministers, retired military and major media outlets (updated to include op-eds by senior Foreign Ministry official and Jakarta Post senior editor). My latest Strategist article also picks up the theme of Indonesia’s potential concerns. As an insightful counterpoint to Jakarta’s official caution, over on Foreign Policy friend and fellow SDSC PhD scholar Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto had some wise words about AUKUS’ utility to ASEAN:

Australia’s experience can offer lessons for ASEAN countries. Instead of counting the costs of opposition to Beijing, ASEAN leaders should ponder their affordability. ASEAN countries need to reflect on how much independence they have lost or are losing while deflating opposition to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy. Rather than fearing China’s counteroffensive, ASEAN should formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy that recognizes AUKUS, the Quad, and other similar arrangements as leverage over China’s growing military and economic power.

Meanwhile, the Defence Minister of Malaysia says “We need to get the views from the leadership of China, especially China’s defense, on AUKUS that was announced by the three countries and what are their actions following the announcement.” What does he really think they’re going to say?

Another friend over in Kuala Lumpur, defence journo Dzirhan Mahadzir has a more chilled out series of tweets of how AUKUS plays out with Malaysia. Check it out in full but in short: “We don’t like it but we still BFF (Best Friends Forever) with Australia.”

“You go girl!” (mostly) Among the upbeat club, the Philippines seems to be the most supportive so far. Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin’s statement points out that ASEAN, “singly and collectively”, isn’t packing enough heat to “avoid disproportionate and hasty responses by rival great powers” and that “the enhancement of a near abroad ally’s [ie Australia’s] ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.” Worth reading the statement in full. Since then, on Tuesday 28 September, President Duterte’s spokesperson said that his boss wasn’t too keen on the pact which could “[insert talking points about triggering nuclear arms race]”. Analysts are asking why the spokesperson would buck the tone laid down by the nation’s top diplomat … but then again, it’s Du30.

Softly softly. Singapore was a bit more muted, with PM Lee saying during his call with Australian PM Morrison the same day as the announcement that he “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” Meanwhile, on Saturday 25 September at the UNGA, Foreign Minister Dr Balakrishnan expanded on his PM’s words, saying “The fact that we have a longstanding and constructive relationship [with Australia, the UK and the US] with large reservoirs of trust and alignment is very helpful because it means we are not unduly anxious about these new developments.” While underscoring the importance of ASEAN centrality, he added that AUKUS was “really part of a larger geo-strategic realignment, and we have to take these things in our stride.”

Peace out in! Similar to Singapore, a spokesperson from Vietnam‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs just yesterday carefully stated “All countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over” and that “nuclear energy must be developed and used for peaceful purposes and serve socio-economic development, ensuring safety for humans and the environment.” In contrast, former Vietnamese diplomat Nguyen Ngoc Truong kept it real real: “Beijing may become even more aggressive. But China reaps what it sows.”

No sugar. While Thailand hasn’t released an official statement, former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said “No one country in the region wants to be under the domination of China and the U.S. presence is thus a necessity” and “the current Chinese leadership has become revisionist with assertive and aggressive ambition.” Worth reading in full is senior Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn’s take of how AUKUS will turn Southeast Asia into a “new battleground of the “Hot and Sour War””.

Grab a cuppa. Shout out to my ANU officemate and Friday Burgers crew member Emir for recommending Anand Gopal’s essay “The Other Afghan Women” in The New Yorker. (more commentary on this to come)

Laying down the law. My viewing choice this week is UNSW law professor Douglas Guilfoyle. Besides from being an absolute boss on maritime law and the South China Sea, he gave this presentation on the potential application of the international criminal law doctrine of command responsibility to the findings of the Brereton Report inquiry (40mins).

This week’s Suggests brought to you by the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da AUKUS Ruckus”. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. Catch y’all next week! —NS

Security Scholar suggests

If you’re got time on your hands before the new Matrix film drops, I’ve got some reading, listening and viewing picks for you.

Military coup of the month: Earlier this week Guinea’s special forces booted out President Alpha Condé and suspended the constitution, begging the question, who’s the alpha now?* But did you know that half of coups fail? To understand why, check out Naunihal Singh’s book Seizing Power: the strategic logic of military coups which finds that the dynamics of military factions are a major determinant of coup success. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, check out this NYT article “What Makes a Coup Succeed? Confidence, Consensus and a Sense of Inevitability” which weaves in Singh’s work. (*full credit to El Diablo for this line.)

Still on Guinea, some of you might have noticed China’s Foreign Ministry issued an uncharacteristically strong statement about the country’s domestic politics, condé-mning the coup and calling for the president’s immediate release. If I were spending big money on bauxite (do I need to tell you what you can do with an aluminium tube?) from the world’s largest supplier, I’d be a bit uptight too. Over at Foreign Policy, Charles Dunst looks at why else Beijing hit pause on its noninterference policy with Guinea

China’s security influence in Africa: While China’s mining and economic interests on the African continent are well known, we don’t discuss Beijing’s influence on military and security affairs there nearly as much. Two suggestions to get you up to speed: first is a short Monkey Cage post by Natalie Herbert on how the Belt and Road Initiative motivates African countries to increase Chinese security engagement. Cooperation often takes the form of intelligence exchanges and police and military training, with security elements often “bundled” into BRI economic agreements.

Second is Dries Velthuizen’s short article on why China can address weaknesses in Africa’s peace and security. Velthuizen proposes that China enhance the African Union’s intervention capacity using lessons learned from the PLA, including the implementation of non-combatant approaches such as poverty alleviation programs. He also argues that China’s economic model be used as a blueprint for development. Read more about his research here (13 pages).

Thailand, between two ferns: over on The Strategist, Jittipat Poonkham smacks down outdated views of Thai foreign policy as bamboo bending with the wind. As Bangkok engages more militarily with Beijing, there has been a decline in alignment with its ally Washington. Hammering that point home, “Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other Southeast Asian country.” Super informative is Poonhkham’s assessment of the material shifts in Thailand’s strategic relations with the US and with China, and worth pondering is his proposal for a new Thai narrative of “leading-from-the-middle”. 

Taliban and Jemaah Islamiyah: Next up, the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC) dropped new knowledge last week on the impact of the Taliban’s victory on Indonesia’s JI (20 pages). The quick take? “In the short-term, JI does not pose a significant threat [but] No one should rule it out”, says IPAC director Sana Jaffrey, and for now “the pro-ISIS groups remain the ones to watch.” There are some bits at the end on the Taliban but really the report is one useful update of JI’s goals and strategy, structure, cash flows, views on women and military capacity. 

Uncle Leo: Lastly, today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud known as the Lion of Panjshir, killed in 2001 by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. If you ever wanted to know more about him, you might want to start with writer and investigative journalist Tam Hussein’s Twitter thread packed with articles, photos, quotes and interviews offering some glimpses into Massoud’s extraordinarily rich and complex life. The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi, who met Massoud in 1992, said “I fell in love with him like everyone else…he was truly an astonishing guy. I wish that Osama met Massoud…it could have changed history.” For balance, Hussein includes critiques of the guerrilla fighter, highlights his tainted legacy, and how his son Ahmad Massoud is leaning on a romanticised image of his father to shore up support for the resistance. 

Podcasts: Yup, this week’s Suggests came with a big serve of coup d’état, so why stop now? From the 2019 files, CSIS’ Into Africa host Judd Devermont interviews Naunihal Singh (Naval War College), Max Siollun (Nigerian historian and author), and Alexis Arieff (Congressional Research Service) on intra-military dynamics and coups play out in sub-Saharan Africa (35mins). Then, recorded back in 2017, Naunihal Singh and Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes dig into Zimbabwe’s case and military coups in general (37mins). 

Events: Go shorty, it’s your birthday! With the Philippines–US Mutual Defense Treaty turning 70 in 2021, watch Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Lindsey Ford discuss the history, the present and the future of the alliance. Hosted by Pacific Forum via Zoom on Wednesday 22 September 9.30pm UTC -4 (DC folks) / Thursday 23 September 9.30am UTC +8 (my peeps in Perth, Singapore and KL), register here

This week’s tune is courtesy of 50 Cent, dedicated to D-Lor and L-For. Image courtesy of Flickr user Halil Gokdal. See you next week! —NS

Security Scholar suggests

Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, time to suggest more rea-ding! Welcome back to my weekly picks of informative reads, pertinent podcasts and upcoming events.

There’s currently no shortage of reporting and analysis on Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges ahead and the future for terrorist organisations. However, strategic thinkers based in the Indo-Pacific are debating right now what the US military withdrawal heralds for American commitment to its regional alliances. For one, does “abandoning” Afghanistan lead allies to lose faith in Washington? Director of the University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute (and friend), Professor Peter Dean says this is nonsense; rather, US allies, including Australia, should be reassured. To be sure, he links to numerous academic studies which demonstrate that withdrawing from one theatre does not mean a lack of resolve in the eyes of alliance partners. In light of the rapidly changing strategic balance resulting from China’s rise, he and other Australian analysts argue that commitment is better directed where the stronger interests lie. Keep reading for the view from one of the US’ most steadfast partners (NB today’s image, courtesy of Department of Defence, shows Australia soldiers training with US Marines in the Northern Territory during Exercise Koolendong 2021, the largest combined exercise in the ten-year history of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin).

Next up for today is the relatively recent publication from PRIO aka the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Conflict Trends in Asia 1989–2019 (41 pages), and data geeks, this one’s for you. As the names suggests, the report takes a longitudinal view of state and nonstate conflicts in the region and compares it to global data. Key takeaways? In 2019, there were 15 state-based conflicts in six different countries however, contrary to global trends, there were only three nonstate conflicts and a record number of ceasefires (yay, well kinda). Between 2017 and 2019, Afghanistan was the most violent place worldwide, with 30,000 conflict-related deaths. What I found useful were the graphs and infographics throughout that compared stats between Asian states but also how Asia stats measured up alongside Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Europe. Published in 2020, the report doesn’t cover important developments such as in Myanmar so fingers crossed there’s an update in years to come. If 41 pages is too long, check out the four-page policy brief here.

From Afghanistan then Asia, it’s now time to turn to South America and, specifically, tacit agreements between state and nonstate armed actors. For a security update quickie, watch Crisis Group expert Bram Ebus discuss how Colombian guerrillas, the Venezuelan Amazon and a gold mining bonanza are linked to the increasingly violent events in Venezuela’s western border with Colombia (5mins30s).

Lastly, is empathy important to strategy? In a brief but thought-provoking blog post, military ethics professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin extends Lawrence Freedman’s assertion that “empathy matters to strategy” to the potential implications for moral injury. While her post is a few years old, her questions are no less pertinent. The part that caught my eye, in particular, was this:

But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?

The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting.  I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?


Stephen Biddle has a new book Nonstate Warfare: the military methods of guerrillas, warlords, and militias which I’ve just ordered (because lockdown online shopping … ). If you’re into the audio side of things, check out Biddle’s interview with John Sakellariadis for Princeton UP Ideas Podcast in which they discuss whether there are differences between state and nonstate military methods. Their chat, recorded on 13 August, a few days before the fall of Kabul, ends with some questions about the rapid advance of the Taliban (1hr 20mins).

Meanwhile, Saferworld’s Warpod episode 7 looks at special forces, private military security contractors and their impact on the changing character of conflict with two sets of guests. The first guest is Dr Samantha Crompvoets of Rapid Context and author of a report that documents allegations of abuses by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. She outlines the factors that led to those findings, the subsequent internal investigation by Defence (published as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, commonly known as the Brereton Report) and the need for transparency. Riffing on a theme of keeping it real, the second set of guests are Malte Riemann and Norma Rossi of the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst who grapple with the challenges of outsourcing killing to contractors, particularly by drones. They challenge the idea of “remote” warfare, highlighting both the impact on communities whose individuals have been targeted and the lesser examined impact on communities and governments who do the outsourcing (38mins).


Most recently the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before retiring in 2019, Douglas London is launching his memoir, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, Thursday 30 September 10am UTC -4. For Aussie and most Asian audiences, grab a coffee because it doesn’t start until Thursday 30 September 10pm UTC +8 / Friday 1 October 12am UTC +10. Hosted by the Middle East Institute by Zoom, you can register here.

This week’s instalment was brought to you with the sounds of Aussie legends Silverchair (and a sweet acoustic version at home). See you next week! —NS