Sunday, February 19, 2017

Forget the South China Sea: an Arabian Sea dispute would cripple the world

The winter sunlight sparkles off the Arabian Sea where the waves lap gently against the desert sands stretching down to the shore. This is one of the world's major strategic arteries, the origin of most of our fuel and one of the busiest waterways in the world.
While Australia's focus is understandably on the increasing tensions in the South China Sea, the closure of this crucial sea lane would bring the world to a grinding halt. Almost a third of the world's fuel oil passes through this region and the navies of four nuclear-armed countries – the United States, China, India and Pakistan – jostle in its waters. Building confidence is a crucial vital and urgent task, particularly as China becomes increasingly concerned to deploy forces to guarantee its own requirements.
  • China opens on the Pacific, which is why it's understandable it's engaged in island-building activities. Despite China's denials, these have effectively militarised coral formations that were once barely discernible at high tide, turning them into heavily defended air bases. As the Australian Defence Force Academy's Carlyle Thayer has pointed out, however, Barack Obama's quiet diplomacy appears to have effectively brought an end to any new reclamation activities in these waters. A fortnight ago, however, new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bellicosely grasped a megaphone to order China not to try to change the status quo.
    The irony is that Tillerson's looking in the wrong ocean. The China Sea is yesterday's story; it's the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, opened in November last year, that represents a far more dramatic challenge to the current order. It's also why Pakistan is hosting a massive naval exercise, with the participation of ships from nine countries, including Australia, the US and, significantly, China.
    The Chinese fleet's come a long way. Although the flagship of the small force detached to visit Karachi is the 23-year-old missile destroyer Harbin, many of the younger officers were quite relaxed, chatting in English as they hosted guests at a welcome party before providing entertainment to the fleet. Our HMAS Arunta, by contrast, was commandeered by our high commissioner for invited guests only and not even a didgeridoo was on hand to demonstrate Australia, too, possessed a culture stretching back thousands of years. If the mission of such port visits really is intended to be representational, it seems a pity so little effort is put into building the capacity of our vessels to achieve their task.
    Although China can't field a cricket team (although disastrous for them, the recent Pakistan tour of Australia seems to be the focus of every second discussion), it now maintains fleet units in the Indian Ocean to provide its own security in the region. The travel route around the west of the Himalayas allows China to bypass the choke points of the China Seas, but this isn't the only change that's raising the temperature. The other change adding to tension is continuing tension on the subcontinent, as Pakistan and India jostle for influence. The dangers of an accidental conflict erupting remain high, which is why Dennis Rumley, Indian Ocean professor at Curtin University, insists there's an urgent need to adopt a new diplomatic architecture. He's outlined possible ways forward that co-opt already existing institutions to enable a new security structure to be adopted.
    There is a sense, however, in which all this is simply skipping over lily pads rather than confronting the real issue. India is a necessary and crucial participant in any discussion over the future of ocean security in this region, yet it's not present.
    This is a key moment for the region. Two paths are open. If the neighbouring states choose to talk, the discussions are likely to form a basis for the trust that is necessary to engender co-operation. Failure to engage in this way will lead to a rapid increase in suspicion. There is a real danger that the two nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan, will be pressed into an arms race. Although this isn't inevitable, every day that passes without some initiative to reduce the creeping tensions makes this outcome more likely.
    ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    It only takes a moment's focus on the significance of the brinkmanship to puncture the self-satisfied bubble of attempts to justify ballooning chief executive remuneration. The laughable suggestion Australia Post chief executive Ahmed Fahour's $5.6 million pay package is somehow justifiable simply because he runs an organisation with a $6 billion turnover collapses when it's compared to the genuinely huge business that is the armed forces.
    Defence is not only far more important than the post, it's also far more complex, worth a great deal more ($32.4 billion) and, critically, more crucial for Australia's future. Similar justifications to those advanced for Fahour would see the Chief of the Defence Force's salary jump to over $30 million a year. Australia Post's chairman, John Stanhope (himself grasping more than $182,000 for his part-time, government-appointed position), is obviously bamboozled if he thinks he can't get high-calibre people to work for a fraction of the amount Fahour rakes in. Perhaps he should spend some quality time mixing with the armed forces.
    Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer. The Pakistan Navy facilitated his travel to Karachi.

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