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Carl Thayer talks outlook for world politics in 2015

Monday, January 05, 2015, 18:08 GMT+7
Carl Thayer talks outlook for world politics in 2015
A general view shows the town of Sinjar as smoke rises from what activists said were U.S.-led air strikes December 22, 2014.

Professor Carl Thayer, from the Australian Defence Force Academy, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper the world politics in 2015 will revolve around the stalemate situation in Ukraine, the protracted Islamic State (IS) fight and tensions on the East Sea.

He shared his outlook to Tuoi Tre via an email interview late 2014.

* Let’s talk about the IS. Do you think the anti-IS coalition can degrade and destroy IS in 2015?

President Obama appears to be following a strategy of trying to defeat IS through a combination of airpower, support for groups opposing IS, and rebuilding the Iraqi army. IS will not be degraded or defeated in 2015.

LT GEN James Terry, Commander of the US Central Command, recently estimated that it would take a minimum of three years before the conflicts in Iraq and Syria reached a turning point. The US cannot win in Iraq or Syria because it is a foreign power. There is no good strategy for the United States except to support groups opposed to IS and hope that IS loses its internal cohesion.

The US-led air war has conducted roughly 1,500 strikes. These have contributed to limited tactical successes but not strategic victory. The air strikes are widely dispersed indicating that IS controls considerable territory. As long as Barrack Obama is President, the US is unlikely to introduce ground troops into Iraq. So for 2015 the best that can be hoped for is to blunt the momentum of IS's drive and achieve a strategic stalemate. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq will be debated by candidates seeking to win the US presidential elections in November 2015. It will take months for a new Administration to fashion a strategy for dealing with IS; that is why the conflict will be protracted.

Giáo sư Carl Thayer - Ảnh: Q.ViệtProfessor Carl Thayer

* A new Cold War has begun. How do you think the situation between the West and Russia will develop? Can we expect peace in east Ukraine? Will Vladimir Putin continue to follow the current path given Russia’s economy is entering a deep crisis due to the collapse of oil prices?

The current tensions and friction that characterizes relations between the US and EU on the one hand and Russia on the other can be expected to continue as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power in Moscow. Putin is already flexing his military muscles by increasing the frequency of patrols by military aircraft adjacent to the airspace of NATO countries, the United States and Japan. Putin has used Russia's domestic difficulties to rally nationalist support against the US and its allies.

The situation in Ukraine is likely to reach a stable stalemate. Both sides will consolidate the territory that they control. While there may be occasional flare ups in fighting this will not lead to major escalation. Neither side in the Ukraine is powerful enough to defeat the other. Russia's annexation of the Crimea is now fait accompli.

* Is the rebalance to Asia sustainable? Can the US and other countries reach an agreement on the TPP? How will US - China relationship develop?

The official US policy of rebalance to Asia will only last as long as the Obama Administration is in office. Whether the next president is a Democrat or Republican, a new strategy will be announced. Nonetheless, no new Administration can alter the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific to the United States.

Agreement on the TPP is entering its final stages and President Obama will do all he can to see that the TPP is negotiated before his term in office ends. This will be his legacy.

The US bottom line in Asia is that it will engage with China to ensure a stable rules-based order. The US will oppose any Chinese attempt to establish hegemony over Asia or its sub-regions.

The re-elected Abe government will move to reinterpret the Constitution to permit greater flexibility in participating in collective defense with the United States and other allies. A more proactive Japan will contribute to greater balancing against China's rise. The future will see a greater emphasis on trilateralism involving the US, Japan and Australia, and perhaps even quadrilateralism with the addition on India on specific issues.

* Do you expect China will continue to misbehave, i.e. estabilishing an ADIZ, in the East Sea? Will we see results of the Philippines’ legal challenge against China’s claim?

In 2015 the Arbitral Tribunal will decide on two key issues: (1) whether or not the Philippines has established a legal basis for its claims and (2) whether or not the Arbitral Tribunal has jurisdiction over the issues raised by the Philippines. Assuming that the Arbitral Tribunal decides yes on both issues a final judgment is unlikely until 2016.

China will continue to consolidate its presence and control over the East Vietnam Sea through multiple forms: a more powerful military presence with more large scale naval exercises; an increase in the numbers of maritime law enforcement vessels; the establishment of dual civilian-military facilities and bases on artificial islands through extensive land reclamation; the growth of Chinese colonies on the artificial islands supported by large floating docks; a marked step up in fishing activities by Chinese fishing fleets and large size (30,000 tons) fish processing vessells; and a step up in oil exploration in deep water by mega platforms such as the HD 981 and at least three others of its type.

If and when the Arbitral Tribunal makes its determination it will not be able to enforce its judgment. China will ignore the Tribunal's findings because it will already be well on the way to physically controlling the East Vietnam Sea.

* Do you think it is likely that North Korea will conduct more nuclear and ballistic missile tests? What can and will the Obama administration do to deal with North Korea?

North Korea is inherently unpredictable. Even China has expressed its concern to North Korea about possible ballistic missile and nuclear tests. There is some convergence in US and Chinese interests in the face of North Korea's actions. Nuclear weapons are essential to the survival of the North Korean regime. And the mere possession of nuclear weapons means that North Korea can always attract the attention of China and the United States. Because of this it is not possible to rule out the possibility that North Korea will conduct both nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

In addition to serving as a deterrent, ballistic missiles and nuclear tests serve as bargaining chips. The Obama Administration will continue to apply political and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to meet its past commitments. Until the current tensions over allegations of cyber hacking on Sony Pictures die down, little progress can be expected. The Obama Administration will want to leave office without making any concessions to North Korea in a US election year and without making matters worse in relations with North Korea.

Carl Thayer is Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

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