Time for the Pacific Islands Forum to Step-Back and Heal

By Deon Canyon  *

Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa founded the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as the South Pacific Forum in 1971 and it has come to be considered the primary agency for regionalism in Oceania (Fig 1). Up until recently, its membership comprised the 14 sovereign United Nations member states (Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu); the 2 non-sovereign territories (French Polynesia and New Caledonia); and the 2 sovereign non-UN member states in association with New Zealand (Cook Islands and Niue).

Twenty years later, in 1992, PIF held a summit for Smaller Island State Leaders from Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu in recognition of their vulnerabilities, due to small size and lack of natural resources, and long-term sustainable development needs.

Thirty years later, in 2021, the small island states that make up Micronesia were crushed when the “long-standing convention – known as the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ – the leadership of the Pacific Islands Forum cycles through the three major sub-regions across the Pacific: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia” was abrogated when former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna was elected in Feb 2021 ahead of Marshall Islands Ambassador to the UN, Gerald Zackios.

As a result, the Micronesian states (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands), decided to disassociate themselves from PIF due to a failure of the PIF member nations to honor traditional agreements on PIF leadership.

However, while there may have been a recent gentlemen’s agreement, there is no long-standing convention for leadership rotation as can be seen in Box 1.

Box 1: Changes of leadership since the beginning of PIF

1971 South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC)
  •  1972-1980 Tonga: Mahe Tupouniua
  •  1981-1982 Papua New Guinea: Gabriel Gris (died in office)
  •  1982-1983 Australia: John Sheppard (acting)
  •  1983-1986 Tonga: Mahe Tupouniua
  •  1986-1988 Tuvalu: Henry Naisali
1988 South Pacific Forum Secretariat (SPFS)
  • 1988-1992 Tuvalu: Henry Naisali
  • 1992-1998 Kiribati: Ieremia Tabai
  • 1998-1999 Papua New Guinea: Noel Levi
1999 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)
  • 1999-2004 Papua New Guinea: Noel Levi
  • 2004-2008 Australia: Greg Urwin
  • 2008-2008 Tuvalu: Feleti Teo (acting)
  • 2008-2014 Samoa: Tuiloma Neroni Slade
  • 2015-2018 Papua New Guinea: Dame Meg Taylor
  • 2018-2021 Papua New Guinea: Dame Meg Taylor

(Fig 2)

Power sharing since 1971 has not been consistently shared (Fig 2) between the cultural regions of the Pacific or between nations in those regions. It has heavily favored 3 Polynesian nations (Tonga, Tuvalu, and Samoa) followed by 1 Melanesian nation (Papua New Guinea).

Figure 2: Sharing of the PIF chair between the four ethnic sub-regions in Oceania

Neither has the chair position been consistently rotated between the cultural sub-regions at any time in the organization’s history (Fig 3).

Figure 3: Rotation of the PIF chair through the four ethnic sub-regions in Oceania.

PIF’s vision is for “a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.” However, PIF’s failure to practice equitable inclusion is not the Pacific Way and does not result in harmony. If the Pacific Islands Forum truly considers itself representative of all the Pacific Island states, it should consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations for resolution

  1. An agreement was perceived to have been made and broken, thus details surrounding the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” for chair rotation must be made transparent and public
  2. Systematically rotate the chair around the sub-regions as per the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”
  3. Put a stop to awarding double-term chair periods, which only serve to favor select nations
  4. When it comes to a sub-region’s turn, the Chair should rotate around the nations in each sub-region instead of skipping many nations in preference of a few – even the ASEAN chair rotates to all of its constituent nations
  5. The PIF chair period could be shortened to one year to make it more symbolic and to enable many more nations to participate and guide PIF in a significant way
  6. Now that PIF has been functioning well for a long time, it is an opportune moment to
    consider membership options that would expand and enhance the voice of smaller Pacific Islands states

Micronesia’s planned withdrawal from PIF is a defining moment in Pacific history. PIF’s loss of an entire sub-region constitutes an incredible set-back for regional identity, regional security, and detracts significantly from the PIF’s Blue Pacific Continent concept. Since the Blue Pacific has not produced any substantial benefits yet, there is no significant downside for Micronesia, only for PIF and its agenda to promote regionalism.

If the PIF does not wish to return to its former designation of South Pacific Forum, now is the time for it to urgently take advantage of the opportunity to remake the forum into a vehicle that better represents all Pacific Islanders and nations. Carrying on without Micronesia would be a grave error that will continue to undermine Pacific regionalism well into the future.

* Dr. Canyon is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/25

Is the Pacific Triad (Australia, New Zealand and France) undermining US influence in the Pacific?

By Francis Hualupmomi, Ph.D.
Public Servant — Papua New Guinea*

There is an immediate concern that the Pacific region will face a major challenge in managing geopolitical dynamics as Micronesia withdraws from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

The Pacific region was stable before and after the end of World War II, but recent events relating to the PIF suggest that all is not well. The Micronesian group of island countries (Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia) has withdrawn from PIF after its candidate failed to win the position of Secretary-General. The position of Secretary-General of PIF supposedly rotates among the three sub-regions, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia, as a tradition. As Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) term ended, there was thus a collective understanding that Micronesia would assume the position, as Polynesia held the position before PNG. The outcome of the election of the Secretary-General was thus unexpected and extremely divisive.

It is apparent that the pull-out was expected, as the signal was given earlier on. In the 2019 PIF Meeting, Micronesia announced its candidate, Gerald Zackios, and argued that he must be given the opportunity to lead PIF as a Pacific way of honouring unwritten conventions and agreements. However, in the election of PIF Secretary-General, Polynesia’s candidate from the Cook Islands was appointed, which did not go down well with Micronesia. This outcome, in turn, triggered Palau and others to collectively withdraw their membership through a signed communique.

From a geopolitical point of view, Australia and New Zealand may have influenced the election to reduce Chinese influence in the Pacific. The deepening influence of China in Small Pacific Island Countries (SPIC) is an indisputable concern for Australian policy-makers and its intelligence community, who have been trying to contain Chinese influence through their ‘Step Up’ foreign policy. However, Palau president Surangel Whipps Jr said that if Australia and New Zealand had not thrown their weight around and voted for a Polynesian candidate, this problem would not exist. In the meantime, Australia is in damage control and states that it will work closely with Micronesia and members of PIF to resolve this matter amicably.

Given the fact that the Pacific region is an important geo-strategic theatre where WWII was fought, and current competitors vie for geo-economic interests and strategic assets, such as huge deposits of petroleum, minerals and fisheries, competition over controlling the ocean is inevitable. This is evident in the increasing foreign aid and investment in the region through soft power diplomacy. For instance, between 2011 and 2017, Australia spent 96 percent of its total development aid to the Pacific region as promised compared to China who spent 20 percent of its total development aid – Australia is still leading in foreign aid to the region. Certainly, Australia would not concede to China’s pursuit.

Australia’s framing of the Pacific as its backyard, sets up a natural tension with any new Pacific player, and especially China. From a Pacific Islands perspective, this monopolistic stance is quite harmful to SPICs because it limits their development and international relations, and restricts their progress in terms of finding the most competitive markets for their natural resources.

New Zealand also influenced the appointment of the Secretary- General given the fact that Cook Islands is her free association state. Like Australia, New Zealand is concerned with limiting Chinese influence in the Pacific. New Zealand rejected Micronesia’s claims and called for collaboration in this matter.

Australia and New Zealand through their Pacific ‘Step-Up’ and ‘Reset’ foreign policies have clearly framed the Pacific as their sphere of influence where they intend to have more control and influence. Both countries have already curved the lines of control – Australia over Melanesia and New Zealand over Polynesia. In collaboration with France, which controls five Polynesian groups of island countries, these colonialist Pacific powers have prevented Micronesia from holding PIF leadership, but to what end? Since the US, not China, has the majority of influence in Micronesia, this Triad has effectively disturbed an integrated pacific, and side-lined US influence in the region. Their long-term vision can only be to extend their influence over all Pacific Islands and eventually bring Micronesia into their yard.

Papua New Guinea, representing Melanesia, on the other hand, supported Micronesia and maintains that decisions of the PIF must be consensus-based, much like ASEAN. Voting has not been encouraged as argued by former PNG Prime Minister, Hon. Peter O’Neill.

However, the Triad’s plan to limit Micronesian and thus US influence has backfired with their departure from PIF. Further, this forced regional disintegration has created a vacuum for Chinese influence. Pacific regionalism has rarely been tested, and it is highly unlikely that the problem will be solved in a Pacific Way unless Australia and New Zealand adopt a more “hands off” approach to PIF.

In conclusion, the recent decision by the Micronesian nations has aptly demonstrated that the region is incrementally heading into unstable waters as geopolitical tensions rise. Australia’s framing of the Pacific as its backyard has led to an unwanted outcome. Stability within PIF is important and member countries must have the freedom to settle disputes in the true spirit of the Pacific Way.

* Dr. Hualupmomi a political and policy analyst and strategist in the areas of geopolitics, intervention; energy security; energy governance; resource governance; and strategic policy. He holds a BA and BA Honours in Political Science (UPNG), Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Policy Management (Melbourne University, Aus.), Masters in International Politics (Jilin University, China), and Ph.D. in Public Policy (Victoria University of Wellington, NZ).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of his organization, DKI APCSS or the United States Government.
February 2021

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Date: 2021/02/19

The Global Islamist Extremist Threat: Still Significant in 2021

By Kumar Ramakrishna [*]


Violent Islamist extremism remained the most potent terrorist threat to global stability in 2020 and will remain so in 2021. Six trends were observed the past year: the continuing salience of lone actors; the involvement of women and family networks in combatant roles; the challenge of rehabilitating and reintegrating returning foreign fighters and their families; the role of diasporas; the diversity of terror financing mechanism and ideological ecosystems propagating violent Islamist perspectives. Going forward, while a range of customized short-term counter-terrorist kinetic and coercive measures remain important to deal with the evolving physical threat of violent Islamist extremism, these should be complemented by softer medium to longer-term counter-terrorism approaches, to deal with the underlying political, socioeconomic and ideological factors that generate the threat in the first place. Importantly, a more granular understanding of the ideological ecosystems that propagate the Islamist extremism that sustain terrorist and support networks, would be salutary.

The year 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of January 26, 2021, with more than 100 million cases and over two million deaths worldwide, the struggle against COVID-19 is likely the defining struggle of this generation. Against this backdrop – despite the alarming rise of extremist violence, as exemplified by the January 6, 2021 mob assault on the US Capitol building in an ultimately futile attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden’s November 2020 victory over Republican Donald Trump – the strategic challenge of countering and preventing transnational Islamist terrorism and extremism is likely to remain the most potent terrorist threat to global stability in the new year.  Despite the military demise of its so-called territorial caliphate carved out of Iraq and Syria in March 2019, the Islamic State (IS) managed to remain resilient and active both on the ground and online.

IS has re-envisioned the caliphate as an overarching global state rather than one territorially confined to Iraq and Syria. It reframed the inclement strategic situation it faced in 2020 as a “protracted resistance” strategy and its military setbacks as temporary. As far as the estranged ideological cousin of IS, Al-Qaeda was concerned, the year proved particularly traumatic, given the loss of several senior leaders. Rather than tight strategic control, both IS and Al-Qaeda sought through social media to provide a broad strategic narrative to guide the actions of a widely scattered global network of affiliates. This narrative remained centered on three core themes, adapted to diverse local contexts worldwide: armed struggle to establish the caliphate; hatred of the non-Muslim Other and the End Times.

Six Global Islamist Extremist Trends Likely to Persist in 2021

Globally, the violent Islamist threat was characterized by six broad trends in 2020, which are likely to persist this year.

First, the threat of attackby lone actors inspired if not necessarily directed by IS, Al Qaeda or their affiliates online, remained pertinent.  In Indonesia, “stabbings were the most preferred tactic, followed by shootings and bombings” by both “pro-IS groups” and “individuals in Indonesia”, reflecting a “continued preference to execute attacks that require little training, planning or funds”. A second trend was the increasing involvement of women, youth and family networks in active combatant rather than simply support roles.  In October 2020, a young Indonesian woman was arrested in Jolo island in the southern Philippines for involvement in a suicide bombing plot. She was later identified as the widow of a slain Indonesian terrorist. She was also the daughter of an Indonesian husband-and-wife suicide attack team that had bombed a church, also in Jolo, in January 2019, killing at least 23 civilians.

A third trend was the challenge of dealing with returning foreign fighters and their families humanely without compromising national security.  For example, it was reported that more than 50 Malaysians could be returning home from Syria, prompting discussions about how to properly rehabilitate and reintegrate them, as some returnees were “expected to include battle-hardened jihadists”. In Central Asia, owing to the global pandemic, repatriation of nationals from Syria slowed down significantly in 2020. Authorities there acknowledged that “transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow”. The Maldives, which contributed the greatest number of IS fighters per capita to the Syrian civil war, recognized that its “returning terrorist fighters could pose a grave internal threat” in the near future.

     The role of diasporas was a fourth notable trend.  At least 1.1 million Rohingyas refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar remain in Bangladeshi camps, vulnerable to exploitation by both criminal and terror networks – like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA has been exploiting social media to amass support from Rohingya refugees in the region. Meanwhile, at least 18 radicalisation cases within the Bangladeshi diaspora overseas were detected in 2020, of which 16 were in Singapore and two in the U.S. Furthermore, Central Asians in Russia and elsewhere continued to be targeted by online jihadi propaganda for recruitment, while elements of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey reportedly provided funding to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) terrorist network in Syria.


 The diversity of terror financing mechanisms globally was a fifth trend. In Bangladesh, the proscribed Allahr Dal extremist network received funding from supporters who provided a percentage of their monthly income to the group.  The Central Asian Katibat Imam Al-Bukhari network meanwhile employed the hawala system to transfer funds, while other Central Asians engaged in robberies and even murder-for-hire operations.  The Uyghur-based TIP terrorist network in Syria reportedly secured funds by plundering and selling public utilities equipment. While supporters of the resurgent Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network in Indonesia donated 5-10 percent of their monthly salary to the network, JI has also developed legitimate businesses.

Sixth, the role of ideological ecosystems propagating violent Islamist narratives stood out. Such ecosystems included interconnected networks of social media platforms, online magazines, charismatic influencers and certain organizational, educational and religious spaces. For instance in India in October, IS published a new monthly propaganda magazine, Sawt al-Hind (Voice of India), while Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) rebranded its monthly magazine as Nawa-i-Ghazwat al Hind (Conquest of India).  In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) used its “propaganda magazine Mujallah Taliban to articulate its ideological position”. In Bangladesh, the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar-al-Islam (AAI) promoted the Ghazwatul Hind narrative or the eschatological last victorious battle of the Indian subcontinent. AAI also promoted extremist propaganda through Facebook, Messenger and Whatsapp. In Indonesia, some members of the pro-IS groups Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah (JAK), “continued to conduct closed-door sessions for the purpose of ideologically indoctrinating followers”.

Impact of COVID-19

The impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the violent Islamist threat landscape in 2020 was felt both ideologically and operationally. Ideologically, Islamist extremists exploited the pandemic to declare that the End Times and, hence ultimate victory, were nigh. Operationally, the pandemic impacted both security forces and terrorist networks alike. Security forces had to apportion limited resources between operations to enforce physical lockdowns and ongoing actions against terrorist networks.  However, the imposition of border controls and lockdowns also reduced terrorist operating space. Cross-border movement was generally tightened, while domestic lockdowns prevented the face-to-face meetings that facilitated radicalisation of new recruits. Conversely, lockdowns also compelled vulnerable individuals to spend more time online, facilitating even more opportunities for exposure to violent extremist content.  Given the continuing challenge facing governments and societies on the constantly evolving pandemic front, it is likely that such trends will persist this new year.

Going forward, it seems clear that while a range of customized short-term counter-terrorist kinetic and coercive measures remain important to deal with the evolving physical threat of violent Islamist extremism, these should be complemented by softer medium to longer-term counter-terrorism approaches, to deal with the underlying political, socioeconomic and ideological factors that generate the threat in the first place. Particularly important, a more granular understanding of the ideological ecosystems that propagate the Islamist extremism that sustain terrorist and support networks, would be salutary. As suggested, a considerable diversity and combination of ideological transmission “nodes” exist, ranging from Net-savvy charismatic individual influencers and organizations, to online publications and social media platforms, to physical closed-door study sessions – a list that is by no means comprehensive. It would be important to perhaps map out how the nodes of these Islamist extremist ideological ecosystems interconnect, not just within but across regions.

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

February 2021

 [*] Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Dean for Policy Studies, Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and Research Adviser to the National Security Studies Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/12

Recommendations from Papua New Guinea on How to Improve U.S. Posture in the Pacific

By Deon Canyon[1]
Michael Kabuni[2]

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a strategic asset in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical map and will continue to be used by Beijing, Washington, and Canberra until it picks a side, and probably even beyond that. The key reasons underlying the pursuit of PNG relate to gaining economic advantage and hegemonic dominance. PNG rightly expects that Washington, together with Canberra, would give as much ‘carrot’ as possible to Port Moresby rather than ‘stick’ for fear of losing an important ally to Beijing. Beijing is expected to apply the same amount of caution in preserving its positive external relations with PNG. All these states want to be seen to be relevant and justified in their exercise of influence, power and dominance.

While neutrality is often associated with people who are confused about the uncertain future and a lack of principles, Papua New Guineans believe it is a viable course of action. When applying game theory, a cooperative and neutral approach is most likely in a time of peace because it can be used to obtain maximum advantage from each actor. However, although PNG can gain favorable economic advantage from this game play, it comes with certain costs, including a hollowing out of PNG’s sovereignty, and an accumulation of crippling external debt over the long run. This makes PNG increasingly economically weak and dependent, which makes it more vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation by influential actors. That said, PNG is already capitalizing on its weaknesses by maximizing the opportunities presented by both sides of the divide as it applies smart strategies, such as band-wagoning or free-riding, at the expense of great power rivalry in the region.

The U.S. refocus on the Pacific is a welcome development given that it has not looked much further beyond American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas for a long time. The Blue Pacific Act, sponsored on the floor of the U.S. Senate is also welcomed, but many believe it carries similar narratives presented in Obama’s 2011-2012 Pivot/Rebalance to the Pacific, which did not amount to much at all. It is certainly a notable step in the right direction, but it will fail to result in much and become rhetoric like the Rebalance if it is not diligently implemented.

Some fairly explicit recommendations for how the U.S. can improve its posture in PNG were made by several political thinkers who contributed to this paper.

  1. Strengthen diplomatic relations with PNG to create partnerships and actions at various levels all the way from grassroots to government. Specifically, compliment the current top-down approach with bottom-up approaches designed to establish a strong local presence on the ground and reorient public support away from China.
  2. Directly channel development aid for human resources, technical support, infrastructure, etc. to local NGOs & companies via cooperative partnerships.
  3. Relax the stringent screening and vetting process involved in awarding contracts to local NGOs and local companies who want to partner, in terms of service delivery, to roll out projects.
  4. Learn from the well-received multilateral effort to power up 70% of PNG in the years leading up to 2030 with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and explore other multilateral cooperative projects – even with China.
  5. Provide more U.S. scholarships to named Pacific Island countries without amalgamating them into one package. China provides at least 30 undergraduate and three graduate scholarships annually, but most PNG students would prefer a U.S. education. However, U.S. undergraduate scholarships are limited to 1 or 2, and graduate scholarships like Humphrey Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and USSP scholarship are limited to 1-3 seats. All have stringent screening and vetting requirements that are difficult to meet, whereas the road to China is easier to travel. Often PNG citizens do not even get a chance to compete for U.S. seats as preference goes to other Pacific Island nations.
  6. Australia’s actions and attitudes caused PNG to turn to China, so the U.S. will gain more traction if it focuses on bilateral relations with PNG rather on multilaterally relations.
  7. Develop a stronger, more engaging relationship with the PNG military and assist PNG to increase its naval presence.
  8. Make it obvious that PNG has more to benefit from an alliance or partnership with the U.S.
  9. “Security and Cooperation” (in the Blue Pacific Act ) is one of the most important elements in U.S.-PNG diplomatic relations which must continue to evolve and diversify over time and space
  10. The rotational deployment of U.S. Marines from the 101st Marine Expeditionary Units in Darwin, Australia is a good first step, but more military action in PNG is needed to actively deter China’s “Silk-Belt-Road” initiative.
  11. When the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in favor of a Comprehensive Economic Trans-Pacific Partnership, nothing happened. The U.S. needs to be clear and focused on the need to have a proactive approach to economic development in PNG with more action and less rhetoric.
  12. Focus on budgetary aid and align funding with development projects. Many sectors, such as the Health sector, require a multi-sectorial budget approach so that all sector agencies get a fair and equal share of funding.
  13. The US-NZ-AU-JP funding of electricity to cover 70% of PNG by 2030 is by far the most relevant intervention as it will improve lives and will not be seen as something done for immediate gain, such as the Manus Naval base or Refugee Processing Centre. The struggle for popularity and relevance in PNG will be won on infrastructure, but only infrastructure that makes a long-term developmental difference to the people.
  14. The U.S. is like that third cousin that you never see. Establish closer ties with PNG at all levels by making a difference to the lives of the population with action, not rhetoric.
  15. Be recognized in the Pacific as a just power by reducing support for Indonesia and assisting West Papua to become independent.
  16. Support the call by West Papuans for a legitimate second referendum.

PNG fully expects the U.S. to move away from the ‘same talk narrative’ and anticipates more being done this time round. The failure of the U.S. to recognize and take action against climate change, the single greatest threat to the Pacific, is a key issue that the new Biden government may address. If the U.S. and Australia are not proactive on climate, PNG expects China will step into the gap to win immeasurable goodwill from the entire region. Should this take place, China’s dominance in the Pacific will be guaranteed.

The Pacific Ocean is a place of many small countries that need to strategically cooperate, not compete, to survive. The best way forward is for all nations to cooperate with each other as they tackle the greatest threats and make the world a safer place. The U.S. and China have different strengths in the Pacific and provided that each side’s intentions remain benign, they should be complementing each other’s interests and roles rather than competing. There are many regional bodies and forums that both countries could use to collaborate with member states as they provide working solutions that improve the lives of all people in the Pacific.


Many thanks for the comments, advice and input from Adrian Winnie, Bernard S. Yegiora, Felix Arut, Jerry Mathew Jnr, Joelson M. Anere, Mark Haihuie, Teddy E. Winn, and several others who prefer to remain anonymous.

[1] Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
[2] Political Science Department, University of Papua New Guinea

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/11

A Network of Maritime Fusion Centers Throughout the Indo-Pacific

By Deon Canyon PhD DBA MPH FACTM,
Capt. Wade Turvold, U. S. Navy (Ret.)
Capt. Jim McMullin, U.S. Navy*


Indo-Pacific maritime initiatives are urgently required to meet growing transboundary threats to international security. The establishment of a national maritime fusion center in the U.S. and a network of similar centers across the Indo-Pacific region would significantly advance maritime security cooperation. The lack of such centers hinders all nations from effectively developing a common operating picture that is required to protect the rules-based international order. This network must be empowered collectively to strengthen international law. Our ever-increasingly complex world changed in 2020 in many ways, but what did not change was the need to defend shared interests, reinforce international rules-based order, strengthen relationships, and promote a networked region to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific for decades to come.

The Need for Action

The United States National Security Strategy (NSS) provides a framework for protecting the nation, and ensuring its freedom, security and prosperity in a rapidly changing, complex world.[1] Consistently and innovatively translating the NSS blueprint into action remains a core function of government. To this end, the United States Department of Defense is in the process of expanding its security network to meet emerging challenges by reinforcing rules-based international order, strengthening allies and partners and extending cooperative security to like-minded new partners. The aim of this approach is to promote a secure and stable environment where nations can maintain their sovereignty while working openly and fairly together to achieve economic prosperity.

Fundamental to this endeavor is supporting the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. As stated in the U.S. Department of Defense Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: “the United States has, throughout its history, advocated for the freedom of the seas for economic and security reasons.”[2] The basis of the world economy is trade by sea, with 60% of world GDP derived from it.[3] Upholding the rules-based international order that enables trade to move swiftly and safely, thereby underpinning global prosperity, is key to the United States maintaining its way of life. Preserving the rules-based order is achieved, in part, by sustaining a trusted network of allies and partners, and by conducting navigation and joint presence operations in collaboration with that network. For decades, the United States has invested heavily in defense cooperation to strengthen information sharing, build interoperability and develop the capabilities required to deter shared maritime threats. For instance, the United States has invested $396 million in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to enhance their maritime security capacity.[4]

However, the next iteration of U.S. strategy must take the focus on key regional initiatives further because the threat to maritime international security is growing. Therefore, the U.S. approach needs to be innovative and ensure that critical instruments of alliance power are positioned to facilitate appropriate responses to emerging threats with adequate scope and focus. Operationalizing the three-year-old NSS and actualizing U.S. strategy is critically important at this juncture to demonstrate U.S. commitment in times of uncertainty.

The establishment of national maritime fusion centers across the Indo-Pacific region would go a long way toward advancing maritime security. Indo-Pacific states should establish such centers with a focus on maritime threats of a transboundary nature, as well as traditional state-based threats. Indeed, the lack of such centers hinders all nations from effectively developing a common operating picture that is required to protect the rules-based international order.

National Maritime Fusion Centers

Having no respect for borders, transnational maritime threats, ranging from crime to sovereignty violations, continually emerge and evolve to present significant security challenges. The United States has 80 state-based fusion centers that focus mainly on domestic law enforcement issues, and several maritime agencies that focus on different aspects of domain awareness, usually for a particular agency, such as the U.S. Coast Guard. None of these could be considered to be a national maritime fusion center (NMFC) with all the capacities that such a title infers. Therefore, it is time to consider the creation of a national fusion center with a strategic focus on the maritime domain rather than a focus that is limited by borders.

A NMFC, serving as a center that receives all relevant data, fuses it to produce valuable information, and disseminates threat intelligence, would immeasurably facilitate the enforcement and monitoring of all laws, customs, and international agreements, such as treaties, conventions, and protocols, that underpin the rules-based international order at sea and the free and open Indo-Pacific.[5] Such a center would operationalize the NSS and the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS)[6] through attaining threat protection; maintaining the safe passage of commerce and trade through sea lines of communication; providing forewarning or detection of conflicts or incidents at sea; and advancing American influence with like-minded nations to enhance a free and open Indo-Pacific.[7]

Establishing a U.S. NMFC with strong collaborative links between existing maritime fusion centers would dramatically increase maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the Indo-Pacific region. The conceptual basis of such a center already exists in U.S. intelligence organizations such as the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office (NMIO), whose mission is to work at the: “national and international level to facilitate the integration of maritime information and intelligence collection and analysis in support… of Maritime Domain Awareness objectives.”[8] The U.S. Department of Defense also has existing infrastructure, likely within the numbered Navy fleets and existing Coast Guard facilities, in which to develop the necessary command and control systems.

Networking National Maritime Fusion Centers

Although there may never be a Pacific equivalent of NATO, there is an urgent need for a cohesive and cooperative regional maritime security architecture. China’s untoward extended influence in the region increasingly makes national leaders aware of the fact that there has been far too little consultation and strategic cooperation when it comes to maritime security.[9] One of the key tenets of the NSS is to achieve better outcomes in multilateral forums. Specifically, the NSS sets as priority action to ensure that the common domains remain free.[10] The sea, the original global commons, is the domain in which international security is most threatened, and is the domain in which threats to the rules-based international order are emerging.[11] Threats in the common domains make it necessary for all states to cooperate in protecting what belongs to all of us. We are therefore seeing the emergence of the concept of international security, which is becoming more linked to the concept of maritime security.[12] Moreover, the growing scope of the threat now requires the collaborative effort of all nations. In this regard, the first step is joining with all stakeholders to identify and understand threats.

Most coastal states have at least some MDA capacity, but there are currently only two NMFCs in the Indo-Pacific that come close to fulfilling the mandate expected of such an agency. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s concept of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) resulted in the launch of the National Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in 2018 to achieve pervasive MDA for the protection of the international rules-based order.[13],[14] The IFC-IOR coordinates among likeminded stakeholders in bilateral and multilateral information sharing networks to deter threats. This rules-based approach to maritime security is resulting in “greater tactical synergy, operational engagement and strategic trust between maritime agencies in South and Southeast Asia.”[15] In Singapore, a national Information Fusion Centre (IFC), with strong external focus and multinational approach toward defeating threats at sea, was formed under the Republic of Singapore Navy.[16],[17] The IFC provides actionable information to regional and international navies, coast guard forces, and other maritime agencies to distribute forewarning of new and emerging threats. As a means of promoting international security cooperation, the IFC invites liaison officers from 24 countries and has established collaborative links with 97 other centers in 41 countries.[18] The IFC’s efforts in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore Strait resulted in a 92% reduction in piracy and robbery at sea from 2015 to 2018.[19]

Despite the good intentions and hard-earned success of these NFMCs, two critical difficulties limit international intelligence sharing – dissimilar information platforms and national classification of intelligence products. The first of these serves to slow efforts to share and fuse data, and the second prevents the aggressive and rapid distribution of information. Combined, these two issues erode trust between nations and create gaps in the network that adversaries can exploit.

Persuading states to use a common operating information platform is a very difficult and sensitive task because nations are reluctant to use software that has been developed externally. This challenge is more easily overcome among allies and friends, however, and the developing partnership among the states of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – may go some way to improving communication between the United States and the IFC-IOR.[20] At the very least, international information sharing requires that all national systems be able to communicate with one other, which is not an insurmountable problem. Nonetheless, layered on this issue are incompatibilities between different cryptography and communication technology systems.

An International Maritime Fusion Center

One possible way to overcome this technical problem is to create another layer – an International Maritime Fusion Center (IMFC). An Indo-Pacific IFMC, designed to internationally manage MDA in the region, would link NMFCs and would ideally employ a single system that fused data feeds from NMFCs from all participating nations. However, such a system may further exacerbate the data classification problem. While an IMFC would link together NMFCs in identifying and managing transnational threats, dealing with transnational crime issues is very different from dealing with state threats and sovereignty issues. Interpol is a global fusion agency that deals with criminal matters, but there is no equivalent for the more complex issues of maritime security threats. Even Singapore’s IFC with its strong collaborative culture, avoids strategic considerations and limits its attention firmly to operational and tactical issues.

The real problem with classification is that information is routinely over-classified by the originating authority, and that agency is typically the only agency that can declassify the information. This is a significant problem in the United States in that it creates long delays in sharing, thus diminishing the usefulness of information for partners, and costs over $20 billion each year.[21] Indeed, it has been said that, “the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment.”[22] When it comes to national security, there is no incentive to avoid over-classification, so classifiers err on the side of caution and over-classify.[23]

Thus, while the United States tries its best to promote international security cooperation, it is currently limited in contributing to Indo-Pacific international MDA efforts in a significant way when it comes to intelligence sharing. This makes the United States far less useful and relevant to other nations that can easily identify better partners with whom to share information. Combined with a giant leap forward in discretionary declassification, the United States needs new internal policies that provide negative consequences for over-classification, and incentives for identifying information that is of value to cooperative endeavors with allies and partners.

Moving forward

There is an urgent need to reorganize and coalesce the many agencies that have begun to address MDA within the United States Government. A more viable and focused structure, centered around a single NMFC, perhaps in conjunction with an IMFC, would add structure and purpose. The United States, a maritime nation and the guarantor of the international rules-based order, is in great danger of being left behind in the maritime domain by our strategic competitor. A good first step in addressing this problem would be to create a significant national surveillance structure capable of monitoring the vast maritime expanses of the Indo-Pacific oceans with terrestrial, surface, subsurface, maritime patrol aircraft, and space-based technology sensors, and fusing data into valuable intelligence.

This may not be enough. In fact, in order for the United States to maintain its position as the world’s preeminent maritime power, it will need to form a NMFC, or even an IMFC, that is able to collaborate in a meaningful manner with allied and partner NMFCs to provide enhanced maritime domain awareness and a near real-time common operating picture. Accurate, comprehensive, real-time information about the maritime domain is vital for leaders as they decide how to manage crises and incidents at sea. This is especially true in the Indo-Pacific region with its vast expanses of ocean, its large population that lives near and is dependent upon the sea, and its frequent natural disasters. The proficiency of these centers in gathering, fusing, and disseminating relevant information in the maritime domain is a value-added proposition that has the potential to build trust in Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships.

The Quad, as noted above, is a potential starting point for regional cooperation with its well-functioning, informal, network and is well placed to be at the core of any effort to network NMFCs. The four states of the Quad have already concluded logistics support and basing agreements with one another, and these could be used as the foundation to take the next step. Other nations with significant MDA capacity such as Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, along with Taiwan, could then be included. As additional ASEAN nations build capacity, they will add critical value to this web of maritime capacity.

As a close ally of the United States, Japan is expanding its defense capabilities and is integrated more with U.S. forces. In January 2020, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said: “the Japan-U.S. security treaty is a pillar that is indestructible, a pillar immovable, safeguarding peace in Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and in the world, while assuring prosperity therein.” Given the challenges of an ascendant China determined to thwart the international rules-based order and upend maritime security, the United States should collaborate with Japan for a greater role in pursuing regional MDA together.

The United States has the opportunity to advance Indo-Pacific maritime awareness if it can leverage its existing security relationships with regional allies and partners in a coordinated approach to improve national and international maritime domain awareness. Drawing upon the strength and strategic alignment of our many relationships will only be effective, however, with the mechanisms required to facilitate the rapid sharing of intelligence.

If the United States can stand up a NMFC, and collaborate with likeminded partners in standing up an IMFC, the result will be an expanding web of maritime security, enhanced capability and interoperability, and greater resilience. This network must be empowered collectively to strengthen international law, which has unfortunately become powerful against the powerless, but powerless against the powerful.[24] Our ever-increasingly complex world changed in 2020 in many ways, but what did not change was the need to defend shared interests, reinforce international rules-based order, strengthen relationships, and promote a networked region to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific for decades to come. The 2019 U.S. Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: “affirms the enduring U.S. commitment to stability and prosperity in the region through the pursuit of preparedness, partnerships, and the promotion of a networked region.”[25] The best place to start is by collaborating with our allies and partner in building an Indo-Pacific NMFC or IFMC.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

February 2021



 [*] All authors are professors at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

[1] USG. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.

[2] USG. U.S. Department of Defense Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, July 27, 2015, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/NDAA%20A-P_Maritime_SecuritY_Strategy-08142015-1300-FINALFORMAT.PDF.

[3] The World Bank, Data Center, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.TRD.GNFS.ZS.

[4] USG. United States Congress S.2865 – Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative Act of 2016, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2865/text.

[5] American Law Institute. Restatement of the law, the foreign relations law of the United States. St. Paul MN: American Law Institute Publishers, 2018.

[6] USG. National Defense Strategy, 2018, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/National-Defense-Strategy/.

[7] Helvey DF. Indo-Pacific network must evolve to meet changing threats, May 17, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Indo-Pacific-network-must-evolve-to-meet-changing-threats.

[8] USG. National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office homepage, https://nmio.ise.gov.

[9] Cheng D. Maritime domain awareness for the Indo–Pacific Quad countries. The Heritage Foundation, 2019, https://www.heritage.org/global-politics/report/the-importance-maritime-domain-awareness-the-indo-pacific-quad-countries.

[10] USG. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.

[11] Singh A. Rules-based maritime security in Asia: a view from New Delhi. Observer Research Foundation Occasional Paper 266, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/rules-based-maritime-security-in-asia-a-view-from-new-delhi/.

[12] Beuger C, Edmunds, T. Beyond Seablindness, A New Agenda for Maritime Security Studies. International Affairs 93: 6 (2017) 1293–1311, https://academic.oup.com/ia/article-abstract/93/6/1293/4111108.

[13] Singh A. Rules-based maritime security in Asia: a view from New Delhi. Observer Research Foundation Occasional Paper 266, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/rules-based-maritime-security-in-asia-a-view-from-new-delhi/.

[14] Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region. www.indiannavy.nic.in/ifc-ior/about-us.html.

[15] Singh A. Rules-based maritime security in Asia: a view from New Delhi. Observer Research Foundation Occasional Paper 266, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/rules-based-maritime-security-in-asia-a-view-from-new-delhi/.

[16] Information Fusion Centre, 2019, https://www.ifc.org.sg/ifc2web/app_pages/User/common/commonindexv5.cshtml.

[17] MINDEF Singapore. Fact Sheet on Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and Launch of IFC Real-Time Information-Sharing System (IRIS), 2019, https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/news-and-events/latest-releases/article-detail/2019/May/14may19_fs.

[18] Information Fusion Centre. ILO and linkages, 2019, https://www.ifc.org.sg/ifc2web/app_pages/User/common/ourpartners.cshtml.

[19] Singh G. Piracy, sea robbery incidents in South East Asia region decline by 62 per cent: report. Outlook 17 May 2019, https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/piracy-sea-robbery-incidents-in-south-east-asia-region-decline-by-62-per-cent-report/1536512.

[20] Buchanan PG, Rimland B. Defining the Diamond: The Past, Present, and Futurex of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS Briefs, March 16, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/defining-diamond-past-present-and-future-quadrilateral-security-dialogue.

[21] ISOO. 2017 report to the President, 2018, https://www.archives.gov/files/isoo/reports/2017-annual-report.pdf.

[22] Griswold EN. Secrets not worth keeping. The Washington Post, 1989, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1989/02/15/secrets-not-worth-keeping/a115a154-4c6f-41fd-816a-112dd9908115/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.40e1c0f1d32c.

[23] Henderson A, Rottman G. Overclassification is an even bigger problem in an age of leak-hunting. Reporters Committee, Aug 26, 2019, https://www.rcfp.org/overclassification-bigger-problem-leak-hunting/.

[24] Chellaney B. Mirage of a rules-based order. The Japan Times Jul 25, 2016, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/07/25/commentary/world-commentary/mirage-rules-based-order/#.XwRi7qEzazc.

[25] USG. U.S. Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, June 1, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

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Date: 2021/02/11

Simplifying Complexity with Strategic Foresight and Scenario Planning

Strategic foresight
The world is constantly evolving and changing, which often results in significant impacts on society and the crisis management community. Staying ahead of the curve requires not only an understanding of systems and complexity, but also creative and collaborative thinking and action. Strategic foresight is an ancient and latent human capability. As for all innate talents, some people are better at it than others are, and training in structures, models and methods can make a big difference.

Royal Dutch Shell is most often cited as an example of early foresight methodology development. Since the 1970s, they have explored alternative scenarios of the future to help leaders make better decisions, understanding possibilities, and characterize uncertainties. Participants in the scenario-planning process expand their thinking, consider “what if?” questions and reflect on remotely possible events (Shell 2018). However, this approach was not new and had its origin in military experience, for in 1965, the U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara stated that military decision making was becoming more dependent on exploring future scenarios, such as potential conflicts, political constraints, physical conditions and alternative force sizes in relation to emerging tasks and their contingencies (Brown 1968). At that time, approaches to gaining insight into possible future scenarios were written essays, manual wargames or even abstracted data processed by computer models.

Proactive emergency management agencies have recognized the need to reflect on the challenges that will come with future crises and some, such as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have conducted strategic foresight activities (FEMA 2012 a,b). FEMA seeks to “understand how the world around us is changing, and how those changes may affect the future of emergency management.” They engaged the diverse emergency management community in a collective exploration of issues, trends, and other factors that could impact the future environment, and to support expanded strategic thinking and planning for the future.

Strategic foresight encompasses various methods, processes and tools that assist decision makers to make sense of their complex problems with a view to guiding future-orientated decisions and planning (Vecchiato and Roveda 2010, Vecchiato 2012). Foresight is an umbrella term for methods that intend to provide insight into plausible future situations. It does not concern predictions or forecasting the future. This can be of benefit to strategic planning, policy formulation and solution design methods that work with alternative futures. It is not useful for crisis managers hoping for a crystal ball to predict the next crisis (Constantinides 2013). Foresight is a systematic, participatory, reflection and non-short term process that enables decisions, aligns stakeholders to take joint action, and assists in forming vision (Miles et al 2016). It empowers decision makers and policy planners to use new ways of thinking about, talking about, and implementing strategic plans that are compatible with the unfolding future (UNDP 2018).

Scenario planning
Since the military development of scenarios as a planning tool, many other approaches have followed, which has led to some confusion as to how it is used and where it is best applied.

Foresight tools, such as scenario planning, facilitate future-orientated awareness that works by overcoming pre-existing biases, simplifying complexity, and reducing uncertainty with the aim of fostering faster and more effective decisions (Bootz 2010, Ringland 2010). Scenario planning has been used in corporate decision making processes since the late 1970’s and has been found to help make sense of uncertain environments, overcome their cognitive limitations and improve mental agility (Vecchiato 2012). Scenario planning brings together decision makers with key stakeholders who generate insights through a workshop type process as they explore the development of alternative futures (Horton 1999).

Bradfield et al (2005) recommended the application of scenario planning in the following areas:

  1. Simulations of future crisis situations to improve crisis management
  2. Increasing the degree of complexity of scientific models and theory
  3. Involving multiple agencies and stakeholders in policy decisions
  4. Spreading ideas on critical trends that will shape the future
  5. Creating more complex learning environments
  6. Long range planning

Military planners even used the method in World War II to develop a series of alternatives futures in an attempt to make sense of potential enemy actions (Bradfield et al 2005). Brown (1968) recommended four levels of decision making in the field of national security:

  1. Efficient management of operations
  2. Choice of tactical alternatives
  3. Systems engineering, design and research – e.g. finding better measures for evaluating the performance of alternative systems
  4. Determining major policy alternatives – e.g. analysis of alternative means for implementing basic strategies; analysis of the impact of force posture; strategic alternatives on ability to achieve foreign policy objectives

Cognitive psychology proposes that humans possess codified knowledge based on processed information, and tacit knowledge based on unprocessed information (van der Heijden 1997, Brockmann and Anthony 2002). Codified knowledge has meaning while tacit knowledge has not had any meaning ascribed. Once tacit knowledge is encoded, cognitive bias breaks down and it becomes easier to understanding novel complex problems.

Scenario planning is a process used by organizations that wish to evaluate their readiness for the future by developing and examining the implications of a range of possible alternative futures. Scenarios are extrapolated from a detailed systematic analysis of the driving forces of change that an organization may face over the next 15 to 30 years. Strategic planning decisions are strengthened by going through the process of envisioning how current strategies and operating models would perform under different future scenarios. Crisis managers have found scenario planning a useful tool for managing uncertainty, risk, and opportunity because it provides a well-tested framework for understanding future needs and prioritizing near-term actions.

Scenario planning is a tool that places participants in a tacit knowledge environment, outside their present frame of reference, and requires them to create codified knowledge as they struggle to make sense of a new environment. This exercise enhances a person’s ability to anticipate by overcoming cognitive biases and moving the new situational knowledge from tacit to codified (Bootz 2010). The process of challenging assumptions, frames of reference and knowledge sources further helps to overcome many natural cognitive limitations in decision makers.

The selection and application of different scenario planning processes depends on the main characteristics of an organization’s business environment and on available expertise. Cardoso and Emes (2014) presented a framework that capture this selection process (Figure 1).

An intersection of the extremes of time and complexity creates the framework that guides strategy selection. Time refers to the timescale of key processes. Short-term endeavors may rely on forecasting, whereas foresight is more suitable for mid to long-duration projects. Complexity refers to how easy or difficult it is to understand the relationships between an issue’s driving forces and uncertainties. Issues with clear, visible cause-and-effect relationships are designated simple or low complexity, while high complexity issues are those in which the cause-and-effect between driving forces and uncertainties are not fully visible or well understood or known.

Based on this approach, the most suitable techniques for operational, strategic and political defense fall under the category of Intuitive Logics. The Forecasting, Probabilistic Modified Trends and La Prospective approaches are mainly quantitative, analytical and probabilistic in nature. This renders them more suitable for clear risks and less appropriate for low probability, complex risks.

The previously mentioned Royal Dutch/Shell method is an excellent example of Intuitive Logics. This group of techniques is characterized by its subjective and qualitative nature and relies on disciplined intuition, brainstorming, stakeholder analysis and STEEPLES (Social and cultural, Technology and science, Economic, Environment, Political, Legislative, Ethical and Security) analyses to understand the driving forces of change and how the issue of interest may evolve.

Figure 1: Framework for selection of scenario planning processes (Modified from Cardoso and Emes 2014).

Key aspects of the Intuitive Logics approach as derived from Huss and Honton (1987), Schwartz (1996), Bradfield et al (2005), and Garvin and Levesque (2006):

  • Identify the focal issue or decision to be analyzed
  • List all the driving forces that affect the focal issue
    • Separate the driving forces into predetermined, whose evolution can be reasonably predicted, and uncertain
    • Rank the uncertain driving forces with respect to their impact on the focal issue, and identify their value range (e.g. extreme values)
  • Create the scenario space by selecting the two most important uncertain driving forces – the critical uncertainties – using their value range as the axes of a two-dimensional graph
  • Develop the scenarios based on the critical disruptive uncertainties and plot them on the scenario space (scenarios are usually characterized by a pair of extreme values of the critical uncertainties)
  • Develop narratives describing the evolution of the world from its present state into that described by each of the scenarios, while considering the evolution of all the driving forces
  • Assess the implications of each scenario for the focal issue
  • Identify, for each scenario, early warning signals

Alternative scenarios of equally likely, plausible futures are developed using this theme-based approach. Each scenario is accompanied by a description of the end-state, an explanation of how the driving forces affected the primary parameters to result in the end-state, and a narrative description.

Scenario planning enhances strategic agility, which is the ability to have flexible, mindful responses to a constantly changing environment (Lewis et al 2014). Leaders are faced with an increasingly complex and changing environment that often renders decisions ineffective (Chermack, 2004). Mastery of this method assists executives to sustain organizations in complex systems partly because leaders are more capable of managing paradoxes within themselves, their teams and the wider organization.

A strategic option
When FEMA began its foresight study, it sought to prepare the emergency management community for future unknown challenges, create a shared sense of direction, instill a sense of urgency, and drive action toward meeting shared future needs. FEMA recognized that knowledge of future trends and drivers could be actively used to promote foresight approaches to decision making. This led them to identify and support applications of foresight, and provide information and tools to promote the use of foresight across the whole community to improve resilience (FEMA 2010 c).

The foresight approach to strategic thinking and planning is very different from traditional planning methods, which tend to focus on the short term when uncertainty is lower. Traditional methods increasingly fail as uncertainty increases, which is when foresight becomes useful. Rather than predicting the future or forecasting of future trends and conditions, and creating a master plan, the intent is to explore what the future might look like and determine preliminary actions that are likely to be effective in any future (FEMA 2012a).

One criticism of scenario methods is that they may lack political credibility. Brown (1968) thus cautioned scenario users against approaching scenario methods in a casual manner and recommended the involvement of subject matter experts, who likely have strong and different opinions when it comes to matters of national security. Experts can at least defend why certain controversial elements are included in a scenario. In that regard, nothing has changed. Whether scenarios are used in wargames or as alternative plausible futures, they should never be viewed as a tool for problem solving, for they are only method by which to simplify complexity and gain strategic insight into a wicked problem.


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Brockmann EN, Anthony WP. Tacit knowledge and strategic decision making. Group & Organization Management 2002;27(4):436-455.

Brown S. Scenarios in systems analysis in: E.S. Quade, W.I. Boucher (Eds.), Systems analysis and policy planning: applications in defence, American Elsevier Publishing Co., New York, 1968.

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Date: 2021/01/07

Strategic Approaches to Simplifying Complex Adaptive Crises

Complexity and Systems Thinking
We live and work in a world that is shrinking due to interconnectivity, but growing in terms of relationship diversity. Jostling world powers, enlarging economies, emerging technology, nefarious disruption, increased rate of change, and rapid diffusion of new innovations into society all act to increase threat, urgency and uncertainty (Lane and Down 2010, Sargut and McGrath 2011, Rohrbeck and Gemuenden 2011). The impact of this dynamic on the security environment has been to accelerate the development of current challenges and the emergence of novel challenges. Security challenges are fraught with complexity and have many of the attributes of complex adaptive systems.

Take radicalization, for instance, inspired by an increasing multitude of factors including disparity, inequality, economics, democratization, civil strife, population movement and interventions of many kinds from military, religious, corporate and political entities. At every turn, stakeholders with different values, priorities and views may explain the issue in numerous ways. There are never simple answers and the multitude of problem roots are intertwined and codependent. Every solution is a one-time pilot that causes the problem to mutate into another form for which there is no known and tested solution. There is no certainty in action, the risks are unpredictable, and there is an inability to explain what is going on solely by reference to the behavior of each component. Systems thinking is the only way to begin to get a grip on the situation.

Systems theory recognizes that the dynamic interactions of many elements play a role in shaping systems. It provides insight into complex systems of all types and explains the occurrence of constantly changing emergent behaviors that manifest due to system interactions (Skyttner 2005, Becker 2009). A part of systems theory, known as complex adaptive systems (CAS), was described by scientists as a means of explaining non-linear adaptation in the natural environment, such as economies, brain biology and immune systems (Holden,  2005). A fundamental feature of CAS is that simple interactions between individual elements at a micro level can lead to very complex behaviors at a macro level (Railsback 2001).

While practical advances have been slow to materialize, proponents believe that CAS concepts, such as systems emergence, could contribute significantly to our understanding of how decisions affect larger social system dynamics (Lansing 2003) or even provide opportunities for crisis scholars to explore the interactions between system elements that are related to the emergence of resilience (Holland, 1992). This is because CAS is perfect for analyzing systems that fluctuate between the extremes of stability and chaos and that are ‘moving targets’ (Cutter et al 2008). Resilience itself is a goal rather than an end-point for every community is on a path of constant adaptive improvement

(Rose 2007). Thus, any system based on crisis resilience is adaptive, open and responsive to feedback learning loops from previous crises (Holden 2005).

Strategic Thinking
Decisions that concern the overall strategy and direction of an organization require consideration of the future and are thus circumscribed by complexity, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity (Harper 2014). Decisions concerning complex adaptive problems are never easy because of a disconnect between expected and actual outcomes. Uncertain complex situations render decision makers incapable of determining what will lead an organization to victory (Vecchiato 2012). Managing this dynamic is thus increasingly recognized as an essential leadership quality.

Ideally, decision makers would assess all possible decision outcomes and select the most efficacious option (van der Heijden 1997). However, in a complex situation, the cognitive limitations of the human mind result in the creation of a simplified model of the problem and full rationality is never achieved (Senge 1992, Robbins and Judge 2012).

Effective decision making in government requires an evaluation of potential social impacts and outcomes. In a complex system, any component may be a positive, neutral or disruptive force that impacts on services and political sustainability. Unfortunately, decision makers often shy away from taking the time to understanding complexity and default to characterizing complex problems in terms of simple linear relationships with the expectation that the future will be a continuation of the present (Senge 1992, Lane and Down 2010, Hammoud and Nash 2014).

This is why traditional risk assessment processes and problem solving models, designed for non-complex, linear systems, often fail to provide adequate solutions initially and are not recommended in situations where a problem continually evolves due to complexity. Risk assessment approaches that include an evaluation of probability are also not recommended for any crisis deemed low probability.

Natural simplification strategies are known as heuristics. They include various methods that help people deal with complex situations by moving forward instead of delaying important decisions due to information overload and inability to ascertain a safe level of risk (Senge 1992, Hall 2007). However, heuristics limit the quality of decision making in complex circumstances characterized by high risk, high stakes, uncertainty and urgency because the uncertainty is either simplified, ignored through commitment bias or confirmation bias, or minimized through over confidence (Sargut and McGrath 2011).

Rather than struggle with deciphering a novel uncertain situation, gaining awareness of inherent cognitive limitations, recognizing biases and making strategic decisions with insight and confidence, decision makers often default to an assumption that they are in possession of complete understanding of a complex system due to previous experience, knowledge and historic information (Hammoud and Nash 2014). Thus, a more systematic approach is required.

Strategic Simplicity
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is a quote that has been attributed to Leonard da Vinci and it has been grossly misused by those seeking an easy way out. Simplicity as a first resort in a complex situation is nothing more than laziness and foolishness. Complex situations and problems demand serious attention and a concerted significant effort is required to understand them as much as is possible. Only after a full appreciation of complexity does clever simplicity become sophisticated. Some of the means of achieving notable simplicity follow.

Improve awareness of information
In 1955, Luft and Ingham created the Johari Window model to illustrate and improve self-awareness and mutual understanding between individuals within and between groups. The model consists of a four-quadrant matrix with the ranges being known and unknown vs self and others (see right).

In 2002, United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the Johari Window famous when referring to the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

Known to you Known to you
Known to others Public/Open
Information that you and others know
Blind Spots
Information you do not know, but others know
Unknown to others Hidden
Information that you know but other do not
Information that you and others do not know

  He said, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones” (Defense.gov 2002).

Dangerous rationalizations or assumptions can dramatically increase the exposure of an organization to risk (Pearson et al 1997). One of these is assuming that you know enough about a problem when you make a decision. This is dangerous because the lower right quadrant of the Johari Window represents information that is unknown to all parties. If it is small, then risk of unforeseen events is low, but if it is large, then risks abound. Going to war with a country about which you know little is a great example of huge unknown and therefore unassessed risk. In a complex situation, always reveal what you can to minimize the Hidden quadrant and interact with all relevant stakeholders to minimize the Blind quadrant.

Broaden analysis
Every crisis demands a broadening of analysis and an expansion of options, however, crises often have the exact opposite effect. During periods of stress and uncertainty, individuals and organizations typically narrow their analysis, which results in the consideration of fewer options. One of the features of most crises that is initially denied or resisted most vigorously is that of ethical action. Unfortunately, the longer an organization procrastinates the adoption of ethical actions the greater the chance is that the initial crisis will grow and that the organization will be perceived as a villain. Since ethical action is usually adopted or forced in the end, the fault lies in organizations misunderstanding the different aspects of a complex problem, which can lead to decisions that result in more problems.

To avoid bad decisions, organizations must look at problems from different perspectives, which requires an understanding of the body of knowledge associated with each perspective and a senior level person who can coordinate the use of this knowledge (Mitroff 1998). All problems have significant aspects from each of four perspectives and a failure to consider one or more of them almost guarantees bad decisions.

  1. Scientific/Technical/Impersonal knowledge concerns how and why things are the way they are. This basic knowledge is brought to bear on scientific and technical problems and is the foundation for most professional careers.
  2. Interpersonal knowledge relates to how people socialize, connect and relate to each other in families, institutions and communities.
  3. Existential knowledge refers to basic questions, such as, Why am I here? What is my purpose? How can I make sense of this crisis? Do I need to change to adapt?
  4. Systemic knowledge concerns identifying our place in the systems in which we exist, how our actions and ideas in the micro context transfer to the macro, and pattern recognition.

All four perspectives are not equally important in all problems, although in principle they are present in all problems. If one of these perspectives is overlooked or downplayed during problem analysis, our understanding of the problem will be incomplete and solutions may omit essential elements.

Prepare for categories of threats rather than individual threats
There are many different types of crises, but they can be categorized into major families according to basic similarities in preparedness and response requirements. Where a typical approach to crisis management is to plan for a few specific crises, often within the same crisis family, a comprehensive approach would include plans for at least one specific crisis in each crisis family. High-resilience organizations prepare for a broader selection of crisis families.

Mitroff and Anagnos (2001) provide six reasons to support this approach.

  1. Most organizations plan for crises in only one or two families and focus on natural disasters, such as wildfire, earthquake or flood.
  2. Organizations that broaden their preparations for crises other than natural disasters most often do it only for crisis that are specific to their industry. For instance, restaurants will prepare for food contamination, petroleum industries will prepare for explosions and hospitals will prepare for infection outbreaks. Such crises are considered a normal and routine part of the industry since they are unfortunately part of their regular operating experience.
  3. Organizations have to revisit their plans because crises continually evolve and major crises occur not only because of what an organization knows, anticipates, and plans for, but just as much because of what it does not know and does not anticipate.
  4. Every organization should plan for the occurrence of at least one crisis in each of the crisis families for the reason that each type can happen to any organization. Failing to plan for any of the major crisis families is not safe.
  5. Planning for every specific type of crisis within each of the families is impossible and unnecessary, and planning for only those types of crises that have been experienced, according to traditional risk assessment outcomes, is shortsighted. No crisis ever follows a predictable path and no crisis plan ever works entirely as intended, so it is acceptable to prepare for the occurrence of at least one type within each of the families. The most valuable aspect of this process is that people think about unthinkable crises prior to their occurrence. Leaders who anticipate the unthinkable are not paralyzed when it occurs.
  6. In a more complex world, any crisis is capable of setting off a secondary crisis or even a cascade of subsidiary crises. Every crisis is thus capable of being both the cause and the effect of any other crisis. The best organizations thus prepare for individual crises and the simultaneous occurrence of multiple crises. This is done by studying past crises and looking for patterns and interconnections between them. Systems mapping is useful in this context to understand how crises unfold over time and how their effects are felt both within and beyond the organization.

Narrow focus through discard
Eric Berlow presented a Ted talk on natural ecosystems entitled “Simplifying complexity” and stated that, for any problem with many moving parts that all influence one another, the more complex the problem – the more resistant it seems to change – the easier it may be to understand and solve.

This talk explored how embracing complexity can lead to simple answers, how complexity theory helps us harness more creativity to solve difficult problems, how complex systems can be mapped to identify their most influential agents, and how can we use our knowledge of ecosystems to help solve societal problems. According to Berlow, the answer to overcoming the challenges of complex systems is simpler than you think. Through his research, he demonstrates that “the more you embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers.”

Using Berlow’s method, a complex system can be simplified using metrics and other technology tools that help visualize and reduce complexity. All elements in a model that are more than three steps away from a particular issue under examination are discarded and the complexity is thus deleted.

While the approach sounds convincing, it requires the identification of all agents and their relationships within a problem system before it can generate meaningful outcomes. It came from studies on natural ecosystems, which are more predictable and less complex than human social systems. In a complex human system, all the agents and their relationships are almost never entirely and accurately known and they are often in flux with new agents and relationships developing over time. The method is thus interesting, but would be almost impossible to implement when applied to a security problem that behaved like a complex adaptive system.

Narrow focus by identifying driving forces
System mapping exercises use tools, such as causal loops, domain mapping and systems mapping, to identify stakeholders, processes, structures and functions – the who, how, what and why – to improve and develop awareness of complex problems. These tools provide the basis for identifying and categorizing basic trends and information that are driving future change.

Driving forces tend to fall into the four categories of politics, economics, society and culture, science and technology denoted by the acronym PEST. More in-depth analyses may include consideration of environmental, legal and regulatory, and ethical drivers (STEEPLE). Analysis of change drivers is useful in identifying and categorizing basic trends and information about a range of different contextual issues that influence the future (Shoemaker 1995, Henry 2008). In business, PEST analyses are often used analyze the macro environment around organizations to understand market growth or decline (Weeks 2018).

In the context of security strategies, a PEST analysis can help us understand the external drivers that potentially affect outcomes. The process simplifies a complex problem by producing a list of drivers that require consideration when formulating a new strategy or intervention.

Narrow focus through framing
A very different approach to resolving complex issues relates to consequence manipulation and management where the objective is to minimize negative impact and maximize positive impact on one’s own organization and vice versa for targeted stakeholders. There are three levels of framing. The first is dictated by the type of entity involved, the second by the nature of interest in the entity, and the third by the nature of the messaging desired. The framing of an event is very powerful and may have a direct impact on the fate of politicians, policies and even institutions.

  1. Entity: At its most basic level, framing is a product of the type of organization involved. Of key importance is the nature of the crisis, the culture of the organization, the mission and vision of the organization and the leadership psychology. For instance, an Ebola outbreak would be framed differently by a health clinic, police, non-governmental organizations, government and commercial entities.
  2. Interest: Each entity is motivated by significantly different interests, aspirations and goals. They may strive for regulatory alignment, profit, influence and power or environmental protection. These stakeholder perspectives fall under the broad STEEPLES categories of society, technology, environment, economic, political, legislative, ethical and security. For instance, climate change may be viewed as a science problem, a communication problem, an operational problem, an existential problem, a pollution problem, a transnational cooperation problem, etc.
  1. Messaging:
    1. Silver-lining: The most common type of message is one that casts a complex problem in a positive light. For instance, management of a natural disaster provides experience necessary to do better next time, which is a sign of growth.
    2. One-off: Casting a problem as a one-off stand-alone disturbance is equivalent to one of the dangerous rationalizations mentioned earlier. The premise is that we are not to blame because this never happened before and we don’t need to change because it will never happen again.
    3. Blame: Constructing blame as being concentrated with certain other stakeholders or being dispersed among a network of stakeholders is a common tactic for shifting a problem onto other people’s shoulders that does not always work. For instance, when BP tried to blame their subcontractor for spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, they were punished by society.
    4. Failure: Casting a problem as a serious disturbance that is symptomatic of deep political and system failure. For instance, observe the jockeying of political parties when elections come close. They take particular issues and frame them as catastrophic failures to demonstrate why voters should vote a certain way.
    5. Violation: One of the most powerful framing methods involves casting the problem as a violation of a core value. For instance, the right to bear arms in the US is a core value that overrides any argument to limit arms. Likewise, the Me2 movement gained powerful traction as it tapped into the core values of equality and fairness.
    6. Denial: Complete obfuscation is attempted by some organizations as a means of sweeping a problem under the carpet. It is attempted often, especially by corporations and governments, but has devastating outcomes if the truth becomes known.

Crisis leaders and managers require a sound understanding of complex situations, which is best achieved through the use of proven tools that require systems thinking. The automatic inclination of many executive decision makers to prefer simple approaches and solutions renders them crisis prone. Inadequate investment in understanding the entities, relationships, and potential social impacts and outcomes in a situation can only result in sub-par decisions that have a higher chance of failure. In a complex crisis, any component of the system may be a positive, neutral or disruptive force that impacts on services and political sustainability. Crises demand serious attention and a significant effort is required to understand them as much as is possible. Once executives understand the complexity of a crisis, it is their job to identify suitable methods that simplify the situation for the purpose of making more effective and sophisticated decisions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



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