Lowy Institute

Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

This week US President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address for 2015, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, with Crown Prince Salman assuming the throne. First Rodger Shanahan on Saudi Arabia after Abdullah:

The new king faces significant security challenges: ISIS on its borders in Iraq, the loosening of its grip in Yemen, plunging oil prices and a challenge for regional influence from Iran. But none of these are existential threats, and the regional situation faced by King Abdullah when he succeeded was also complex. I was in Riyadh when King Fahd died in 2005 and Saudi Arabia was in the grip of an internal security threat more serious than anything it faces now. Back then, there was a near full-scale conflict in Iraq between the US-led occupation forces and both Sunni and Shi'a insurgents, Iran had announced the resumption of uranium conversion, and shortly afterward it elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.

A few thoughts on Obama's State of the Union speech from Sam Roggeveen:

Speaking of unintended messages, what about this line: 'If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done, hire a veteran.' I wonder if John McCain smiled when he heard that. It would have made a decent campaign slogan in 2008...

I'm told Republicans regard Obama's growing informality in his successive State of the Union speeches as unbecoming because it gives the speech a campaign flavour. From an Australian perspective, I would say it gives his remarks a parliamentary tone. It's quite common here for parliamentary speakers to engage with their own side and tease the opposition. The public hates it but good parliamentarians and effective leaders know it is a crucial tool for building morale among your own MPs and undermining the opposition. Maybe Obama sees that too.

And Merriden Varrall's analysis of the Chinese media's coverage of the speech

Firstly, it would seem that at this juncture, the Chinese leadership does not want to stir up nationalist anti-US sentiment. This may imply that the Government wants to pursue engagement and discussion with the US in the near future, and wishes to create the public policy space in which to do so.

Second and relatedly, this should not be misread as any shift in China's fundamental beliefs about what the world should look like and what roles the US and China should play. The overall narrative still paints a picture of a US naturally and inherently inclined to hegemony and unilateralism, but in inevitable decline; and China as a fair, impartial and constructive global player, doing its best in a system it didn't create, and which in time will have to adjust to the rise of new global powers with different (but not threatening) views of how the world should work. 

President Obama is also off to India this week, as the guest of honour of Prime Minister Modi during India's Republic Day celebrations and parade. Shashank Joshi wrote a worthy primer on the trip:

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That said, high-level political attention can enable dramatic shifts, as it did when the Bush Administration engaged with Modi's predecessor in 2005. If Obama and Modi are willing to make the effort, and see this as a priority, they can accelerate defence cooperation more quickly than is supposed. And the onus here is on India. As Ashley Tellisobserved in the Hindustan Times on Thursday, India 'needs to explain how this affiliation with Washington stacks up against the more than 30 other strategic partnerships India enjoys with countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Iran, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea'

With two Australian citizens set to be executed in Indonesia over drug charges, Elliot Brennan explored the role of the death penalty in Southeast Asia:

For law enforcement, the trade in narcotics has its upside. Extracting bribes from tourists caught taking drugs is big business. For poorly paid police, such bribes can net thousands of dollars (sometimes a year or more worth of pay). The incentives for them to crack down on drugs are therefore skewed. The threat of capital punishment exerts fear on drug offenders and therefore increases the bribes that can be extracted. Drug kingpins are seldom charged, let alone put to death. Rather it is the lowly traffickers and drug users who suffer the most grievous of punishments.

It is perhaps a strange logic, but abolishing the death penalty will go a long way to improving law enforcement and governance in Southeast Asia, thereby diminishing drug trafficking,  which is the ultimate aim of governments that enforce the death penalty.  If the region is serious about tackling drug trafficking it would be wise to abolish the death penalty. Tackling the scourge of drugs in Southeast Asia means tackling the death penalty.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth on how Jokowi has handled the tragedy of the AirAsia Flight 8501:

Faced with tragedy, Jokowi has been praised for showing confidence as a leader and coordinating a swift and effective response. In just over two weeks, search-and-rescue efforts have uncovered the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, which are expected to provide essential evidence on the cause of the crash. The discovery of the fuselage of the aircraft last Wednesday is also hoped to signal that the bodies of all victims can now be accounted for.

But the national response has also shown the limitations of the Indonesian navy and other elements of the armed forces.

Mike Callaghan refuted some arguments about the IMF's role in the Ebola crisis in west Africa:

These debates over the IMF are not new. The Fund is regularly criticised as being 'anti-poor', with its focus on balancing a country's books, which results in a reduction in social spending. Protests were once a regularly feature at annual IMF meetings.

But the reality is that countries usually enter into IMF programs when they have significant economic problems, including unstable public finances and excessive debts. For this reason, it has been pointed out that it is not relevant to make comparisons, such as spending on health, between countries who do and do not have IMF programs. As Tom Murphy notes, 'The reason a country would get a loan from the IMF, generally a lender of last resort, means that things are not going great'.

The Panama Canal will soon have a competitor if construction is completed on the Nicaragua Canal. Julian Snelder took a look at the China connection:

The century-old Panama Canal, which is struggling through its own US$5 billion upgrade to double its potential traffic, generates about US$2 billion in annual revenues, about half of which are retained as profits. Building parallel infrastructure in Nicaragua at huge sunk expense will provoke a knife-fight response from Panama, which has capacity to spare. Although the Nicaragua canal will allow larger-sized ships to pass, Panama should retain most of the transit share, and will slash pricing to make sure. In that case, the canals' combined annual profit pool might be much less than the US$1 billion today.

Commercially speaking, this US$50 billion gambit is courageous, if not reckless.

This week also saw China report lower than expected economic growth. Stephen Grenville tried to dispel some of the speculation:

Predictions of China economic slow-down have been routine headline stories over the past few years. Judging from this Wall Street Journal reporting, it seems to have returned with a vengeance. But it is seriously misleading.

China's 'high-growth heyday' ended in 2007, when two decades of double-digit growth were punctured by the global financial crisis. An enormous fiscal and financial stimulus in 2009 temporarily took growth over 10% again, but this was unsustainable. For the pasts three years, China's growth rate has started with a '7'.

Anyone putting much weight on the decimal figure misses the point. At the current pace, China is doubling its GDP in less than a decade, is growing at over twice the US pace and 10 times as fast as Europe.

Nick Bryant reviewed Australia's time on the UN Security Council...

The farewell receptions are taking place, featuring far superior wine than is ordinarily on offer at Turtle Bay drinks parties. The diplomats that led the Australian mission at the UN during its two-year stint on the Security Council are shipping out. Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his deputy Philippa King will be missed. So will Australia's presence at the most famous table in world diplomacy. It has been an impressive stint.

The main contribution has been a significant boost in humanitarian aid to Syria. Australia authored three separate resolutions that produced the biggest humanitarian breakthrough of the near four-year conflict: allowing aid convoys to cross over the border without the permission of the Assad regime in Damascus. Up until that point over 90% of UN-administered aid had gone to government-controlled areas. Afterwards, food and medical supplies reached besieged cities where women and children had survived by eating grass.

 ...while Robert Ayson laid out New Zealand's debut:

New Zealand's foray marks an early attempt to deliver on the promise McCully himself made in New York on the eve of the ballot in which Spain and Turkey were also competing for a Security Council seat. In a speech which almost read as if all of the problems in the Middle East were down to the Israel-Palestine impasse, he insisted that as a small-state member, New Zealand would stand up and demand a lot more from the Council. Yet even for a small portion of his demands to be met, perpetual and united pressure from all of the other non-permanent members, and more, will be needed. 

Wellington is signaling that is has brought an independent foreign policy to Manhattan. Independent, that is, from some of its traditional partners. There is certainly no ANZUS position on this issue, and McLay was quick to challenge some rather odd speculation back home that New Zealand would be beholden for the next two years to the US.

Lastly, Bruce Hill raised an important and pressing issue, freedom of the press in the new democracy of Fiji:

Visitors to Fiji can see this for themselves. Just turn on the television and watch a news bulletin. It is regarded as a perfectly normal thing for a newsreader to simply read out, in full, a Government press release. This is the sort of thing you'd expect to happen in North Korea, Zimbabwe or Cuba, not a democratic Fiji.

There is a culture in Fiji of not answering questions from journalists that has grown since the military coup of 2006, and the attitude towards the media, both local and foreign, was not particularly friendly even before then. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tribes of the World.

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In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Obama mentioned China a total of three times.

One was to praise China's commitment to cut carbon emissions. The second was to encourage American manufacturing executives to bring back jobs from China. The third was a call-to-arms to prevent China from writing the trade rules in the Asia Pacific.

China watchers inhaled sharply at this third point, given the sensitivity in China about who should be calling the shots in Asia. However, the media coverage in China of Obama's remarks has been surprisingly restrained, suggesting that the leadership does not want to encourage anti-American nationalist fervour at the moment.

The language and tone also reiterates China's view of the US role in the world, its own place in the world order, and how both might change in the future.

The People's Daily ran subdued coverage of Obama's speech yesterday, and today, except for a factual article in Xinhua's Chinese language paper, Chinese media made no mention of it at all. The English version ran a piece which focused on Obama's vow to rebuild the economy to help the middle class, but it did not mention anything about who should be writing the rules in the region, or the Sino-US relationship. A Chinese language version of the same article appeared in Thursday's China Daily's business section.

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Yesterday's Chinese-language People's Daily noted there was a 'deep meaning' behind China being mentioned three times, and argued that Obama emphasised the competitive nature of the Sino-US relationship. The article called on the expertise of Sun Zhe, Director of the US-China Relations Research Centre at Tsinghua University, who said that although Obama did not directly discuss the Sino-US relationship, he implied that China should comply with what he described as US (note, not international) rules in the global marketplace. Sun Zhe concluded that overall, Sino-US relations will continue to grow in 2015.

Coverage of Obama's address in the English version of the People's Daily was limited to how Obama was positioning himself in domestic politics.

Both the English and Chinese versions of the Global Times yesterday ran more incendiary coverage of Obama's speech. 'The US still wants to dominate the world. They worry that China's fast development will challenge the status of the US', according to Zha Xiaogang, a Research Fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. The article also said China was not the only country to be 'irked' by Obama's address, and quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that the speech 'shows that at the centre of the (US) philosophy is one only thing: "We are number one and everyone else has to recognize that".' In addition to describing the US as a self-centred hegemon, the article reminded readers that China operates differently, wanting only for 'all parties to work together to create a fair, open and transparent environment for economic cooperation as well as to contribute to the improvement of world trade rules' (Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying). 

In another Global Times article, Renmin University School of International Relations Deputy Dean Jin Canrong drew on the popular discourse that the US has been in decline since the global financial crisis and argued that while the US may be worried that the world's rules are being redesigned by new powers, it can no longer rely on its own strength alone to manage global issues. The article also noted that Obama's address highlighted the complexity of the Sino-US relationship, since it referred to China in both positive and negative ways. 

Taken together, the Government-aligned media coverage in China of Obama's 2015 State of the Union suggests two things.

Firstly, it would seem that at this juncture, the Chinese leadership does not want to stir up nationalist anti-US sentiment. This may imply that the Government wants to pursue engagement and discussion with the US in the near future, and wishes to create the public policy space in which to do so.

Second and relatedly, this should not be misread as any shift in China's fundamental beliefs about what the world should look like and what roles the US and China should play. The overall narrative still paints a picture of a US naturally and inherently inclined to hegemony and unilateralism, but in inevitable decline; and China as a fair, impartial and constructive global player, doing its best in a system it didn't create, and which in time will have to adjust to the rise of new global powers with different (but not threatening) views of how the world should work. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user NASA HQ PHOTO.

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It's always good to leave a job while you're still enjoying it. After almost eight years, today is my last day as director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.

I am proud to have contributed a substantial part of my working life to the Institute's development as a force to be reckoned with in foreign and security policy debates, whether in Australia, its Indo-Pacific region or globally. In turn, I am grateful for the privilege of having been part of a powerhouse of ideas, dialogue and policy entrepreneurship.

From next week, my foremost professional loyalty will be elsewhere, as I take up the post of Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. My new mission will be very much about helping shape an inclusive and contemporary approach to Australia's security and foreign policy challenges.

I will remain affiliated with Lowy as a nonresident fellow, and I won't forget where I came from. A certain sandstone building on Bligh St in Sydney will always seem to me the forge where I finished a long apprenticeship – across diplomacy, intelligence analysis, journalism and academia. It has played a formative role in my vision of what a policy think tank can and should be.

It's impossible now to imagine the Australian foreign and security policy scene without the Lowy Institute. But the Institute is just 11 years old, and it wasn't always thus.

Lowy has played, and will continue to play, an exceptional bridging role between the realms of politics, official policymaking, media and academia. For too long, these were parallel domains in Australia, often characterised by a lack of understanding or even of respect for one another's way of making sense of a confusing world. For a country of Australia's size, and a democracy, this was never a sustainable or constructive state of affairs.

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In 2015, as Australia comes to terms with a world of increasing uncertainty, complexity and strategic risk, the need for policy communication and innovative thinking across the old boundaries of politics, bureaucracy, scholarship and journalism is greater than ever. Lowy, the National Security College and others in Australia's healthily expanding think tank scene will all have their parts to play.

The unique vantage point of the Lowy Institute – offering insights into business, media and wider community attitudes – has sharpened my sense of Australia's national interests and how they need to be protected and advanced.

My time at Lowy also leaves me with a rich trove of memories – illuminating dialogues with foreign counterparts, energetic debates on tough strategic problems (including on this excellent blog), fascinating research excursions, times when governments listened and times when they did not, rewarding moments of insight, and frustrating illustrations of the obstacles to good policy.

In particular, I have benefited from having such a strong platform to help advance Australia's understanding of its fast-changing Indo-Pacific region, and to encourage a sensible constellation of strategic relations with India, China, Japan, Indonesia and other regional powers as well as a revitalised and properly-explained alliance with the US.

In all of this, I am especially fortunate to have collaborated with and learned from so many talented colleagues. They range from wise veterans of the craft through to a successor generation of Australian strategic analysts, whose skills and interest I have been proud to encourage and cultivate. I thank them all.

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This is my last week at the Lowy Institute, and this will be my final India Links. Thank you to all the readers who have followed this series, and everyone who has tweeted or emailed suggestions over the years.

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The chemistry between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last September was evident. Modi was reportedly 'really touched' by parts of the visit, and the co-authored op-ed, joint statement, and body language all indicated a degree of warmth that was far from assured.

Indian police rehearse for the annual 26 January Republic Day parade. (REUTERS/Ahmad Masood.)

When they met two months later at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, Modi extended what was reported as a 'spur of the moment' invitation for Obama to attend India's Republic Day parade as chief guest (although the Times of India suggests a less spontaneous process). The parade is an annual commemoration of the date on which India's constitution came into force — the Dominion of India then becoming a republic — and on which occasion it shows off, among other things, the best of its military hardware in the heart of Delhi. This is a big deal, steeped in historical significance.

It will not be lost on Indians that many of the missiles to be rolled under President Obama's nose were developed in the face of US technology denial and sanctions from the 1970s onwards, nor that the parade will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war in which the US imposed an arms embargo. That was another time, another era — a time when the chief guests at the parade were a string of Yugoslav, Soviet and non-aligned leaders (though the Queen came in 1961, Jacques Chirac in 1973, and Malcolm Fraser in 1979).

We've come a long way.

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In September, the US and India promised to 'treat each other at the same level as their closest partners, including defence technology transfers, trade, research, co-production, and co-development'. This is a remarkable – indeed, an unrealistic – promise from the American side, given the depth of its defence relationship with allies like Israel, Britain, and Japan. It is also consequential for India, which has co-developed a hypersonic cruise missile with Russia, historically its closest defence partner (Russia's defence minister visited the production site this week), and plans on co-developing a fifth-generation fighter jet with Moscow too, though progress has been slow. Grand statements are easy; follow-up is harder.

As I explained on the Interpreter last year, the likely appointment of Ashton Carter as US defence secretary (subject to the whims of Congress) is likely to give a fillip to US-India defence ties. India now also has its own dedicated defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, after six months in which the ailing and overworked finance minister held the office. As the Indian defence journalist Ajai Shukla has explained in two pieces – one an excellent survey, and the other an analysis of Indian pathologies – over $8 billion of Indian arms purchases from the US are in the pipeline, including attack and heavy lift helicopters, surveillance and transport aircraft, and jet engines. Shukla notes that 'top Indian intelligence officials say there is an unprecedented level of intelligence sharing, including on topics that both sides earlier regarded as off-limits', and that the US conducts more military exercises with India than any other country.

All that is impressive. But technology transfer, co-manufacture, and co-development have all moved slowly, for reasons I explained last month and which may be compounded by last week's premature sacking of the director of India's Defence Research and Development Organisation. Reports suggest this visit will see agreements to build the RQ-11 surveillance drone and roll-on/roll-off modules for the C-130 transport aircraft in India, but expectations seem to be much lower for other areas, such as an electromagnetic launch system for India's indigenous aircraft carrier.

That said, high-level political attention can enable dramatic shifts, as it did when the Bush Administration engaged with Modi's predecessor in 2005. If Obama and Modi are willing to make the effort, and see this as a priority, they can accelerate defence cooperation more quickly than is supposed. And the onus here is on India. As Ashley Tellis observed in the Hindustan Times on Thursday, India 'needs to explain how this affiliation with Washington stacks up against the more than 30 other strategic partnerships India enjoys with countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Iran, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea'.

Also on the agenda is counter-terrorism. Last September's joint statement promised 'joint and concerted efforts' against a string of Pakistani terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In the past week, Pakistani reports suggest Islamabad has frozen the funds of LeT's front organisations and imposed a travel ban on its leader. Pakistan may be bowing to US pressure, implementing its so-called 'National Action Plan', or a mixture of both. Such bans have, in the past, been merely cosmetic, allowing militant groups to change their name and continue their work. Indeed, LeT's leader Hafiz Saeed plans to hold a public rally in Karachi on the day of Obama's arrival, and a Pakistani minister had questioned whether Saeed is a terrorist at all. India is sure to lobby the US to keep pressure on Pakistan in this regard, as well as ask for more real-time intelligence sharing.

Further west, in Afghanistan, two important shifts have occurred since Obama and Modi last met. First, Obama decided to allow US forces to undertake more of a combat role in 2015 than had previously been envisaged and, in December, slightly upped troop numbers to offset lower-than-expected NATO contributions. That's exactly what Modi had called for at the Council on Foreign Relations in September. On the other hand, and less encouragingly for Modi, the new Afghan Government has made a pivot to Pakistan by cancelling a longstanding request for Indian arms, making a prominent presidential visit to Pakistan (including a controversial visit to Pakistan's army headquarters), and acquiescing to China-brokered talks with the Taliban. In the Hindu a few days ago, India's former ambassador in Kabul outlined Indian anxieties. Modi is likely to seek assurances on the future US presence, as well as Washington's attitude to these regional shifts.

Away from defence and security, other issues on the table, as Brookings analyst Tanvi Madan notes in her detailed piece, include trade and investment, civil nuclear cooperation, climate change, clean energy, and visa policy. The trade and investment challenge alone is extremely daunting. As former US ambassador to India Frank Wisner noted in this week's Hindu, India lacks a bilateral investment treaty, isn't part of WTO negotiations on key areas like IT services and government procurement, isn't a member of APEC, and isn't being considered for Trans-Pacific trade negotiations. It therefore 'risks being excluded from the world's most potentially dynamic market areas'.

None of this can be resolved in a week. But this is the longest trip to India by any US president, and the first such repeat visit. Obama and Modi have a great opportunity to consolidate the symbolic and substantive gains of their previous meetings, and perhaps identify a few priorities that deserve a harder push from the top.

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New Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (Wikipedia.)

With the death of King Abdullah, the Saudi succession machinery has immediately swung into action. The Saudi monarchy prizes stability, and in order to forestall any damaging intrigue regarding succession, particularly in light of heir Prince Salman's reported poor health, Prince Muqrin was announced as the deputy crown prince in March last year.  So now King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin ascend to their respective positions, and the opaque manoeuvrings for access to power for the next generation of Saudi Arabia's extended ruling family begins in earnest.

The new king faces significant security challenges: ISIS on its borders in Iraq, the loosening of its grip in Yemen, plunging oil prices and a challenge for regional influence from Iran. But none of these are existential threats, and the regional situation faced by King Abdullah when he succeeded was also complex. I was in Riyadh when King Fahd died in 2005 and Saudi Arabia was in the grip of an internal security threat more serious than anything it faces now. Back then, there was a near full-scale conflict in Iraq between the US-led occupation forces and both Sunni and Shi'a insurgents, Iran had announced the resumption of uranium conversion, and shortly afterward it elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.

This shouldn't be forgotten when pundits speak of the regional security challenges facing Saudi Arabia today.  The region faced near continuous crises of one form or another for nearly all of Abdullah's rule, and the decision makers in Riyadh are hardly unschooled in addressing them.  The change at the top of the House of Saud is unlikely to presage any significant change in Saudi domestic or foreign policy. 

What it will do is force Saudi Arabia and others to look more closely at the next generation, the grandchildren of Abdulaziz. It is likely that one of these (and perhaps even King Muqrin, if he accedes to the throne) will face the types of challenges — domestic instability caused by the House of Saud's inability to meet the terms of the political contract it has with its religious leaders and the social contract it has with its population; the possibility of an economically and politically dominant Iran operating in a post-sanctions environment; as well as a raft of other as yet unforeseen issues — that are likely to truly threaten the stability of the Kingdom. 

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Every few years, Southeast Asian countries make headlines for their capital punishment practices, and invariably these headlines come when foreigners are sentenced.

On Thursday, Andrew Chan, an Australian accused of drug trafficking in Indonesia, lost his appeal for presidential clemency. He is one of two Australians (the other, Myuran Sukumaran, lost his appeal in December) who will be executed by firing squad.

Under the new Indonesian president, this year has already seen six convicted drug traffickers executed. Among those executed were citizens from Brazil, Vietnam, The Netherlands, and Nigeria. These executions have, once again, brought Indonesia's death penalty into the international spotlight.

Human Rights Watch has called out Indonesia's double standards. While Indonesia carries out the death penalty on drug traffickers, Jakarta has since 2010 lobbied Saudi Arabia to pardon one of its citizens on death row for murder. With thousands of Southeast Asians working in Saudi Arabia (many often in precarious employment positions), it is not uncommon for migrant labourers to face capital punishment. Most recently, the beheading of a Myanmar citizen in Mecca earlier this month caused uproar when a video circulated of the woman pleading her innocence moments before the sentence was carried out.

The persistent work to highlight such cases, particularly by NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, has contributed to gains made in some Southeast Asian countries to abolish the death penalty.

In January last year Myanmar commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment. There have been no known executions in the Myanmar since 1989, nor in Laos since that time. Thailand has not carried out capital punishment since 1988. In effect these states are what Cornell University's Death Penalty Worldwide database describe as 'abolitionist de facto'. The Philippines, East Timor and Cambodia have abolished capital punishment entirely. Brunei hasn't carried out any known executions since 1957 (though with the enactment of the first wave of hudud law last year, that tide may turn).

Yet capital punishment is still practiced in Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Most controversially, all these countries permit the death penalty for drug trafficking.

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In a mass trial last year, Vietnam's highest court upheld the death sentence for 29 drug traffickers. In 2005, Singapore executed Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen for drug trafficking. Most recently, two Singaporeans were executed for the trafficking of pure heroin in July last year. In Malaysia, drug traffickers are among the 900 currently on death row. In Indonesia, of the 133 people on death row in 2012, more than half (71) were there for drug trafficking.

While the influence of powerful religious conservative groups is certainly a factor in the maintenance of capital punishment in Indonesia and Malaysia (just as it is in the US), a more holistic analysis of why the death penalty continues in Southeast Asia must place greater weight on the damage done by narcotics.

The region has a long and troubled history with narcotics. Drug gangs and their huge profits threaten internal security and development. Drug-related diseases such as HIV devastate populations and drug-fueled violence terrorises communities across Southeast Asia. It was against this backdrop that ASEAN set the ambitious (or fanciful) goal of having a drug-free region by 2015. Given recent rates of production, it was a pipedream.

The Golden Triangle still produces a quarter of the world's heroin. According to the UNODC 'almost all the heroin produced in the Southeast Asia is consumed in East Asia and the Pacific'. In 2011 the region consumed 65 tons of pure heroin with a retail sales volume of approximately US$16.3 billion. Crackdowns on heroin production in the Golden Triangle have led to the advent of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), which are easier to produce. In the Greater Mekong subregion some 1.4 billion ATS, known locally as yaba, are consumed annually, with an estimated market value of US$6.5 billion.

From the Golden Triangle, narcotics are then trafficked and consumed through the region. That trade will likely become easier at the end of the year when the ASEAN Community is set to introduce freer movement around the region. This in itself could see a push for stricter application of death penalty laws.

For law enforcement, the trade in narcotics has its upside. Extracting bribes from tourists caught taking drugs is big business. For poorly paid police, such bribes can net thousands of dollars (sometimes a year or more worth of pay). The incentives for them to crack down on drugs are therefore skewed. The threat of capital punishment exerts fear on drug offenders and therefore increases the bribes that can be extracted. Drug kingpins are seldom charged, let alone put to death. Rather it is the lowly traffickers and drug users who suffer the most grievous of punishments.

It is perhaps a strange logic, but abolishing the death penalty will go a long way to improving law enforcement and governance in Southeast Asia, thereby diminishing drug trafficking,  which is the ultimate aim of governments that enforce the death penalty.  If the region is serious about tackling drug trafficking it would be wise to abolish the death penalty. Tackling the scourge of drugs in Southeast Asia means tackling the death penalty.

Photo by Flickr user Brian Jeffrey Beggerly.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies, the largest concentration of social media and mobile users, and some of the world's most innovative tech companies. The rise of mobile messenger apps, use of big data and online activism are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China's cyber watchdog has revealed one billion posts were deleted in 2014 as part of an 'Internet cleanup operation.' In addition, 20 million online forums, blogs and social media accounts and over 2000 websites were closed. Was yours one of them? Check here.
  • Indonesia's young and tech-savvy population is attracting new investment. Before you invest here are ten things you need to know, from the difficulties for foreign companies to the importance of social media (15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia).
  • Why 2015 will be the year of India's next technology revolution. Mobile health applications, electronic commerce and app-based automation of public services are pinpointed by the Washington Post as areas to watch.
  • Internet-based civil society groups are mentioned in this Devpolicy blog post as one of the few areas of hope for Solomon Islands politics. The author is likely referring to Forum Solomon Islands International, which has grown from a Facebook discussion group to a registered NGO that uses ICT tools to crowd-source policy ideas from its members to influence political outcomes.
  • Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi is shaking up the consumer electronics and smartphone market with plans to expand to Southeast Asia, Russia and Brazil. Founder Lei Jun, Forbes Asia's Businessperson of the Year in 2014, recently said: 'I've said on many different occasions that if I had been called the "Steve Jobs of China" as a 20- year-old, I would have been very honoured...As a 40-year-old, however, I don't want to be considered second to anyone.'
  • China is considering a range of measures to rein in poorly behaved Chinese travelers, including sending text messages to tourists as they arrive at their destination reminding them to observe good manners. The move comes shortly after CCTV pulled its Be a Good Panda, be a Good Tourist ad filmed in Sydney after a backlash on Chinese social media.

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The World Economic Forum in Davos is in full grandiose swing. 

Aside from the questionable message of having Al Gore and Pharrell Williams relaunch the Live Earth concert at an event that attendees reportedly used over 1700 private flights to get to, this year's (still ongoing) summit also saw the release of the 10th Edition of the Global Risks report.

The report is meant to raise awareness about the interconnection of social, geopolitical, economic and environmental crisis. One of the interesting aspects of the report this year was its warnings that the risk of geopolitical and interstate conflict is higher than the risk of collapsing of weak or failed states.

This is the first time the risk of interstate conflict has made the list.

In terms of impact, the report rates water crises and the rapid spread of infectious diseases as the two top concerns. Weapons of mass destruction come in third. Also note the change between the risk of the 'diffusion of weapons of mass destruction' in 2013 and simply 'weapons of the mass destruction' this year. It may have something to do with the fact that even under New START, Russia has more strategic nuclear weapons deployed than it did when the treaty came into effect in February 2011.

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Certainly the risk of geopolitical and interstate confrontation is on the rise, primarily due to the events in Ukraine and now also in the Middle East. If the Global Risks report is right, could we see the positive trend in the decline of interstate conflict reversed?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum.

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The Wall Street Journal:

China's economic growth slowed to 7.4% in 2014, downshifting to a level not seen in a quarter century and firmly marking the end of a high-growth heyday that buoyed global demand for everything from iron ore to designer handbags. The slipping momentum in China, which reported economic growth of 7.7% in 2013, has reverberated around the world, sending prices for commodities tumbling and weakening an already soft global economy.

Predictions of China economic slow-down have been routine headline stories over the past few years. Judging from this Wall Street Journal reporting, it seems to have returned with a vengeance. But it is seriously misleading.

China's 'high-growth heyday' ended in 2007, when two decades of double-digit growth were punctured by the global financial crisis. An enormous fiscal and financial stimulus in 2009 temporarily took growth over 10% again, but this was unsustainable. For the pasts three years, China's growth rate has started with a '7'.

Anyone putting much weight on the decimal figure misses the point. At the current pace, China is doubling its GDP in less than a decade, is growing at over twice the US pace and 10 times as fast as Europe.

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The 'China slowing' story belongs to an earlier period, and the world has already adapted to it. China's economic expansion has been so huge that, even with the lower growth rate, China's contribution to world economic growth in dollar terms is larger than in the double-digit period. 

What about the future? Is China about to stumble just when it has the substantial windfall of lower global oil prices?

The just-released IMF World Economic Outlook Update sees China's growth slowing to 6.7% this year and 6.3% next year. This sharp downward revision helps to perpetuate the gloom. But we need some perspective here. If the pace of China's expansion continues at around 7% (plus or minus one percent), it will extend one of the great development success stories. We should even count it as a stunning success if the trend includes some temporary bumps on the way, as China sorts out its housing and finance sectors and carries out a rebalancing from investment towards consumption.

The proper criterion is whether China can avoid the sort of persistent under-performance seen, say, in Brazil (barely positive growth in recent years and negative this year). If Michael Pettis turns out to be even remotely right (he has bet that 'average growth in this decade will barely break 3%'), this should be acknowledged. Yet despite the feverish WSJ reporting, this outcome is looking less likely with each passing year.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ernie.

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The UN is the go-to organisation for virtually every forgotten international crisis.

While the West has struggled on in Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN and its peacekeeping missions have been deployed to just about everywhere else: Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Darfur, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Timor-Leste, Haiti, and Burundi. In many of these cases the UN has performed well.

At a recent summit on strengthening international peacekeeping chaired by US Vice President Joe Biden, a host of countries made pledges to materially support peacekeeping (albeit informally). Australia was a surprisingly notable absentee from the list.

Since the early 2000s, Australia has decreased its support to UN peacekeeping operations from a high of 1500 personnel to its current level of only 44. While committing its forces to a few critical campaigns alongside its US and NATO allies, like many Western countries, Australia has resorted to chequebook peacekeeping – paying its dues rather than deploying personnel or materiel. Yet it is often through peacekeeping operations that stability is restored and future international crises are averted.

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Australia boasts a proud history in peace operations. Australians became some of the first UN military peacekeepers in the world when they deployed to Indonesia in 1947. Since then over 65,000 Australian military and police have served with distinction around the globe, from RAMSI in the Solomon Islands to Operation Solace in Somalia to UNTAC in Cambodia to INTERFET and UNTAET in Timor Leste. Australia has also fielded an impressive array of competent peace-operations force commanders: General Peter Cosgrove, Lt General John Sanderson, Major General Tim Ford, Major General Ian Gordon, Major General Michael Smith, and Major General David Ferguson.

Yet despite Australia's proud history, at the present moment neither the Government nor the ADF has an appetite for UN operations. The arguments raised against such deployments are numerous. But how realistic are the myths associated with peacekeeping?

The first myth is that UN peacekeeping is ineffective. Various studies have concluded that this is clearly not the case. Peacekeeping is generally an effective tool of the international system, in spite of its misuse and neglect. Clearly, there are faults, but these faults are too frequently conflated in the minds of UN opponents. Australia should be at the forefront of efforts to address the maladies of peacekeeping rather than in the background rebuking its many defects. 

The second myth is that to deploy on a UN mission is a step down for the military. The challenges inherent to modern peacekeeping (or what might now be termed stabilisation operations) offer a perfect opportunity for ADF personnel to develop their skills, because in many respects, peacekeeping is a step up from war fighting. Junior officers should be encouraged and credited for participating in UN missions. Surely it is better for these officers to gain overseas experience in a multinational force than undertaking staff duties in a Division HQ that will never deploy? The ADF needs to look at dispelling the cultural predilection for viewing a UN deployment as a holiday.

The third myth is that in such missions Australia would need to relinquish command and control of its personnel to a potentially second-rate force commander. Clearly, Australian commanders prefer to retain as much national command and control over their forces as possible. They presume that UN command and control structures do not allow for this preference. Yet in truth national contingent commanders retain a high degree of control over deployed peacekeepers just as they do in other coalition operations. If Australians were to be deployed to a UN mission, they would remain under Australian command.

Australia needs to restart the conversation on peacekeeping, and the 2015 Defence White Paper is an appropriate starting point. After Afghanistan, the ADF must consider peacekeeping as one of best options for overseas deployment and experience. Here are a few modest recommendations to guide initial thinking:

  • The ADF should expect to deploy peacekeepers and it should therefore train and plan accordingly.
  • Every five years the ADF should expect to prepare a sizable contingent of varying capability for deployment to a UN mission for a limited duration.
  • Peacekeeping should be fully integrated into the training-deployment cycle.
  • Opportunities should be sought to enhance cooperation on peacekeeper training and deployments, especially with regional partners.

Australian military personnel have proven themselves expert peacekeepers, but a proud reputation forged in the Middle East, Cambodia and Timor-Leste is in danger of being forgotten. Australia should position itself once again as a leader in peacekeeping in order to serve its own interests and international peace and security.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

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Fiji held its highly anticipated election in September 2014, but does that make it a democracy?

There's much more to a functioning democratic system than people putting a mark on a piece of paper and dropping it in a box. Even the international election observers didn't go so far as to say the vote was free and fair – they chose their words with great care and said the result was 'broadly representative' of the will of the people.

Functioning democratic systems have several aspects to them, including neutrally applied rule of law, representative government, secure property rights and free speech. Fiji has problems in each of those areas, but one of the most significant relates to free speech and the role of the media.

During the period of outright military rule in Fiji, there were government censors stationed in newsrooms, checking every story before publication.

Those censors are gone, but local journalists I've spoken to say they are still cautious about how far they go in covering anything involving politics. They say they have a censor in their heads. And with certain media outlets having to apply for publishing or broadcasting licences for periods as short as six months, angering the Government is a risk they cannot afford to take.

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There are many stories of late night phone calls from someone in a position of power to editors and publishers demanding that a reporter be fired or demoted for offending them with something they wrote or broadcast. These incidents are difficult to prove, of course, but what is undeniable is that journalists in Fiji are convinced this happens, and they adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Just as important, a culture has developed among those in power which is hostile to the very concept of robust journalism. Every reporter working in Fiji has experienced demands from those in authority that they be sent a list of the questions to be asked in advance of an interview (assuming they agreed to an interview in the first place, which is far from the case ordinarily). When, inevitably, reporters from outside the country refuse to accept such ridiculous conditions, the response is often anger. While it is perfectly reasonable for a reporter to indicate the general areas he or she would like to cover, providing questions in advance is completely unethical.

Also noticeable is a general reluctance of those in a position of authority to engage with journalists in a realistic way. Many times an Government department will simply issue a press release and tell reporters contacting them to use the release. Recently I myself had the head of a key Government body simply hang up on me for trying to get an interview about an important issue.

Visitors to Fiji can see this for themselves. Just turn on the television and watch a news bulletin. It is regarded as a perfectly normal thing for a newsreader to simply read out, in full, a Government press release. This is the sort of thing you'd expect to happen in North Korea, Zimbabwe or Cuba, not a democratic Fiji.

There is a culture in Fiji of not answering questions from journalists that has grown since the military coup of 2006, and the attitude towards the media, both local and foreign, was not particularly friendly even before then. 

The danger is that these attitudes have become entrenched for the new generation of Fijian journalists and will be difficult to change. If you know that people in authority refuse to answer questions, or if they demand questions in advance, or they simply issue press releases that don't answer the questions the public wants answered, then after a while it becomes hard to do your job properly. Fijian journalists are caught in an impossible situation, and one can only sympathise. I don't know that I would behave any differently under similar circumstances.

If Fiji continues to treat its journalists as mere royal heralds issuing pronouncements by those in power rather than as tribunes of the people who find out what's really going on up at the castle and tell the villagers about it, then its status as a functioning democracy must have a large question mark next to it.

Photo courtesy of the Fiji Department of Information.

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

  • The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman says recent speculation about China's 'setback' in the recent elections in Sri Lanka may be a little premature.
  • CSIS has released a report on how the Obama Administration and Congress can cooperate in order to sustain US engagement in Asia.
  • As part of the pivot, the recently upgraded guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville will deploy to Yokosuka Naval Base this year.
  • In what is being seen as a big development in Indian defence procurement, the Indian Air Force has received its first Tejas 'Made in India' Light Combat Aircraft after a wait of nearly 32 years.
  • Michael Krepon wrote on US Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to India earlier this month.
  • Is there growing transparency in Vietnamese domestic politics?
  • China Brief has an analysis on new developments in China's maritime strategy and the concept of 'strategic management of the sea'.
  • The physical vulnerability of cyber infrastructure, particularly underwater cables, is starting to get some attention.
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There is pride in Hong Kong that a local private company is pushing ahead with perhaps the world's largest-ever civil works project, the 280km long, 500m wide Nicaragua Canal. Construction began in December 2014.

HKND Group Chairman Wang Jing waves to youths in Brito Town, Nicaragua, 22 December 2014

The South China Morning Post dismisses outside suspicions while modestly describing the scheme as being 'centered on the creation of a more just, reasonable and equitable world order.' That a private company should be undertaking such munificence is remarkable. One thing's for certain: it can't be doing it for the money. Financially the numbers don't add up.

At a cost of at least US$50 billion, the project will take many years and require tens of thousands of workers. Legal, social, corruption and environmental concerns aside (and all are daunting), the financial returns are violently challenged.

The century-old Panama Canal, which is struggling through its own US$5 billion upgrade to double its potential traffic, generates about US$2 billion in annual revenues, about half of which are retained as profits. Building parallel infrastructure in Nicaragua at huge sunk expense will provoke a knife-fight response from Panama, which has capacity to spare. Although the Nicaragua canal will allow larger-sized ships to pass, Panama should retain most of the transit share, and will slash pricing to make sure. In that case, the canals' combined annual profit pool might be much less than the US$1 billion today.

Commercially speaking, this US$50 billion gambit is courageous, if not reckless.

There is of course another possible explanation: that the company is a front for Beijing, that it will rely heavily on cheap long-term financing from state institutions, and that the canal is to secure access for Chinese shipping.

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There is plenty of scuttlebutt on the internet about the company's mysterious chairman (he says he is 'just a businessman') and China's strategic game plan. US$50 billion is serious money, way beyond the exposure limits of institutions like the World Bank but feasible for the Chinese agencies which long ago surpassed it. If this canal is built, it will mostly be with Chinese state contractors and funds. True, companies can raise US$10 billion or even US$20 billion in international public equity, but these are special cases (like Alibaba) for proven businesses. 

This gargantuan engineering enterprise also has the audacious hallmarks of a Chinese Government design. But if it is, why would Beijing wish to hide behind a supposed Hong Kong-based entrepreneur?

China enjoys excellent relations with Nicaragua's charismatic Daniel Ortega, who in turn is no friend of the US. Maybe Ortega is simply downplaying Beijing's role in order not to antagonise the yanqui. Perhaps Beijing is happy to maintain plausible deniability for now, and will later assume greater ownership over the enterprise once it has matured and the Americans have resigned themselves to its existence. Although the targeted financial payback is just 12 years, with operations underway by 2019, both these estimates seem fanciful. In reality, the project is likely to see over-runs and delays, so the operating concession might be 50 or even 100 years.

Then a Chinese entity – perhaps the state itself – will have long-term control over a key 'chokepoint' into the Atlantic.

The Nicaragua canal would prioritise Chinese shipping: containers to the US eastern seaboard, tankers from Venezuela, iron-ore carriers from Brazil, perhaps even PLA Navy warships. That sounds pretty sensational. But what is really gained here? As noted above, the canal is broadly replicating what already exists in Panama. The shipping distance to the western Atlantic is not shortened; Hong Kong is equidistant via the Suez. And the Atlantic southern capes offer other entry points. If the specific objective is ensuring passage for Chinese naval vessels through the central American isthmus into the Caribbean, it must be obvious to Beijing that – with or without a second canal – it can only be at the forbearance of the US. And those PLA Navy ships will be a very long way from their home port.

There is a broader agenda here, obviously. With its diplomatic 'whirlwind' China is seeking greater access to world markets and wants new trade routes opened, preferably under its own aegis.

The most significant is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) program, which envisages continental and maritime pathways west to Europe and Africa, away from the US-contested Pacific. There are good reasons why China should seek to build strategic 'keys' like OBOR, not least to secure its restive frontiers. But in reinforcing its periphery it will encounter powerful rivals. Nicaragua's canal is a clear challenge to the US. New Delhi strategists are already muttering that OBOR pincers India. Russia, distracted for now in Ukraine, may come to resent greater Chinese influence in Central Asia. 

The other risks in holding these access points should also be well known to Beijing's leaders: grassroots protests, wars, coups, external interventions, nationalisations, and – most unpredictable – democratic elections. It is already evident that Nicaragua, which is hardly a stable jurisdiction, will be divided by the canal in more ways than one.

Indeed, compared to the serious public effort China is making with its OBOR initiative, the whole Nicaragua canal adventure seems quirky and speculative. Perhaps that's why it's in the hands of a private Hong Kong developer.

Photo: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas

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