Lowy Institute

By Frank Jotzo, Director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at ANU, and Howard Bamsey, adjunct Professor at ANU and previously Australia's Special Envoy on Climate Change.

President Obama's Clean Power Plan is a step towards a climate-friendlier US economy. It will encourage further action by other countries and improve prospects for international negotiations. It ought to be taken seriously in Canberra.

Obama's Clean Power Plan uses federal powers of pollution regulation to impose emissions targets for carbon dioxide from power stations for each of the 50 US states. It is left up to each state how to achieve it, a smart move that can help with political acceptability.

This is Obama's answer to having his plans for national emissions trading thwarted by Congress. In economic terms it is second-best compared to a broad-based price on carbon. It is a demonstration in the art of the feasible, with climate change clearly a key plank in Obama's search for a legacy.

The plan targets a 32% reduction of power-sector emissions by 2030 compared to 2005. The US is already about halfway to that reduction goal, on account of the recession and cheap natural gas. The second half of the journey may be the more difficult part but this will depend on changes in the price of gas, the cost of renewables and opportunities for energy savings. Experience has shown that emissions savings often come cheaper than expected.

As Obama hopes, the Clean Power Plan will indeed have a positive impact on international climate-change negotiations. It is a demonstration of leadership by the largest developed-country emitter. It underpins America's intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) for the Paris meeting, with a 26-28% economy-wide emissions reduction target at 2025 at its core. The US action now will help allay concerns that the commitments that countries take to Paris are just rhetoric.

The Clean Power Plan will contribute perhaps a quarter of the reductions needed to reach the US national target, so clearly much more needs to be done. But the Plan is an expression of earnest political will, the fuel of the negotiating process. Sustained US leadership throughout Obama's second term has helped move that process from feeble sputtering to a steady tick.

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Obama claims US action is the reason China is moving on climate change. This is a massive overstatement. China acts for its own domestic reasons and objectives. But it is true that without commitments and action in the US, it would be harder for China to take a leadership role on climate change. The converse holds true too: if there was less action in China, it would be more difficult for Obama to run hard on the issue of climate change.

In Australia, commentary about our prospective INDC has focused on the reduction target the Government is now finalising. But in order to be credible under the new paradigm agreed in Lima last year, an INDC needs to be more than just a number. To reassure others, governments need to put forward concrete policies to substantiate the target, and show the will to follow through. China's INDC is a good example, with its long list of policies planned and already in place, and an explanation of China's commitment to reining in emissions growth.

In Australia, as in the US, there is a large, aging fleet of coal-fired power stations and little likelihood that new ones will be built. A near zero-emissions power system is possible, as shown in the Deep Decarbonisation Pathway Project. Policy that took Australia in this direction would add credibility to our target. So would additional policies for improved energy productivity, fuel economy standards for motor vehicles and similar moves in other sectors. All of this is within reach for Australia and could underpin an ambitious target. But new mechanisms would be necessary, or at least substantial strenghtening of current policies. An essential first step would be to equip the Emissions Reduction Fund, which provides subsidies for private projects that aim to reduce emissions, with a robust and rigorous 'safeguard mechanism' to take it towards a baseline-and-credit mechanism. That is second-best to an emissions trading scheme, but it would be better than the existing policy.  

Some observers will argue that the US plan is unlikely to be implemented because it will face lengthy litigation. If you were Tony Abbott you might call it 'airy fairy'.

Certainly, implementation will not be trouble-free. Governors from some Republican states, especially those where coal production is important, are preparing to launch a legal challenge. The EPA believes that it has a solid legal foundation for the plan and is confident that it will withstand all challenges. And once the states devise plans to implement the targets in a way that suits their circumstances and political economy, there may not be much appetite to go back.

None of this is unusual or unexpected. This is the American way of reform. Even if the next president were hostile to the plan and wished to dismantle it, this would not be easy. Replacement regulations would be required and they would have to be negotiated through the same legal obstacle course as the present ones. So while nobody could guarantee that the plan will be implemented as drafted, it is reasonable to expect that it will. Nothing airy-fairy about that.

Photo by Flickr user 10 10.

  • Paul Flanagan analyses the confronting figures from PNG's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, with the budget deficit for 2015 estimated to reach a record high of 9.4% of GDP. 
  • As Fiji's outgoing military chief Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga takes up a position in the Foreign Service, new chief Commodore Viliame Naupoto says depoliticising the military is still a focus.
  • A fishing boat intercepted off the coast of PNG crewed by trafficked Myanmar and Cambodian indentured labourers is thought to be one of 33 vessels in the area controlled by a Thai crime syndicate and crewed by slave labour. Greenpeace's International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo stresses the high levels of exploitation found in the fishing industry across the board, comparing tuna fishing vessels to 'floating sweatshops'.
  • Nauru President Baron Waqa defends his Government's recent actions in an article for the Daily Telegraph.
  • Australian-made film Tanna, set on the Vanuatu island of the same name, is set to make its debut at the Venice Film Festival. The film tells the controversial love story of two young Yakel tribe members, a Pacific 'Romeo and Juliet'. 
  • New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says a Cook Islands UN seat would be confusing and inappropriate. Tagata Pasifika looks back at Cook Islands history and its relationship with New Zealand as Cook Islanders celebrate 50 years of self-governance.


Yesterday, the Abbott Government announced an $89 billion warship building program that it said would allow for 'a continuous build of surface warships in Australia', thus guaranteeing 2500 jobs in South Australian shipbuilding 'for decades'.

These are bold claims for an exceptionally difficult task, especially since it appears from the statements surrounding the announcement that the Government has as yet little idea of how it will manage the implementation of its proposals.

Launch ceremony for the first Air Warfare Destroyer, NUSHIP Hobart. (Defence.)

The Australian naval shipbuilding industry receives frequent bad publicity for poor productivity, cost overruns and schedule delays. Yet, in the 1990s, the ANZAC frigate program for 10 vessels (including two for New Zealand) proved exemplary. This example underpinned an argument that a long-term, guaranteed 'continuous building' of naval vessels would allow the industry to reach an acceptable level of performance.

The Government has adopted this approach to underpin 'a permanent naval shipbuilding industry'. Over the next 20 years it will acquire submarines, frigates and offshore patrol vessels (OPV), with the latter two programs constituting the continuous build undertaking.

The cynical reaction would be to dismiss the proposed shipbuilding plan as a largely political exercise. South Australia, with the highest unemployment rate for 15 years at over 8%, has become an electoral weakness for the Government, inducing local MPs to urge the use of defence procurement to support the economy.

The Government's shipbuilding proposals can proceed only by replacing existing naval vessels at an unusually early stage in their operational service, bringing forward by three years the ANZAC frigate replacement program to commence in 2020 and advancing the OPV by two years to 2018. There is as yet no commitment to the local construction of the $50 billion future submarine program.

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Yet, if this $40 billion plan is primarily a vote buying exercise for the Coalition's South Australian colleagues, it is so massively focused on saving one or two seats as to defeat its own purpose.

The Australian naval shipbuilding industry faces existential problems. Several businesses, significantly BAe at the Williamstown Naval dockyard, are likely to leave the sector if they do not soon secure naval work. Shipbuilding interests in Cairns, Townsville, Newcastle, Melbourne and Fremantle are as focused on government policy as those in Adelaide.

Unfortunately for them, the Government appears to be fixated on South Australia and particularly on the Government-owned ASC. Yesterday morning Prime Minister Abbott proclaimed '2500 shipbuilding jobs, safe for Adelaide, for all time'.  Predictably, the announcement was panned by the Victorian and West Australian premiers, with Victoria's Industry Minister Lily D'Ambrosio denouncing it as a blow to shipbuilding in Melbourne.

As usual, Abbott's statements are open to interpretation and so could be modulated by the condition that 'the major build be in South Australia', implying some wiggle room that would see shipbuilders in other states subcontracting to ASC, as is the case with the Air Warfare Destroyers.

Nonetheless, ASC emerges from the Government's announcement as clearly the dominant entity in Australian shipbuilding. The Government has commissioned a strategic review of ASC's shipbuilding capacity which will include advice on how to structure ASC to implement the announced plan. The South Australian Government says it is willing to incorporate its facilities at Techport into any expanded shipbuilding vision, which hints at removing ASC from its current ownership by the Department of Finance, if not the privatisation of the company.

So, only three years before the program commences, the Government is yet to determine how it will implement its proposals. Privatisation would come with its own implications. The companies interested in ASC have obvious intent towards their particular strengths. Austal, the West Australian builder of the Armidale class patrol boats, manufactures modular multirole warships for the US Navy in its American shipyard, one that could serve as a model for the similarly multirole OPV program. BAe, the big British defence conglomerate, has strengths in frigate and submarine technology. TKMS Australia, the local representative of the German conglomerate in the Competitive Evaluation Program for the future submarine, has been arguing strongly its ability to build these boats in Australia and its willingness to buy ASC in order to do so.

In the presence of so many unknowns, the future of the Government's naval shipbuilding plan remains very much a mystery.

Even so, will it work? That again remains dependent on the implementation of various elements of the proposal, for there is plenty of opportunity in the three shipbuilding programs to create extensive problems of training, technology management and finance.

Whatever happens, it seems likely that the Navy's force structure will become more expensive as either the surface fleet is expanded or its vessels' operational lives are reduced in line with a continuous replacement program. Whatever the Government's preferences, it also seems that a considerable part of the future submarine program will need to be undertaken in Australia if a continuous build policy is to be sustained.

More clearly, Australian naval shipbuilding is now centred on Adelaide. Some of the smaller regional yards may be able to survive on fleet maintenance, which will also support the continued viability of the industry in Fremantle. However, should BAe wish to remain in Australian naval shipbuilding, it might be best advised to realise the latent real estate value of its Williamstown facility and purchase ASC. Whether that would ultimately contribute to the Commonwealth Government losing more seats in Victoria than it might hope to save in South Australia remains to be seen.



At opposite ends of the Islamic world, two traditional examples of moderate Islam in a modern state are slipping fast. In their desperate quest for personal power, President Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia appear to be not only destroying their personal reputations but also dragging their countries towards religious extremism and confrontation between national minorities.

Let's first recall the main facts leading to the present inflection points in both countries.

In the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey, Erdogan led a highly personalised campaign by his AKP party designed to cement his position as unassailable father of the nation. Yet the election produced an unlikely winner in the person of the moderate Kurdish politician Selahettin Demirtash and his HDP party, who went beyond ethnic allegiance to attract a sufficient part of the anti-Erdogan, leftist and urban vote to block the President's march to absolute (albeit democratically sanctioned) power.

In coalition talks since, AKP has appeared unready to make concessions, leading many commentators to suspect Erdogan is aiming for a new ballot, a move constitutionally required if no agreement for a parliamentary majority can be found by the end of August. However, to win the desired absolute majority at these elections, Erdogan will need to create a popular nationalist and Islamic backlash — or, to be precise, we might well replace 'Islamic' with 'Sunni', as Turkey's Shia minority traditionally votes for the Kemalist opposition to the AKP. This explains at least in part why Erdogan's government has, since the beginning of the civil war next door, turned a blind eye to activities on Turkish soil by Syrian-based Sunni extremists.

Surprising parallels to Erdogan's power games can be found in Malaysian politics. Cornered by what appears to be a case of personal corruption around a state development fund, PM Najib is flailing wildly at anybody, including his own deputy as well as independent media outlets which try to report what really happened.

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The opposition coalition in Malaysia, a misfit group of Islamic conservatives and non-Muslim Chinese held together solely by their dislike of the government, is finally coming apart. The immediate issue is the creeping advance of hudud (the Islamic criminal code), fiercely supported by the conservative wing of the opposition and equally strongly rejected by secular opposition parties. Najib might well speculate that by moving his ruling party UMNO to the religious right he can save his neck by gaining support from religious conservatives while condemning secularists to perpetual minority status.

In and around both countries catalytic developments are underway which will determine not only the fate of the two protagonists but also the future of the two countries.

In Turkey, the Government has, with much fanfare and with the approval of NATO, started air strikes and limited ground operations against 'extremists'. It is still unclear whether the principal target is ISIS or the PKK. The latter, of course, is formerly a terrorist group and is Kurdish. It is mainly based in Iraq and its allies have been the only successful fighters against the ISIS brigades in north-western Syria. The AKP government has been engaged in a long pacification process with the PKK which is just realising tangible results for all sides: the PKK formally renounced its desire for a Kurdish independent state on Turkish soil, while the Government has introduced Kurdish language teaching as a first step towards greater Kurdish more autonomy.

Unfortunately the peace process is now history, with both sides accusing the other of bad faith. Recent declarations by the still AKP-dominated government in parliament leave little doubt that, for Erdogan, the only good Kurd is a pro-AKP Kurd. All the ingredients for a sectarian mix of religious and ethnic extremisms are thus ready to poison Turkish politics for years to come.

The implications are enormous. They might start with a new wave of terrorist attacks on Turkish soil and equally bloody reprisals in Kurdish-populated regions, extending to severe interruptions in the all-important tourist business for Turkey through to a loss of investor confidence in the country's economy (Erdogan's cozying-up to Putin and Beijing might thus not be entirely coincidental). For the time being, Turkey's NATO partners and especially the US have chosen silence. But this will end should it become clear that Erdogan's Turkey prefers a radical Sunni regime (eg. ISIS) as a southern neighbour over a moderate Kurdish one of the type effectively in power in northern Iraq.

As for the corruption scandal in Malaysia, the international machinery for investigating and uncovering the dirty money is now creaking into motion. Given the investigations by the Suspicious Transaction Reporting Office as well as the Monetary Authority in Singapore, the discovery of suspicious accounts in Swiss banks, the arrest of a Swiss bank intermediary in Thailand and the apparently heavy implication of Gulf-based money, the net is sufficiently wide for a full cover-up to be unlikely. It is doubtful whether Najib can survive, especially as he has lost support within his party.

However, one cannot avoid noting the slow but steady Islamisation of both the private lives of Malaysia's people and their state. Authoritarian leaders in the Islamic world, as they become increasingly isolated and out of touch with the aspirations of their younger citizenry, tend to turn to religion to find allies and new credentials. Wahhabism is alive and kicking, and not only on the Gulf. Yet the West, and the US in particular, is putting strategic interests before human rights, as shown by Washington's recent upgrading of Malaysia's appalling people-smuggling record to satisfy a precondition for participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Both Turkey and Malaysia might already be lost as examples of modern Islamic democracies.

Photo by FLickr user Brixit Lorenzo.


Andrew Revkin, who writes the New York Times' Dot Earth blog:

This is an important step on two fronts — sustaining domestic momentum away from coal in electricity generation and providing a fresh signal to other countries that the United States is committed to cutting its carbon footprint.

Brad Plumer, Vox:

A bunch of media outlets are referring to this as "Obama's climate plan." But that's not quite right. More precisely, this rule is just one piece of a much broader Obama agenda to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions over the next decade. The Clean Power Plan is certainly a significant component, but it isn't even expected to account for a majority of the cuts Obama's envisioning. So keep an eye on all those other rules and policies, as well.

Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on foreign Relations:

Politics has greatly constrained the realm of the possible for emissions cutting policy. A fundamental shift in U.S. politics could in principle yield something substantially better – but that isn’t the universe we’re living in. For the time being, the principal alternatives to the Clean Power Plan as it stands are inaction; a different set of EPA regulations that’s far less flexible (and hence less economically sound) or far weaker; or, potentially, large subsidies to a range of zero-carbon energy generators. The Clean Power Plan is a vastly superior way forward.

Michael Grunwald, Politico:

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by the end of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years. What, did you think the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change would actually accelerate the nation’s efforts to combat climate change?

The final rule will also delay the first deadline for states to meet interim targets from 2020 to 2022, a significant walkback in a plan that Obama, cueing the Times, called “the biggest, most important step we’ve taken to combat climate change.”

If you’re really ranking them, the Clean Power Plan is at best the fourth-strongest action that Obama has taken to combat climate change, behind his much-maligned 2009 stimulus package, which poured $90 billion into clean energy and jump-started a green revolution; his dramatic increases in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which should reduce our oil consumption by 2 million barrels per day; and his crackdown on mercury and other air pollutants, which has helped inspire utilities to retire 200 coal-fired power plants in just five years. The new carbon regulations should help prevent backsliding, and they should provide a talking point for U.S. negotiators at the global climate talks in Paris, but the 2030 goals would not seem overly ambitious even without new limits on carbon.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones responds:

This is a little unfair in two ways. First, the 15 percent reduction of the past decade was the low-hanging fruit. The initial cuts are always the easiest. The next 15 percent will be harder, and mandating that it happen at about the same rate is more stringent than it sounds.

Second, the decrease over the last decade happened mostly because gas-fired plants became cheaper than coal thanks to the boom in natural gas fracking. That's a one-time deal, and there's no guarantee that something similar will drive further decreases. Having a mandate in place forces it to happen regardless of future events in the energy market.

David Graham, The Atlantic:

In brief, the Clean Power Plan puts limits on carbon pollution from power plants, mandating a 32-percent reduction by 2030, though based on 2005 levels, setting state-by-state standards for reduction. The rule is expected to lead to the closure of many coal-fired plants and prevent new ones from opening. The regulation was first proposed last year, and, after the EPA considered public comments, the final rule was released Monday. Experts described the rule as historic.

“They’re the most important regulations on climate change ever issued by the U.S.,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Gerrard said while the rule’s impact would be important stateside, it was at least as important because of the role it will play in the global negotiations in Paris. Although China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has historically been larger, and American action is seen as essential to urging other countries to move on reductions. Following Obama’s proposal in 2014, China announced new emissions targets. But international progress is fragile, and attempts at marshaling a global response to climate change have repeatedly foundered.

“If these rules were to crash and burn before the Paris conference, that would likely have disastrous effects there,” Gerrard said.

 The Economist's Democracy in America blog:

Even if domestic leadership on the EPA’s proposals remains uncertain, the plan suggests America wishes to occupy a bigger role at the climate negotiations in Paris this December. Ethan Zindler, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says the measures finally “sync up international promises with domestic policies.” America’s emissions-reduction deal with China late last year now has more bite, for example. And any indication that America is more open to multilateral negotiations is welcome news elsewhere in the world, even if many allies had hoped for a more ambitious environmental agenda.


A recent piece by Elliot Brennan (Southeast Asia: Here be Pirates) misrepresents the piracy situation in Southeast Asia. It follows media reports claiming Southeast Asia is now the main global 'hot spot' for global piracy and sea robbery. That may be true in absolute numbers of reported attacks, but before making broad statements about piracy in the region and the counter-measures required, it's necessary to look more closely at the figures.

Map courtesy of the ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre.

Realistic assessments of the piracy threat require analysis of the reported attacks in terms of their seriousness, the types and sizes of vessels attacked, and whether ships were proceeding slowly or stopped at anchor or in port at the time of the attack. Any ship at all may be attacked while stopped or proceeding slowly if appropriate precautions are not taken and vigilance exercised.

Brennan relies on piracy data from the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). This is a private sector organisation funded by shipping interests, particularly the insurance sector. Its reports suffer from the major drawback that they deal only in absolute numbers, counting an incident of petty theft from a ship at anchor as equivalent to a major incident of ship hijacking. Since the greater majority of incidents in the region are relatively minor, the PRC's reports can exaggerate the threat.

Reports from the Information Sharing Centre (ISC) established by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) provide a more informed picture. These reports classify each incident of piracy and sea robbery according to level of violence and economic loss. This supports ReCAAP's role as a government-to-government organisation tasked with providing authoritative advice to governments and industry on actions necessary to counter the threat.

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As shown by ReCAAP's report for the first half of 2015, the apparent increase in the number of attacks in this period over the same period in previous years was due largely to two factors: increased attacks in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) through Singapore Straits (50 of the 90-odd attacks in the region during the period), and increased attacks in Vietnamese ports and anchorages (13 of the 90 attacks).

Ships invariably slow down when passing through the TSS and become vulnerable to 'hit and run' raids of petty theft. This phenomenon is not new but has been a feature of the region for many years, surging up and down from one year to the next depending on the level of policing (mainly onshore) to stamp it out. With the eastbound lane passing through Indonesia's territorial sea, the responsibility for dealing with these attacks rests primarily with Indonesia.

I take issue with two other points in Brennan's piece. First, it is far-fetched to suggest that increased attacks in Southeast Asia could lead to terrorist links similar to those between Somali pirates and Al-Shabaad. The situation in the two regions is quite different. Possible links between pirates and terrorists in Southeast Asia have been disproved many times over.

Ample evidence exists to show that even the more serious incidents in Southeast Asia of fuel siphoning from small tankers are purely criminal acts. The economic costs of these incidents is minor compared with the costs imposed by the Somali pirates when they were operating at their peak. The Somali pirates also enjoyed a business model whereby they were able to hold a vessel securely, possibly for months, while they negotiated a ransom for the ship and her crew. Nowhere is this possible in Southeast Asia.

My second issue with Brennan's piece is the notion that fears about provoking China prevent regional countries instituting more sea and air patrols to counter piracy. These fears have arisen in the context of patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, but not with countering piracy. According to the IMB, no attacks at all occurred in the South China Sea in the first half of 2015.

Undoubtedly, China as a major ship-owning nation would fully support measures to counter the current types of attack occurring in Southeast Asia. China already contributes to safety in the Malacca and Singapore Straits with significant funding support for projects under the Cooperative Mechanism for Safety and Environmental Protection in the Straits.

There is always scope to improve maritime cooperation, but it's important to be conscious of costs and ensure the best use of limited national capacities. More sea and air patrols, as suggested by Brennan, are not the main requirement at present. Rather it's enhanced security in the TSS through Singapore Straits, and greater security in those regional ports and anchorages prone to attacks. In this regard, recent initiatives by Indonesia, including designating recommended anchorage areas off key ports that are more actively patrolled, are to be welcomed. Vietnam might now adopt similar arrangements.

  • Deadly floods are devastating Myanmar, with over 200,000 people already affected by the disaster and dozens dead. More rain is forecast in coming days and the death toll is expected to climb. On Monday a state of emergency was declared in parts of the country. Thailand’s north and northeast have been hit by floods which are causing havoc
  • Embattled PM Najib has reshuffled his cabinet, creating new divisions within his party. RSIS's Yang Razali Kassim looks at the future of UMNO. 
  • Zach Abuza looks at the implications of drought and climate change in Southeast Asia.
  • Hun Sen has ruled out holding early elections, adding: 'the reason why is because all of you [the opposition] are stupid'. 
  • Suthep, who led protests in Thailand prior to the military coup, said he will watch over Thailand's reforms.
  • Vietnam held a flag-raising ceremony for its two latest (out of four) Kilo-class submarines.
  • Philip Andrews-Speed looks at Chinese investments in Southeast Asian energy and mineral resources. Generally, he says, the companies are state-owned, driven by mixed motivations and carrying mixed blessings for host nations. 
  • In an attempt to stop bribery, Cambodian police will now pocket 70% of the fines they collect. 
  • Malcolm Cook on the winners and losers of the current arbitration process over claims in the South China Sea. 
  • Anger is growing on social media to Naypyidaw's response the floods. Cartoons are circulating on social media ridiculing the government, such as this one:


Much has been made of the recent 'shock' announcement of Mullah Omar's death over two years ago, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan depending on who you believe. In particular, the revelation has been widely interpreted as a major challenge to peace talks.

Shashank Joshi was right to point out (Mullah Omar dead? Afghanistan Peace Talks Under Threat if News is Confirmed) that, given the timely Eid endorsement of the peace talks supposedly from Mullah Omar (or more likely, from those in the Taliban leadership controlling the messaging from the apparently already-dead leader), the leaking of his death may well have been a direct challenge to the proponents of peace. Forcibly destroying the myth that the reclusive leader of the movement was still alive, in command and in support of the peace talks could be seen as an attempt to stop those talks in their tracks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Flickr/USIP.)

If the admission of Mullah Omar's death sparks an internal power struggle to replace him, talks will probably stall in the short term. Given reporting on Mullah Omar's former deputy Akhtar Mansour's power play for the top job, the subsequent announcement of insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's death, Tayeb Agha's resignation as head of the Taliban Political Office in Doha, and the walk-out and even possible (unconfirmed) murder of Omar's son and leadership challenger Yaqoob, the leadership drama is already starting to play out like an episode of Game of Thrones.

As I argued in my last analysis of the prospects for peace, however, we must resist the temptation to interpret every setback as a cause to write the obituary of the peace process.

The announcement of Mullah Omar's death and its possible consequences present a potential spoiler in the peace process, and it will be instructive to see how both President Ghani and the pro-peace elements in the Taliban manage the first of many possible spoilers on the road to peace. But the truth about Mullah Omar needed to come out, and it's probably a good thing that it happened now rather than later.

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As I told Danielle Moylan in her insightful article for the ABC on the implications of Mullah Omar's death for Afghanistan, his absence would have been a constant elephant in the room during talks with the Afghan Government. For the Taliban to publicly negotiate under the authority of a dead man would have been an act of diplomatic bad faith, and played extremely negatively both to the Taliban rank-and-file as well as the Afghan public who will eventually be asked to accept any peace deal.

If we assume the announcement was correct and that Mullah Omar in fact died years ago, as the Kabul rumour mill has long conjectured, then it was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' his death was revealed. Although the announcement will probably stall talks for now, it was better to have gotten this out of the way early, before talks progressed and the foundation of a negotiated agreement was hammered out. Announcing his death later in the piece would have likely been far more disruptive, potentially calling into question what had already been negotiated and sending the peace process back to square one.

Getting the admission of his death out of the way now allows the leadership issue in the Taliban to be resolved before talks are too far developed and for a more sustainable basis of legitimacy for peace to be consolidated within the movement. If Mansour retains the leadership, reports that he generally supports the idea of engaging in peace talks are positive. There is debate about the extent to which he and other moderate elements in the Taliban genuinely support peace or whether they have been strong-armed by Pakistan. But the West has been urging Pakistan for years to exert pressure on the Taliban to come to the table, and if it finally has, then that is a good thing.

While the leadership battle could cause a split that fragments the Taliban along pro and anti-peace lines, this may have been an inevitable consequence of pushing ahead with peace talks in any case. There were always going to be irreconcilable elements of the Taliban that would not accept peace. Disgruntled defectors may well raise the black flag of ISIS as they have previously, and the possibility of greater numbers flocking to ISIS is cause for concern. But for now, ISIS is not a strategic threat in Afghanistan, nor is it clear that it will become one.

What remains to be seen is whether Mansour (or whoever takes over the leadership) has the inclination to continue to engage in the peace process, and the charisma, influence and leadership to bring enough rank-and-file fighters with him to make a peace deal meaningful. While uncertainty continues to characterise the road ahead, the possibility of a negotiated settlement to this conflict remains real.


Gareth Evans is usually credited with initiating the idea that the Indonesia-Australia relationship needed 'ballast' to keep it upright against the storms it inevitably encounters:

For many years now we have possessed what could be called common strategic interests. These interests are important, but they have not been enough to give ballast to the overly intense political relationship.

This powerful image has reappeared many times since 1988. But just what is the 'ballast', and how do we create enough of it to counterbalance the 'overly intense political relationship'?

There isn't just one answer or one approach. But one example, the ANU Indonesia Project, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Canberra last week. This well-attended celebration included the launch of Colin Brown's history of the project, Australia's Indonesia Project: 50 Years of Engagement.

Those thinking that the present strained juncture is the lowest point in the relationship might contemplate the unpropitious climate in 1965 when the Project was established. Laid out in Australia's Indonesia Project, the proposal that the economist Heinz Arndt put to the ANU vice chancellor stated:

There is an almost complete lack of the macro-economic data one normally takes for granted...The present government is unlikely to evince interest in, or facilitate, economic research or policy advice based on research. If political relations between Australia and Indonesia should further deteriorate, fieldwork, already difficult to organise on the outer islands, may become impracticable even in Java

Nor did the Project have support from academic colleagues, as outlined by Arndt: 'Everyone, almost everyone I consulted advised against the effort'. At the time, Indonesia's economy had collapsed. The currency was valueless, exports had shrunken, hyperinflation was rampant and the country was in default of its enormous foreign debt. Indonesia was about to experience the traumatic and drawn-out transition from Sukarno to Soeharto.

Nevertheless, Arndt went ahead.

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50 years later, the convivial anniversary was attended by three former Indonesian ministers (one of them also former vice-president), all alumni from ANU. The Project's academic journal – the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies – has been published continuously three times a year. It's the best (perhaps the only) comprehensive record of the progress of the Indonesian economy from the basket-case days of the 1960s to a well-performing emerging economy with GDP within sight of overtaking Australia.

Perhaps the greatest insight of the Project's founders was their conviction that this should not be solely an Australian-oriented effort. It needed substantive Indonesian participation. The famous 'Berkeley Mafia' economists were all involved, many of them making regular trips to Canberra for project events. A strenuous effort was made to have Indonesians write in the Bulletin (Arndt's intrusive editorial hand bringing them up to scratch in the early days when drafts needed his ministrations).

Today the project is headed by an Indonesian. There are two annual lecture series in Indonesia (the Sadli lecture and the Hadi Soesastro lecture, both given in honour of Indonesians closely associated with the Project). The PhD students studying in the Project are almost exclusively Indonesian. Yet the centre of gravity remains ANU in Canberra.

The other great quality the Project brought was its emphasis on people. Arndt aimed to create 'not an institution, but a network'. The key task was getting people together to focus on the issues of Indonesian economic development. The reach was wide, with many visits to universities outside Jakarta. The central role of the annual Indonesia Update was not to write academic papers just to add to authors' CVs but to attract a crowd ready to learn more about Indonesia. A mini-version of the Update takes place every year at the Lowy Institute, bringing it to a different audience.

Much of Colin Brown's history records the struggle to fund the Project, especially as increasing demands for higher governance and accountability replaced the informal world in which the project had been born. The book usefully records the begging letters to Australia's aid agency pleading for funding – a reminder that this project could have ended several times during its life, never to be revived.

There has been plenty of Indonesian recognition of the Project's value as a source of research. One top Indonesian economist said 'It is ironic that the best institution...on the Indonesian economy is not in Indonesia but is to be found in Australia.' 

But evaluating its worth as 'ballast' in the relationship has proven harder and its value has often gone unrecognised. One of the regular reviewers noted that the Project's budget (less than A$1 million a year) 'represents significantly less than 1/10th of one percent of AusAID's country program in Indonesia. Effectively, the Project operates on a slender shoestring, while providing plenty of leverage for AusAID's money'.

Even in the tough current budget climate, the ANU Indonesia Project seems to have continuing support. But it's only one example of what is needed. The problem is not just funding. Colin Brown's book gives some indications of the critical need for energetic, resourceful, entrepreneurial people like Arndt and his successors. As usual, the luck of time and circumstance is also vital.

Another powerful image that has been invoked about Australia-Indonesia relations suggests we need to create spiderweb-like ties between our two countries. When the inevitable crises recur, these ties would flex, some would snap, but the relationship would be stabilised by those that held. Whether it is ballast or spiderweb ties, we need more.

Photo by Flickr user DFAT.


By Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones and Research Associate Philippa Brant.


On 27 July, three militants crossed from Pakistan into the Indian state of Punjab, according to GPS sets they were carrying. They planted five IEDs on a railway track, targeted bus passengers and holed up in a police station in Gurdaspur 20km from the border, eventually killing seven Indians. The attackers were themselves killed by local police after a day's siege.

The Gurdaspur attack was important in several respect apart from the death toll: its location, its method and its timing.

The Line of Control, which divides Indian- and Pakistan-controlled portions of Kashmir, is at its most volatile in a decade, with intense cross-border firing. Separately, there have been a string of terrorist attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (eg. on 9, 15, 24, 25, and 29 July), and a jump in recruitment by militant groups since January. A militant attack might therefore have been expected there. But Punjab, which lies to the south, is a different matter. From the 1970s onwards, Punjab had faced another insurgency, by militant Sikh separatists. It was also partly backed by Pakistan, but it petered out in the mid-1990s. In June, Indian intelligence warned that radical Sikh groups abroad were becoming more active.

However, it turned out that the attackers were Muslim rather than Sikh.

The choice of Punjab could be motivated by two factors. First, militants might wish to demonstrate their reach beyond Kashmir into more 'normal' parts of India. Second, lax border security might have played a role. The 560km stretch of India-Pakistan border in Punjab is part of the undisputed 'international border' (Pakistan calls it the 'working boundary') rather than the disputed, and more volatile, LoC that divides Kashmir. Indian officials have suggested that drug cartels operating on that border, some connected to Pakistani intelligence as well as to Indian border and state officials, might have helped with the militants' safe passage. Punjab faces a serious narcotics problem, with 361kg of mainly Afghan heroin reportedly recovered along the border last year and 125kg so far this year. Smugglers' use of Pakistani SIM cards, gaps in electric fencing caused by monsoon floods and tall grass all complicate enforcement.

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India's Border Security Force (BSF) is now reviewing 38 vulnerable border points and 150 local people suspected of involvement in drug trafficking. The irony is that a state which allegedly didn't experience a single infiltration attempt for a whole decade (1996-2006) should now be a source of greater concern than Kashmir, where the infiltration has fallen from 97 crossings in 2013 to 65 last year to zero this year, according to Indian Army data.

The attack also underscores more familiar vulnerabilities in India's counter-terrorism capabilities.

KPS Gill, a former director of police in the Punjab, renowned for his central role in curbing the insurgency, wrote a scathing column for the Indian Express pointing to a woeful lack of equipment and training for local police. The same newspaper noted that Punjab police had been trained by Israeli specialists four years ago but that funding dried up, leaving police firing 'a handful of rounds for practice' every year, SWAT teams walking around a live siege without bulletproof vests or helmets, turf wars between local and federal forces, and no back-up for two hours. Seven years after the Mumbai attacks, India's ability to respond quickly and effectively to major attacks remains under serious question.

The other important aspect of the Gurdaspur attack is the timing. Three weeks ago, on 10 July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Ufa, Russia. Having suspended talks with Pakistan last year over a relatively routine Pakistani meeting with Kashmiri separatists, Modi announced he would in fact travel to Pakistan for next year's South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit and, moreover, that his hawkish National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, would meet with his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz.

Despite New Delhi's obvious U-turn, prompting an 'I told you so' from several analysts, Indian officials were cock-a-hoop because India's core concern (terrorism) was explicitly mentioned in the joint briefing while Pakistan's (Kashmir) was not. This was followed by irritation and outrage at home in Pakistan, a shot of tetchy clarification by Aziz on 11 July, a kerfuffle over an Indian drone and Pakistani border firing on 15 July, and repeated Pakistani suggestions that they will raise (unsubstantiated) allegations of Indian-backed terrorism both with India and at the UN. On Eid, 18 July, Pakistani soldiers on the border symbolically refused to accept traditional celebratory sweets from their Indian counterparts.

This is the febrile context to Gurdaspur. Bilateral relations are in severe flux, with renewed contacts amid a backdrop of edgy tension. In the past, terrorist attacks have coincided with such phases of dialogue between India and Pakistan. The charitable interpretation is that terrorist groups wish to disrupt any process of rapprochement. The more cynical explanation is that 'rogue elements' in the Pakistani state, as The Hindu put it, share that aim. More cynical still, though borne out by precedent, is that the Pakistani military establishment itself, rather than mavericks, are the ultimate spoilers.

The veteran national security reporter Praveen Swami, for instance, claims that from the perspective of Pakistan's generals, 'New Delhi has no choice but to bear more pain in Kashmir'. The attackers' possession of night-vision equipment and a 60mm mortar might also point, circumstantially, to state sponsorship. Unnamed and unspecified 'sources' told India's Zee News that Pakistani intelligence had trained the attackers on the Thailand-Myanmar border for ten days, sources from India's Home Ministry specifically named the Pakistani-intelligence-backed group Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Economic Times says Indian intelligence agencies reported a 17 July meeting at which the Pakistani army gave 'clear instructions' to its border forces to encourage infiltration.

And yet, India's official response has been deliberately and significantly cautious. India's home minister himself admitted to parliament he didn't have 'credible evidence' linking the Pakistani state to the attack, and was careful in his language. More importantly, Indian officials have said the meeting of Indian and Pakistani national security advisers will go ahead, probably on 23 and 24 August.

A number of Indian analysts, though largely blaming Pakistan, have backed this approach. Nitin Pai  argued that India's 'most effective Pakistan policy is eight per cent economic growth'. The Indian Express urged Modi to 'shut his ears to the tweets of the hawks' and stick with the dialogue. The Hindu warned against 'knee-jerk reactions', commended 'the policy of engagement', and suggested an 'iron fist in a velvet glove'. Srinath Raghavan argued that talks should be routinised rather than treated as a reward for good behaviour.

Meanwhile, in the characteristic Punch and Judy style of Indian parliamentary politics, the opposition Congress Party issued puerile jeers at the Government, in response to which the home minister lashed out by highlighting Congress' own foreign policy failures (including highly topical examples such as a war with China that occurred 53 years ago) and suggesting, in dog-whistle fashion, that Congress' focus on 'Hindu terrorism'. Such is the feeble state of the national security debate among India's elected leaders.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Austin Yoder.


Lately, there has been renewed interest in energy governance, as large emerging economies seek to grow their influence in international organisations in order to better reflect their economic weight.

International governance of energy has changed little since the oil crises of the 1970s. As the oil producers banded together to form OPEC, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was formed as the collective response of energy consuming countries that were starved of oil. The IEA remains the most influential multilateral energy organisation and provides a significant body of technical expertise.

There is pressure for the IEA to reform its membership to include the world's largest energy consumers – neither China nor India are members despite their significant energy needs. The G20 established principles on energy cooperation in 2014 where leaders agreed to work together to make international energy institutions more representative and inclusive of developing economies. The appointment of a new executive director of the IEA is an opportunity to make this pledge and relations with emerging economies a top priority. 

Broadening IEA membership is no easy task and would depend on treaty reform and decoupling OECD membership from IEA membership. The advanced economies of the IEA want emerging economies in the organisation to improve capacity to respond to energy crises and increase data sharing.

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However, it is not clear if China and other emerging economies are ready to join the IEA. The Chinese Government has not made IEA membership a top priority, although it has strong ties with the organisation. There are some who believe the future of energy governance is in Asian-focused organisations rather than the IEA, with its fixed principles and institutional history. The IEA risks going through a series of complicated reforms only for disgruntled members to be told that big players like China and India are not yet interested in membership.

A challenge for any new IEA members is the requirement to hold 90 days of oil stocks (a rule that Australia has flouted). Also, the IEA's emphasis on coordinated emergency response encroaches on sovereignty over energy resources, a sticking point for China.

What could the IEA do to convince China to join its ranks?

A regional IEA headquarters in Beijing is an idea that has been floated. Also, engagement with high-level Chinese officials will be necessary to create supporters of the IEA within the Chinese Government. This will require additional effort and resources from the IEA. China sees itself as having a special place in the world, and has no qualms about asking for special conditions. 

China's embrace of multilateralism is still at an early stage and its commitment to global public goods is provisional. For example, in climate financing, China sees itself as a developing country that needs to be helped by advanced economies. For many emerging economies, energy access will continue to trump climate change action.

Energy remains a sensitive area of national interest and will test China's commitment to multilateralism.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Cohn.


As tensions over China's fortification of islands in the South China Sea continue, the last couple weeks saw several conferences held on the issue. This week, Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Bonnie Glaser attended The Aspen Security Forum and wrote on what possible military uses the PLA might intend for the islands:

If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold US forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a US effort to come to Taiwan's defence. A US carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert US assets from performing other missions. 

The debate over our latest Lowy Institute Paper, Condemned to Crisis?, continued this week. Before I post the best of the reviews, I believe this section of author Ken Ward's response should be aired first:

At the outset, however, I feel obliged to point out that there is an all-important question mark in the title. I will probably go on defending the survival of this brave question mark for a long time to come. It has already been exposed to relentless attack. Its defiant presence is meant to signal that I do not believe the relationship with Indonesia is doomed to crisis. 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future.

What I believe rather, is that we should expect difficulties and clashes of national interest to arise from time to time between Australia and Indonesia for various reasons, and I am urging Australian political leaders to adopt more temperate language in public to help prevent such bilateral differences from deteriorating or escalating into crises.

Jakarta Post journalist Endy Bayuni made the argument that Indonesians are not as 'culturally sensitive' as Australians think:

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Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Reviewing Ward's work, Stephen Grenville reminded us there have been times when Indonesia and Australia have been at odds, but the relationship recovered:

The supposed wise heads in Canberra tell us that these little tiffs in the relationship are normal and quickly forgotten. This is wrong. The relationship is like a marriage, with accumulated never-forgotten slights. We did better in the past, retaining working diplomatic relationships during Konfrontasi while simultaneously fighting Indonesia in Borneo. This diplomatic dexterity made it possible to quickly build close relations after 1966. We need to try harder, and the starting point is to recognise that this is worth doing.

Andrew Parker from PwC was more optimistic:

But if we want to be more than just bystanders we will have to seriously rethink our engagement model. Indonesians do not get up in the morning and look south for guidance. They look north, as we do. China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europeans are well ahead of us.

We can choose to continue down a path punctuated by the recurring crises that Ken so compellingly argues are inevitable. The alternative is to double-down on our investment. This will require courage and a healthy measure of leadership if we are to reset the relationship for the next 25 years. We can and must do better – we simply can't afford not to.

But we need more investment in education and knowledge, both in Australia and Indonesia, says Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

Moving on from Indonesia, Matthew Dal Santo pointed to the intriguing idea of a 'United States of Europe':

For Berlin, then, the ideal form of European political and fiscal union would offer indirect, but reliable, control over the fiscal policies of other Eurozone members to ensure their 'competitiveness' and the euro's long-term stability, but the retention of national control over those issues that underpin Germany's position as Europe's paramount power. 

Malcolm Cook had a short post on the state of Japan's 'defence normalisation':

However, Japan is still far from a normal external security actor and alarmist talk of Japanese remilitarisation tells you more about the ideological predispositions of the accuser than of present reality. Yet, it's clear that Japan is again becoming a more proactive and independent security actor in East Asia in both words and action. It is also increasingly focused on the threat from China and is finding growing support from regional countries with similar concerns.

How has university education affected the views of China's foreign policymakers? Merriden Varall:

CCP dominance, and the strength of these particular worldviews, go hand in hand. Cultural explanations for beliefs and behaviour should not be removed from their political context, but need to be understood as constructed, created and utilised by those in power – this is true around the world, and certainly in China. While the Chinese population is overall growing wealthier, travelling more, being educated overseas and generally more exposed to the world, we must not assume this will bring a change in ideas and worldviews.

Shashank Joshi on the death of Mullah Omar and the burgeoning Afghan peace talks:

Even if those in favour of talks can ride out the consequences of this news and sustain the dialogue with Kabul, they could see increasing dissent, and even defection, from their commanders in the field. ISIS has increasingly sought tochallenge the Taliban's authority in the south and east, hoping to co-opt disgruntled Taliban commanders. ISIS's presence remains limited, and its Afghan leader was killed in a drone strike earlier this month. ISIS faces a radically different sectarian and political environment to that in Syria or Iraq, and has made few inroads so far. But the group would exploit any chaos in the Taliban ranks.

Tensions are growing between Vietnam and Cambodia over their disputed land border, says Elliot Brennan:

ASEAN, the UN and other governments should support and indeed insist on the speedy resolution of the border dispute. While it could be settled in the Hague, much like the 2013 settlement of the Preah Vihear case, this would be a lengthy process which would ignite more nationalism. And Hun Sen is all too aware that the longer the process drags on, the more it plays into the hands of the opposition ahead of promised elections in 2018. For its part, Hanoi would be happier with the current Hun Sen Government than an unknown and seemingly anti-Vietnamese one in Phnom Penh,  though it would no doubt prefer a government less influenced by Beijing.

 A two-part series from J Michael Cole on Taiwan's upcoming presidential election and the prospects for the DPP and KMT:

Tsai's China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT's Ma, who throughout his presidency made the 'status quo' a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial '1992 consensus,' of which its 'one China' clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the 'platform' on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the 'KMT-ization' of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents. 

In part 2, Cole looked at what Beijing might do in the event of either a KMT reelection or the victory of the DPP:

One way in which Beijing could react is to 'punish' the Taiwanese for making the 'wrong' choice in the polls by choosing Tsai over the more pro-China KMT candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu.  Such a policy could include an economic embargo of Taiwan or more coercive measures. One strategy could be for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT to do everything in their power to discredit the DPP administration. This could help aid a return for the KMT in the 2018 municipal elections and the 2020 presidential elections. However, such efforts would be mitigated if the DPP also wins a majority of seats in parliament (the legislative elections are being held concurrently on January 16).

Turkey changed its policy on Syria this week, bombing both ISIS and Kurdish forces in northern Syria in an effort to create 'safe zones'. Rodger Shanahan on what 'safe zones' actually entail and their potential policy complications:

The 'naturally occurring' safe zones may allow some Syrian refugees to return to Syria, but how would these people survive? What humanitarian assistance would be provided to them and by whom? Who would provide the governance and security functions within these zones? What would be the Syrian Government's approach to them and what would the international community do if the Assad regime sought to reassert its authority over the parts of Syrian territory cleared of ISIS? Nature and politics abhor vacuums, and once safe zone(s) are created, there will always be someone who seeks to take advantage of them. The UN certainly has some concerns about the prospect of a safe zone, particularly given the lack of detail released to date.

Finally, a response from Robert Kelly to his ongoing debate with Van Jackson of Georgetown University on South Korea's grand strategy:

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and their spiraling nuclear program, it's not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.


The view from Phnom Penh

Cambodia-Vietnam relations have long been turbulent. Occupation, conflict and political meddling have been hallmarks of the relationship, and disagreement about the border has long been a bone of contention. Last year a group of 600 protesters burned a Vietnamese flag outside the embassy in Phnom Penh, earning a strong rebuke from Hanoi.

Tensions have continued to simmer since. In June, Cambodian activists clashed with Vietnamese villagers in Svay Rieng province, which lies between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, while Cambodian police looked on (raw footage here; read an excellent article on anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia here). This week, tensions have also bubbled over around maritime borders.

Both Hanoi and Phnom Penh are seeking a speedy resolution to demarcate the problematic land border. The process is 80% complete. Yet as it draws closer to being finalised there is an increasing risk of further problems. Following a three-day meeting in early July, the two parties agreed to complete the demarcation 'very soon'.

But given the highly politicised nature of the issue, that deadline may prove difficult to meet. The border dispute is testing Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. Memories are long and many Cambodians still see him as a Vietnamese puppet (he was part of the the government installed  by Hanoi following the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979). Anger will grow if the border deal isn't seen as favourable. 

Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, has for almost two decades employed xenophobic rhetoric against the Vietnamese.

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In 1998 he campaigned on a ticket to expel the yuon, a derogatory Khmer term used for the Vietnamese. Little has changed since. In 2009 Rainsy led a group of activists on a visit to disputed territory along the Vietnamese border where they uprooted a demarcation post. This populist move saw him sentenced to two years in jail, after which he fled into self-exile until in 2013, when he received a royal pardon, returning to contest the elections. His tactics haven't changed. Disputes with Vietnam are the oxygen for much of his and the Cambodian National Rescue Party's popularity. 

The CNRP claims that current negotiations over demarcation are using Vietnamese maps and are thus unfavourable to Cambodia. Such claims play well with many Cambodians, and Hun Sen has looked to quell such assertions by requesting maps from the UN drawn up during French rule.

Worryingly, decades of skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand around the disputed territory of Preah Vihear Temple may indicate to some Cambodians that violence gets results. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that Cambodia is undergoing a period of heightened political uncertainty. The 2013 elections left Hun Sen weakened, with the opposition nearly doubling its share of seats in the national assembly. Months of subsequent political deadlock resulted in concessions being granted to the CNRP. The Opposition has increased its influence in politics and is frustrating Hun Sen's usually firm control, and the border issue could further strengthen support for the CNRP. Coupled with persistent grievances toward deep-rooted corruption, inequality and the enrichment of the elites that support Hun Sen, this could create a perfect storm for the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Hun Sen, a master strategist who has maintained a grip on power for three decades, has recently made moves to strengthen his own hand. In July, 11 opposition activists were jailed for 'insurrection' for their role in last year's protests, and a law that will restrict the operations of NGOs (and inhibit their criticisms of government) was passed.

In recent weeks Hun Sen and his defence minister have warned the military to be vigilant and ready to suppress any attempt at a 'colour revolution'. Much of the oxygen for such a 'revolution' could come from the border dispute, particularly if there is anger over any perceived ceding of territory to Vietnam.

Phnom Penh isn't the only party that wants to see the back of the demarcation process.

For Hanoi, resolving border disputes is one way of hitting back at what it feels is its growing isolation. Both Cambodia and Laos are increasingly influenced by Beijing, thanks to significant Chinese investment. Hanoi worries that Cambodia, which many see as a quasi-vassal state of China, could be manipulated to create problems along the border with Vietnam. Such concerns have lingered since 2012 when Phnom Penh prevented any ASEAN unity against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Vietnam worries that Phnom Penh could escalate the border dispute as a distraction from any incident with China in the South China Sea. In such a situation, Hanoi could be in hot conflict with its two biggest neighbours on two very different fronts.

Hanoi's sense of isolation has no doubt factored into its attempts in recent years to develop a more proactive and open foreign policy characterised by a long-held motto of 'fewer enemies, more friends'. Most telling is the recent warming of relations with the US – last month's visit to Washington by the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam was a first. 

ASEAN, the UN and other governments should support and indeed insist on the speedy resolution of the border dispute. While it could be settled in the Hague, much like the 2013 settlement of the Preah Vihear case, this would be a lengthy process which would ignite more nationalism. And Hun Sen is all too aware that the longer the process drags on, the more it plays into the hands of the opposition ahead of promised elections in 2018. For its part, Hanoi would be happier with the current Hun Sen Government than an unknown and seemingly anti-Vietnamese one in Phnom Penh,  though it would no doubt prefer a government less influenced by Beijing.

How the border disputes are resolved will be an important indicator of Cambodia's stability and how Vietnam and Cambodia can work together on an issue of mutual interest.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Emad Ghazipura.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • How Western companies and governments are using Weibo (and its 600 million users) to seize opportunities in China. Who's doing well? Apparently Tourism NZ and condom seller Durex.
  • India's police are asking citizens to use live-streaming app Periscope to report crimes.
  • A political party in Taiwan and an unnamed news agency in Hong Kong are among the latest victims of the recent attack on Italian cybersecurity firm Hacking Team.
  • This podcast details Singapore's booming subculture of Instagram influencers.
  • Technology manufacturing is taking off in Vietnam, and tech companies are investing in training the next generation of Vietnamese workers.
  • The PLA announced it has developed the world's 'smartest camera' (more detail in Chinese language media here).
  • Today, the Taiwanese Government begins taking entrepreneur visa applications from foreign nationals in an attempt to position itself as a major Asia-Pacific hub for tech and innovation.
  • Will Taiwan's low cost of living lure over expats from Asia's top tech hubs, Japan, China and Singapore? 
  • How does Chinese state media keep citizens angry at Japan? Clickbait nationalism.
  • Businesses in PNG are being impacted by e-commerce, mobile technologies, cloud computing and the 'Internet of Things'.
  • FireChat, the preferred app of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protesters, has thrown down the gauntlet to WhatsApp with its new off-grid encrypted texting feature. You don't need a mobile network, wi-fi connection or even a Sim card. This video shows how it works: