Lowy Institute

Two reader comments I'd like to flag in response to my piece highlighting new research by the Brookings Institution's Charles Frank, written up in The Economist, which suggests renewable energy is still way too expensive to take over from coal, oil and gas.

Here's OfKember:

The basic inadequacy of Frank's analysis is that it takes no account of the amount of emission reduction needed from the power sector over time. Sure, it's cheapest in the short term to switch to gas if you want to go from high- to low-carbon power production (and how is that news?), but by 2050 we need to be approaching a zero-carbon power supply (see the IEA's recent Energy Technology Perspectives report) . Either the new gas plant gets CCS (ed. note: carbon capture and storage) or it has to be replaced before the end of its operating life, either of which rather messes with his comparative costs. (Interestingly he dismisses the prospect of widespread storage by saying the technologiy isn't competitive without subsidies yet - well yes, but it seems odd to suppose it will stay that way for the next forty years.)

Chris Williams wrote:

I am surprised The Interpreter is seduced by The Economist's rubbery economics. In comparative economics of energy, TE's analysis sureptitiously excludes a range of coal power externalities that current debates have exposed as being the 'true' costs of coal power, and which ought to be allocated in any cost-benefit analysis. While economists are about it, they could also declare all the subsidies that coal mining, transportation and generation have been allocated over the years to develop the industry's critical mass. Sure, they are sunk costs now. On a level playing field, however, the renewable energies are not being permitted similar startup costs to reach critical mass, whether these be by government subsidy or by a customer levy which reduces over time.

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By mimicking a British magazine, The Interpreter does Australian industry and science a disservice. CSIRO has just developed solar technology that heats water-under-pressure, which was previously a barrier to large-scale solar power plants. China's mainstream media has picked up this breakthrough, but both Australian media and The Economist are notably silent on this significant Australian achievement. It's time for The Interpreter to give credit where it is due. Good on you, CSIRO, keep up the energy breakthroughs so that, one day, Australia may become a technology leader rather than a laggard.


What should be done about corruption in developing countries? Stephen Grenville discussed this issue in commenting on the recent work of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (universally known in Indonesia as the KPK or the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi).

It is important to note that the problem of corruption is hardly ignored in developing countries. In Indonesia, corruption has been at the top of the public policy agenda for decades. Indeed few topics attract more local attention than corruption. When a 'big fish' politician or official is caught by the KPK, it is headline news. TV programs cover the prosecution of leading politicians or officials in vivid detail.

And the KPK has caught some big fish. The recent arrest and subsequent sentencing of Ratu Atut Chosiyah attracted enormous press attention. Ratu Atut had been a high-profile governor of the province of Banten, just to the west of Jakarta. She and her family had built up an extraordinary political dynasty complete with extensive business links across Banten. But recently the KPK moved in on Ratu Atut. She didn't last long once the KPK focused on her and her family, and she is now in jail.

The KPK has caught quite a few other big fish lately too. So the problem of corruption is widely recognised in Indonesia, and institutions such as the KPK are landing some heavy blows.

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But Stephen Grenville points to two worrying problems with this aggressive approach. The first is that unless there are reasonable checks and balances on the powers of corruption commissions, gross injustices can occur. The second is that if officials come to live in fear of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns, the bureaucracy will choke up because everybody will avoid taking decisions.

An example of the first problem appears to be recent suggestions that the Vice President of Indonesia, Dr Boediono, might be prosecuted by the KPK for decisions taken by Indonesia's central bank, Bank Indonesia, in 2008 when Dr Boediono was governor.

There are pros and cons to the decisions taken by Bank Indonesia in the midst of a banking crisis at the time. However, these were typical policy decisions that central banks all around the world are expected to take in the midst of a crisis. Yet for several years the KPK has been hounding Bank Indonesia officials for their decisions about monetary policy. KPK has put one senior executive of Bank Indonesia in jail. It seems quite remarkable. But the KPK has the bit between the teeth. The latest indications are that it is quite possible that the KPK will soon focus on Dr Boediono. If so, it will be a gross injustice committed against one of Indonesia's outstanding leaders (disclosure: Dr Boediono is a friend).

The second problem – that the Indonesian bureaucracy will choke up for fear of witch hunts – is just as serious. While the aggressive role of the KPK is to be welcomed, if the result is that bureaucrats all over Indonesia run for cover then government across the nation will clog up. If an attempted prosecution of Dr Boediono were to lead to reluctance on the part of the central bank to take difficult decisions in the midst of a financial crisis, then the consequences for economic management in Indonesia would be serious indeed.

Photo by Flickr user F Mira.


The 'Unity Journal' case in Myanmar has been cited as an example of media freedom under threat and as proof that reforms are slowing down. The case began with an article published in Unity Journal in early 2014, which claimed that a named defence facility was really a chemical weapons factory. The Government denied the report, claiming the accusations were baseless and highlighting that it relied only on comments from 'locals'.

Officials also reportedly confiscated unsold copies, and arrested and charged the journalists as well as the journal's CEO, citing violations of national security. Following a trial, the group was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for trespassing and taking photographs inside a defence facility without permission. In July, they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.

On The Interpreter, Andrew Selth put the chemical weapons claims in perspective, and Irrawaddy also took a closer look. Many criticised the Government's initial response and the journalists' sentences. Commentaries ranging from Amnesty International to the New York Times condemned the Government response, while some seemed seem to suggest that the quality or accuracy of the story was less relevant than the outcome of the case.

However, the quality and accuracy of the article is relevant, as is the legality of the journalists' behaviour. Critical assessment of this case and the article has generally been neglected in favour of portraying the journalists as victims who were merely 'doing their jobs'. But this is not entirely accurate.

Although the 'chemical weapons' claim was on the Journal's front page and in the article's heading, there were few references to it in the article itself. However, the article did discuss other sensitive issues including alleged land confiscation, and included descriptions and photographs of the site and its (military) personnel, including claims of presence of 'Chinese' workers. Any of these were likely to annoy or embarrass the Government.

The article gained significant international attention and has been described as 'investigative reporting', suggesting it was a well-researched and evidence-backed piece. It wasn't.

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The article's sourcing was hazy and questionable. It provided no supporting evidence, especially for the central allegation, despite one of the journalists claiming he had such evidence. The article also lacked a clear focus, dedicating paragraphs to irrelevant information (such as the origins of bricks used at the site and its water and electricity sources). The concluding paragraphs were straight-up opinion.

One Myanmar journalist and political analyst criticised Unity Journal's journalistic ethics for publishing the article, citing the lack of credible evidence, irrelevant information and potentially misleading use of photographs. Bertil Lintner eloquently described the article as 'a crap report' that 'was poorly researched'.

Others in Myanmar understood that the journalists were probably in the wrong. For example, the secretary of the Interim Press Council suggested the Government should forgive the journalists' mistakes, since 'some media people are not professional' and are inexperienced, while U Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Journalists association said that journalists had a duty to maintain ethical standards and strive for accuracy.

It may not be palatable for some, but we need to recognise these faults when using this case in claims about media freedom in Myanmar.

Even if the journalists' claims were accurate, the article did nothing to support or prove this. Conversely, the Government didn't help its cause by initially seizing unsold copies. This made critical assessment, which may have worked in the Government's favour, much harder.

The guilty verdict also shouldn't be surprising. The journalists admitted committing the offences. In an interview shortly after publication, the CEO separately admitted that his staff entered the facility. The legal defence against trespassing (arguing that the facility did not have 'No Entry' signs) was weak, as the journalists admitted knowing it was a defence facility and wrote that locals had been warned about trespassing. As journalists, they would know even without reading the Official Secrets Act or having signage in place that defence sites have restricted access.

The guilty verdict was not surprising, but the sentence of 10 years imprisonment with hard labour was, even if the Official Secrets Act allowed for up to 14 years. While journalists who trespass on military facilities in other countries are also likely to be arrested and charged, their sentences are not likely to be so severe. Moreover, since the Unity staff who were charged each played different roles, and therefore had different degrees of involvement, it doesn't seem fitting that they all received the same sentence. 

The sentence supports a view that the Government was using this case to punish the journalists and send a message to the local media, which is hard to dispute. During the trial, the prosecution reportedly submitted a list of 40 witnesses for what appeared to be a straightforward case. It sent a clear message about how the Government viewed, and would treat, national security issues. Specifically, it served as a warning that the Ministry of Defence and its facilities were off limits.

While there are numerous cases involving official interference with the media that deserve scrutiny, this case is relatively straightforward: The journalists wrote an article of questionable quality whose main claims they did not (and perhaps could not) support, they broke the law while doing so and they were punished for it.

Recent news that an appeal was granted will be welcomed. If successful, it may result in a lighter sentence while still allowing the Government to punish the journalists and send its message. An amnesty is also a future possibility for political leaders.

For now, this is likely of little reassurance to the journalists and their families. But the case serves as a lesson about the importance of journalistic diligence and the standards journalists are supposed to follow. It should also send a message that freedom of the press does not mean journalists are free from their responsibilities, including in complying with local laws and reporting accurately.

  • Fairfax's former China correspondent John Garnaut tweets about the detention of Zhou Yongkang:

China has four categories of bilateral ties according to levels of friendship: a "relationship of friendship and cooperation" with Russia and other countries; "normal ties" with France, Germany and other countries; the "new type of great power relationship" with the United States; and finally, a "relationship of rivalry," which describes current ties with Japan. 


Yesterday was International Tiger Day, and Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the occasion by hauling in the biggest kill of his 'Tigers and Flies' anti-graft campaign yet: Zhou Yongkang (pictured). Zhou is a retired member of China's most powerful committee and former head of the country's security apparatus. 

The innocuously worded announcement on Zhou's fate came from China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection last night. He is 'under investigation' on 'suspicion of grave disciplinary violations,' which means he'll almost certainly be jailed for corruption.

Zhou is the highest-ranking member of the Communist Party to be brought down on corruption charges since 1949.

President Xi has said from the start that no Communist Party cadre is off limits when it comes to corruption investigations. This proves it. 

But Zhou's real crimes were likely his association with Bo Xilai and carving out an oil industry and security fiefdom that rivaled the power base built by President Xi on his way up. In this sense, Zhou's downfall is more reminiscent of a Mao-era purge. Many would say it is a purge, the target of which is all and sundry associated with former President Jiang Zemin. 

We'll know soon enough. If Xi's anti-graft drive is an honest attempt by a man who views himself as clean to root out the corruption that pervades the Party, we'd expect the intensity of the campaign to continue. If it wanes, then Zhou was likely the top target of a purge from the start. 

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For now, Xi is all powerful. With Zhou, rival princeling Bo and powerful ex-General Xu Caihou (and the military) all brought to heel, the President would seem to have little to gain from expanding the tiger net.

Other big names have been suggested. Malcolm Moore at The Telegraph quotes sources that Wen Jiabao could be next. The former Prime Minister has been on the corruption radar since The New York Times reported in October 2012 that Wen's family had amassed billions during his time in office. The Telegraph also records a connection between Wen's son and Zhou Yongkang's son, Zhou Bin, who was reported as under arrest for dodgy business dealings minutes after news of his father's fate yesterday. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation earlier this month, Willy Lam suggests that Xi's 'purge' may now turn to the Communist Youth League and intimate associates of former President Hu Jintao. Lam points to the tightening noose around the neck of Ling Jihua, a close Hu ally. Ling's brother was arrested in June and his brother-in-law was detained in mid-July.

But the downfall of the Communist Youth League didn't start with Xi, and Ling also had a Zhou Yongkang connection. After Ling's son killed himself at the wheel of his Ferrari in March 2012, Jiang Jiemin, the former Chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation and a Zhou protege, arranged a payment of millions of Yuan to silence the family of a female victim and a surviving passenger. The payment was made at the behest of Zhou, according to Reuters. Jiang was brought down in September last year and investigators have questioned him about the payment.

At present, the CCP's factional rivalries have been smashed. There would seem little incentive — and a lot of disincentives — to go after a names bigger than Zhou. Proceedings against Bo Xilai and ex-General Gu Junshan, whose patron was Xu Caihou, were initiated under the Hu-Wen team, which could suggest some degree of continuity between the administrations. Equally, however, those proceedings could have been an early indication of the power Xi was amassing behind the scenes as the transition took place. 

On an optimistic note, Zhou's fall may be good news for the Chinese economy. Xi likely needed Zhou in the dock to push through promised economic reforms. Powerful interest groups — such as the petroleum industry, atop which sat Zhou's confidants — had stymied reform under the weaker Hu-Wen administration. With Zhou out of the way, Xi may be free to enact the economic reforms pledged at last year's Third Plenum.

Photo by REUTERS/Jason Lee.

  • The success of ISIS (or the Islamic State, as it now refers to itself) will have significant impact on Southeast Asia, argues Zachary Abuzza in the second of his excellent series on the future of terrorism in Southeast Asia (the first piece is here).
  • Following a 10-day trip to Myanmar, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar pulled some punches in her first statement since taking over the role: 
    In three years, Myanmar has come a long way since the establishment of the new Government. This must be recognized and applauded…Yet, there are worrying signs of possible backtracking which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights. As many have said, Myanmar therefore needs further encouragement and understanding in order to address these challenges and to continue on the path of reform.
  • After wide international censure, Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State, home to 140,000 IDPs, allowed previously banned aid agencies to return this week
  • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has a difficult task in front of him to reform the country and will find it difficult to join the TPP, says CSIS's Nigel Cory.
  •  Lowy Visiting Fellow Rodger Shanahan offers an insightful look at Shi’i Islam in Malaysia
  • In an excellent explanatory piece, Abby Seiff breaks down last week's accord between ‪Cambodia's Hun Sen and the main opposition party. 
  •  Indonesia’s new president is crowdsourcing his cabinet.
  •  As many in Southeast Asia celebrated Eid al-Fitr (the end of the holy month of Ramadan), the Wall Street Journal took a look at what was on the plates of Indonesians to celebrate the end of fasting. 
  • The population of the Philippines hit 100 million this week. 
  •  The Thai junta won royal approval of its interim constitution. Half of the members on the proposed list of members for the new National Legislative Assembly are high-ranking officers of the armed forces.
  • Cambodia's fish stocks will be hit badly by 88 planned Mekong hyrodams, warns IRIN, a UN information service, this week. 
  • At the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok last week there was a fascinating discussion on the future of Thailand's economy. It included this lecture by the former Minister of Commerce on 'The Macroeconomic Impact of Thailand's Military Intervention':


In the fabled spice trade, pepper outranked even nutmeg and cloves in importance. Bales of Chinese and Persian silks, Indian cottons, Chinese rhubarb and precious stones supplemented the exotic traffic which aroused the envy of all Europe.

–Douglass North, The Rise of the Western World.

Five hundred years ago, Portuguese mariners opened sea routes from Europe to east Asia, and the Silk Road was doomed, another loser in the history of globalisation. The Silk Road had long been failing due to banditry and rebellion as the Mongol empire disintegrated, and later from protectionism as the Ottomans rose in Constantinople. Before long the Khanates of the dusty fortress towns along the road were swallowed up by imperial Russia. The modern world and its sailing ships simply bypassed Central Asia.

China's revival of the Silk Road is not only evocative of a mythic history but says much about the country's strategic orientation. Perhaps anticipating trouble at sea, China is covering its back. With its population huddled on its eastern seaboard, China has started turning inwards to secure development, stability, access, and energy in its continental interior; it is China's 'own counterbalance'.

Beijing proposes an alphabet soup of initiatives: the new AIIB development bank, the CICA security architecture, and corridors through Pakistan (CPEC) and Burma (BCIM) to the Indian Ocean. All this augments the existing SCO partnership, which binds most Eurasian states to a power order nominally co-led with Russia but increasingly under Beijing's sway. Under Xi Jinping, China 'will prioritize relations with neighbors', if necessary at the expense of Sino-US ties. 

China's pivot to Eurasia is smart, necessary and urgent.

The US subtly threatens China's sea routes, whereas the Eurasian 'heartland' is a landlocked space occupied by weak countries. China offers them investment, trade and security assistance, and in return gets a lock on Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas. Beijing cherishes the goal of 'breaking through' to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Europe, bypassing its Malacca dilemma. Washington stands by; its own 'New Silk Road' program is flailing and its main focus is to leave Afghanistan. It should welcome Beijing's initiatives. The truth is, China has far more to offer the region than distant America.

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China proposes three broad systems as part of its new Silk Road: a northern railway to Europe which eventually converges on the Trans-Siberian, the pipelines to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and possibly beyond to Iran, and the southern highway corridors.

Three hundred freight trains have so far plied between Europe and China, a journey of 14-16 days; ocean-going ships take twice as long. But although an express train to Hamburg sounds nifty, it moves only a couple of hundred containers at a time and can get held up at any of the seven borders it must traverse. Container ships carry up to 18,000 boxes on a daily service at one-third of the cost. That's the first of China's challenges. It turns out that those 16th century Silk-Road-killing laws of economics still rule. There is no escaping the scale and efficiency – but also vulnerability – of marine transport.

The second issue is that central Asia is a tinderbox – corrupt, repressive, suspicious and ethnically riven. A superb recent French study debunks the 'Chinese invasion' claims, but tensions over migration, wealth and influence do mirror China's expansion elsewhere. The publics in each of the 'Stans are highly ambivalent about their thrusting, resurgent old neighbour. On my travels there, I've heard repeatedly that 'even the Russians are better.'

That's the third and perhaps most fateful problem: the question of residual Russian influence. The recently-deceased Alexandros Petersen noted that 'China has partnered if not (already) over-run' Russia in their 'joint hegemony' over the region. Xi and Putin today share a common objective of expelling Western influence, but it is not clear how Moscow – or the locals for that matter – will acquiesce as the Chinese inevitably assert their grip over the Silk Road. Russia's own clumsy attempts to draw central Asian economies into its shabby Eurasian Economic Union has foundered on the blood-spattered cobblestones of Maidan Square.

China can and will do better. The whole world benefits from its grand Silk Road endeavour to open new transport lanes, to bring stability and prosperity and to unlock stranded inland energy reserves. Outsiders can only watch and wish the Chinese luck. I suspect they will need it.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

  • Facing metastasizing Middle Eastern instability, Andrew Nikolic argues that Australia needs to focus on supporting a regional approach to counter-terrorism.
  • The US Army's technology magazine has a whole issue devoted to the impact of 3D manufacturing on military logistics.
  • Meet Ara Dolarian, the one-time pig trader turned arms broker who funneled US purchases of Soviet-era weapons to various Third-World factions.
  • Spencer Ackerman explores the battle over the future of the UCLASS carrier-launched unmanned strike system.
  • With Anglo-French decision to go it alone in co-developing the Taranis UCAV, other European states are calling for coordination in the production of unmanned systems. 
  • Over at War is Boring, David Axe reviews USMC Maj Edward Carpenter's contribution to the debate on the nature of the modern warrior code.
  • Given the challenge of a revanchist Russia, what should NATO seek to achieve at its September summit in Wales?
  • Finally, Blogs of War's John Little discusses food and conflict with celebrity-chef and globetrotter Anthony Bourdain.

'Fight corruption!' A Corruption Eradication Commission event in Bandung in 2009. (Flickr/Ikhlasul Amal.)

Indonesia's reputation for corruption in not in doubt: it comes 114th out of 177 in Transparency International's ranking. For more than a decade, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has been putting high-level officials away for long jail terms. But any judicial body which boasts of having a 100% conviction rate is likely to have made some mistakes.

Having recently succeeded in putting the head of the Constitutional Court in prison for life and given lesser sentences to ministers close to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the KPK has returned to one of its long-term targets: the central bank. Since 1998, most of the senior members of Bank Indonesia have spent some time in jail or have survived long periods with this threat hanging over them. The causes have been various, but an ongoing issue has been the 2008 rescue of a failing bank, Bank Century. 

In the context of the global financial crisis, it was feared at that time that the collapse of even a smallish bank would set off a chain reaction of runs on banks. With Bank Century saved by the injection of lender-of-last-resort funds, Indonesia sailed through the 2008 crisis with GDP growth maintained at over 6%. Many would regard the support for Bank Century as an insurance premium well worth paying, especially recalling the damage of the 1997-98 financial crisis. 

But in any case the issue here is whether public servants should face criminal charges (and long jail sentences) when their policy decisions are harshly judged after the event.

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One member of the Bank Indonesia board (which made the decision to rescue Bank Century) has just been given a ten-year jail sentence. While his case is complicated by other factors, the KPK has indicated that it will now turn to the other members of the Bank Indonesia board*, including current Vice President Boediono (who was Bank Indonesia Governor in 2008) and one of president-elect Jokowi's suggested names for finance minister

The KPK has gone so far beyond its proper role here that 35 leading citizens — lawyers, former ministers, politicians — wrote an 'amicus curiae' ('friends of the court') letter to the KPK. Respected senior legal figure Todong Mulya Lubis said that 'If public policy is criminalised, many public officials will be afraid to take decisions'.

Indeed. It is already clear that Bank Indonesia will not attempt another lender-of-last-resort operation, should it be needed. Indonesia goes into a volatile period in global markets, with its own financial sector in a fragile state, without the most basic of crisis-management instruments. The new president begins his term with a commitment to combat corruption, but with the KPK already so politicised that an urgent task will be to discipline the KPK itself.

* Disclosure: some of these people are personal friends.

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.


Terrific segment here from British comic John Oliver's new HBO show Last Week Tonight on the terrifying but seldom discussed risk of nuclear weapons mishaps. There's some NSFW language:

At around the 13.45 mark, Oliver turns to the issue of public engagement in debates around nuclear weapons. As Oliver said, in the 1980s the issue generated enormous public concern and there was an active (and disruptive) abolition movement in various countries. Of course, the Cold War has since ended and as Oliver points out elsewhere in the segment, overall numbers of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian stockpiles have reduced substantially. So it makes some sense that the issue generates less public concern nowadays.

But it's also interesting to consider the fact that, while nuclear abolitionism was popular in the 1980s, it was not politically mainstream in countries that possessed nuclear weapons, or even among Western allies such as Australia, where both the major parties supported nuclear deterrence.

That is, until the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, during which Reagan and Gorbachev got this close to an agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons (any such deal probably would have foundered against opposition from domestic and allied consituencies anyway, but it's pretty remarkable that they even discussed it). As former US arms control supremo Ken Adelman points out in his new book about the summit, Reykjavik led to the first true Cold War arms reduction treaty and helped end the Cold War.  It also made nuclear abolitionism a mainstream position, championed in later years by  Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, along with the rest of the 'Four Horsemen', Kissinger, Perry and Nunn. President Obama is also (rhetorically, at least) committed to abolition.

It is remarkable that the embrace of this movement by the political mainstream has coincided with its marginalisation in the public debate. Here's a Carnegie Endowment essay collection from 2009 which includes a piece by Lawrence Freedman arguing that nuclear abolition, having evolved from popular movement to policy-elite project, needs to find its popular roots again.


Perhaps inspired by the centenary of World War I, this year has provoked a lot of clamouring about shifting security in Northeast Asia. The general vibe is that Japan's Article 9 're-interpretation' reflects a looming Sino-Japanese conflict, and that Xi Jinping's trip to South Korea is pulling Seoul away from traditional commitments, part of China's larger effort to woo Asians away from the Americans. No less than a former Japanese minister of defence has made this latter argument.

While it is indeed the case that Sino-Japanese tension is growing, much of this discussion misses basic sources of stability in Northeast Asia or glosses over national particularities that muddy an easy interpretation of Northeast Asia as spiraling tension. My post today will turn on the notion that Korea is 'drifting'; a subsequent post will focus on the idea that Japan is remilitarising.

Neither of these are really true. My own suspicion is that various moves in the region get quickly over-interpreted because there are many hawks on all sides of the Northeast Asian security debate who dislike the rather dull, stable status quo. Three points on Korea:

1. Deterrence in Korea is actually a lot more stable than most people think

Dave Kang has made this point repeatedly, but this argument is often lost in the media and punditry. In the 2013 faux-war crisis, I noted that the media took North Korean war-talk much more seriously than the analyst community, with lots of predictions of conflict and over-heated CNN 'analysis' of what such a war would look like. I made the same point in 2010 after the sinking of the destroyer Cheonan by the North and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. The media ran wild with stories of Korea 'on the brink of all-out war', but no one I know in the analyst community actually believes that. North Korea does not want to fight. It will get crushed, and the Kim family will be lynched or go to jail.

At the risk of sounding cynical, there is a great deal of media hype that can be ginned up out of North Korea. Alarmism is always an easy approach. Describing members of the North Korean Kim monarchy as insane alcoholic sex fiends, providing frightening statistics about the number of cannon and rockets pointed at Seoul, listing the North Korean nuclear tests and so on, make for great copy.

But the big story in the inter-Korean stand off is that it has not turned into a shooting war after all these years. When is the last time you saw that story covered in the media?

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2. South Korea-Japan tension is bad, but they are not going to fight either

Another chestnut of the 'Northeast Asia is sliding toward war' narrative is that Japan and South Korea can't stand each other, so conflict between them is possible. It is indeed true that South Korea and Japan barely talk at the diplomatic level. They do not work together, they don't really care to (unless the US simultaneously arm-twists), and the arguments over history and territory are indeed deep (see the new CSIS report on this whole tangle and how to overcome it; my own recent thoughts on this issue at The Interpreter are here).

But the formal disagreements cover up a fair amount of nonpolitical interchange.

As a professor in Korea, I see this all the time. My university in Busan regularly runs major exchange programs with Japanese universities in a way that we do not with schools in other countries, and this is common in the Korean university system. There are constant seminars and academic conferences on the difficulties of the Korea-Japan relationship. There are regular efforts to work jointly on history textbooks. I frequently meet students around Korea who study Japanese, went to school there, and so on. Both countries enjoy the other's cultural products too. Manga, film, video games, K-pop and J-pop flow back and forth. There is also a great deal of tourism between the two.

Little of this is covered in the stories about high-level tension. But there is a pretty sharp cleavage between the formal bureaucratic posturing and the reality of dense civil-society interchange. The mutual US relationship also restrains: it is all but impossible to imagine Korea and Japan using force against each other while both are allied to the US.

3. South Korea is not leaving the US alliance to cozy up to China

This is most preposterous of all the recent talk. The claim goes that Korea is torn between the US and China. It is dependent on China economically while dependent on the US for security. The Korean Government is divided into sinophile and pro-US factions. Xi's successful recent trip illustrates the 'Sinic temptation' of Korea. Korea will in time 'finlandise' and equivocate on liberalism and market economics.

Once again, there is a grain of truth here, but a lot of exaggeration and little evidence. It is true that Korea is torn between China and the US. But many states in Asia are. The big internal foreign policy debate for all of Asia's medium powers in the coming decades is precisely the same: how to benefit economically from China's explosive growth without getting pulled into its orbit politically. Not just South Korea, but North Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia all face the same dilemma.

I am not sure what the answer is. It is a difficult dilemma, and all these states are going to have to muddle through. Their defence establishments will fret about looming Chinese hegemony while their business lobbies will salivate over a rising Chinese middle class. There will be sharp intra-bureaucratic fights in all these countries as they balance these competing pressures.

Ideally they would work together to present a more united front to China, but the failure of anything like an Asian NATO, plus the failure of ASEAN to evolve from a club of government elites, suggest that each Asian middle power is going to tackle this more or less alone. That Korea is already at this point — because China has rapidly become its largest export market — does not make it unique. Indeed the intense focus on Korea 'finlandising' and abandoning the US alliance, penned by a conservative Japanese politician, suggests fairly typical Korean-Japanese sniping in order to win American favour against the other.

The other obvious reason Korea talks with China so much is that China has leverage over Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye may indeed be the 'sinophile' the Japanese are trying to paint her as, but there is an obvious reason: the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing. Park has to flatter Xi a little (actually a lot, probably) if she is going to get any kind of movement on the North Korea nuclear issue, human rights, or unification. For these reasons, we should all be pleased about an improving South Korea-China relationship.

Northeast Asia is reasonably stable. Most of its players would rather get rich than fight. Most of its elites know that a war could easily spin out of control. Even the North Koreans know this. And the Park-Xi relationship ameliorates the one part of the status quo everyone does want to change — North Korean governance.

Despite decades of predictions that war was likely in East Asia, it has not happened. There's more reason for confidence than the media's routine alarmism would have you think.

Image from REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.

20 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

There will be many people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) right now who are not getting enough sleep. The conflict in the Middle East involving Israel and Hamas, the war in Syria with its added dimension of foreign (including Australian) fighters, elections in Indonesia and the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq will be occupying policy makers. But it is the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine by separatists on 17 July that will be front and centre of the department's work from both a policy and consular perspective.

Having worked on a number of consular crises from the 2004 Asian tsunami to the hostage-taking of an Australian in Iraq, I have a sense of how the Department will be using the crisis response mechanisms that have been refined over many years.

DFAT headquarters, Canberra. (Flickr/Bentley Smith.)

Within hours of the news of the crash of MH17, DFAT activated the Emergency Call Unit and publicised, including through social media, the emergency number for people to call if they had fears for the safety of family and friends. The Department handled about 1000 calls in the first 24 hours.

Regular consular staff and other Departmental volunteers (particularly from the Department's crisis cadre, a group of more than 200 people specially trained to deal with an incident overseas) were rallied to work in the 24-hour Crisis Centre or be part of the deployed Emergency Response Teams. The purpose-built Crisis Centre is equipped with modern communications and technology systems and serves as the central coordination point for the whole-of-government response to an international crisis. Staff working in the Crisis Centre collate information from overseas posts and other sources; prepare situation reports, briefings and talking points; and implement decisions made by the interdepartmental committee managing the crisis.

Consular staff worked quickly to confirm details of the passengers on board and then to make contact with family members offering support and consular assistance. A consular case officer was dedicated to each family. A number of overseas posts, particularly Warsaw and The Hague, have now assumed a similarly important consular role acting as liaison points, providing information to loved ones and assisting with practicalities.

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The Foreign Minister is clearly intimately involved in the consular response in addition to her advocacy and policy activism in the UN Security Council and with counterpart leaders. She told the media she would prefer not to talk about her conversations with the families as she would become too emotional. Her departmental staff will also be feeling the emotional toll. Receiving and identifying bodies, working with disaster victim identification experts, engaging with funeral directors and quarantine agencies and supporting grieving families are never easy tasks.

When I was in South Africa, staff at the High Commission, together with our colleagues in Nigeria, were involved in recovery and support operations following a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo which killed all members of the board of an Australian mining company. Fortunately, many of the consular team had received psychological preparedness training specifically aimed at preparing them for traumatic events. That training, together with adrenalin and a real sense of compassion for the victims' families, helped all of us cope through a difficult time.

In the past few years, the growing number of consular crises has required the Department to focus on training and contingency planning — running regular workshops, conducting (with the Department of Defence) Contingency Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) visits to posts, undertaking exercise rehearsals and practicing responses to particular disaster scenarios both with other government agencies and private sector bodies. The more than 200 officials who have been, or are being, deployed will need to draw on all that training and planning as they help to 'bring Australians home' following the MH17 crisis.


The latest Gaza war is heading into new and bloody territory with no end in sight. As with previous conflicts in Gaza (and in Lebanon for that matter), both sides are engaged in what amounts to a brutal negotiation.

For Israel it is about how much of Hamas' rocket and tunnel infrastructure it can destroy before international or domestic pressure for a ceasefire forces its hand.

For Hamas it is about leveraging Israeli losses in terms of soldiers killed, civilians terrorised and international reputation lost in the hope of extracting concessions in any ceasefire. Hamas is balancing two pressures: on the one hand, the pressure from the suffering population of Gaza to bring the fighting to an end; on the other hand the pressure to demonstrate to that same population that it has gained something (usually in the form of either prisoner releases or the easing of the blockade on Gaza) from the suffering it has brought down on them.

There is another important element in the effort to reach a ceasefire, however, and that is the role of the mediator.

In the past, Egypt has played this role. It did not just convey messages between the two sides. It also used its leverage with both sides, but in particular with Hamas, to end the fighting. What is conspicuous about the current conflict is how ineffectual Egypt has been. It put one serious ceasefire proposal on the table that was so lop-sided it had little prospect of being accepted by Hamas.

As a number of commentators have noted, this reflects in part Egypt's domestic situation. President Sisi and the Egyptian military have been locked in a deep conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood for almost a year now. This has in turn undermined Egypt's relationship with Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

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As observers noted to me during a visit to Egypt last January, many of the individuals in Egyptian military intelligence responsible for the Gaza file have been moved, part of the reshuffle in the military brought about by Sisi's elevation to the position of commander in chief of the army last year.

The new players will not have had as much experience dealing with Hamas, nor the personal relationships built up over time with key Hamas figures. It may also be that the heat and animus generated by the conflict with the Brotherhood in Egypt has infected the attitude of those Egyptian military officials responsible for brokering a ceasefire with the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot.

The contrast with the last major round of fighting in Gaza is stark. In 2012 the conflict last eight days; this conflict has run over twenty days with no end in sight. In 2012, then Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi (from the Muslim Brotherhood) played a key role in bringing the fighting to an end, and was lauded for it by both the US and Israel.

Despite the fact that Israel welcomed Sisi's ascendancy to power, it needs an Egypt that can play an effective mediation role in Gaza; one that has real leverage with Hamas. Israel does not want the fighting to go on endlessly, it does not want to reassume responsibility for Gaza and it does not want Hamas totally destroyed, lest political power fall into the hands of even more radical groups in the territory.

The ongoing fighting also has domestic implications for Sisi's regime. Egyptians expect their government to play a role in ending the fighting, not just out of real sympathy for the suffering of Gazans but also for the sake of Egypt's regional standing. But Sisi is not going to be able to build a new relationship with Hamas overnight. It's a problem for Sisi, it's a problem for Israel, but above all it's a major problem for the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.


This piece from The Economist would have been useful context for the green-energy puff piece broadcast on the ABC's flagship current affairs show Four Corners on 7 July.

The Economist has highlighted new research from the Brookings Institution which looks at the full cost of generating various forms of electricity. The Economist's take-away:

If all the costs and benefits are totted up using Mr Frank’s calculation, solar power is by far the most expensive way of reducing carbon emissions. It costs $189,000 to replace 1MW per year of power from coal. Wind is the next most expensive. Hydropower provides a modest net benefit. But the most cost-effective zero-emission technology is nuclear power. The pattern is similar if 1MW of gas-fired capacity is displaced instead of coal. And all this assumes a carbon price of $50 a tonne. Using actual carbon prices (below $10 in Europe) makes solar and wind look even worse. The carbon price would have to rise to $185 a tonne before solar power shows a net benefit.

Photo by Flickr user Juan A.


Given developments in the Ukraine and tensions elsewhere in the world, the time has come to put security and geo-political issues directly on the agenda for the meeting of G20 leaders, and for those leaders to bring their foreign ministers to the Brisbane Summit.

Soon after President Bush announced he was inviting G20 leaders to Washington for a meeting in November 2008, there was a phone hook-up by officials to discuss arrangements. The first issue raised was which ministers should accompany leaders to Washington. A number of countries said their foreign ministers should be there. As chair, the US said it was a meeting in response to a financial crisis and only finance ministers should attend.

In the years since, there has been a debate between finance and foreign policy officials as to whether the G20 leaders' agenda should move beyond economic issues. The argument from foreign policy officials was that focusing solely on economic issues was too narrow for leaders in a post-crisis world. Finance officials countered by saying that the legacy of the crisis was still prevalent, the agenda had already expanded too much, and it was better to consolidate the G20 before taking on new issues. As a former finance official, I argued for keeping the G20 focused solely on economic issues.

But when the facts change, you should reconsider your position. And in the light of developments, I now believe the G20 leaders' summit must move beyond economic issues and explicitly discuss security and political matters.

The focus on whether Australia should exclude President Putin from the Brisbane Summit has changed the character of the G20. While it is not up to Australia alone to determine whether Putin should attend a G20 summit, the mere discussion of whether he should come to Brisbane has brought security issues within the ambit of the G20. This is not a new development. The crisis in Syria dominated the St Petersburg Summit in 2013. But with geopolitical tensions rising across many fronts — Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, North Korea, the South China Sea — the time has come to put security matters directly on the G20 Leaders' agenda.

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In commenting on whether Putin should attend the Brisbane Summit, my colleague Michael Fullilove said he doubted Putin would want to confront a hostile public response at the Brisbane Summit. However, Putin may not show his hand as to whether he is coming to Brisbane until the last minute. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the summit the Australian Government may be under significant public pressure not to let Putin come. Yet if Australia sought to exclude Putin, this may bring into question the attendance of some other countries. It would certainly be a contentious and distracting issue prior to the Brisbane Summit.

Another colleague, Sam Roggeveen, asked last week: 'if his (Putin) intransigence continues, will Abbott be able to greet Putin with a handshake in Brisbane before the world's media? That will make for an awkward photo-op'.

But there is an alternative approach to handling this matter. If geo-political and security issues were explicitly placed on the leaders' agenda for the Brisbane Summit, the Australian Government's position could be that Putin must come and account for Russia's actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere. In such circumstances, a stern-faced Abbott meeting Putin in Brisbane would make a very different photo-op.

Bruce Jones from Brookings previously suggested that leaders should bring their foreign ministers, national security advisors or relevant diplomats to Brisbane and be available in the event of a crisis which would demand leaders' attention. There are now sufficient geopolitical tensions demanding leaders' attention that security matters should explicitly be on the agenda for the Brisbane Summit. As Jones notes, 'there is no question that a phase of mounting geopolitical tensions has begun'.

Is the G20 the right forum to deal with security and political matters? The UN Security Council has its role, but it also has its limitations. The strength of the G20 is that it is a leader's level meeting and it is more representative than the G7. Moreover, escalating regional tensions are directly related to the performance of the global economy. As Nobel Laureate in economics Michael Spence has noted, 'at this moment in history, the main threats to prosperity — those that urgently need world leaders' attention and effective international cooperation — are the huge uncontained negative spillover effects of regional tensions, conflict, and competing claims to spheres of influence.'

Australia should be proactive. It should signal now that geo-political tensions will be discussed at the Brisbane Summit. But expectations should be managed. There should be no suggestions in advance that major breakthroughs or landmark agreements will be reached in Brisbane. Rather, it should be presented as an opportunity for some frank exchanges between leaders on issues of global importance. Moulding the G20 summit to cover such matters could be the legacy achievement for Australia's turn as G20 president.