Lowy Institute

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

Former Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam passed away this week at the age of 98. Sam Roggeveen interviewed Nonresident Fellow Murry McLean on the legacy of Whitlam's foreign policy for Australia: 

I talked with Murray McLean this morning, and as you will hear, he argues that Whitlam established the basis for a fully independent Australian foreign policy, setting relations with Asia on a truly equal basis while also tenaciously defending the ANZUS alliance. McLean provides some wonderful historical detail from the early 1970s, when not only Australia but the US, Canada and others were re-thinking their relations with China. When we chatted after the interview, he recommended this 2012 essay by Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to Beijing, on Whitlam's historic 1971 visit.

Historian James Curran wrote on the tumultuous relationship between Whitlam and Nixon and its effect on the Australia-US alliance: 

But it was the speed and direction of the Australian moves which put Whitlam on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. At a time when Washington was trying to rebalance its regional policy following the subordination of other concerns to the fighting in Vietnam, Labor's policy prescription in Asia was bound to throw relations into a tailspin. Against Whitlam's impatience for Australia to be accepted in Asia in a new way and his eagerness to embrace a world less constrained by rigid bipolarity, American officials maintained the need for incremental change, with one eye on the fragility of détente and the other on the persistence of great-power politics.

The new Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, was inaugurated in Jakarta this week. Lowy Institute Research Fellow and Indonesia specialist Aaron Connelly had this to say on Jokowi's attendance at the G20 Summit: 

It would be a mistake for Jokowi to skip the G20.

It is an important opportunity for the new president to engage in debates in Brisbane over proposed measures to boost global economic growth and fund infrastructure projects. Given the the importance of commodity exports to the Indonesian economy and the dire need for improved infrastructure throughout the archipelago, the outcome of those debates could be key to Jokowi's ability to deliver growth and prosperity at home, despite significant macroeconomic and political headwinds.

Rory Medcalf reflected on Jokowi's inaugural address:

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The inauguration speech of Indonesia's 7th President, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, was powerful despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it. It contained a striking blend of personal humility, national pride and an ethos of unremitting work. But as an analyst of Asian geopolitics, I was most struck by its message about Indonesia's rightful aspirations as a seagoing Indo-Pacific power; an archipelagic country connecting two oceans.

And Catriona Croft-Cusworth attended Jokowi's inaugural parade in Jakarta:

The peaceful celebrations are a sign of acceptance by supporters of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, and, hopefully, a sign of a peaceful and constructive term ahead for Jokowi as president. However, with only a minority in the House of Representatives against Prabowo's bulky coalition, Jokowi will have to do more than win the hearts of the people to succeed in making significant changes as president

In a detailed and important post, Senator John Faulkner wrote on the need for a wide-ranging review of Australian intelligence:

Enhanced power requires enhanced accountability. The greater the potential for that power to infringe on individual liberties, the greater the need for accountability in the exercise of that power. This is not to suggest that our security and intelligence agencies are acting perniciously or misusing their powers. But in the relatively recent past those powers were used inappropriately, with a consequent erosion of public trust. We must be conscious that enhancements we agree to now may lend themselves to future misuse in the absence of appropriate and effective accountability mechanisms.

Julian Snelder on the contradictions in Hong Kong's future with China:

Francis Fukuyama addresses this paradox in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. He says that a well-functioning society needs three building blocks: a strong state, rule of law and public accountability, delivered in that sequence. Hong Kong's protesters are demanding the third element, while China itself works on the second, so perhaps the tension between them is understandable. China's state media has praised Fukuyama's book as a vindication of its cautious, paternalistic approach. Fukuyama himself has wondered where China is heading. He argues that China, which built a modern state two millenia before Europe, still lacks an impersonal, impartial legal system.

The Lowy Institute's East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall took a look at the Chinese Communist Party's Fourth Plenum:

When thinking about China, even when the language may sound familiar (and in the case of 'rule of law', reassuring), the underlying concepts are often completely different. The ultimate implications are not going to be what we expect if we take the terminology at face value. While there will very likely be some important and positive developments at this Fourth Plenum, we should not expect to see Chinese judges' decision-making suddenly de-linked from Party considerations. 'Comprehensively advancing the rule of law' does not equate to a separation of powers and a rollback of the Party-state's role in legal affairs. Rather, it should be understood as a sophisticated development in how the Party manages governance and control.

Mike Callaghan argued that the World Trade Organisation is in trouble

The WTO needs a major shake-up. But this will only come if the crisis confronting the global trading system is acknowledged. On reflection, it is probably unfortunate that the Bali deal was reached. The WTO trade ministers meeting last December was widely seen as make-or-break for the WTO. If there had been no agreement, there would have been a crisis, and the need for changes to the way the WTO operates would probably have been confronted. Now the WTO is in a crisis, but this is not getting sufficient recognition.

In a new Lowy Analysis, Dirk van der Kley takes a detailed look at China's foreign policy in Afghanistan:

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

The battle for the Syrian city of Kobane is quickly becoming symbolic, said Rodger Shanahan:

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jack Amick.

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'The umbrella revolution won't give Hong Kong democracy, protesters should stop calling for it' says Eric X Li, a vocal advocate of the CCP's authoritarian model. 'This is about inequality, not politics, so democracy can't fix the problem.'

Actually, if Hong Kong did have universal suffrage, it is quite conceivable its citizens would elect a populist leader running on redistributive policies. 'Tyranny of the majority' is precisely what Hong Kong's elites fear. Chief Executive CY Leung crassly told foreign reporters this week that allowing public nominations for his post 'would give too much power to poor and working-class residents.' Inequality is a major source of unhappiness and property is the root cause of Hong Kong's inequality. A progressive populist could raise Hong Kong's tax rate and flood the real estate market with land and free housing.

Li is wrong that universal suffrage couldn't bring that about.

But what about his broader arguments? Eric Li praises China's government as responsive, meritocratic and efficient, especially in delivering economic development. He further argues that it is representative because it is politically, and not just economically, legitimate and practices a consultative, 'consensual' style of executive deliberation. China has the system that's right for its present needs, Li argues, and surveys of citizen satisfaction would concur. By contrast, Li can fluently cite a dismal litany of failed electoral democracies.

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Francis Fukuyama addresses this paradox in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. He says that a well-functioning society needs three building blocks: a strong state, rule of law and public accountability, delivered in that sequence. Hong Kong's protesters are demanding the third element, while China itself works on the second, so perhaps the tension between them is understandable. China's state media has praised Fukuyama's book as a vindication of its cautious, paternalistic approach. Fukuyama himself has wondered where China is heading. He argues that China, which built a modern state two millenia before Europe, still lacks an impersonal, impartial legal system.

The Communist Party's Fourth Plenum this week focused on 'governance according to law.' The Plenum may disappoint foreign observers, but Xi Jinping rightly wants 'power confined within a cage' of regulation, meaning a continued draconian campaign on corruption, less local interference in courts, and hopefully a lower caseload for judges and improved transparency in sentencing. Xi Jinping's political actions have been strongly centralising, and it is clear Communist Party rule will be strengthened. Officials offer a circular justification: the Party wrote the law, so there is no conflict between its authority and the proper application of justice. 

Hu Shuli writes this week that China's original 1979 'rule of law' was a traumatised reaction to the Cultural Revolution's 'rule of the people.' Today the Party's power over society is immensely greater. She courageously opines that now 'the rule of law is fundamentally incompatible with an authoritarian system.' But a true 'separation of powers' is not going to happen; in fact the term is an official taboo. Even 'constitutionalism' is seen as a seditious attack on 'the people's democratic dictatorship'.

The country has no shortage of laws; it's the selective prosecution of them that's the problem. Foreign legal scholars like Jerome Cohen and Carl Minzner have expertly documented an arbitrary 'rule by law' culture that has undermined societal trust by created an overweening, unanswerable bureaucracy.

Which brings us back to the problem of Hong Kong, the well-functioning civil society without a vote. The students on the street are fighting for freedoms they already possess, as much as the right to new ones. They mistrust the Party's monopoly over all forms of power, including the judiciary and the media, and there is fear of a regression of public accountability.

It is worth considering that we are already almost 20 years into the 50-year 'One Country Two Systems' framework. We cannot imagine how China will look in 2047; yet on current trends its legal system will still be vastly different than Hong Kong's. Probably in another decade, the reality of that impending collision will start to sink in. History may record Occupy Central as the first tremor of concern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pasu Au Yeung.

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China has just launched another spacecraft to the moon. The flight will carry a small capsule around the far side of the moon before returning to earth. If all goes well, the capsule will parachute to a soft landing on the flat steppes of Inner Mongolia, where China usually lands its space capsules.

Officially, this flight is a test of a capsule system to be used in a future robot sample-return mission, which should launch in a few years. Unofficially, the mission serves as another reminder of China's long-term goals of sending astronauts to the moon. The capsule is a scale replica of the crew descent module used on China's Shenzhou astronaut-carrying spacecraft. (Some analysts still refuse to believe China wants to place footprints on the moon. It's another delicious example of politics trumping reason.)

Publicity for this mission has been unusually tight, even by the typically guarded standards of the Chinese space program. This seems to be a trend, judging by recent missions. Perhaps China wants to advance further without tipping off America to its growing achievements. 

Photo by Flickr user Jose Maria Cuellar.

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The Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre will present a weekly selection of links in the lead-up to the Brisbane G20 Leaders’ Summit on 15-16 November.

  • European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy have issued a joint letter to EU leaders about key issues for discussion at the Brisbane Summit.
  • Jeffrey Owens outlines the extensions in the G20 tax mandate stemming from the Cairns Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting.
  • The Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre, Mike Callaghan, asks if the G20 can save the WTO following warnings from Roberto Azevêdo, the head of the global trading body, that it had descended into 'paralysis'. This follows Azevêdo's announcement that consultations will take place on the future of the Bali decisions and post-Bali work program.
  • The pressure for climate change to be discussed by G20 leaders in Brisbane is building following a statement given last week by US G20 sherpa Caroline Atkinson that members should give a political push to specific steps that will reduce global warming.
  • RBA Deputy Governor Philip Lowe delivered an address titled 'Investing in a Low Interest Rate World', a topic that have been the focus of many discussions around the G20 table this year.
  • Last week, the Lowy Institute hosted Wayne Swan to talk on the G20 and Australia's role in international economic governance.
  • Australian G20 organisers are aware of 21 protests being planned during the Brisbane Summit.
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Since 11 September 2001, new threats to Australia's national security have emerged, with Australians targeted by terrorist organisations at home and abroad.

Close to home, the threat of terror became a shocking reality with the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the 2009 Holsworthy Barracks terror plot, and other planned attacks on Australian soil, prevented by authorities. On 12 September 2014, based on advice from agencies, the Government moved the Australian terror-alert level from Medium to High for the first time.

The powers, functions, and resources of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) have changed and expanded dramatically since the September 11 attacks. The current security environment does require such enhanced powers. However, this has come with a share of controversy. Recent information coming from the material disclosed by Edward Snowden, for instance, reveals something of the nature of Australia's intelligence cooperation with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, and raises questions about the extent to which this cooperation might circumvent national laws relating to the surveillance of citizens.

In the heightened atmosphere of war and terrorism there is also a danger that proper effect will not be given to important measures to safeguard the rights of Australian citizens. In the case involving Joseph 'Jihad Jack' Thomas, for instance, the Victorian Court of Appeal overturned his conviction because admissions he made whilst in custody in Pakistan had been obtained by ASIO and Australian Federal Police (AFP) agents contrary to Australian legal safeguards. The case of Dr Muhamed Haneef revealed the capacity of counter-terrorism laws to infringe the rights of an individual and to deny just treatment. The Haneef case also highlights arguments, which have not been resolved, about the power to detain people.

The decision to go to war in Iraq raised questions in Australia about the quality of intelligence assessments and the public use the government made of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. By contrast with Australia, the UK has conducted at least six major inquiries into issues surrounding the role of intelligence agencies in the Iraq war.

The protection of our hard-won democratic freedoms demands enhanced oversight of the AIC's expanded powers. With legislative change extending the powers of security agencies, the requirement for reliable, effective external oversight arguably becomes more critical to maintaining an essential level of trust in the community about agency operations.

In a paper posted on my website today, I make eight recommendations to improve oversight and scrutiny:

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  1. It is the parliament to which the intelligence agencies are accountable, and it is the parliament's responsibility to oversight their priorities and effectiveness. The Australian Parliament has no better or more authoritative forum than the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to do this job. But the provision requiring a prescribed balance of PJCIS members between the Houses has been an unnecessary impediment to ensuring the best qualified eligible parliamentarians serve on the committee. This should change to ensure the PJCIS has the capacity to draw on those parliamentarians with the greatest expertise and experience.
  2. The AFP now plays a central role in Australia's counter-terrorism framework. To ensure comprehensive and consistent oversight arrangements it is critical that the AFP's counter-terrorism elements be added to the list of organisations reviewable by the PJCIS.
  3. Currently the PJCIS is charged with reviewing the administration and expenditure of intelligence agencies. I would argue that the powers and access of the PJCIS should be enhanced to include access to the classified annual reviews of intelligence agencies.
  4. Currently the PJCIS can only request a matter be referred to it by the responsible Minister. In the US and UK, the equivalent committees set their own agenda and work program. It is time for the PJCIS to be given the power to generate its own inquiries if it believes, following consultation with relevant agencies, that such action is necessary and appropriate.
  5. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) provides detailed scrutiny of the legality and propriety of intelligence agencies' operations. The Government and the Parliament must ensure the resources and level of staffing provided to IGIS continue to meet the growing demands and responsibilities placed on them by the expansion of the Australian intelligence community and its powers.
  6. There should be broader and more formalised liaison between the PJCIS and other oversight bodies including the IGIS and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.
  7. In recent years, in some instances the Parliament has used sunset clauses when intelligence agencies have been granted unprecedented powers. These unprecedented powers include AFP preventative detention orders, AFP control orders, and ASIO questioning and detention powers. The lifespan of too many such sunset clauses has been too long. It is simply not possible to predict the nature and extent of terrorist threats over a ten-year period. Giving future sunset clauses a three-year lifespan would be more appropriate to meet immediate threats to national security and give a new Parliament, with a fresh perspective, the opportunity to reconsider their necessity.
  8. Not only has oversight of the intelligence agencies failed to keep pace with their burgeoning role and powers, it has been decades since the effectiveness and adequacy of the oversight framework have been critically examined. It is time to satisfy the Australian community, the Parliament, and the agencies themselves that we have got this right. The time has come for a thorough review of the current arrangements for oversight of Australian intelligence agencies. The inquiry should encompass the role, powers and scope of existing oversight mechanisms and consider the adequacy of the legislative framework which governs oversight; the degree to which it is coordinated and comprehensive; and whether the resources allocated to such bodies are adequate.

Enhanced power requires enhanced accountability. The greater the potential for that power to infringe on individual liberties, the greater the need for accountability in the exercise of that power. This is not to suggest that our security and intelligence agencies are acting perniciously or misusing their powers. But in the relatively recent past those powers were used inappropriately, with a consequent erosion of public trust. We must be conscious that enhancements we agree to now may lend themselves to future misuse in the absence of appropriate and effective accountability mechanisms.

Photo by Flickr user sobriquet.net.

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In just two months' time, international forces in Afghanistan will hand over security responsibility to local personnel. In preparation for the handover, and the eventual withdrawal of foreign militaries, Beijing has substantially raised its traditionally low-key diplomacy in the country.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the Chinese embassy in Kabul

China has pursued dozens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic mechanisms with Afghanistan and surrounding countries that have focused on the issue of security. As I write in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, diplomacy is one of China's two major policy pillars in Afghanistan (the other is to substantially increase economic engagement).

Beijing's key interest in Afghanistan is security. China wants to prevent the spread of terrorism, and in particular terrorist ideology, into the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well to ensure that Afghanistan does not function as a strong base for Uyghur militancy. Beijing will not commit militarily to Afghanistan, so how will it use diplomacy to prevent new instability spreading to Xinjiang?

Beijing will attempt to reduce the security threat in two main ways.

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  1. Stabilise Afghanistan, or prevent further deterioration in the Afghan security environment.
  2. If 1. fails, limit the spread of new instability regionally and reduce the direct threat to Xinjiang.

Beijing's direct influence in stabilising Afghanistan is limited. It will commit huge levels of economic support. Diplomatically it is encouraging surrounding countries to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But security will be left to Afghan forces and any residual foreign troops. The US will likely play the role of mediator in Afghanistan if necessary, as happened during the recent electoral deadlock. 

On point 2, Beijing has more diplomatic options. China maintains contacts with a broad range of actors and groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Since the Karzai Government came to power in 2001, contact with the Taliban has often been via intermediaries. But more recently Beijing has reportedly rebuilt the direct links it had with the Taliban prior to the US invasion in 2001.

Beijing seeks guarantees that Afghanistan won't function as a base for Uyghur militant groups. It also wants Chinese investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. There are mixed views to how effective this approach will be. Some Chinese sources say the Taliban doesn't want to raise the ire of Beijing because this could complicate the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Others question the Taliban's commitment to China's requests. Insurgents have attacked Chinese resource projects in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and in 2012 Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying it opposed China's largest investment in Afghanistan, a copper mine near Kabul.

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

There are clear obstacles. Officials in Central Asian countries are suspected of close links to the drug trade. And there are long running concerns that Pakistan's security and intelligence services help shelter terrorists. Also, many countries in the region have antagonistic relationships with each other.

Despite challenges, Beijing's diplomatic approach may suffice to quell the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The number of Uyghur militants sheltering in Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) in all likelihood remains small, and the capability of external Sunni Uyghur militant groups to launch attacks in China appears limited. It would take a significant capability leap from these groups to be a constant operational threat to China. 

However, diplomacy, economics or military intervention cannot prevent the spread of terrorist and religious propaganda into Xinjiang. This was consistently identified by Chinese interlocutors in research interviews for my Lowy Institute Analysis as the greatest external threat to Xinjiang's stability. 

The Chinese Government probably hypes the ideological threat from abroad – as many governments do. Xinjiang's problems are overwhelmingly domestic, stemming from a disenfranchised Uyghur population that chafes under religious repression, economic imbalances and ingrained discrimination. But concerns abound that ideological messages could resonate with this group.

The most prominent external Sunni Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, undeniably encourages violence in Xinjiang and supports Uyghur separatism. Its media output has become more sophisticated in the past few years. Other groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda have also expressed ideological support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, although this doesn't appear to have led to operational support. 

Chinese analysts understand the limits of diplomacy in regard to Afghan security, but it is seen, along with an economic contribution, as the least-worst policy option. Shi Lan of the Xinjiang Academy for Social Sciences sums it up: 'Dialogue is the best choice we have for solving this issue. Of course, I feel it may be difficult to achieve results with dialogue, but we have to try.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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A few times over the past year, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has referred to Australia as a 'top 20 nation' or a 'top 20 country'. She prefers this to the standard description of Australia as a middle power, a term she has mostly avoided. As she responded to the Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher: 'Middle of what? There are something like 186 countries, so that makes us the 90-something country.' 

For the conservative side of politics, the term 'middle power' is often seen as having been claimed by Labor for its multilateral-leaning internationalist agenda. To those of a proactive bent it can seem terminally unambitious, a supine acceptance of Australia's middlingness in the order of things. Alexander Downer famously pooh-poohed the term and presented Australia as a 'considerable country'.

Minister Bishop's use of the term 'top 20' raises the question of whether Australia is and can remain a top 20 nation. If the league table is about economic power, Australia is comfortably in the club: Australia has overtaken Spain and is the 12th largest economy in the world. Unlike some G20 members (I'm looking at you, Argentina and South Africa), there is no question that Australia is a top 20 economy. (Australia is also in the top 20 polluting countries). Australia is comfortably ranked in top 20 by military spending and development aid. Australia's diplomatic representation may be the lowest in the G20 and its international broadcasting has been cut, but overall there is no question that it's an accurate appellation. 

The issue then becomes whether Australia will stay a top 20 nation. Economic trends and demographics are against it. In purchasing power, Indonesia's economy passed Australia's years ago. PwC projects that Australia will remain in the top 20 in GDP by purchasing power in 2030 but will have dropped out of the top 20 by 2050. As other countries' economies grow, this will give them the funds to invest in greater military spending and even in development aid, as has happened with China and India.

So, is calling Australia a top 20 country just setting ourselves up for inevitable failure?

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A more positive perspective is that it might act as an encouragement, helping Australia to commit to remaining a top 20 nation and taking the decisions needed to maintain this status. For example, the Defence White Paper process could focus on what investments would be needed for Australia to stay in the top 20 in military capability; this would give a hard-edged focus to the exercise (and probably throw up some uncomfortable truths).

There is no shortage of advice on what is needed to make Australia's economy internationally competitive, whether in trade, labour force, tax reform, productivity or science and innovation. What is usually missing is the political will to implement these prescriptions. A sense of Australia as a top 20 nation can help give political impetus to push for economic reform.

When I attended the Crawford Australia Leadership Forum – Gareth Evans' answer to the 2020 Summit – I was struck by the division of discussion into two streams: 'global realities' and 'domestic choices'. The international stream ('global realities') dealt with topics such as China-US relations, India, Indonesia and the Middle East, topics which are, for the most part, outside Australia's control; they are realities with which Australia has to deal. By contrast, the stream on 'domestic choices' dealt with issues such as productivity, competitiveness, energy, inequality and growth; these are all areas where Australian policy settings can have a major effect. 

If it is true that international power derives at its base from economic strength, as has been a popular refrain in the US, the 'top 20' tag can help us recognise this reality and the importance of a continuing focus on economic policy. It fits with the Minister's focus on economic diplomacy: of economic goals as a driver of diplomacy. It suggests the need to strive for a larger Australia in international 'weight'.

The question of whether Australia stays in the economic top 20 is likely to determine if Australia has the clout that enables it to contribute to a conducive international order. Focusing on being a top 20 nation may help keep Australia's eye on that prize.

The Australian Institute of International Affairs' National Conference 'Foreign Policy for a Top 20 Nation' will be held on Monday 27 October in Canberra with speeches by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Lowy Institute experts Mike Callaghan and Rory Medcalf.

Photo by Flickr user Tal Bright.

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If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the ABC even claimed that a hill near the town was 'strategic'. Tactically important perhaps, but strategic ? I don't think so.

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS's main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

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While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organisation and it realises that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defence. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, who appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ogbodo Solution.

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By Anna Kirk, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program.

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When Shinzo Abe led the LDP to a landslide lower house election in late 2012, excitement in and outside of Japan about an abnormally productive period in Japanese politics featuring a strong, popular and reformist prime minister was palpable.

The 18 May 2013 cover of The Economist depicted Abe as a flying super hero; Abe's opinion polling was at Koizumi levels (the last Japanese prime minister to spark such excitement). The LDP-led coalition's second thumping of the dispirited Democratic Part of Japan in the Upper House elections in July last year (an election which also saw a fracturing of the opposition on both the left and right of the resurgent LDP), further strengthened Abe's hand and hopes for his administration.

Abe was popular within the LDP and faced no clear rival (unlike Koizumi a decade earlier), the LDP coalition controlled both houses of parliament and faced a weak and disorganised opposition, and Abe and his cabinet had strong public backing aided by an economic upturn.

Abe has spent some of this unprecedented political capital to pursue tough economic reforms (joining TPP negotiations, the trade deal with Australia and hiking taxes) and security reforms (setting up the National Security Council, passing the new state secrets law, easing bans on arms exports, reinterpreting Article 9), and to politically reinforce his revisionist views on Japanese wartime history by visiting Yasukuni shrine.

Coming into the second half of his second term as prime minister, Abe's political position shows signs of weakening; we may be seeing a return to the frustrating 'normal' of Japanese politics.

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The economy is softening after the effects of the fiscal pump-priming and ultra-loose monetary policy pass through, and the challenges of structural economic reform are starting to bite. The much-needed increase in the value-added tax is causing sharp short-term economic pain. The time to turn back to Japan's nuclear reactors (that accounted for about a third of power generation before the Fukushima disaster) has arrived

Abe and his cabinet are seeing their high and resilient poll numbers start to sag, and with it comes the inevitable calls for Abe to circle the wagons and focus on support for local economies and not structural reforms. Within the LDP, Ishiba Shigeru's challenge to Abe is growing. In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Abe was forced to give Ishiba a portfolio that will allow Ishiba to strengthen his local political networks, the key to political success in Japan. And the dispirited, fractured opposition is recovering from its double thumping and beginning to act appropriately. The opposition successfully pressured Abe to dump two newly promoted female cabinet ministers, one for the misdemeanor offence of handing out hand-fans to supporters.

Abe's ability to traverse the world as Japan's leading statesman and his ability to expend political capital pushing through reforms are both under challenge. Good for Australia that the trade deal with its largest source of investment from Asia and its second-largest export market was concluded in Abe's extended honeymoon period. This period may well be over. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CSIS.

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

  • In his inaugural address, Indonesian President Joko Widodo touted the need to turn Indonesia into a 'global maritime axis.' It remains to be seen how this lines up with the prospect, suggested by Aaron Connelly, of him leaving much of his government's foreign policy-making to key advisers.
  • Rory Medcalf argues that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's foray into contemporary foreign policy is predicated on, among other things, a misrepresentation of Asia which privileges a Chinese perspective at the expense of the rest of the Indo-Pacific.
  • Despite renewed tension on the Korean peninsula following a recent exchange of gunfire, North Korea has unexpectedly released one of its three American captives.
  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has again received strong rebuke from China and South Korea after he sent a ritual offering to the controversial Yasakuni shrine.
  • Japan and Australia have officially begun talks on the joint development of a new advanced submarine, according to a report.
  • As small island nations in the Pacific face uncertain fates due to rising sea levels, experts are looking to bold legal solutions with potentially important ramifications for maritime territorial disputes throughout the Indo-Pacific.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

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Last night at 6pm local time, five representatives from Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters met with five government officials to discuss the protesters' demands. The meeting, broadcast live, was exceedingly polite and civil. But in the end, none of the protesters' demands were met. The meetings were always presented by the Hong Kong Government as a dialogue, not a negotiation, and indeed, while the territory does have considerable freedoms, the Hong Kong Government is in no position to negotiate on decisions made in Beijing. 

Protesters have been on the streets in Hong Kong for four weeks, demanding the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, and the rescinding of the 31 August decision by the National People's Congress in Beijing stipulating that candidates for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong would be screened by a committee of 1200 pre-selected people to ensure they 'loved China and loved Hong Kong'.

While these demands seem to be falling on deaf ears, there have been clues dropped by Leung and his deputy Carrie Lam that space might exist for change in the make-up of the Election Committee, and this seems the most likely direction for discussions from here. Hong Kong's Basic Law, a kind of mini-constitution for the Special Administrative Region, states that 'the Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee in accordance with this Law and appointed by the Central People's Government.'

In 2012, the 1193 members of the Election Committee decided among three candidates. CY Leung, a pro-Beijing candidate, won 57.4% of the votes, defeating pro-Beijing Henry Tang with 23.8%, and Albert Ho, a pro-democracy candidate, who won only 6.3%.

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The decision by Beijing in August to allow full suffrage in Hong Kong to elect the Chief Executive from a pool chosen by the Election Committee does therefore represent a significant step. However, protesters feel that the August decision demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Hong Kongers' sentiments about achieving universal suffrage, a promise central to the handover from the UK to China in 1997. Reflecting this, at the meeting last night, Hong Kong Government representatives offered to provide a new report to the Chinese State Council setting out protesters' concerns, as a basis for future considerations of the Basic Law. 

The protesters are unlikely to find this satisfactory — the Chinese State Council did not make the initial decision, and it does not have the power to change it. Nor would such a report likely have any impact on the 2017 elections. It could have some influence further down the line, but only insofar as Beijing sees making revisions as best supporting Communist Party interests. In China, the constitution is understood as an instrument to be used by the Communist Party in ruling, rather than an external and apolitical set of norms which governs the Party.

Where there may be some space for change is in the make-up of the Election Committee.

Leung and Lam have both mentioned that it may be possible to reconsider how the Election Committee is chosen, and who is on it. The Election Committee is reviewed every five years, in line with the Chief Executive's term in office. As it stands now, Election Committee members are themselves elected by a small proportion of Hong Kong's population, around 200,000 out of seven million. The Committee is regularly reviewed and changes have been made in the past, so this seems the most likely avenue for addressing protesters' concerns in a way that does not fundamentally challenge existing governance arrangements. 

The importance of last night's meeting should not be underestimated; a publicly broadcast discussion between high-ranking government officials and young protesters is highly unusual in China. However, it does not mean that the pro-democracy protesters are getting any closer to achieving their central demands. Beijing was never going to change its mind on its 31 August decision, but neither does it want to see violent unrest in Hong Kong. 

From Beijing's point of view, the protesters need to understand that both aspects of the 'one country, two systems' formulation are equally important. Since the patriotic education campaign launched after the Tiananmen events in 1989, most average mainland Chinese people have internalised the understanding that challenging the Chinese Communist Party's authority is not only futile but ultimately undesirable. It seems the Chinese authorities are presuming that, over time, this will become equally true of Hong Kong. 

The question now is whether last night's discussions, along with the possibility of changes to the Election Committee, will ameliorate tensions in Hong Kong or inspire more dissatisfaction among pro-democracy activists. It will be difficult for protesters to maintain public support for disruption, given the protests have already been underway for four weeks. Additionally, last night's meeting puts forward an image of a benign and open-minded government that is willing to listen, and thus not an appropriate target of violence or illegal activities. This, combined with the weight of the Chinese Communist Party's narrative of immutability, may yet quietly smother the flames of dissent. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user かがみ~.

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Remember Kevin Rudd? The former prime minister might no longer be foremost in Australian minds — particularly in a week in which a more historically significant Labor leader passed — but his presence continues to grow in the US.

The New York-based Asia Society today announced that Rudd would serve as the first permanent president of its nascent policy institute, which is focused on the rise of Asia. The appointment will begin in January 2015 and follow the conclusion of Rudd's term as a non-resident Fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, where he has been leading a program looking at 'alternative futures' for US-China relations.

The attainment of that position of course followed a fairly hasty retreat from the Australian political scene after that ill-fated 2013 return to the national leadership.

Freed from experiencing the nastiness of those domestic matters, US political thinkers seem to hold Rudd in the highest regard, particularly where Asia is concerned.

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When he appeared alongside former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson at a well-received talk on China at the Asia Society in September (see video above) he was heralded as one of the 'West's best-informed thinkers' on the region, and roundly praised for achievements such as steering Australia through the Global Financial Crisis.

Rudd naturally did himself many favours by regularly breaking into Mandarin and revealing his intimate knowledge of China's internal politics and society during that appearance, and he will look to employ these hard-won advantages to good effect in the new role.

As an ardent foreign policy wonk, he will no doubt be thrilled to be working with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is an Honorary Counselor at the institute.* Kissinger described Rudd as a 'rare global thinker and a sophisticated practitioner of global policy making' in an Asia Society statement on the announcement.

As well as a personal victory, the appointment could also be seen as a win for Australia and its prominence in studies of Asia's rise.

The Asia Society nominally includes Australia as part of its purview, and maintains a Sydney office, but the majority of its members and audience still seem somewhat ignorant of the level of Australian interactions in the region. There was, for example, audible surprise at that September talk when Rudd mentioned that about as many Chinese students were studying at Australian universities as at American equivalents.

It could also have implications for Rudd's supposed ambitions for the UN Secretary-General's role, which becomes available at the end of 2016. Might two years in the new role increase his chances of replacing Ban Ki-Moon?

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Henry Kissinger's role with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is a Honorary Counselor, not its temporary President.

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The passing of Gough Whitlam was always going to be a seismic moment in Australian national life. As Paul Kelly writes in today's Australian, the former Labor leader lived 'long enough to see his life mythologised in the national story'. Debate has and will continue to rage about his legacy, both domestically and in Australia's relations with the world.

But in an age of remarkable and unprecedented bipartisan consensus on the US-Australia alliance, it is timely to reflect a little further on Whitlam's handling of the nation's relationship with America. 

In the period from December 1972 until November 1975, the US-Australia alliance faced its greatest ever crisis. In the hands of President Richard Nixon and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a relationship that had endured the heights of the Cold War veered dangerously off course and seemed headed for destruction.

For Whitlam, the world emerging from the ashes of Vietnam offered an exciting opportunity to recast Australia's image in the eyes of the world and redefine the alliance. For Nixon, the ongoing difficulties in securing an end to the war and the mounting pressures of the Watergate scandal produced a visceral reaction to any criticism – but especially that from a once close and trusted ally. In his rage he threatened to rip apart the very fabric of the alliance, asking that options be explored for pulling out top secret US intelligence installations in Australia and ending all intelligence sharing. In Australia, although some saw Whitlam as the great moderniser of Australian foreign relations, others feared he was recklessly endangering the protective umbrella provided by the US.

In my forthcoming book, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon's Alliance Crisis (MUP, May 2015) I show for the first time just how close Australia came to losing the US alliance.

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Drawing on new evidence from archives in both the US and Australia, the book will show that across a broad range of issues, all of which were central to how both nations saw their future role in the region, it became apparent that the harmony of aims and interests that characterised the alliance during the Cold War had come to an abrupt and acrimonious end.

Perhaps the most pungent manifestation of this crisis came when several senior ministers in Whitlam's government harshly and openly criticised Nixon's decision to carry out the so called 'Christmas bombings' of December 1972 on the major population centres of North Vietnam, Hanoi and Haiphong.

The Australians did not mince words. The President's move had come only days after the Labor Party, out of office for twenty-three years, had come to power. Having opposed the Vietnam War since the first Australian troops were committed to the conflict in 1965, some Labor spokesmen shed any pretence to diplomatic moderation, and went for the jugular. The White House was full of 'maniacs', said Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour and Immigration, while the spokesman for Urban Affairs, Tom Uren, accused Nixon of committing 'mass murder' and 'acting with the mentality of thuggery'. Dr Jim Cairns, in the more senior portfolio of Trade, called it 'the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory'.

Prime Minister Whitlam himself wrote to Nixon to express his grave concern at the resumption of the bombing, questioning whether it would achieve the objective of bringing the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table and advising that he would seek the cooperation of other political leaders in Asia, especially those of Indonesia and Japan, to join him in 'addressing a public appeal to both the United States and North Vietnam to return to serious negotiations'. 

Australian maritime unions placed a ban on all American shipping in Australian ports, a move reciprocated by the US International Longshoremen's Association. Australian beef rotted off the coast of Florida and American passengers arriving on cruise ships in Sydney Harbour had to be privately ferried ashore. The Australian censure was one of the most strident of any of America's friends. 

Nixon refused to reply to Whitlam's letter, and when Kissinger telephoned Australia's embassy in Washington to complain, his blunt words of warning sent shockwaves all the way back to Canberra. It was not, the national security adviser stressed to the Australian Charge D'Affaires, 'the way to start a relationship with us'. Speaking for the Administration, he said that 'we are not particularly amused (at) being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy'.

In a discussion with the President at Camp David a few days later, Kissinger unloaded, dismissing Whitlam's letter as an 'absolute outrage' and a 'cheap little manoeuvre'. From 'the minute the Vietnam war ends' he quipped, the Australians 'will need us one hell of a lot more than we need them'. Nixon could only concur: for Whitlam to 'imperil' his country's relations with the US, he replied, was 'one hell of a thing' to do.

The White House Tapes show that Nixon and Kissinger agreed to 'freeze' Whitlam 'for a few months' so that he would 'get the message'. Speaking to Nixon, Kissinger labelled Whitlam's proposed joint appeal to the US and North Vietnam a 'grandstand play', dismissing it as 'very stupid too'. It prompted a policy that amounted to unofficial – but pointed – diplomatic isolation. Whitlam, Nixon thundered, was 'one of the peaceniks...he is certainly putting the Australians on a very, very dangerous path'. The President only reluctantly agreed to give Whitlam a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office in late July 1973. No toasts, no speeches, no state dinner and no welcome on the White House lawn. But Whitlam was not seeking a coronation.

Over the life of the Whitlam Government, the two countries continued to disagree over regional architecture, the idea of a zone of peace in South East Asia, and Indian Ocean neutrality. Australia had become a thorn in America's Asian side. But the Americans had to adjust to these Australian winds of change.

For the first time in nearly a decade the US realised that it could not take the interests of its junior ally for granted. The great irony, as Whitlam freely conceded, is that the changes in American foreign policy — the Nixon Doctrine, Soviet détente, the '72 China visit — had made it possible for Australia to pursue a more independent line in world affairs. As Whitlam himself told an audience in Washington, his country was 'moving on the wave of great events, not swimming against the tide'.

But it was the speed and direction of the Australian moves which put Whitlam on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. At a time when Washington was trying to rebalance its regional policy following the subordination of other concerns to the fighting in Vietnam, Labor's policy prescription in Asia was bound to throw relations into a tailspin. Against Whitlam's impatience for Australia to be accepted in Asia in a new way and his eagerness to embrace a world less constrained by rigid bipolarity, American officials maintained the need for incremental change, with one eye on the fragility of détente and the other on the persistence of great-power politics.

But as American Ambassador Marshall Green observed around this time, the era of the Cold War in East Asia had passed, and with it the need for Australia and the US to 'march together, against the forces of darkness'.

Whitlam, then, essentially redefined the relationship with Washington to give the nation greater self-reliance both within and without the Alliance. It stands as one of the most significant aspects of his legacy in Australian foreign affairs. 

Photo courtesy of the Nixon Library.

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