Lowy Institute

The Washington Post editorial board, which has long argued for a vocal and uncompromising emphasis on democracy promotion in American foreign policy, has published an editorial criticizing the Obama Administration's decision to host Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in California later this month.

The editorial rightly points out repressive steps recently taken by some Southeast Asian leaders, but in calling for American diplomacy to be more critical and more selective, it also misses two important dynamics in Southeast Asia, one regarding regional diplomacy and the other regarding the character of states in the region.

First, on regional diplomacy. As the editorial acknowledges, most of the heads of state and government coming to California are concerned about rising Chinese influence and power projection capabilities in the region, which they believe could constrain their ability to choose their own course in the world. They have sought to increase their economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the US in order to avoid the loss of autonomy that would otherwise come with Chinese hegemony.

The Post understands this much, but objects to the invitation list. 'While the purposes are worthy,' the editorial reads, 'the result of Mr. Obama's initiative will be an unseemly parade of dictators at the Sunnylands resort, including a few long treated as too toxic to be granted the recognition that comes with an official visit to the United States.' Here, the Post errs.

President Obama is not inviting individual leaders to the summit in California; he is inviting the collective leadership of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has played a singular role in the development of East Asian diplomatic institutions. Its rotating presidency chairs the East Asia Summit, the first institution to include all of the region's leaders, and one which forces China to consult with smaller neighbors it might otherwise ignore in a bilateral setting. Moreover, ASEAN has fought off successive attempts by China (and in a particularly odd and less threatening episode, Kevin Rudd) to share or steal its leadership role. Were it not for ASEAN, regional institutions might already be dominated by China.

The Post's objection to the inclusion of leaders from undemocratic countries in the region overlooks ASEAN's importance, and by extension, the importance of institutions in American diplomacy. Beijing may see the region's future as merely a contest of economic and military power. Washington, for whom the institutions of the liberal international order are of critical importance, should not. It is not enough to trade, invest, and send military assistance to Southeast Asian countries. It is essential that we also support the institutions that bolster their autonomy, and thus the liberal order.

Read More

With regard to the domestic political situation in the region, the Post makes some sound points, particularly with regard to Thailand and Cambodia. But the situation is not as bleak, or as black and white, as the Post would suggest. Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and tiny Brunei are authoritarian countries, and the electoral and judicial systems in Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore remain stacked against the opposition. But each of the latter four has held free elections in the past five years that presented the real possibility of a change in government, a possibility that will become a reality in Myanmar on March 31. (In Malaysia, the government lost the popular vote but won a majority in Parliament due to malapportionment, a problem the Post will be familiar with).

Opposition parties remain strong and competitive in each of these illiberal democracies. Among the four noted above, Malaysia and Cambodia's leaders have become more repressive in the past year; but the military is about to hand over much of its power in Myanmar, and one could hardly call Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong a dictator. Indonesia and the Philippines, as the Post notes, are democracies.

The Post is correct that some of the more autocratic leaders will use the photo opportunities at Sunnylands to bolster their legitimacy back home. That is unfortunate, but it is also an unavoidable consequence of diplomacy.

As part of that diplomacy, the US should address Southeast Asian countries' shortcomings in on democracy and human rights in the most effective way possible: privately. Publicly dressing down Southeast Asian leaders who have flown across the Pacific to meet with President Obama, as the Post suggests, would hardly advance the cause. Effectiveness, not volume, is the standard against which the Obama Administration's efforts should be measured.

In inviting the collective leadership of ASEAN to Sunnylands, the US strengthens regional institutions and supports the liberal international order. Quiet but firm conversations at the summit could support liberalisation on the domestic level, too. The Posts' preference for selective engagement and loud criticism would achieve neither.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gemma I Jere


 By Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow and Chloe Hickey-Jones, Intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • The 2016 Australasian Aid Conference is on this week in Canberra. The conference brings together a host of researchers from Asia, Australia and the Pacific who explore aid and development issues in the region. Selected plenary sessions and keynotes will be live streamed. Check out the full program here.
  • Formerly thought of as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has declared a state of emergency due to severe food and water shortages from the ongoing drought caused by El Nino. Critics believe that it is a combination of the severe weather patterns and lasting effects of land reforms introduced by President Mugabe in 2000 that have resulted in food shortages. El Nino is wreaking havoc across Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia.
  • The World Bank turns 70 this year. Michael Clemens reviews two papers,'The New Role of the World Bank' and 'The World Bank: Why it is still Needed and Why it still Disappoints', that consider the changing role of the Bank and its relevance.
  • Related to this, specialists from The World Bank have a crash course for NGOs to measure their impact.
  • The World Bank also has nifty data visuals via Tumblr collecting all of the amazing websites out there using big data to visualise the fight against poverty.
  • The Guardian has released a picture series talking to the women of Somaliland, where an estimated 98% of girls endure Female Genital Mutilation.
  • As concerns over the Zika Virus outbreak mount, experts across the globe urge that this will not be an 'Ebola 2.0'. Why? Two reasons: 1. The virus' mode of transmission and 2. Government response locally, regionally and internationally has been far swifter than during the Ebola outbreak. Continual surveillance and adaptable, multi-level responses will be required in 2016 to contain and manage the Zika Virus.
  • Duncan Green returns from his brief digital hiatus with a whimsical critique of the Beatles' song Revolution written by John Lennon: 


Cuba, I recently discovered, is a highly popular destination. The US and Cuba have restored their diplomatic relations, and in January Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was crammed with European and Canadian tourists. It is just as charming as you would expect from the travel magazines, and just as unreal.

Habano Centro (central Havana) provided a more accurate reflection of the country: magnificent colonial buildings in severe decay, barefoot kids playing football, obvious poverty, the occasional working girl in a doorway, a miserable communist-era supermarket selling one product from each category.

Music was the common theme in both parts of the city. Salsa blares from windows. African beats blast from the ubiquitous vintage cars. Cuban jazz rises up to your hotel room and fends off sleep. Cubans boogie on the street corner. The food is not great, but sometimes the waiters shake their hips as they present you with it.

If Old Havana sometimes feels like a Hollywood set, there are still moments when you realise you are in a communist state. At one point a troop of Cuban soldiers appeared in the street in their distinctive uniforms and caps. My request to take their photograph was denied, but I snatched a sneaky shot from my hotel window.

On another occasion, I asked a senior Cuban diplomat what he thought of North Korea. He replied that the North Koreans are good friends: 'we are both on the road to socialism, even if we are taking different routes'.

I stayed at Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana – Ernest Hemingway's accommodations, where he lived on and off for a number of years, supposedly with a number of different women.

By chance, I was staying in the room next to his. The advantage of this situation was a nice view eastwards towards Plaza de Armas (the best place in town to buy revolutionary kitsch) and Morro Castle, the Spanish-era fort that guards the entrance to Havana harbour. This is the same view Hemingway enjoyed while he wrote several of his novels. The disadvantage was the crowd of foreign tourists always to be found lingering outside my door waiting for a tour of Hemingway's room. They always seemed disappointed when I emerged into the corridor, rather than Papa.

Apart from tourists wanting to visit Hemingway's digs, Hotel Ambos Mundos also attracted groups of people wanting to access the internet.

Public internet access in Cuba is only accessible via WiFi hotspots at big hotels and offices of the national telco. Cubans have to buy a card for one hour's use at a cost of several days' wages. Whether due to malign intent or incompetence, the service is unbelievably bad. I don't think the Cuban government needs to worry about anyone fomenting counter-revolution online: by the time they come up with a good slogan, the WiFi will have dropped out. Personally I gave up trying to access the internet while I was in Cuba.

The regime leans heavily on the iconography of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl (who currently serves as president) and their fellow revolutionary Che Guevara. The Museo de la Revolución (Revolutionary Museum) in Havana is full of relics of the Cuban revolution. These include the Granma, the vessel that took the revolutionary leaders from Tuxpan in southern Mexico to Santiago de Cuba, the country's old historical capital; parts of an American U-2 spy plane and the Soviet anti-aircraft missile-type that brought it down; and old jeeps driven by Fidel.

There are also relics of more dubious provenance, for example a coin that Raúl supposedly left at a farmhouse and boots that various revolutionaries wore in the jungle. The revolutionary forces were remarkably well organised to identify, retrieve and store all these artifacts while they were fighting a guerilla war.

Everywhere in Havana there are holy pictures of Che – handsome, hirsute and Christ-like. I couldn't resist a picture with a mural of Che outside the Terminal Sierra Maestra, the old shipping terminal. The Revolutionary Museum contains the stretcher on which Che's corpse was carried when he was killed in Bolivia. Tourists stood silently before the stretcher like it was the Shroud of Turin.

The Museum also has a picture of Fidel sitting in a tank during the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The caption on the photograph indicates that Fidel personally fired the shell that disabled the US vessel the Houston. What a shot!

Fidel often achieved superhuman performances in fields in which he was not expert. At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, there was a picture of Fidel and Hemingway at a fishing competition, holding three trophies between them. The guide informed us solemnly that Fidel won all three cups but generously gave one to Hemingway (who was no mean fisherman) as a keepsake.


Following the stunning success of Thomas Piketty's door-stop book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Robert Gordon has consolidated his recent writings into a 600-page tome: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, that argues America's 150-year run of rapid economic advance is over. If Piketty worried about the rich getting all the benefits of growth, Gordon argues that the growth we have all become accustomed to will largely disappear. No longer will it be true that each American generation will have double the income of their parents.

This dramatic change reflects an economy facing a number of what Gordon likes to call 'headwinds', of which slower technological progress is the most interesting part of Gordon's story. He argues the application of technology provided dramatic improvements in living standards between 1870 and 1970 but now the low-hanging fruit have all been picked.

The sheer heft of Gordon's book does bring to mind the comment, attributed variously to King George III or Henry, Duke of Gloucester, made upon receiving a volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 'Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?' If 600 pages provide more than you want to know, an 18 minute TED talk gives the essence of Gordon's argument.

The case he makes is a powerful one. It holds the IT revolution has been less important than the five great advances of the pre-1970 century: electricity, the internal combustion engine, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, urban sewerage, and modern communications. He illustrates this by contrasting the WC toilet with the iPhone. If society was forced to choose between these two inventions, which has been more life-changing?

Of course there are counter-arguments: some would make the case the IT revolution is far from over; others might contend medicine is making stunning breakthroughs, with much further potential; and there are plenty who think the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution has a long way to go, for good or evil. Others hope that virtual reality and cars that drive themselves will change our lives. Paul Krugman has a good review of Gordon here

Gordon is not, of course, the first economist to focus on slow growth. Proponents of the dismal science have been worried about the 'stationary state' ever since Malthus. The big difference is that a stationary state in today's America would be more pleasant than Malthus' subsistence-level wage. Nor is Gordon the first to doubt the transformational nature of the IT revolution. In 1987 Robert Solow famously said: 'You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics'. Paul Krugman published The Age of Diminished Expectations more than twenty years ago. 

Let's not be too glum. Maybe it is time for those of us in the mature economies to accept that we are already producing enough things and switch focus onto correcting income distribution (one of Gordon's 'headwinds'), making sure everyone gets a good education (another 'headwind') and putting less strain on nature and the climate. But the adaptation to diminished expectations will not be easy, especially at the political level. There are some big implications for foreign relations as well.

Read More

In any case, this discussion is America-centred, (as Gordon's title makes clear). Rather than be downcast by the prospect of slower growth in the mature economies, we should take Gordon's fascinating account of the power of transformational technology as a reminder of the enormous potential which the poor and emerging economies have to lift their living standards through convergence. This would be accomplished by applying well-tested existing technology which is not yet being used in these poorer countries. We can all agree that piped water, flushing toilets and electricity were fundamental to lifting us out of pre-1900 poverty. But much of the world still doesn't have these. Almost half the Indian population has no toilet at home, and maybe not at school either. In Indonesia, only 20% of the population has piped water (and only the brave would drink it without treatment). Only 1% have sewerage. Indonesia's per capita electricity consumption is just over 5% of America's.

Much of the rest of the world faces a different (and more rewarding) challenge; how to put in place technological advances which have been ubiquitous in industrial countries for a couple of generations. There is a huge literature on why this technological potential has not yet been harnessed. The pessimists on this debate (the nay-sayers of the 'middle-income trap' being the current vogue) ought to read Gordon's book and then tell us what stands in the way of this technology being applied widely over the next decade or two.


The week kicked off with Aaron Connelly writing about the power transition in Myanmar, something last attempted in 1990:  

Few people in Myanmar think that the military will seek to prevent a transfer of power along the lines prescribed in the constitution, a document they wrote to protect their interests even in the event of an NLD landslide like the one that occurred in November. But no one in the NLD wants to say anything that would either give the military cause to reconsider or, perhaps more critically, that would attract the ire of their leader.

Fellow Myanmar expert Andrew Selth outlined the history of the institutional rivalry between the army and police:

Such problems are much less likely in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw is still the country's most powerful institution, it commands the lion's share of the budget and, under the 2008 constitution, the Minister of Home Affairs is always a serving army officer. Also, the expansion of the MPF is being achieved in part through transfers from the armed forces. The chief of police and about 10% of MPF officers are former military personnel.

That said, the MPF is trying to develop its own ethos and esprit de corps. Police officers are being encouraged to see themselves as separate from the armed forces, with different responsibilities requiring different methods. If the force is able to develop independently, and receives reasonable budget allocations, then serious tensions between the Tatmadaw and MPF can be avoided. However, any obvious intrusion into police affairs by members of the armed forces could cause tensions. 

Leon Berkelmans struck the opposite tone from Steven Grenville this week on Japan's negative interest rates:

The biggest problem with negative rates is political. People hate the idea, and they are not shy of coming forward with their views. That was made very clear to me in responses triggered by a piece I wrote over a year ago. Unfortunately the comments section is no longer up, but there were some strongly worded statements. One of my favourites was: 'This is an example of why one shouldn't take drugs before publishing articles.'

Indonesia's de-radicalisation plans need an update, particularly for those in detention, says Cameron Sumpter:

Read More

Yet research has shown processes of radicalisation are wide-ranging and involve social and emotional forces that are often antecedent to the adoption of an ideological framework, which in many cases is only partially understood anyway.

Factors such as the pursuit of status or personal significance, the comraderie of belonging to an underground network, the desire for revenge or adventure, and the adolescent development of identity have all been identified as recurring themes. Ideology may facilitate these processes, but it's not necessarily the source of motivation for initial involvement. 

Peter Cai looked at Asia's oldest political party, the KMT, after its electoral defeat in Taiwan:

In 2014, I interviewed Sean Chen, a senior adviser to outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou and a former premier, who said the Party must localise in Taiwan for its own survival but at the same time, it must also aim for a higher goal such as serving a broader Chinese community. His answer illustrates the KMT's dilemma, caught between its Chinese roots and rising Taiwanese consciousness.

Japan unveiled the prototype of its next-generation stealth fighter, but this is a significant accomplishment, says Richard Bitzinger:

If successful, the ADT-X/F-3 could shift the centre of gravity in the fighter jet industry from the North Atlantic closer to the Asia-Pacific. If Japan decided to market this fighter to overseas customers — increasingly likely, as Tokyo is quietly watering down its near-total arms export ban — then the F-3 could seriously challenge the West's predominance in this highly lucrative business sector. That, however, depends on the cosmic alignment of a great many technological, economic and political factors, a 'harmonic convergence' that is hardly assured. Japan, despite all its advantages, will continue to struggle in building and maintaining a state-of-the-art aerospace industry.

Michael Raska wrote on the recent announcements from Beijing regarding reforms to the PLA:

Ultimately, the key question is this: will the reforms in the PLA's organisational force structure will be reflected in its operational conduct, particularly in the PLA's capabilities to exploit cyber-kinetic strategic interactions in its regional power projection, as well as responses in potential crises and security flashpoints in East Asia?

On one hand, China's political and military elites believe that a new wave of the global Revolution in Military Affairsis gathering pace, led principally by the US, and China must therefore accelerate the pace of its military development. Internally, however, the reforms are designed primarily to close the PLA's inter-service rivalries, interoperability gaps and the dominance of the ground forces.

The Zika Virus won't be the next Ebola crisis, says Allira Attwill. The international community has learned some lessons:

The second failure was unique to the region. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola, and Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, have noted that WHO's Regional Office in Africa (WHO-AFRO), which should be the WHO's strongest regional office, given the breadth and depth of health challenges in the region, suffers from longstanding problems around capacity, and because of its location (Brazzaville), it struggles to attract the quantity and quality of talent and leadership it needs.

The final (and possibly most palpable) failure occurred at the international level.

Nick Bisley thinks Australia should carefully consider whether or not to conduct its own freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea:

Undertaking a FONOP is fraught with risk, both in narrow operational terms as well as in the broader sense that it would increase the strategic temperature in the region. A FONOP informed by ill-thought-out notions of pushing back on China and lacking a larger vision of the complex realities of Asia's changing international environment would only contribute to growing military tension in the region. Alongside careful planning about a possible military exercise, Canberra should also be undertaking extensive diplomatic efforts to work with other non-claimant states, both US allies and non-allies, to lower the temperature in the South China Sea and to begin a conversation about the difficult steps we need to take to ensure Asia enjoys a regional order that is not dominated a militarised Sino-American rivalry.

Also this week Euan Graham talked about Australian defence engagement in the Pacific:

It is in this context that Canberra needs to re-evaluate its defence engagement in the region, not simply as a capacity-building adjunct to development assistance, but in support of strategic Australia's interests. The Pacific Maritime Security Program, incorporating the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) initiative, is the most important engagement instrument of all, currently operating across 12 countries: Papua New Guinea (PNG), Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands. Prospects for Timor Leste joining the program are delicately poised. Right now this appears to be hostage to bilateral frictions in a further reflection of Canberra's wavering influence in the neighbourhood.

Several attempts to indict Malaysia's Prime Minister on corruption have failed, writes James Chin:

According to The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist and the like, Najib is 'disastrous’ for Malaysia. The Western media cannot comprehend how Najib can stay in power when it is ‘clear’ that ‘corruption’ has taken place, with huge and unexplained sums of money ending up in Najib’s personal bank account in Malaysia. The story is even more compelling when you take into account the dramatic sacking of the deputy prime minister, another senior minister from Sabah, and the attorney-general. The first two were known to be critics of Najib’s role in 1MDB. The attorney-general was replaced when he tried to charge Najib for corruption. 

Is there a 'great game' occurring in Southeast Asia over railways? Julian Snelder:

So battalions of bulldozers will cross the Laotian border soon to lay the key link in the Pan-Asia grid. Via Kunming, Beijing is offering its neighbours the gift of connection into its mighty domestic rail system. Francis Fukuyama marvels at this projection of the 'China model', which must necessarily be lubricated with a great deal of concessionary money. To paraphrase Archimedes, give me a financial lever long enough and I can cover the entire world with railways. Friendly ASEAN states are happy to access China's construction excellence and its fantastically cheap money. Spurning such an opportunity would be an act of geopolitical independence, defiance even. In Asia, not all railroads lead to Beijing, but most do.

Crispin Rovere reported on the results from Iowa:

For Republicans, a Cruz win in Iowa was essential for any candidate not named Trump, and Rubio’s impressive showing guarantees a drawn out primary race. But, despite the Rubio surprise, the Iowa result aligns closely with expectations, solidifying Trump’s position as the GOP frontrunner and likely nominee.

On the Democrat side, Clinton’s aura of inevitability was punctured but she held her position. The closeness of the Iowa race suggests it is by no means over for Sanders, and he will enjoy a honeymoon in media coverage. Yet Sanders must now achieve a truly dominating victory in New Hampshire if he’s to be competitive in South Carolina. Clinton is still the frontrunner.

Vanuata may get a new start from its snap election last week, says Anna Naupa:

Only 18 of the 52 MPs elected are incumbents, and the election results attest to an emerging new political profile for MPs, with a number of reform-minded former senior public servants set to take their seats in the new parliament. This presents an opportunity for a more robust national policy debate at the highest level. With several of these ‘new’ politicians elected under an independent or small party banner, the direction of reforms and allegiances will not be known until parliament sits on 11 February. Training of the new MPs will need to be a priority for the Vanuatu's 11th legislature.

Several European countries are proposing different plans to address refugee migration to the continent, something that may lead to more turmoil, writes Daniel Woker:

Sweden, often viewed as a paragon of an open and humanitarian country, has just announced it will transport about half of the 150, 000 refugees it received last year back to where they came from. 'Back to where?' one is tempted to ask, given African countries routinely refuse to issue papers to refugees in Europe, let alone allowing them to return. Sweden will no doubt find that massive financial assistance, with generous sums allocated to grease the acceptation machinery, will be required if such desperate measures to resettle denied migrants and thus prevent xenophobic backlash at home are to succeed.

Secretary of State John Kerry had a largely unsuccessful visit to Beijing last week. Kerry Brown:

Kerry's visit shows that ambiguity about Chinese views of America’s role in the region remains as strong as ever. When it suits China, it continues to want the US. But Beijing also resents Washington, accepts it in some areas, and rejects it in others.

The new model of major-power relations Xi has talked about since 2014 so far remains largely rhetorical, with little new real diplomatic content. On the South China Sea, on North Korea, and on Taiwan and cross-Strait relations, there has been no radical break with the past under Xi. Views of the US remain much as they were under his predecessors: as a power half envied and half disliked. Kerry’s visit did little if anything to shift that ambiguity.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brookes.


One tragic dimension of the conflict spanning Iraq and Syria has been the damage done to some of the world's most precious cultural heritage. However, geospatial mapping and geographic information technologies are  giving cause for hope.

On 20 January, the Associated Press published satellite images showing that ISIS extremists had destroyed Dair Mar Elia, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. Named after Saint Elijah, the monastery overlooked the city of Mosul for over 1400 years. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ's name, were carved near the entrance. The satellite images indicate that the site had been demolished in late 2014, yet another example of the systematic destruction of sites containing spiritual, cultural and religious significance.

Unfortunately, the destruction could not be definitively confirmed until a year later. In future this may not be the case, with significant advancements in the use of satellites and geographic information systems to monitor and measure damage to cultural heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.

In June last year, UNESCO and UNITAR (the UN Institute for Training and Research) signed an agreement to protect cultural and natural heritage sites by using geospatial mapping technologies. The technologies come under the purview of UNITAR's Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. On 19 January, UNOSAT released a damage-assessment LIVE map of Iraq, using information from satellites located over the cities of Ramadi and Sinjar. The map showed damage levels on buildings and industrial facilities, as well as crater impacts.

The strength of these tools is that they can provide accessible and precise resources to countries where ground access is limited or restricted. By analysing these resources, changes to the landscape are immediately detectable and cultural heritage sites located near the conflict can be more thoroughly appraised.

Read More

Public and private sector collaboration

There is growing collaboration between public and private groups involved in geospatial mapping. For example, Oxford archaeologist Robert Bewley has been leading an endangered archaeology documentation project called EAMENA. The project, which has close links to the government of Jordan, already has a large database of archaeological sites spanning from Mauritania to Iran. Another project is Map Action, a UK-based humanitarian organisation that deploys mapping and information-management teams around the world to collect field data during humanitarian emergencies. Map Action recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the UNOSAT program.

Other organisations are supplementing satellite imagery with other new technologies. For example, the Million Image Database uses digital imaging and 3D printing techniques to crowd-source research data on cultural heritage. Coordinated by scientists at Oxford University, Harvard, and Dubai's Museum of the Future, the project also has support from the UAE government. A similar non-profit called CyArk scans heritage objects, from small artifacts to landmarks, with the aim of building an online 3D library of cultural heritage sites and documenting objects before they are lost through natural disaster or conflict, and potentially creating records to facilitate reconstruction.


The ISIS conflict is complex, with discord between Shia and Sunni groups, Arab and Persian groups, paramilitaries, and a variety of other politically motivated rebel groups. Yet there is a diverse collaborative international community focused on monitoring the cultural heritage in the region.  As the pre-eminent international organisation on world heritage, it remains to be seen how easily UNESCO will be able to coordinate a crisis response amid the conflict. UNESCO's collaboration with UNITAR and UNOSAT has the potential to propel it to a more authoritative position in protecting cultural heritage in conflict, but it will be an uphill battle to coordinate and centralise policies.

The use of satellite imagery analysis and geospatial technologies in monitoring cultural heritage within conflict is proving to be an area of progress. The technologies, and the organisations developing them, will hopefully be able to go some way towards preventing another tragedy like that of Dair Mar Elia. It is widely accepted that heritage and culture play a prominent role in national reconciliation. By investing in monitoring solutions now, future peace processes in the region will be made easier.


The recent outbreak of Zika virus and its spread to 23 countries — mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean — has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). On 1 February 2016 Director-General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, called for a coordinated international response to improve Zika surveillance and detection, the control of mosquitoes and to expedite development of diagnostic tools and vaccines to protect people at risk.

WHO estimates there are currently 500,000 to 1.5 million cases of Zika in the Americas. Cases have also been reported in the US, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, each the result of recent travel to Latin America or the Caribbean. However, only one in five patients experience symptoms, and even then, symptoms are relatively mild; characterised by a fever, rash and conjunctivitis lasting for two to seven days.

While it has not been confirmed, experts agree that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly — a condition in which a baby's head is abnormally small, causing incomplete brain development — is very likely. Also of concern is the probable link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disorder which causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. 

Zika is predominantly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito in tropical regions, the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. It can also be transmitted via blood transfusions and on 3 February, a case of sexually transmitted Zika was reported in Dallas, Texas. Only one other case of sexually transmitted Zika has ever been recorded.

In the worst affected area, about 1% of newborns have suspected microcephaly. Brazil has reported 4000 cases of microcephaly since October 2015, 400 were confirmed and only 17 were linked to Zika. Despite the small number of confirmed cases, and the even smaller number directly linked to Zika, this still represents a sharp increase since 2014, when only 150 babies were born with microcephaly in the country.

Read More

GBS — the other, less publicised Zika-related concern — is also rare. However, Jimmy Whitworth from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that even if GBS occurs in only 1 per 10,000 or 1 per 100,000 cases of Zika, and if the WHO's prediction of 4 million cases by the end of 2016 is correct, a significant increase in GBS can be expected. 

The facts and figures of Zika, although concerning, show that it will not be 'Ebola 2.0', as it has been labelled. This is partly to do with the virus' mode of transmission. The Aedis mosquito circulates only in tropical and sub-tropical climates, and is therefore unlikely to spread to cooler climates and will likely reduce in incidence in cooler months.

But the reasons why Zika is not Ebola 2.0 are also contextual. During the Ebola outbreak, failures occurred which do not apply to the situation with Zika. These failures came at three levels: national, regional and international.

At a national level, governments failed (or at least, their surveillance mechanisms failed) to sound the alarm in a timely manner. The first Ebola case was a two-year old boy in a remote jungle region of southern Guinea in December 2013. However, due to inadequate health and surveillance systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ebola was not diagnosed until March 2014. Sierra Leone's Government claimed not to need assistance – they could control the spread of the virus with checkpoints and awareness campaigns. 

The second failure was unique to the region. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola, and Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, have noted that WHO's Regional Office in Africa (WHO-AFRO), which should be the WHO's strongest regional office, given the breadth and depth of health challenges in the region, suffers from longstanding problems around capacity, and because of its location (Brazzaville), it struggles to attract the quantity and quality of talent and leadership it needs.

The final (and possibly most palpable) failure occurred at the international level.

This failure did not emerge from a lack of will, rather it was the product of a resource-constrained organisation with its eyes firmly on the non-communicable disease epidemic. In a ten-day period between May-June 2014, Guinea and Sierra Leone recorded 150 new Ebola infections, bringing the cumulative total to 440 cases. This rightly alarmed officials at WHO-AFRO, who contacted the WHO Secretariat in Geneva recommending a PHEIC be declared. The true failure lies in the delayed response. The emergency committee did not meet until 7 August 2014, and on 8 August recommended to the Director General that a declaration of a PHEIC was justified.

Return now to 2016: the world is fixated on Zika, wondering if it will be 'Ebola 2.0'. But it won't be, partly because of its mode of transmission, partly because Zika is unfolding in a post-Ebola world, but mainly because Latin America is not West Africa. Health systems are largely stronger and governments better able to deal with public health emergencies (a particular priority with the 2016 Olympic Games around the corner). Also, PAHO  (WHO's Regional Office for the Americas) is not WHO-AFRO (and in any case, if Zika was unfolding in Africa, WHO-AFRO's response would benefit from the Ebola experience), and the WHO is much better prepared, cautious and eager to show the world that it can be what we need it to be: a true leader in global health. 

The international community's thorough and swift handling of Zika suggests that governments and the WHO learned from the devastation caused by Ebola.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Agência Brasília.


The picture of Sunakim (alias Afif) reloading his gun while manoeuvring with an expression of menacing intent will be an enduring image of the Jakarta attack in mid-January.

Having served five years of a seven-year sentence for attending a jihadi training camp in northern Sumatra in 2010, the West Java native was released from prison less than six months before his involvement in the deadly assault in Central Jakarta.

Remissions for good behaviour are common in the Indonesian justice system, though according to a former prison-mate, Afif had pledged allegiance to ISIS, refused to participate in prison programs (including communal prayer sessions) and was known to have struggled with anger issues.

This failure to recognise warning signs has put a spotlight on Indonesia's efforts to manage convicted extremists, and the Government recently announced that it plans to boost funding for so-called prison-based 'de-radicalisation' programs. But where are existing efforts focused, and how would extra resources best be spent?

The blueprint

Initiatives to engage with incarcerated extremists have been operating ad hoc for over a decade in Indonesia, though the first attempt to institutionalise a project came in 2013, when the national De-radicalisation Blueprint was published by the National Counterterrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penaggulangan Terorisme, BNPT).

Read More

The 122-page booklet outlined the agency's strategy for reforming prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences, and presented the task as an ideological struggle with a strategy incorporating four stages. 

First, the identification phase is meant to involve collecting data and determining each prisoner's level of ideological commitment. This is followed by a process of rehabilitation, which aims to 'develop moderate understandings and attitudes' among prisoners and their families, so they 'become inclusive, peaceful, and tolerant' citizens. 

The somewhat Orwellian sounding re-education stage is next and seeks 'transformations of thought, understanding and attitudes', yet the description of the process is largely identical to that of the rehabilitation stage. 

Finally, re-socialisation aims to reintegrate prisoners with society upon the completion of their sentence, which also comprises lengthy duplications from the previous two stages, but highlights the need to involve communities to 'remove suspicion and fear on one hand and develop empathy and mutual respect on the other hand'.

Arguing away ideology

The Blueprint suggests the inclusion of vocational training and the promotion of personal development, but the priority appears firmly placed on a 'persuasive approach' whereby 'discussion and dialogue' attempt to alter the mind-set of prisoners. 

Yet research has shown processes of radicalisation are wide-ranging and involve social and emotional forces that are often antecedent to the adoption of an ideological framework, which in many cases is only partially understood anyway.

Factors such as the pursuit of status or personal significance, the comraderie of belonging to an underground network, the desire for revenge or adventure, and the adolescent development of identity have all been identified as recurring themes. Ideology may facilitate these processes, but it's not necessarily the source of motivation for initial involvement. 

A problem with targeting ideology during interventions is the likelihood of backlash. Kurt Braddock has drawn upon Psychological Reactance Theory (first developed by Jack Brehm in the 1960s) to describe how persuasion-based de-radicalisation efforts can prove counterproductive, as participants may entrench their positions in the face of a threat to their perceived autonomy. 

Changing behaviour

Instead of challenging ideas, some practitioners endorse approaches centred on behaviour. Such interventions are seen as more likely to bring positive change because they focus on practical issues such as promoting constructive life goals and reducing negative emotions. 

One respondent in a study conducted last year by Zora Sukabdi on rehabilitating extremists in Indonesian prisons appeared to support this theory: 'Changing our heart and love for Allah and jihad is impossible, but changing our behaviour so we stop bombing is possible, in fact we can'.

Personalised projects and effective management

Interventions need to be targeted appropriately to make this approach effective. The 2013 Blueprint stated that its identification phase sought to pinpoint the individual circumstance of each prisoner, yet the little available information about how programs are actually run suggests that broad brush strokes have been applied more often than personalised engagement.

This point was even raised by a participant in Sukabdi's research: '…the brothers cannot be all counselled in the same way. We are all different . . . It is ridiculous that all brothers are ask [sic] to be waiters or cooks, it does not match their talent, it is a waste of money'.

Inmate management is also a crucial issue. Integrating extremists with the general prison population throws them into a pool of potential recruits, while segregating problematic prisoners may result in the closing of ranks and devising of plans. This is clearly a difficult dilemma, but through the creation of detailed case files on each prisoner, workable combinations may be ascertained to mitigate the predicament and to ensure that specific interventions are suitably targeted.

Securing release

Equally important is the establishment of a workable risk assessment tool for evaluating prisoners prior to release. In 2012, the Indonesian Government introduced Regulation 99/2012, which stipulates that prisoners convicted of terrorism must pledge loyalty to the state of Indonesia before securing release. This has created resentment among prisoners, who have reacted by either refusing to partake in programs, or by simply signing it with no intention of remaining loyal, as was most probably the case for Sunakim as he negotiated his way to freedom.

In 2011, a team from Corrective Services New South Wales assisted the Indonesian Corrections Directorate with implementing the promising VERA-2 risk assessment system, which involves a comprehensive set of indicators to measure the likelihood of recidivism. The program appeared to collapse in 2013 and a robust system of prisoner evaluation is yet to be established. 

A viable procedure that assesses risk can inform the extent to which released prisoners need to be monitored, another area that is clearly lacking in Indonesia. Sunakim and his three accomplices reportedly all visited the influential ideologue Aman Abdurrahman at his maximum security prison in December 2015. This meeting may not have happened if an appropriate management plan for released prisoners had been in place. 

Added resources

The BNPT is allegedly in the process of updating its De-radicalisation Blueprint, which could be released in the coming month or so. While it is tempting to target individual ideological fervour and believe that arguing away radical views will stop the violence, prison-based interventions may meet more success if they focus more on constructive post-release aspirations. But these will need to be individually targeted.

Funding does not appear to have been a primary concern for the BNPT, but additional resources would be useful if they ensured detailed prisoner profiles are established, an effective pre-release risk assessment strategy is operationalised and that those who are released are monitored appropriately.

Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images


The Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT suffered a crushing electoral defeat in January, losing both the presidency and its parliamentary majority. Some in the party believe the result is their worst since they lost mainland China to the communists more than six decades ago.

The KMT, the oldest, once most powerful and richest political party in Asia, faces an existential crisis. There is even serious discussion going on inside the party about dropping the prefix 'Chinese' from the party name. Take a deep breath and think about this: it is tantamount to American Republicans discussing the possibility of disowning Lincoln and Australian Liberals ditching Menzies.

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Taipei. (Flickr/Matthew Stinson.)

The KMT is suffering from its historical legacy. It was founded by Dr Sun Yat-sen more than 123 years ago in Hawaii as a revolutionary party with the avowed goal of overthrowing China's last imperial dynasty. Since it lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949, it has regarded itself as the exile government of Free China on Taiwan.

It imposed brutal martial laws on the island in the name of fighting the Communist insurgents and made it a criminal offence to advocate for Taiwanese independence. For years, the party has emphasised traditional Chinese values, and school children have been taught about Chinese history and geography.

But the tide is turning against the KMT's historical Chinese roots. the vast majority of islanders see themselves as Taiwanese now, with only a small and dying cohort of people still believing in eventual reunification with the mainland.

Read More

In 2014, I interviewed Sean Chen, a senior adviser to outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou and a former premier, who said the Party must localise in Taiwan for its own survival but at the same time, it must also aim for a higher goal such as serving a broader Chinese community. His answer illustrates the KMT's dilemma, caught between its Chinese roots and rising Taiwanese consciousness.

The KMT is also losing its once strong grip on the cross-Strait issue, which is the biggest political issue in Taiwan and traditionally one of the KMT's key political strengths. The Democratic Progress Party (DPP) under president-elect Dr Tsai Ying-wen seems more moderate and pragmatic on managing the cross-Strait relationship.

Changing perceptions of the mainland (from business opportunity to economic threat) are also robbing the KMT of its political appeal. More and more Taiwanese people see China as a threat rather an opportunity. For years, the Taiwanese business community has made a fortune on the mainland from selling everything from computer chips to instant noodles. An estimated 1.5 million Taiwanese are working and living in China now. But it is getting harder for people to do business on the mainland as China's economy matures. The young generation of Taiwanese see mainland China not only as a menace to their security but also an economic threat. That is why thousands of young people occupied the parliament in March 2014 to protest against the services agreement with mainland China.

But the KMT still seems wedded to the idea that economic integration with the mainland is good policy. These policies do make economic and business sense, but are not politically feasible. Sean Chen's attitude is typical of KMT's technocratic elites: he said 'many economies in the world are in the process of integrating with mainland China. If it is unavoidable, we must take the challenge head-on'.

The electoral fortunes of the KMT have also been undermined by generational change in Taiwan. The strongest supporters of the party are aged 50 to 70. They experienced Taiwan's high speed growth in the 1970s and 80s, and many still remember former president Chiang Ching Kuo fondly. These generations received a strongly nationalist Chinese education and are more likely to identify themselves as Chinese as well as Taiwanese.

However, the younger generation of voters received a more Taiwan-focused education, and many don't have any romantic or sentimental attachment to mainland China. This is even true for children of KMT officials and soldiers who fled to Taiwan after 1949. The stale KMT compares poorly to the dynamic DPP, which is much better organised in attracting younger voters.

All these trends point to a bleak future for Asia's oldest political party. If it cannot reinvent itself as a conservative pro-business party, it faces political irrelevance. KMT leaders need to think hard about their Chinese roots and legacy, but most importantly they have find a compelling new narrative to win over Taiwan's voters again.


As Australian digital diplomacy strives to catch up to rest of the world, these monthly links highlight the most creative and effective ways countries are leveraging the internet for foreign policy gain.

  • On 15 February the Lowy Institute and Facebook are hosting 'The Political Selfie, Soft Power and the Art of Digital Diplomacy' in Sydney. Stay tuned to the Institute's social media accounts for more information on how to question the panelists and watch the discussion online.
  • How publishing platform Medium is breaking Washington's op-ed habit (for example).
  • Australian Brigadier Mick Ryan outlines an Army Brigade's social media embrace in this great post.
  • A study of world leaders on Facebook ranks likeability (Obama, Modi, Erdogan, Jokowi), engagement (Macri, Hun Sen, Netanyahu) and effectiveness (Modi, Erdogan, Obama). 
  • Most world leaders have help in managing their online presence, but this report notes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi manages his own accounts.
  • Fascinating research on the importance of 'social mediators' who bridge governments and the publics they want to reach (with a hat-tip to the work of @USNavy). 
  • Alexander Downer is back in Australia for mid-term consultations and we know because he's joined Twitter.
  • The Weibo account of China's office of public diplomacy has racked up 7.42 million fans with discussions on the war in Syria and the South China Sea among 2016 posts.
  • Analysis of the social networks of ministries of foreign affairs (MFA) reveals the US, UK, Poland, Russia and Norway are most followed by MFA peers; while Peru, Iceland, Norway, Brazil and Russia are avid followers.
  • This analysis classifies Australia as a country with downward social media mobility (along with Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico and Japan), indicating that 'offline size does not guarantee online visibility'.
  • Spain has an ambassador for digital diplomacy.
  • A South Korean NGO is training South Koreans to become cyber diplomats and global PR ambassadors.
  • Canada's approach to digital diplomacy — discussed thoroughly in this panel — is accused here of taking a 'you're either with us or against us' approach.
  • The UK FCO blogs about its experiences with Snapchat and how it is working to reach the right people. 
  • This is what it looks like for staff at the US embassy in Manila when POTUS visits:


Moderation isn't sexy, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. But balance is exactly what is missing from contemporary nuclear debates. In his recent book, The Case for US Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Brad Roberts makes a nuanced argument that, while disarmament is the long-term objective, nuclear weapons remain crucial to US security and for too long they have been neglected.

According to Roberts, America's adversaries 'may believe that they can engage in nuclear coercion and blackmail and that, in extremis, they could resort to nuclear employment'. This argument is likely to see Roberts placed in the pro-deterrence camp which opposes nuclear disarmament, which both proves a point and is also a shame: disarmament advocates and deterrence believers are talking past each other, to their mutual detriment.

For experts, Roberts' book offers a thoughtful, straightforward approach to today's nuclear challenges. It will also provide insights to those wanting a deeper understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in US policy, particularly as an extended nuclear deterrence guarantee to US allies in Europe and Asia.

The Case for Nuclear Weapons provides at least three important contributions to nuclear debates. First, in the course of making the case for US nuclear weapons, Roberts imparts first-hand experience about the nuclear policy-making process from his time working on the US Department of Defense's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. This discussion includes the increasing influence and salience of US allies in nuclear decision-making.

Second, while many arguments in favour of maintaining and modernising nuclear weapons focus on their 'enduring value as insurance against the return of major power war', Roberts instead focuses on the intellectual gap in considering what happens if deterrence fails. What if a seemingly irrational adversary believes that in extreme circumstances the use of nuclear weapons would serve their interests? What if they believe they can use nuclear weapons against the US and not only survive, but also win the war? This is not a completely new argument, but it has been largely missing from nuclear debates.

Lastly, Roberts offers a warning about the state of the US arsenal after decades of neglect in investment and thinking, manifest in a series of recent mishaps involving US nuclear infrastructure. Deterrence relies on credibility, and this requires investment in the arsenal.

Read More

But neither of these last two points, nor Roberts' first-hand experience in policy-making, should put his argument squarely in the anti-disarmament camp. In the book's conclusion, the tone shifts from focusing on adversaries' 'theories of victory' to calling for a 'balanced approach' in nuclear debates. This would combine 'political efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate threats with military efforts to deter existing threats', as argued in the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission report. Indeed, the US is committed to 'twin projects' to adapt nuclear deterrence to 21st century threats whilst reducing the role of nuclear weapons.

Such a balanced approach is noticeably absent in nuclear weapons debates at present, as evidenced by recent commentary over the North Korean nuclear test. While disarmament activists seized the opportunity to unfairly liken the Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program to the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent, those who believe nuclear weapons remain relevant are less vocal and tend to limit themselves to policy circles. Roberts calls this polarisation an 'advocacy mismatch.' Pragmatic debates are non-existent.

What then, is the way ahead for bridging the gap between disarmament and deterrence? First, strategic patience on the part of those who want to see faster disarmament. Second, and related, Russia must be a partner in further reductions. The belief by some disarmament advocates that unilateral steps by the US will prompt others to disarm is not realistic; according to Roberts, 'Recent history is unkind to this hypothesis.' And lastly, real progress will be made towards disarmament by examining the security reasons underpinning nuclear possession and reliance. This is a role specifically for the US as a leader for creating 'the conditions of peace and justice that would make nuclear abolition possible.'

Advocates for nuclear disarmament cannot ignore deterrence arguments, but neither can the policy community ignore the impatience and frustration among non-nuclear states with the lack of progress towards disarmament. There may be a case for US nuclear weapons at present, but that does not rule out disarmament as a long-term objective. Moderation in nuclear debates might not be sexy, but extremism is ugly.


Xayaburi Dam under construction, July 2015. (Taken from this PP presentation by Pöyry, posted on a Laos government site.)

In an Interpreter post on 14 December 2015 ('What's Happening on the Lower Reaches of the Mekong River?'), I referred to a YouTube video that gave a rare, relatively up-to-date view of the controversial Xayaburi dam being built on the Mekong by the Lao government. Shortly after the post was published, the video was taken down.

Now, in response to enquiries from a Cambodian NGO, I have made a further search to see what, if any, images are available that provide some sense of just how substantial the Xayaburi dam actually is and what construction has been achieved so far. This search has located a Powerpoint presentation by Poyry, the Finnish engineering firm working on the dam, which provides considerable detail for what had been achieved by July 2015 as well as providing a large amount of engineering detail.

As has been pointed out by various commentators in the past, there appears to be a clear conflict of interest in the fact that Poyry has played two roles in relation to the Xayaburi dam, both as the dam's supervising engineer and in providing a positive assessment of its compliance with calls to rework the dam's structure in the light of criticism from Cambodia, Vietnam and a range of NGOs. Some comment on this issue is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Any sense that the Xayaburi dam is a minor construction on the Mekong is eliminated in the Poyry Powerpoint presentation. Substantial in size and with untested measures designed to facilitate fish passing through the dam and to minimise the retention of sediment, there seems every reason for the concerns raised by critics to be taken seriously.


Speaking in Washington last week, Julie Bishop noted Russia was 'talking up its so called pivot to Asia'. In her speech to The Center for a New American Security, the Australian foreign minister referred to speculation of an arms race in Asia. This has been driven, in part, by the military build up that Russia, along with China, India and Vietnam, is undertaking in the region. Ms Bishop said:

On current planning, a large-scale revamp of its Pacific Fleet will see it grow from Russia’s smallest to its largest naval deployment over the next decade.

As part of an overall military build-up, to cost about US$600 billion, this fleet will have new ballistic-missile submarines, attack submarines and upgrades to its surface fleet.

A month earlier, in an analysis that concentrated on the economic aspects of the pivot, The Economist talked down what it referred to as Russia's 'much ballyooed turn towards China'. The report noted that while China is Russia’s largest trading partner, Russia does not crack China’s top five. Among the various reasons cited for the slower-than-expected push is Russia's fear of being exploited, according to an expert quoted by the magazine:

The desire to get closer to China is offset by a fear of becoming dependent, says Victor Larin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok. Russia imposes tough restrictions on businesses because of unfounded fears that the Chinese will take over its sparsely-populated Far East.

In the same month, in a Lowy Institute research paper, Russia's Asian Rebalance, Lowy non-resident fellow Dr Matthew Sussex gave three reasons why we should resist the temptation to dismiss the pivot as 'another unworkable grand promise'.

First, an Asian pivot has become an imperative for Russia rather than a choice. Just as the US Department of Defense announced in 2012 that it would 'of necessity' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, Russia sees the need to do so as central to its future power, prosperity, and prestige. Second, Russia is clearly calculating that the twenty-first century will be Asian in character, with a centre of gravity located around Beijing. Third, even a rudimentary strategic projection reveals that Moscow has only a
relatively brief window of opportunity to cement itself as a major regional player. 

One of those most qualified to offer an opinion on the various aspects of the pivot and how they have progressed — or not — is Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. Tomorrow, Friday 5 February, Mr Bond will join Dr Sussex in a discussion of Russia's global ambitions at the Lowy Institute's new digs at Level 3, 1 Bligh St, Sydney. At the time of writing, there are still tickets available for the event, the first in the 2016 Lowy Lecture Series.

Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images


On 30 January, 95 days after its previous effort, the US Navy conducted another 'freedom of navigation operation' in the South China Sea (an operation known by the unlovely FONOP acronym).

This time around, the US improved the public diplomacy of the exercise with clear and reasonably unambiguous statements about just what it was (and was not) seeking to achieve. The move was notable for a range of reasons, not least the very high degree of publicity the US sought for the sail-past. 

Unlike the October operation which involved one of the reefs that China has augmented into an artificial island, this time the USS Wilbur Curtis sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel group, which China has occupied for more than 40 years. These islands are claimed by Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. The US emphasised that its exercise was intended to undercut claims about territorial waters. Of course China was the principal target but Washington was trying hard to show that it was driven by principle and not enmity with Beijing. Interestingly, the Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harris flagged the exercise was the beginning of an increase in the tempo and complexity of such operations.

In Australia, interest in the exercise is particularly strong with speculation rife about whether Australia should follow suit. The topic is reported to have been part of discussions during Prime Minister Turnbull's recent visit to Washington. Many commentators have advocated for Australia to conduct its own operation. Shadow Defence Minister Conroy has smelled party political advantage in getting out in front of the government on the issue. It is clear that the government is seriously considering its options, with Minister Payne indicating as much in recent statements.

But just what is the logic behind an Australian FONOP?

Read More

Australia is not a claimant, and its direct stake in the Sea is often over-stated. Sam Bateman and others have shown that the widely cited figure that 60% of Australia's exports flow through the Sea is badly off the mark. More importantly China — or, indeed, any other claimant — has not indicated any interest in impeding the flow of commercial shipping; it would plainly not be in anyone's interest to do so.

There are three main reasons for an Australian FONOP:

  1. That Australia should defend freedom of navigation from those whose actions challenge it;
  2. Australia should push back against China's more assertive actions in the Sea;
  3. Australia should take action to defend the strategic status quo in the face of efforts to change it. 

There is also, not too far below the surface, a sense that 'something must be done', and for some reason that something seems to be a FONOP. Yet, as Greg Raymond has pointed out, that something is actually much more complex and risky than many politicians and pundits appear to realise. 

A FONOP should not happen because of a sense that something must be done to push back against a country that seems to only understand the currency of force. Such a rationale massively increases the risks of miscalculation and escalation, badly overstates the ability of such an operation to achieve the lofty goals of pundits and politicians, and needlessly increases the temperature in a region which is already pretty febrile.

More importantly, it's not clear how an Australian operation would achieve the three goals listed above in any meaningful sense. What seems to be lost in the discussion is that, beyond the obvious risks and side costs to bilateral relations with claimants, the results any such exercise would achieve (or not) would depend on the precise nature of the operation.

Given the risks, how might a FONOP achieve a strategic return for Australia?

One of the principal problems with China's broader gambit in the South China Sea, and particularly in relation to its recent activities in the Spratlys, is that Beijing has been deliberately ambiguous about what it is seeking to achieve. Many assume that China is building islands to make territorial sea claims, yet there has been no formal statement to that effect. The 'dashed-line' continues to lack precise meaning. Is it a maritime boundary? Is it an EEZ (exclusive economic zone)? Is it an ambit claim? An Australian operation wold need to identify precisely what claim it believes is contrary to the larger principles it is seeking to defend and then organise an exercise to that end. 

A FONOP with Australian characteristics should only occur if it is part of a larger strategy toward the South China Sea and the region more generally. If Canberra wants to go down this path, Australia needs to work to make sure that other like-minded countries take similar steps and that it is not only Australia, Japan and the US taking action. An expression of international will needs to be just that. The military operations have to be matched by diplomatic and political efforts to demilitarise the dispute, and to build durable means to manage the competing interests of Asia's states and peoples.

Undertaking a FONOP is fraught with risk, both in narrow operational terms as well as in the broader sense that it would increase the strategic temperature in the region. A FONOP informed by ill-thought-out notions of pushing back on China and lacking a larger vision of the complex realities of Asia's changing international environment would only contribute to growing military tension in the region. Alongside careful planning about a possible military exercise, Canberra should also be undertaking extensive diplomatic efforts to work with other non-claimant states, both US allies and non-allies, to lower the temperature in the South China Sea and to begin a conversation about the difficult steps we need to take to ensure Asia enjoys a regional order that is not dominated a militarised Sino-American rivalry.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Image Library.


I remember sitting in a room years ago loudly proclaiming it would be great if Japan adopted negative interest rates. People snickered.

Well, the Bank of Japan did it last week! I was somewhat pleased. But not everyone was. A few days ago on The Interpreter, Steve Grenville struck a discontented note.

I have sympathy with some of Steve’s points. Of the experience of negative rates so far in the world, he says:

For the individual countries, mildly negative rates may do no great harm, but nor are they the policy breakthrough that will restore the power of monetary policy.

He's right. The small negative rates adopted by central banks so far (and these are rates that apply to the deposits that banks have at the central bank) will not be a powerful force boosting economic activity. But they are better than nothing. They might not get economies exactly where central bankers want them to be, but they will undoubtedly shift those economies closer to the desired destination.

To get all the way to where it wants to be, Japan may need to adopt rates that are deeply negative. But as Steve points out, deep negative rates at the moment are difficult to implement because people (or banks) earning negative returns would prefer to shift into physical cash.

I’ve written about schemes to deal with this constraint before. I even gave a talk about them at Lowy last year. I’d love to see someone try these things. But maybe one day, we won’t need to. Perhaps cash will be obsolete at some point, and interest rates will no longer be bounded below. But I don’t think Steve would be impressed. He goes on to say:

With this challenge (the constraint on interest rates) in mind, many ingenious schemes have been dreamt up to make sure that currency, too, loses its value over time. While these might solve the technical problem, they miss the underlying issue.

Steve suggests the underlying problem is low returns on investment. I agree it would be great if investment returns, and productivity growth, were higher. But I don’t think we know how to get there.

Read More

As Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, noted in a speech last year, real interest rates have been falling for about 25 years. If I were to guess, this is at least partially the result of lower productivity growth, although as noted in a paper last year by some high-profile economists, the relationship between interest rates and growth is weak .

Do we live in a world where productivity growth is lower? Bob Gordon, from Northwestern University, thinks so. He has just written an 800 page book on the topic that’s receiving lots of attention. Basically, Gordon thinks all the good ideas have been had. If that’s the case we live in a world of low growth and low-returns so interest rates will remain … you guessed it, low. And even if we were to get rid of all private sector bottle necks that Steve suggests, that’s not going to help.

One more thing I would like to point out about Steve’s post. He suggests that there is a large degree of `beggar thy neighbour’ growth that results from unconventional monetary policy. That is, if unconventional policies depreciate an exchange rate, then the country loosening policy will gain as their economy becomes more competitive, but those gains will come at the expense of others. The evidence I have seen, however, suggests that the spillovers are, in fact, positive. So while US unconventional policy may lead to a lower US dollar, the stronger US economy provides benefits to the rest of the world that outweigh any loss of competitiveness. Haldane, himself, shows some evidence of that in his speech.

The biggest problem with negative rates is political. People hate the idea, and they are not shy of coming forward with their views. That was made very clear to me in responses triggered by a piece I wrote over a year ago. Unfortunately the comments section is no longer up, but there were some strongly worded statements. One of my favourites was: 'This is an example of why one shouldn't take drugs before publishing articles.'

But while many don't like them, negative rates are not going to go away. They are a natural response to the world we now live in.

Image courtesy of Flickr user rambletamble