Lowy Institute

Among US analysts, war with China is no longer a taboo subject. RAND Corporation has now tackled the issue head on, publishing a lengthy analysis titled: 'War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable'. So far, Paul Dibb and Mike Scrafton have provided two excellent assessments on what this means for Australia. This review evaluates RAND’s assessment itself.

RAND presents four conflict scenarios over two different time periods: low-intensity and high-intensity, short and long duration, and occurring either in 2015 or 2025. The low-intensity conflicts are fairly straightforward; however, RAND’s high-intensity 2025 scenario draws a number of contestable conclusions, namely that:

  • Escalation to the nuclear level in any US-China conflict, however intense, is very unlikely;
  • War would be far more devastating for China, with an estimated 25%-35%  reduction in GDP after one year, as opposed to a 5%-10% reduction for the US;
  • A long conflict would test the internal stability of the Chinese state; and
  • The prospect of major land operations is low, unless the war was on the Korean peninsula.

RAND’s ultimate conclusion is summed up by this quote: 'China could not win, and might lose, a severe war with the United States in 2025.'

The authors note that Chinese policymakers are one of their intended audiences. This aims to ensure that miscalculation owing to overconfidence in China’s military capacity is avoided. Unfortunately, in attempting to enhance the deterrent effect of America’s Pacific forces, RAND makes a number of assertions that paint an overly rosy picture for the US. It must be stressed that these criticisms can only be made due to RAND’s willingness tackle this important subject.

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1. RAND seriously underestimates the probability of a high-intensity conflict escalating to the nuclear level

The authors all but exclude the possibility of nuclear use from either side, especially if the US avoids targets that would threaten China’s nuclear deterrent. In reality, China would have significant incentives for nuclear use if it was greatly disadvantaged in a conventional conflict. For instance, China could use nukes as counterforce weapons against US staging areas in the Western Pacific, calculating the US won’t respond at the strategic level. In extremis, China could even detonate a strategic warhead over a civilian population of a non-nuclear US ally (such as Japan) as a direct challenge to US nuclear assurances and to demonstrate absolute resolve, without forcing America’s hand by attacking the homeland directly. Indeed, I would argue that these outcomes are far more likely than what RAND assumes: China accepting total military defeat. 

In other words, the fact that America enjoys overall nuclear superiority appears to have led to dubious assumptions about US-China nuclear dynamics. It would have been better for RAND to simply assume a high-intensity conflict that does not escalate to the nuclear level, without attempting to justify that assumption. After all, it is just as dangerous for US decision-makers to be presented with an unrealistic appraisal of nuclear risk as it is for Chinese leaders having unjustified confidence in their conventional forces.

2. RAND’s assessment of US economic resilience is unrealistic

RAND calculates the relative harm inflicted on each economy based on the estimated disruption to trade, and the relative reliance on imports for each belligerent. The study notes that China is more reliant on imports, and that trade would be severely curtailed during wartime throughout the Western Pacific. Bilateral trade between the US and China would broadly cease.

While it’s true that China is dependent on seaborne imports and that, from a military standpoint, energy disruption would be a severe hazard for China, RAND’s economic assessment is incomplete. 

First, in addition to the cessation of bilateral trade with China, US trade would be adversely affected with every other country whose own economy is dependent on Chinese trade. Moreover, it is not only the raw value of bilateral trade, but the total value of American goods for which Chinese manufacturing is an indispensable component. This would hardly be made up domestically, as any resurgence in domestic manufacturing in the long term would likely to be directly supporting America’s war effort.

Second, and more important, is the impact of cyber attacks. It is impossible that America’s own cyber weapons would deter such threats if China faced kinetic attacks on its own territory. It must be assumed, therefore, that China would successfully disrupt critical American infrastructure on a large scale, including (but not limited to) transportation, energy, telecommunications, financial services, and research. 

The safest assumption (which RAND does make) is that in 2025 China’s cyber capability will be broadly equivalent with that of the US. While the US would be able to respond in-kind, the relative economic impact of cyber warfare would not be the same. America’s economy is larger than China’s due to the productivity afforded by widespread access to high technology. Unrestrained cyber warfare would therefore disadvantage America’s economy disproportionately. Accordingly, it is not possible to accurately predict the relative impact on each country’s GDP after one year of warfighting (as RAND attempts to do), but the overall gap in economic effect between China and the US is likely to be narrower than RAND has assumed.

3. Disruption of China’s internal stability is wishful thinking

RAND’s supposition that a prolonged conflict could precipitate a crisis of stability for the Chinese leadership is unsubstantiated. Certainly a severe military defeat resulting in a harsh peace would present a major crisis of legitimacy for the Communist Party. Indeed, this could militate against the cessation of hostilities, even when faced with a ruinous military situation, and increase the probability of nuclear use. In my view it is highly unlikely, however, that even a prolonged conflict would sufficiently embolden separatist forces in ways that could undermine the integrity of the state while such a war was still ongoing. To the contrary, faced with the memory of ‘the century of humiliation’, the will of the Chinese to resist demands of external powers would likely overwhelm any internal dissent for the foreseeable duration of any conflict. 

4. RAND’s conclusion about the use of land forces is incorrect

RAND assumes that a major land conflict is unlikely,  occurring only in the event of a war breaking out on the peninsula. RAND bases this on the (correct) assumption that North Korea no longer has the capacity to overrun the South on its own, and because South Korea is likely to avoid being dragged into a war against China otherwise. 

Nevertheless, RAND underestimates the likelihood of conflict breaking out on the peninsula during war. This is irrespective of whether hostilities commenced over the South China Sea, East China Sea, or Taiwan. 

This is because the North Koreans, seeing their opportunity, would invade the South knowing the Chinese will have no choice but to support them. Were North Korea to be defeated, China would be faced with the intolerable situation of US forces on their border during a time of war.

The correct military decision for China would be to place enough pressure on the South to force America to commit large scale forces to the defence, without overwhelming it immediately and presenting the US with a fait accompli. Once committed, the US would be in a diabolical military situation. Hundreds of thousands of US land forces would be engaged against an enormous number of enemy combatants, supported by vulnerable supply lines in highly contested waters near the Chinese mainland. Indeed, it is perfectly likely a war that started in the Spratlys could be lost by the US at Busan. 

Of course the US could simply abandon South Korea, but doing so would end its alliance credibility in the Western Pacific. Here even a military defeat could prove a major strategic victory for China, while occupation of Seoul would be a significant bargaining chip in negotiating a favourable peace.

Conclusion 

In addition to these four key areas, RAND makes a number of other assumptions that seem overly generous for the Americans: the willingness of European NATO allies to deter Russian aggression; the extent to which China’s capacity to replenish early losses would be constrained; and the presumed incapacity of China to manage shortages created by disruptions to regional trade. Moreover, other likely Chinese responses have not been considered, such as sponsoring non-state actors hostile to the US, or threatening American interests overland in the Middle East. Finally, the ability of the US to sustain offensive operations in the Western Pacific is questionable given the vulnerability of US aircraft carriers and bases located within the first island chain. 

Having said this, it is hard to argue with RAND’s assessment of the overall military balance in 2025. America will enjoy decisive advantages in undersea capability for the foreseeable future, and China’s surface fleet would be unlikely to survive. If China’s primary military objective was to control the South China Sea or the East China Sea, then war with the US would not be successful. 

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that in a lengthy high-intensity conflict, economic losses would be equivalent, decisive military engagements would be elusive, and China’s post-war recovery would be faster. Combined with the benefit of regional proximity and a weakened allied presence in the Western Pacific, this means the possibility of a Chinese strategic victory in 2025 or beyond cannot be excluded.

Photo: Getty Images/Kevin Frayer and Chung Sung-Jun 

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By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program

  • The PNG Supreme Court has ruled both PNG and Australian governments are responsible for closing the asylum processing centre on Manus Island, after deeming the centre unconstitutional in April. Last week the two governments announced they would close the centre but gave no timeline or suggestion on what would happen to the detainees. The joint statement came five months after PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill called for the centre to close. 
  • PNG’s opposition leader Don Polye has described a government decision to raise the cost of election nominations fees ‘ridiculous and undemocratic’. The cost will rise from 2000 kina to 10,000 kina, or more than $A4000. 
  • Students in PNG have prioritised reconciliation with the University of PNG management in preparation for the resumption of studies next week. Classes had originally been cancelled for the year after the bloody conflict between students and police in June, but were reinstated after the university council opted to lift the suspension. 
  • Fiji’s Prime Minister has announced that plans to change Fiji’s flag have been postponed in order to prioritise the continuing recovery from Tropical Cyclone Winston.
  • New books featuring local stories have also been created to assist Fijian children traumatised by the disaste
  • In light of Fiji’s Olympics rugby gold, The Economist attempted to explain why Pacific Islands nations have a particular talent for rugby
  • Pacific Island countries have condemned ‘misleading’ statements on the PACER Plus trade deal which allege it will diminish sovereignty.
  • Tony Hiriasia from ANU has released a paper on kin-based politics in the Solomon Islands. It looks at how kin relationships are more central to political alliances in rural constituencies than gifting.
  • Australia has selected Tanna, a dram set in Vanuatu, to be its entry in the Oscar's foreign-language section. The film, made in the Nauvhal language, won the audience prize at Venice Critics Week last year.
  • A recent episode of ABC Q&A's featured heated debate on the issue of climate change but, as newly elected Federal MP Linda Burney pointed out on the program, the Pacific Islands nations are already seeing the impact, a reality highlighted in this news report from PNG.

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On 1 August, the new president of Taiwan, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, offered an apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. In the presidential building, the apology began with a rite of offering of millet and spirits. Bunun community elder Hu Jin-niang blessed the ceremony, and Taiwanese religious leaders followed with an interfaith prayer. In Tsai’s speech, she said:

Let me put in simple terms why we are apologising to the indigenous peoples. Four hundred years ago, there were already people living in Taiwan. These first inhabitants lived their lives and had their own languages, cultures, customs, and domains. But then, without their consent, another group of people arrived on these shores, and in the course of history, took everything from the first inhabitants who, on the land they have known most intimately, became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream, and marginalised.

The apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples comes as the culmination of many decades of political and legal activism. A modern indigenous rights movement began in the 1980s, in the final years of Taiwan’s authoritarian era from 1945 to 1987 under the Chinese Nationalists (KMT). Activists campaigned on many specific issues, such as the cultural stereotyping of indigenous peoples in school curricula, the nuclear waste site on Orchid Island, home of the Yami people, and the expropriation of the traditional lands of the Taroko people by the Asia Cement Corporation. They also campaigned for legal and constitutional changes to protect and support indigenous rights. In 1994, Taiwan’s legislative assembly passed constitutional amendments that accorded Taiwan’s indigenous people specific protections under law and, in response to a long and vociferous campaign, institutionalised the term in Chinese 原住民 to refer to indigenous peoples, instead of the prevailing pejorative terms 山胞 and 山地人.

In 2002, the Council of Indigenous Peoples was established and an indigenous public television service begin in 2005. Later that year, the legislative assembly passed the Indigenous People’s Basic Law, which further supported indigenous rights.

The history of activism that led up to President Tsai’s apology has been in response to the long history of dispossession of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples that has left a legacy of damaged communities and high rates of social, health and economic disadvantage.

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Indigenous Taiwanese have inhabited the island for at least 6000 years, and are part of a diverse group of societies known evocatively as the Civilisation of the Voyaging Canoe, after the huge ocean-going canoes that enabled migration to the islands across the Pacific Ocean. In 1624, a colonial outpost was established on Taiwan by the Dutch, bringing guns and missionaries and drawing it into the trading economy of the Dutch empire in Asia. Through politics and violence, the Dutch subdued indigenous resistance, creating the conditions for permanent settlement by people from southern China.

The Dutch were themselves expelled by the Ming loyalist naval commander Zheng Cheng-gong in 1662, fleeing the advancing Manchus, before Taiwan was incorporated into the Qing empire. Through the next two centuries, Taiwan was settled from Fujian, and indigenous Taiwanese lost their ancestral lands as they were forced higher into Taiwan’s extensive mountain regions or were assimilated into the settler communities.

In 1895, in its final years, the Qing empire ceded Taiwan to Japan. The Japanese colonial government was notably focused on what it saw as a civilising mission for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. There were extraordinary periods of conflict, such as the 1930 Wushe Incident when 300 Seediq warriors began a guerrilla campaign against the colonial government that escalated until Japan deployed the full force of its military against them. Indigenous Taiwanese, the Takasago Volunteers, later fought in the Japanese imperial army in WWII. The last 'holdout' after the war, Private Teruo Nakamura, discovered in Indonesia in 1974, was actually Attun Palalin, a member of the Amis people.

Under the KMT from 1945, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples suffered discrimination and patrician indifference as the new government implemented aggressive anti-Communist and industrial development policies. During the 1947 Anti-Chinese Nationalist uprising, Tsou tribal leader Uyongu Yatauyungana protected many local non-indigenous Taiwanese from mainland KMT troops, and was executed in 1954 after he formed an organisation promoting indigenous autonomy.

Tsai Ing-wen faced this bitter history in her apology. She addressed specific issues such as the Orchid Island nuclear waste site, and of the need for further legal reform to protect land rights. She acknowledged the identity of the Pingpu ethnic groups, the indigenous peoples from western Taiwan who have been largely assimilated into Taiwan’s settler society over the last two hundred years.

She also spoke powerfully of the fundamental act of writing indigenous peoples fully into the history of Taiwan. This is at a time when all Taiwanese are addressing the legacy of their history as never before. The experiences of state terror under martial law, which have been held for years as unspoken secrets by countless individuals and families, have been moving into the public sphere through history-writing, memorialisation and art. In this way, the Taiwanese are rewriting their modern story of driving east Asian developmentalism into something quite different.

Tsai’s apology gave indigenous people a vital place in that process and vastly expanded its scope. Tsai said: 'I call upon our entire society to come together and get to know our history, get to know our land, and get to know the cultures of our many ethnic peoples.'

In the abstruse calculations of geo-politics, security and global trade in centres of power such as Beijing, Washington, Tokyo and Canberra, such a basic appeal may have seemed quixotic. Yet from it proceeds a reordering of social, economic and political priorities that affirms the singular course that Taiwan is on. The apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples will further the cause of indigenous rights, but also signals the distinctive modern society and polity that Taiwan has become. 

Photo by Ashley Pon/Getty Images

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By Bill Carmichael, former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, with the assistance of  economists named in the text below.

A debate has raged for a decade about what we have gained from Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). We are now able to assess their contribution to future prosperity.

The Productivity Commission developed an analytical framework to assess the economy-wide effects of the bilateral agreement with the US (AUSFTA) in 2010, but at that stage not enough time had passed to enable a reliable, evidence-based, assessment of the agreement's impact.

Shiro Armstrong, a respected ANU economist, has since used the analytical framework developed by the Productivity Commission, and the decade of performance data available since AUSFTA came into force, to conclude that 'the data shows that...Australia and the United States...are worse off than they would have been without the agreement.'

He has suggested that 'the agreement was responsible for reducing — or diverting — $53.1 billion of trade with the rest of the world'.

So the AUSFTA, so far from the picture painted by DFAT, has involved a substantial cost to Australia.

Along with other economists including the University of Adelaide's Paul Kerin and Richard Pomfret, Flinders University's Dick Blandy, and  the ANU's Glenn Withers, Greg Cutbush, Malcolm Bosworth and Martin Richardson, I believe a different approach is required.

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While we cannot now change how we negotiated the agreements with the US, Japan, Korea and China, we can ensure that it does not reflect how we approach future negotiations.

The governance model that should guide trade policy is based on Australia's conduct in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations.

The negotiations in the Uruguay Round took place at a time when Hawke and Keating were liberalising our own barriers unilaterally, to secure the efficiency gains involved. These reductions were subsequently offered, and accepted, in Uruguay negotiations as our market-opening contribution to global trade reform. As a consequence, we secured all the gains available from trade negotiations – the major gains in efficiency from reducing the barriers protecting our less competitive industries, as well as those available from access to external markets.

That produced the win-win outcome we should be seeking from all trade agreements. It made a substantial contribution to the prosperity we have since enjoyed.

The opportunity to improve the performance of the economy in this way was missed in all FTAs concluded last year. In those negotiations our agenda was simply a market-access wish-list; negotiations were conducted in secret ; the outcome for domestic efficiency was determined solely by the market-access arrangements negotiators happened to agree on, rather than a central objective in deciding which domestic barriers to reduce ; and success was measured by whether the outcomes improved access to external markets.

When we fail to structure our market-opening offers to improve allocative efficiency, by reducing the barriers protecting our less competitive industries, we forgo the major gains available from negotiations. These efficiency gains strengthen the economy not by enabling us to 'produce more' (that is, not by doing more of what we are already doing) but because we move from things we do less well to those we do better.

There is no conflict between the need for secrecy during negotiations and a process that provides transparency and a negotiating agenda that secures the efficiency gains available. Both requirements can be met by following the model established in the Uruguay Round.

That would involve the Productivity Commission providing a basis for Australia's market opening offers, by conducting a public inquiry and report to government before future negotiations get under way. Its report would be released only when negotiations are complete.

This would preserve secrecy during negotiations while providing for parliamentary and public scrutiny of the outcome before ratification. It would reflect the transparency arrangements that prepared the way for the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

Most importantly, the modest change we suggest would allow the community into the debate about trade policy.

It deserves a place in any policy framework to facilitate the long transition from the resources boom to an uncertain future.

Photo James Morgan/Getty

A longer version of this article was published in The Australian 

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The internet is now so central to the world economy (McKinsey estimates it contributed US$2.8 trillion to world GDP in 2014) we forget how weak the norms are governing behaviour online. In several areas these behaviours threaten to degrade and limit the internet’s future contribution to global growth.

Happily the G20 has recently begun to weigh in. In 2013, the word ‘digital’ first entered a G20 Leaders’ communiqué (in relation to taxation) and in 2015 its communiqué referenced a wider range of digital issues.

The G20 now has the opportunity to build on some of the progress made in 2015 and expand its engagement into new areas. In the most recent Lowy Monitor, I propose three issues it could usefully grapple with.

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1. Commercial cyberespionage

State-led, or backed, commercial cyberespionage is imposing huge losses on business (a US Commission estimated US losses at US$300 billion annually) and threatens to lead to retaliatory sanctions or other disruptive measures such as the authorisation of offensive counter-attacks by the private sector.

In September 2015, China just managed to stave off US sanctions when a presidential-level agreement was reached to cease the practice. The G20 extended coverage of this bilateral deal to all its members when it endorsed the same prohibition against commercial cyberespionage in its 2015 communiqué.

Now that the norm against commercial cyberespionage has been agreed, the challenge for the international community is bringing state practice into line. It is here the G20 could fill a gap, encouraging compliance and maintaining political momentum for advancing the agenda. Although the G20 is not a namin

g and shaming venue, the Business 20 could report on overall levels of state-led, or backed, attacks with G20 Leaders responding to this in their communiqué. Leaders could also encourage a global body, such as the OECD, to provide regular reporting on state-backed, or led, commercial cyberespionage.

2. Peacetime state cyberattacks

State-led, or backed, cyberattacks during peacetime are also a potent challenge. They can impose huge costs on business and are a threat to civilian life.

Examples are numerous. For the G20, three developments make consolidation of this norm a recipe for chaos and a threat to the global economy. First, the threshold for acquiring offensive cyber capabilities is now so low, most states of a reasonable size can build them and strike back. Second, the growth of the ‘internet of things’ expands an already enormous range of targets. Finally, as the defence of government and critical infrastructure targets are improved, businesses and civilian institutions become the more attractive soft targets imposing large costs on businesses and civil society.

All G20 states have an interest in winding back this norm. I make a number of suggestions the G20 could consider, including measures to limit the operational freedom of the most egregious global offenders such as North Korea, endorsing various confidence-building measures (CBMs) and, more ambitiously, suggesting members implement domestic arrangements that allow them to sanction individuals or organisations that conduct or support cyberattacks as the US did after being caught unprepared in the wake of the North Korean attacks on Sony.

3. Free flow of data

Restrictions on data flows are another emerging impediment. They increase the cost of doing business, distort markets, and create inefficiencies.

Many states, including several G20 members, have begun to erect impediments to the free flow of data across borders. Data protectionism can take different forms including requirements that certain data categories (such as that relating to national security or healthcare) be stored and processed domestically or by imposing conditions on the cross-border transfer of personal data. For example, two Canadian provinces mandate that personal information held by public institutions be stored and accessed only in Canada.

This is justified using a range of reasons most of which are spurious, however, the consequences of this trend have far-reaching economic effects. Every business with an online presence is potentially affected, for example via increased data storage and processing costs, with multinationals most affected.

While several G20 members engage in data protectionism, limiting scope for wholesale reform, there are a few steps that the G20 could take to help wind back the trend. At an overarching level, the G20 should state a commitment to the free flow of data. To prevent every state developing unique flow-inhibiting standards that apply to its nationals’ personal data, the G20 could also endorse efforts to raise privacy protections to a global standard and extend mutual recognition of laws that reach this standard to achieve interoperability. To ease frictions arising from delays in processing legitimate government requests for data stored abroad (such as in criminal investigations), the G20 could explore options for improved sharing of information among authorities in G20 countries. This could include encouraging members to review domestic processes for handling requests from abroad with a view to improving responsiveness.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marcus Schwan

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US presidential race 2016

Five years ago in Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson described Roger Ailes as 'one of the most skilled and fearsome' operatives in the history of the Republican Party.

As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan’s budding Alzheimer’s in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. 'He was the premier guy in the business,' says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. 'He was our Michelangelo.'

In recent years the 76-year-old Ailes was usually discussed in the context of Fox News, the television empire he founded and where he was largely given carte blanche by Rupert Murdoch because Fox made money hand over fist. That autonomy ended last month, when suddenly Ailes had to go.

There are many fascinating aspects to his bombshell exit from Fox. For those interested in the ongoing power struggles in the Murdoch empire, Australian journalist and long time News Corp watcher Neil Chenoweth has this blow-by-blow account of how the Murdoch sons manoeuvred to get Ailes out.

Meanwhile women the world over, especially women who work in TV, have been swapping the toe-curling stories of sexual harassment that emerged after former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson took legal action against Ailes. One of the G-rated accounts came from Kellie Boyle, who told Fortune of her encounter with Ailes back in 1989:

He had a car and a driver. We got in the car and he said, "You know if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys".

But let's just concentrate on one aspect of the Ailes story; his ties to Trump. Pundits have spent much time trying to work out the extent of the Ailes involvement – past, present and future – in the flagging Trump campaign. We know there are solid links here: the two men share many common political views, have known each other for 40 years and, while there was a public spat over the Megyn Kelly episode earlier this year, Trump went into bat for Ailes over the sexual harassment claims.

Last month Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman suggested that Ailes' fingerprints were all over the Trump campaign, telling Slate 'people who have known Ailes for decades say that when they hear a Trump speech they hear so many echoes of Ailes'.

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The Trump campaign insists Ailes has no official position but there seems to be too much smoke for no fire. This Media Matters report summarises who has said what over the last week or so.

Earlier this month, New Yorker editor David Reminck wrote of the turbulent relationship between the two men, one 'roiled by the differences of large narcissisms – two immense egos competing for the same ideological berth'.

Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was also eerily close to Nixon's from the 1968, Remnick noted:

Nixon delivered a speech intended to heighten the fears of the delegates in the arena and of the “forgotten” majority of Americans at home—“the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators,” the “decent people,” who worked and saved and paid their taxes. His speech, pitched largely to white working-class voters anxious about law and order, was meant to make them even more anxious, more resentful, more tribal; his images and phrases presaged not only the rhetoric of Roger Ailes but also the unlikely rise of Donald J. Trump.

Of course it was this campaign, in which a young Ailes organised TV specials staged as town hall meetings for Nixon, that was immortalised in The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss. Here's a reminder of the book from a 2011 Salon piece titled 'When Roger Ailes was honest about what he did':

“Let’s face it,” Ailes told McGinniss — and his book’s strengths come from its frank dialogue and McGinniss’ deadpan tone — “a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag … Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people. That’s why these shows are important. To make them forget all that.”

Fast forward two decades on and Ailes was steering the Bush campaign. This ad from that time is a good example of his work:

With two and half months of campaigning to go, there is plenty of time for Ailes to get stuck in this time around. And after the election? Well, there is plenty of speculation about what might happen then too. 

Photo: Helayne Seidman/Getty

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On Friday at the United Nations in Geneva, Australian diplomats called a vote they knew they would lose, split their already modest support base in half, and enraged more than 100 other countries that had been ready to agree to a painstakingly negotiated compromise. For its trouble, Australia gained precisely nothing, and seriously damaged its credibility and influence. If it sounds like a diplomatic train wreck, it was. What on earth was going on?

The drama unfolded on the final day of the UN Open-ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. This group has met intermittently throughout 2016; the principal goal for Australia and around 28 other countries in nuclear alliances (also known as ‘umbrella states’ or, more colourfully, ‘nuclear weasel states’) was to ensure that the group did not recommend the negotiation of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons (Tim Wright covered the ban treaty proposal and the associated dilemmas for Australia in The Interpreter in June).

Australia’s manoeuvres on Friday were merely the latest in a series of ill-conceived efforts to try to stop the ban treaty, but which have only fuelled support for it. As the international movement to consider the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons gathered pace in 2014, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote that ‘the horrendous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are precisely why deterrence has worked’. This line, now mercifully retired, ensured a sceptical reception for subsequent Australian assurances that recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was driving its efforts on nuclear disarmament.

Australia then led the efforts of nuclear alliance states in the UN working group to push their preferred ‘progressive approach’ (i.e. disarmament measures that have been tried unsuccessfully for twenty years) and to argue against a ban. These arguments were never very plausible, but their main flaw was their obvious insincerity. The real reason for Australia’s opposition to a ban treaty (that a ban will make it more difficult for Australia to continue its reliance on extended nuclear deterrence) was never mentioned. The transparent dishonesty in Australia’s rhetoric only increased scepticism of Australia’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

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Undaunted, at the final session of the working group Australia raised yet another dubious argument: negotiations on a new treaty would burden small countries. This patronising contention again demonstrated Australian officials’ tin ear for the humanitarian concerns driving support for the ban. In a pointed riposte, Palau said that for Pacific island nations the burden of participating in treaty negotiations would be nothing compared with the burden of dealing with the consequences of more than 300 nuclear test explosions in their region.

Compounding Australia’s credibility problem has been the lack of any coherent strategy for dealing with the ban treaty proposal beyond knee-jerk reactions. It should have been obvious by the May session of the working group that support for starting negotiations on a ban was sufficient to pass a resolution at the UN General Assembly. This would have been the time to start positioning Australia to engage in the ban process, in order to steer it in the direction most compatible with Australia’s national interest.

Instead, the denial continued, culminating in a damaging tactical blunder when Australia’s representative questioned whether there really was a majority that supported starting negotiations on a ban treaty in 2017. The question was technically sound (until then, only a small number of delegations had specifically called for negotiations in 2017) but it didn’t take a diplomatic Nostradamus to predict what would happen. Within days, the Africa Group, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, ASEAN, and several European countries had all explicitly called for negotiations to start in 2017, putting majority support beyond doubt.

The working group report needed to reflect both the majority support for recommending the start of negotiations on a ban treaty, and the dissenting view of the nuclear alliance states, in a text that could be adopted by consensus. After days of back-room negotiations, a delicate compromise was reached which avoided using the term ‘majority’, and made clear the dissent of the ‘progressive approach’ camp. It was a typical multilateral solution: a deal that none liked, but that all could live with.

But when the group convened to adopt the report, Australia took the floor on behalf of 14 umbrella states to declare that the text was not acceptable. When the chair went ahead to try to adopt it, Australia intervened in its national capacity to block consensus and call for a vote.

Other delegations reacted angrily: Australia had acted in bad faith by using the prospect of a consensus report to extract concessions and negotiate a weaker text, and then when others thought all was agreed, pulling the rug from under them and calling for a vote. Evidently, a good number of nuclear alliance states (including Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway) were ready to join consensus on the report, and prudently refused to join Australia’s group of 14. They presumably saw no point in needlessly antagonising the majority, and trashing their chances of influencing developments at the General Assembly later this year.

The outcome of the vote was never in doubt. Mexico’s ambassador described the adoption of the report as ‘the most significant contribution to nuclear disarmament in over two decades’. Two decades ago, Australia, in a daring and creative move, rescued the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty from the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament and took it to the General Assembly for adoption. Now it is reduced to waging a petty and futile rear-guard action that can achieve nothing beyond dividing its allies and depriving itself of any role and influence in the process ahead (and perhaps demonstrating to the US that it fought its corner to the bitter end).

If Australia is to be anything more than an impotent spectator of what lies ahead, surely it is time for a thorough re-evaluation of strategy. 

Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Violaine Martin

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The IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) recently released its assessment of the IMF’s handling of the euro crisis. It was a damming report.

The IMF has been heavily criticised for its response to the euro crisis, particularly its involvement in Greece. As Stephen Grenville has noted, you could fill a library with the commentary on the Fund’s failings. These include: ignoring the signs of an impending crisis; failing to understand the dynamics of a currency union; relying on excessively ambitious projections in the design of programs; not applying the IMF’s requirements for exceptional access to resources; and having a pro-Europe bias in lending decisions.

Among some of the most disturbing revelations in the IEO report are shortcomings in internal IMF governance. One media report concluded it was ‘unclear who is ultimately in charge of this extremely powerful organisation’. Was IMF management calling the shots, or was management a puppet to the European Central Bank (ECB) and European Commission (EC)? One thing is clear: the IMF’s executive board wasn’t in charge.

In describing its governance arrangements, the IMF states that the board of governors (consisting of finance ministers or central bank governors) is the highest decision making body, but most of its powers are delegated to the executive board who conducts the day-to-day business of the IMF and is responsible for all lending decisions. Yet notwithstanding that the IMF was dealing with a major financial crisis with global consequences, the IEO concluded that ‘the executive board played only a perfunctory role in key decisions related to the IMF’s engagement in the euro area crisis’. Important details were not provided to the board, and it was not consulted on some key policy issues.

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One criticism was that the IMF had a pro-Europe bias, a consequence of a European managing director and over 25 per cent of the executive board coming from Europe. Supporting this claim was the way the IMF ignored its own requirements for exceptional access to its resources in order to make additional loans to Greece. The IEO also points out that European directors were provided with information not available to other directors. It also appears that decisions on the use of IMF resources were effectively being taken by the ECB and EU. 

It is disturbing that the IEO had difficulty getting access to IMF documents; a sign of a major breakdown in internal governance. The IEO was clearly exasperated and noted that many documents on sensitive matters were prepared outside established channels and/or could not be located. Furthermore, the IEO was not able to determine who made certain key decisions, or the basis for those decisions.

In recent years the focus for reforming the IMF’s governance arrangements has been on increasing the quota share of emerging markets. The concern of the emerging markets is that developed countries have a disproportionate say in the IMF, which has biased decisions in favour of the developed countries. The process of changing quota shares and representation in the IMF to better reflect the changes in the global economy has been a tortuous affair. The G20 agreed on a change in quotas which would result in an overall 2.7 percentage point increase in the quota share of emerging markets, and this was to be the first instalment of bigger changes. However it took the US five years to endorse the initial change. Given political trends in the US, combined with its veto power over major changes in the IMF, it will be a long time before emerging markets get a further increase in their say.

But the IMF does not have to wait for changes in the distribution of quotas to reform its internal governance arrangements. In fact, given the concerns of emerging markets and the slow progress in changing quota shares, the IMF should be going out of its way to demonstrate evenhandedness in all its decisions. With the IEO report pointing to a clear pro-Europe bias, it is unfortunate that IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde rejected the first recommendation by the IEO, namely that the executive board and management develop procedures to minimise the room for political interventions in the IMF’s technical analysis. Remarkably, Lagarde said that there was no basis in the IEO’s report supporting this recommendation. No wonder emerging markets are disillusioned with the IMF.

Lagarde may have baulked at the imprecision as to what constitutes ‘political intervention’, and the technical analysis of IMF staff is only one input to what will always be judgement calls. But the concerns of emerging markets over IMF bias are very real, and have been reinforced by the IEO report. 

What Lagarde should have done was to recognise the thrust of the IEO’s assessment and say reforms would be put in place to help ensure that all IMF members will be treated equally, both in terms of access to IMF resources and in surveillance. Designing such reforms would not be straightforward, but at least the IMF would demonstrate that it is trying to deal with identified problems.

Photo: Getty Images/Drew Angerer

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There are times when national and sporting narratives seem almost to be perfectly synchronised. America’s success at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which presaged the Reagan landslide later in the year, offered golden proof that the country’s long national nightmare of Vietnam and Watergate had finally come to an end. The 2008 Beijing games confirmed China’s rise, and became a curtain-raiser on the Asian Century. What’s been noticeable this year, however, is the disconnect between the politics and sport of the game’s two most successful countries, the USA and UK, which came first and second in the medal table.

Britain voted to leave the European Union partly because of fears about immigration. Yet its hero of the Rio games, as in London four years earlier, was Mo Farrah, a Somali-born athlete who has emerged over the past four years as the face of British multiculturalism. Brexit has fuelled Scottish nationalism, because voters north of the border wished to remain within the European Union, yet it was the Scottish tennis player Andy Murray, who favoured independence, who carried the Union flag at the opening ceremony in Rio.

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump, in promising to make America great again, has repeatedly said that the US doesn’t win anymore. Yet Team USA dominated on the track, in the pool and at the gym. It came away with its biggest medal trawl since 1984, when its tally was artificially inflated by the Eastern bloc boycott. In the run-up to Rio, America witnessed its worst racial tensions since the Los Angeles riots of the early-1990s. Yet it was the wondrous Simone Biles, a 19-year-old African-American gymnast, who stole the country’s heart, and hoisted the Stars and Stripes at the closing ceremony.

In Britain and America, the Olympics have inevitably aroused patriotic and jingoistic sentiments. On both sides of the Atlantic, this has been a fortnight of feel good fun. But will Rio produce more lasting feelings of unity, togetherness and commonality?

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The extraordinary success of Team GB has brought about national rejoicing but not necessarily national unity. Rather, Rio has become a proxy battleground for Remainers and Brexiteers. 'Team GB’s Olympic medal haul is a blissful break from Brexit blues,' read a headline in The Guardian, playing to type. 'Britain’s Olympic success and post-Brexit vim are cause for celebration not cringe,' read an equally predictable headline in The Daily Telegraph. The Independent, focusing on the implications of a possible economic downtown on the funding of elite sport, asked: 'Could this be Team GB’s last great Olympics after Brexit?' When the anti-EU campaign group Leave.EU posted Tweets using the images of victorious British athletes to make a point about the UK’s national self-sufficiency, Team GB threatened to sue.

In other words, Rio gave the protagonists in the referendum something new to argue over. It also demonstrated the impossibility of conducting any kind of national conversation in Britain without it being dominated by Brexit. This will also be true, no doubt, when the flame is lit in Tokyo in four years time, and also in 2024, which two EU countries, France (Paris) and Italy (Rome) are competing to host.

So what of the USA? Has America’s Olympic success got a political dimension? Judging by the presidential candidate’s use of their social media accounts, it would seem that Hillary Clinton believes that Team USA’s feel good success is far more useful to her candidacy than Donald Trump. As Politico reported, the billionaire has been almost Trappist in his silence about the Olympics and America’s great success. His nativism also seems at odds with such an obviously multi-cultural Team USA, a group of athletes that looks like the country it represents.

What’s been striking about the advertisements airing in America during the Olympics is how many of them feel like rebuttals of Donald Trump. Coca Cola has run an ad called 'Together is beautiful' featuring Americans in hijabs as well as cowboy hats. Mini’s 'Defy Labels' features the American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who says 'Muslim' down the barrel of the camera. Apple’s ad 'The Human Family' feels like a Benneton ad on steroids and features a poem read by Mayo Angelou, who took part in Bill Clinton’s inauguration. This has been a terrible few weeks for Donald Trump, and the Olympics, while not being the primary or even the secondary cause, have not helped. Clearly, America is great when it comes to sport.

As for the question of will the Olympics forge a greater sense of national togetherness, I suspect not. Somewhere, soon, there will be another multiple shooting, another racial flashpoint, another moment in the campaign that exposes that polarisation that is now a permanent feature of American politics. The Olympics was about red, white and blue success, but the broken politics is more about the deep divisions between red and blue.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures. The International Monetary Fund seems to have lost hope that monetary and fiscal policy can shift the Japanese economy out of its deflationary torpor. The IMF, usually the embodiment of conservative mainstream economics, has published this working paper and these consultation documents that suggest Japan should embark on a comprehensive incomes policy so that wages will rise strongly. 

Incomes policies are normally imposed in order to restrain wages, not to boost them. What’s going on?

Prime Minister Abe’s 2012 ‘three arrows’ program projected a speedy return to growth, 2% inflation and a balanced budget by 2020. The initial reaction to ‘Abenomics’ was favourable: the stock-market rose 60% and the exchange rate fell by more than 20%. This eased financial conditions, boosted corporate profits, and lifted actual and expected inflation into positive territory.

But this improvement was not sustained. The exchange rate has appreciated. The IMF expects the Japanese economy to grow by 0.5% this year, 0.3% next year and slower still thereafter. Core inflation is expected to decline and headline inflation, running at 0.2% this year, will rise to 0.6% next year – well short of the 2% target.

The economic conjuncture in Japan is special, perhaps unique. In the past 25 years (1990-2015) real GDP has grown at an annual average of 1%, which might sound slow, but demographics mean that Japan’s working population has been declining. Japan’s GDP growth per worker over these 25 years (the so-called ‘lost decades’) is about the same as America’s. And current unemployment is quite low: 3%. So maybe Japan is doing just about as well as should be expected for a super-mature economy with declining population. Read More

 

There are two abnormalities. The first is the chronic low inflation (the GDP deflator has fallen by 0.3% annually over the past 25 years). The result is that, even when the policy interest rate is set at zero (or a small negative, as at present), it does not provide a strong incentive to borrow. The second is that persistent budget deficits have built up a staggering level of government debt: the ratio of gross debt to GDP is 250%, well over twice that of other G7 countries. Japan is still adding to the debt by running a sizeable budget deficit (5% of GDP) so there isn’t room for much fiscal stimulus. In fact, Japan needs to get the deficit down just as quickly as possible.

Thus the two standard macro-instruments – monetary and fiscal policy – are both constrained. In response, the IMF proposes what might seem an outlandish approach: pressure businesses to give larger wage increases so that they will have to raise their prices, thus boosting inflation. The IMF says that ‘slow wage-price dynamics amount to a missing link in the transmission of rising corporate earnings to inflation (actual and expected)’.

If Japan did succeed in getting inflation up to Bank of Japan’s target of 2%, this would mean that the policy interest rate, already slightly negative in nominal terms, would be substantially negative in real terms, which might encourage more borrowing for investment. Then again, it might not: if demand in the economy is stagnant, even the most attractive borrowing opportunities won’t induce investment. Many argue that the near-zero rates prevailing in recent decades just discouraged necessary restructuring, keeping ‘zombie’ firms going rather than encouraging new investment.

The IMF suggests  income policy might help in other ways. A lift real wages might boost consumption spending. If it does succeed in raising inflation, this would make the debt burden seem smaller: higher nominal GDP lowers the debt/GDP ratio.

But all this is surrounded by pitfalls. Higher inflation might force up the interest rate on government debt, which would greatly increase the deficit. Other suggestions (examined in detail by the IMF) seem equally fraught. Paul Krugman has long argued that the Japanese authorities should undertake ‘irresponsible fiscal and monetary policy’, threatening to embark on such expansionary policies that inflation will rise. Lars Svennson (influential academic and former Swedish central bank board member) offers the Japanese a ‘foolproof’ method of getting inflation up: depreciate the yen enough to get inflation up via higher import prices. Adair Turner (former head of the UK Financial Services Authority) wants the Japanese to embark on substantial fiscal expansion, financed by central bank money creation.

All this is borderline-nuttiness. Rather than provoking inflation, the Krugman proposal is more likely to set off bond-yield rise, which would blow out the budget deficit. Svennson’s devaluation idea would require a huge forced devaluation, which would be hard to achieve operationally and would be totally unacceptable to Japan’s trading partners, who would suffer a counterpart appreciation. Adair Turner’s ‘helicopter money’ proposal doesn’t offer any advantages (in terms of debt/GDP ratio or interest cost of funding) over issuing more bonds to fund the fiscal expenditure. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese authorities seem ready to maintain current policies: strong quantitative easing; a mildly negative policy interest rate in the (so far unfulfilled) hope that this will cause a depreciation of the yen; postponing a fix of the budget deficit, as even modest attempts to raise the value-added tax cause consumers to go into a spending funk; and raise the minimum wage by a regular 3% annually. One tiny structural shift: more women are entering the workforce. The truly radical policy would be to ease immigration restrictions, but change here is likely to remain glacial.

The Japanese are travelling a narrow road with big risks on both sides and no safe haven in sight. The one clear lesson is that it’s much harder to run an economy with aging population and shrinking workforce. 

Photo: Flickr/Soumei Baba

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This is a trailer for a documentary about the fear of terrorism and the militarisation of the US police. There's a memorable shot near the end which seems to tell the whole story: a heavily armoured ex-military vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq drives down a suburban US street, with the house in the foreground featuring a children's playground and the iconic white picket fence.

Do Not Resist was named best documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

(H/t Slashfilm.)

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US presidential race 2016

At the start of this strange US presidential election cycle only a hubristic Vladimir Putin might have expected that he and the Russian-influenced world would play such a prominent role, beyond that is the usual Reaganesque invocations of the former Soviet Union’s inherently evil nature.

Yet the resignation of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and his preemptive sidelining by a new team of advisers, was at least in part a result of machinations out of Moscow. It came after increasing scrutiny of Manafort’s past involvement with Putin-aligned interests in Ukraine and Trump’s noticeable softening of the established Republican position on Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe.

The departure also followed the GOP candidate’s unprecedented invitation to the Kremlin to meddle in domestic US politics by releasing thousands of suppressed Hillary Clinton emails, which he supposed had been stolen from the former Secretary of State’s controversial private servers. Russian hackers were, of course, widely believed to be behind the release of the emails that revealed the Democratic National Committee’s bias against Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders.

The proudly non-politician Trump failed to see a problem in the origin of these hacks, just so long as they served to undermine his rival. Conventional wisdom – admittedly not very reliable in this contest – holds it’s not a particularly good idea to cosy up to Russia in a bid to win American hearts and minds. Indeed, owing to Putin’s increasing regional aggressiveness and his frustration of US foreign policy aims in places like Syria, the percentage of Americans who view Russia unfavourably is nudging levels last seen in the Cold War. Were the roles reversed, it’s not hard to imagine Trump running wild with conspiracy theories of Clinton as Manchurian candidate, installed by Putin to destroy America from within.

As things stand, there is still plenty of wild conjecture on the nature of Trump’s end game and how it relates to his increasingly chaotic campaigning. After all, Manafort’s resignation – which we can safely assume was a wholly forced departure – was also attributed by many to Trump’s desire to more fully embrace his stream-of-consciousness electioneering style.

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New hires such as Breitbart News’ executive chairman Steve Bannon as campaign chief executive, and a typically shadowy role for former Fox News head Roger Ailes, seem to confirm a future emphasis on brash style over political substance. These individuals have their work cut out for them if they are to build a successful White House bid from where the pundits currently have the Trump campaign positioned. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Trump a 15.3% chance of winning in November while The New York Times puts it at 14%.

While the media and public's fascination with the Trump camp's strategy and tactics (or lack thereof) could be seen as starving the Clinton campaign of some of its oxygen,  polling suggests this isn't a problem for her.  Indeed, there is less and less reason for Clinton to do what she clearly doesn't like doing and front a media conference. As President Obama has acknowledged, the case for Clinton’s administration is being effectively made without her involvement. (And without the need to dice with public scrutiny, I would add.)

The public and media will now focus on seeing if there any changes in the Trump campaign post-Manafort that might allow him to more effectively challenge his opponent. It is difficult to see how he could become any more raw or unhinged than at present but time will tell as he and his new team attempt to recapture the spirit of the primaries.

Perhaps it would be more useful to track any evolution in the candidate’s views of the US vis à vis Russia post-Manafort. Trump’s previous perspectives – including calling into question American commitments to the Russia-countering NATO – have been firmly outside the worldview of typical Republican voters, who, it turns out, Trump does need after all. These views remain problematic despite Manafort’s departure, with many journalists and Democratic staff likely to continue probing the former chairman’s ties. To remain somewhat in the realm of conspiracy, there always the chance that these ties went much deeper than has been currently revealed, and this hastened the resignation.

A reversal on Russia and Ukraine would invariably raise questions about how much Trump was beholden to Manafort. On its own, it would also not be enough to turn the tide of public support in the GOP candidate’s favour. It could be an opening for larger and much-needed change within the flagging campaign but this would require the co-operation of the candidate. Trump still seems completely inflexible and unwilling to study any of the widely available political calculus that might affect his chances of success. It suggests there’s more to his affection for Putin than can be traced to Manafort, an affection that puts Trump at odds with his countrymen and women.

Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Given the widespread use of social media in the contemporary age, and the lack of basic humanity shown by both the regime and the opposition forces, the Syria conflict should on the face of it engender a feeling of repulsion at the actions of both sides.

And to a degree it does. But one of the casualties of the instantaneous commentary culture has been a sense of perspective, or any incentive to engage intellectually with the problem. An emotive image is uploaded to the virtual world and what has has hitherto been an extremely complex issue is automatically simplified. In Vietnam, the iconic image of the 'Napalm girl' encapsulated, for many, the futility of the war. The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese. The iconic photo summed up what words could not: US bombing made an enemy of the innocent people it purported to be saving. 

The desire to use an image to encapsulate an argument remains. But the certainty of the anti-Vietnam movement has been replaced in the contemporary Middle East with conflicts in which neither side reflect Western values, and both sides seek Western support.

The social media battleground is a key element of both sides' information operations. The often equally odious combatants conduct these operations by appealing to the heart and not the mind. The horrible image, released by Syrian opposition forces ast week, showing a young boy named Omran in an ambulance after allegedly being pulled from the rubble created by a regime bombing run in Aleppo, received blanket media coverage. It was an image which moved a CNN presenter to tears (see above), and you would have to be made of stone not to be shaken by it.

But should it be used as a justification to take sides in the civil war? No, it shouldn't.

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There are equally horrendous images put out by regime sources which show the depravity of elements of the largely Islamist opposition. The photo of Omran in the back of an ambulance is disturbing, yet last month's footage of a boy being beheaded by individuals allegedly belonging to a US-vetted rebel group, described by the rebels as an 'individual mistake' (nb. there are no violent images in the linked article), are so disturbing that they won't be broadcast and hence won't gather the same degree of public opprobrium. And if it doesn't make the public space, it never happened.

Equally objectionable is the use of children as witnesses of record. A Syrian opposition group referring to the alleged 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta near Damascus eschews the use of adults as spokespeople in favour of children. There is no reason why an adult could not have given an account of the incident in question, and of course researchers have difficulty relying on children as witnesses. But from an information operations perspective it is obvious that using children to 'sell' one side of the argument is preferable.

This co-option of children is extended to anybody that claims to be associated with them. Jihadis from Australia often claim they were either working  or intending to work in orphanages in Syria and couldn't possibly have been going to support jihadist causes. Doctors killed in air strikes or shelling are invariably paediatricians or were carrying incubators to basements when shelling began.

My aim is not to belittle the work of doctors who work with children in conflict zones or to try to sidestep the reality that children are killed in war. Obviously this occurs. But it occurs on all sides of this conflict. Jihadis deliberately position themselves within civilian populations and store weapons and ammunition in built up areas, while government forces and their allies pay scant attention to targeting processes or ammunition selection that would minimise civilian casualties. The government forces inflict more casualties because they have more resources, but the difference is really a question of quantity of weapons and munitions, not intent. The death of any child is inexcusable, but in Syria it appears that children are being used for more than just to remind us about the futility of war.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

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  • Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced the government will embark on the first foreign policy white paper in 13 years. It will be interesting to see how much Australian aid, the management of which is now firmly ensconced within DFAT, will factor into the review. An Independent Review of Australian Aid was conducted in 2011, and an Australian aid White Paper in 2006.
  • Minister Bishop also marked World Humanitarian Day last week at an event co-hosted by the Lowy Institute in Melbourne where she launched Australia’s new Humanitarian Strategy.
  • Ashlee Betteridge and Stephen Howes evaluate the performance of DFAT’s Office of Development Effectiveness on its tenth anniversary.
  • Terence Wood proposes a new 0.7% target – that NGOs contribute as much to broader advocacy to fund a collective effort to persuade the Australian public and their elected representatives that Australia should give more, and better, ODA. This would reap about six times more funding than the existing budget of the Campaign for Australian Aid.
  • More details are emerging of the brutal attack on foreign journalists and aid workers by government troops in South Sudan last month, highlighting yet another case of UN peacekeeping forces failing to intervene despite desperate calls for help.
  • The Guardian has an insider’s view on the first few days of South Sudan’s chaotic slide back into conflict from the former head of the UN there.
  • Owen Barder writes about what international development can learn from Britain’s Olympic Team’s success.
  • Take a look at this video breaking down the world’s demographic and human development trends if it were only 100 people (h/t Duncan Green).

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Last week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid down the gauntlet to Pakistan, sending a clear indication that India may be prepared to destabilise Pakistan’s fractious Balochistan province in response to perceived threats. While this represents a very significant change in India’s public posture towards Pakistan, it is important to understand the message was also directed at China.

In a carefully worded national Independence Day speech at Delhi’s Red Fort on 15 August, Modi sent his greetings to the 'people of Balochistan, Gilgit [and] Pakistan-occupied Kashmir'. These words caused outrage in Islamabad where they were viewed as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty, 'confirming' their long-standing claims that India had been supporting insurgencies in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan.

Playing the Balochistan card represents a big shift for India. Initially, Modi’s election in 2014 prompted expectations that Delhi would take a much less conciliatory line with Pakistan. But, to the surprise of some, beginning with the invitation of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Modi’s inauguration, the Modi government appeared relatively open to exploring approaches to reconciliation.

But Delhi seems to have now concluded its efforts have generated few returns. Sharif’s Pakistan Independence Day speech on 14 August, which he dedicated to the freedom of Kashmir, may have been the last straw for the Modi government, ending hopes that a detente could be reached with Pakistan’s civilian government.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has long argued that India should play the Balochistan card in response to Pakistan-inspired terror threats. In one memorable speech, only days before his formal appointment, Doval addresses the camera (and presumably a Pakistani audience) saying: 'You do one more Mumbai [attack], you lose Balochistan.' Doval argued that Pakistan’s terror strategy against India could only be deterred by India using an asymmetric strategy of threatening to support Pakistan separatists. India’s move is a risky one, potentially inflaming tensions and undermining India’s high(er) moral ground.

But this development is more than just a new episode in India-Pakistan relations. Modi’s message was directed almost as much to Beijing as to Islamabad. Modi's speech came just one day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi returned to Beijing from Delhi. Wang’s visit to Delhi followed a period of growing irritation in India-China relations. India has been unusually forthright in rejecting China’s claims in the South China Sea, while China recently played a pivotal role in vetoing India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the group of countries that controls trade in nuclear technology. India sees joining the NSG as an important step towards changing its status from a de facto to a de jure nuclear weapons state. China’s move to block India’s application may not have been surprising, but it was regarded by Delhi as further proof, if any was needed, of China’s desire to keep India down.

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According to Indian analysts, Wang visited Delhi with an apparent offer that China might soften its position on the NSG if India relaxed its stance on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It remains to be seen whether Modi will take that bait.

But there is another important and growing dynamic in the India-China relationship that is directly related to Baluchistan. China is pushing forward with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will involve the development of roads, railways, pipelines and other infrastructure along a corridor stretching from China’s western Xinjiang province to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. According to its proponents, the CPEC, with a claimed price tag of some $46 billion, has the potential to economically transform Pakistan. The project also has the potential to transform China’s regional role by creating a direct transport link between western China and the Indian Ocean.

The CPEC will likely involve many thousands of Chinese engineers and workers and the development of billions of dollars of Chinese-owned infrastructure over thousands of kilometres. While the final route of the corridor is yet to be determined, elements of the project will traverse the territories of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan; some of the most dangerous real estate on earth.

Pakistan has sought to address the security risks in the project by forming a special army corps of 12,000 personnel devoted to protecting the CPEC project. Overall, China seems surprisingly sanguine about the considerable security risks of the venture and its reliance on the Pakistan Army. Indeed Chinese views on the role of roads and bridges in curing religious extremism seem redolent of another era. Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, reportedly characterised the Chinese projects as a means of 'weaning the populace from fundamentalism.'

Delhi is still formulating its views on CPEC. Indian Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar called China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project: 'A [Chinese] national initiative devised with national interest, it is not incumbent on others to buy it.' If the CPEC succeeds as advertised, it could be a boon for Pakistan’s economic development. On balance, this would likely be a good thing for India to the extent it stabilises Pakistan. But CPEC also has the potential to enmesh China much more closely in Pakistan, making it a key player in the country’s internal political and security affairs. According to recent reports, Beijing is already pushing for the Pakistan Army to be given a leading role in CPEC, over civilian authorities. There is a real possibility that China could become a major target of Pakistani extremists and separatists. But one aspect that absolutely infuriates Delhi is China’s plans to build infrastructure in POK and Gilgit, territory claimed by India. India has repeatedly made its strong objections about this clear to China, without any apparent response. China seems intent on moving ahead with the OBOR initiative in these and other highly sensitive areas with little if any regard for India’s views.

Modi’s greeting to the people of Pakistan’s restive territories was a reminder to both Islamabad and Beijing that India has some powerful cards to play.

Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images 

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