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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by REUTERS/Jason Lee.

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


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

–Douglass North, The Rise of the Western World.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Disclosure: some of these people are personal friends.

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.


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

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

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

Photo by Flickr user Juan A.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • UNDP's 2014 Human Development Report is out. Headline news is that more than 2.2 billion people are either near or living in multidimensional poverty.
  • Interestingly, rankings remain unchanged at both ends of the Human Development Index (see image). Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands and US remain in the lead for another year, while Sierra Leone, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger continue to rank at the bottom of the list. Here's The Guardian's analysis.
  • What you need to know about the new BRICS development bank: catch up with this easy guide from the Wall Street Journal and this analysis from Philippa Brant on China's growing web of development financing.
  • Is 'green growth' a fad?  Matthew Dornan from DevPolicy explains.
  • Guinea worm is almost eradicated. It's a huge victory for public health, and for Jimmy Carter's charity. (H/t Browser.)
  • Martin Drewry argues in The Guardian that Africa loses more to Western countries than it gains in aid. A new approach is needed.
  • Disturbing UNICEF data on rates of female genital mutilation and child marriages.
  • @GlobalPolicy 's first e-book: The Donors' Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Foreign Aid'.

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

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


The senseless shooting down of flight MH17 continues to dominate the news, and both Michael Fullillove and myself have written columns on the implications for Australia. Here on The Interpreter, our contributors been commenting on developments. You can read the whole thread here, but below I've highlighted some pieces.

Peter Knoope, Director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, contributed an outstanding piece of controlled fury:

With 193 Dutch citizens killed in the MH17 tragedy, the Netherlands is in shock. The country is mourning. Everybody seems to know someone who is directly affected by this terrible loss. The mourning is slowly but surely transforming into outrage that will push the Dutch Government into visible response and action. 

We don't know exactly what happened. But is seems plausible that it was an 'unintended' incident in an armed conflict between separatists on the one side and  national Ukrainian forces on the other. Unintended or not, factions and individuals are still accountable for what they have done. The questions 'Who did this?' and 'Who supplied the military support, technology, know-how and weaponry to execute such an attack?' are relevant to the victims and the population at large. Justice needs to have its way. The public is expecting and demanding as much. 

The international legal ramifications of the MH17 shootdown are exceedingly complicated. Danielle Rajendram breaks it down:

number of options for legal recourse have been raised.

The first is to prosecute the perpetrators of this crime under the domestic law and courts of one of the injured parties. This was the approach taken for the Lockerbie bombing trial, in which two Libyan nationals were tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands for their involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. Ukraine would certainly have jurisdiction over any crime committed in its airspace, and it is likely that injured nations such as the Netherlands, Malaysia, or even Australia may also have jurisdiction to prosecute this crime.

Another is that the perpetrators of the incident be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is charged with dealing with individuals for the offences of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. As prosecution of crimes against humanity requires acts to be committed as part of a 'widespread and systematic attack,' the most likely avenue for pursuing justice for victims of the MH17 attack in the ICC would be under the Court's jurisdiction over war crimes.

James Brown and Brendan Thomas-Noone both commented on the potential of an international security presence to protect air crash investigators at the MH17 site. James stated that a police-led approach is the right solution:

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

Brendan wrote on a potential peacekeeping force:

The UN Security Council mandate secured by Australia and the Netherlands earlier this week leaves open the option of using a peacekeeping force to secure the crash site and the safety of international investigators. The language used in the mandate is clear. The Security Council called for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident', demanded that the armed rebel groups in the area 'refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site' and most importantly expressed 'grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site.'

A UN peacekeeping operation could be built off this mandate. Such an operation would need to be authorised by the Security Council and passed by its five permanent members, including Russia. This would be difficult, but Russia passed the resolution authorising the investigation earlier this week on the condition that the resolution did not assign blame. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to show goodwill and further de-escalate the situation, particularly if the peacekeeping forces came from countries outside of NATO.

Mike Callaghan looked at the chances of Russian President Vladimir Putin attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane in November:

Australian public opinion, and that in some other countries, may remain strongly opposed to allowing Putin to attend the Brisbane Summit. It is possible that, given such controversy and the prospect of a hostile reception in Australia, Putin may choose not to come. But if Australia did not let Putin attend, other countries may oppose and conceivably bring into question their attendance. Should this eventuate, the future of the G20 could come into question, particularly if those not attending were major emerging markets. The strength and significance of the G20 is that it brings together the leading advanced economies and emerging markets. In addition, political and security issues would be brought front and centre in G20 deliberations, overshadowing the economic agenda.

The coming months could be very tricky ones for Australia, given its role as G20 chair for 2014.

A number of delegates to the AIDS 2014 conference were killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight, and Annmaree O'Keefe reported from the conference on the long shadow cast by MH17:

The mood at last night's opening was sombre and the six were well missed. But HIV has stalked many of the 12,000 people attending this week-long conference, so the threat of death has never been far from their minds. As Australia's eminent jurist Michael Kirby (pictured) said in his opening address last night, people affected by HIV/AIDS are no strangers to suffering, irrationality and hatred. They are also no strangers to death.

So the conference refuses to be bowed by an outrageous act. Instead, it is using the tragedy to spotlight an ongoing outrage: the human rights abuse, happening in many parts of the world, which curses the lives of people either infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

It's true there has been significant success in pushing back HIV's advance over the past three decades. UNAIDS estimates that the global effort to fight HIV has averted 7 million deaths since 2002 and averted 10 million new infections. Globally, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections continues to decline. New infections among adults in developing countries in 2012 were 30% lower than in 2001

Nick Bryant posted from New York on the machinations behind the Australian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 2166:

After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, (Russian UN representative Vitaly) Churkin indicated that Russia's reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.

Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.

Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.

Still on the Security Council, here's Richard Gowan on using 'the art of the possible' to get action on Ukraine (and Syria):

To get Moscow's support for the Ukrainian resolution, Australia and its allies watered down their text. Security Council Report, a think-tank that tracks day-to-day UN negotiations in detail, summarises some of the intricate niceties involved:

"In the initial exchange over the original draft, it seems China and Russia stressed the importance of not prejudging the outcome of the investigations. The initial text of the draft resolution contained a paragraph which condemned the 'shooting down' of flight MH17. This was changed to 'the downing' of the MH17 flight. This was likely done as some members insisted that no conclusions should be made until a thorough investigation is completed, making the reference to 'shooting down' unacceptable."

But the details are still solid, including a specific demand for investigators to access the crash site and a call for whoever is responsible to be held accountable.

Australia seems to have learned the art of letting Russia save face at the Security Council while backing it into concessions on matters of substance. This is no small feat as Britain, France and the US have ended up colliding with Russia at the UN in unproductive spats over both Syria and Ukraine.

But the devil is still in the details.

Matthew Sussex wrote that Russia has fundamentally mismanaged its response to the MH17 tragedy:

From a domestic perspective, Putin's vigorous defence of Russia was understandable. He sees trial by an independent media as a Western affliction and has prevented it from gaining a foothold at home. Domestic political reasons prompted his officials to stress that there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement.  And Moscow's confused response strongly suggests the Kremlin was as surprised as anyone else by the downing of MH17. 

But in an international tragedy, winning external public relations battles is initially much more important than domestic manoeuvring. On that score, Putin's crisis management strategy has failed badly. It has failed to deflect attention away from suspected Russian involvement in the shoot-down, much less the ongoing conflict. And it has failed to mollify foreign governments demanding a secure crash site to identify and repatriate their nationals. Hence Russia has appeared obstructionist rather than proactively seeking to help.

A public relations disaster prompted by MH17 is potentially a huge blow to Russia's regional ambitions. 

Will MH17 mean stronger European sanctions on Russia over its conduct in Ukraine? Maybe, argued James Bowen:

 Just a day before the downing of the MH17, Obama reluctantly went it alone, beefing up penalties on Russia's energy and defence interests over its continued material and ideological support for the Ukrainian rebels, while Europe opted only for so-called 'Tier 2' actions that froze assets and banned travel for Vladimir Putin's closest offsiders.

Obama will have been pleased to see UK Prime Minister David Cameron's support for escalating to the tougher Tier 3 sanctions in light of the disaster, and calling for the continent to 'make our power, influence and resources count'. He will no doubt closely follow announcements out of Brussels, and indeed Berlin and Paris, to see how far that wave of indignation spreads.

Photo by Flickr user Javier Santos.


The view from Kuala Lumpur

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

As Malaysia prepares to celebrate Hari Raya Adilfitri this weekend (the end of Ramadan), the country remains in mourning. Yet a week on from the MH17 downing, it appears that embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's (pictured) response to the tragedy is proving popular.

This week, Prime Minister Najib urged Malaysians to say al-fatihah (a prayer for God's guidance) as he condemned the downing of MH17, saying it was a test from Allah during Ramadan. The bodies of the 43 Malaysian victims are yet to be returned to Malaysia for the quick burial demanded under Muslim custom. 

Najib, whose step-grandmother was on MH17, has been front and centre on the international stage. At home he was praised for his 'quiet diplomacy' with pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Borodai to secure the plane's black box and for garnering separatist support in returning the victim's bodies. Internationally, this praise was more subdued, with some arguing that this sort of high-level negotiation legitimised the separatist group possibly responsible for the shooting down of MH17, and set a dangerous precedent.

In a special sitting of the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's lower house) on Wednesday, PM Najib reflected on the previous week. His tone was stronger than before as he spoke of 'murderers' and (oddly) 'genocide'.

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On a defensive note, he reiterated that the flight path was deemed safe and defended his 'risky decision' to negotiate directly with the head of the pro-Russian separatist group. In his speech, Najib said he had negotiated with Borodai so he could fulfill a promise to the victims' families to return their relatives' bodies before Raya (he has since conceded that this will not be possible). He noted, quite rightly (and fittingly for the holy month of Ramadan), that 'sometimes we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.'

Among the solemn praise and a palpable feeling of solidarity in Malaysia, there is also anger. On Tuesday, a group of 300 protesters marched to the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Kuala Lumpur under banners that read #Justice4MH17. The group called for stronger action by the Government against the perpetrators of what they called the 'genocide at 33,000 feet'. It was this notion of genocide that was picked up by politicians and later endorsed by Najib, who thanked his opposition colleagues for the comparison.

Najib has repeatedly called for unity and solidarity in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, his prime ministership could do with a dash of both. After narrowly winning a second term last year he is often derided as out of touch with Malaysians. Worse, he has managed to get offside with the still powerful but ageing former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. His predicament is worsened by widespread criticism of his government's handling of MH370, the difficulty of managing growing religious tensions, as well as the recent kidnappings and overall deterioration of the situation in Sabah. 

In times of crisis, divisions are often forgotten and previously unpopular leaders can reshape themselves. News media, and people I've spoken to here in Kuala Lumpur, have parroted international praise of Najib for his 'quite diplomacy'. But this praise may be short lived. Old divisions will quickly reemerge when a week of front pages about the MH17 disaster subside, but pressure will remain on the Government to win justice for the victims.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.