Lowy Institute

Of Papua New Guinea's population of about 8 million, 80% are rural villagers who produce most of their own food. This makes them vulnerable to extreme weather events. Reports of severe impact on food crops from the recent frosts and ongoing drought in Papua New Guinea are coming from most areas in the Central Highlands. This is where over 40%, or more than 2.5 million, of rural villagers live.

The most serious damage has occurred above 2200m, but many reports are from lower altitudes in the highlands and even from some lowland locations. This impact, in late August, is already greater than at similar stages in previous frosts and droughts, suggesting that this may be a more severe event than the major food shortages of 1997. These required large scale interventions from both the Australian and Papua New Guinean Governments to avoid widespread famine.

It's likely that the current crisis is going have a serious impact on the national economy, both the resource and agricultural sectors. In 1997, the Ok Tedi mine was closed for six months because of low water levels in the Fly Rivera, and the Porgera mine was closed for six weeks. This year, the Ok Tedi mine has already been closed for more than a month due to low water levels in the Fly River, which has prevented copper ore from being shipped out. The drought prevents supplies, including helicopter fuel, being brought by barge to Kiunga, which affects gas exploration in that region.

A long drought is likely to have significant impact on oil palm production, particularly on New Ireland and New Britain and possibly in Oro and Milne Bay provinces. There are already reports of some oil palm blocks in West New Britain being destroyed by fire.

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A major impediment to planning a relief effort is the lack of current meteorological data. In 1970, 330 stations were recording data, but during the last major drought in 1997, we were able to obtain current rainfall data from about 30 locations. This figure is now less than 10.

More detailed information is urgently needed, both to understand what is happening and to plan relief efforts. We could then extrapolate more broadly, albeit from a limited number of locations. For example, if we knew that repeated severe frosts had destroyed sweet potato and other food crops as low as 2000m in Enga and Western Highlands provinces, we could be reasonably certain that the outcome would be similar at many other locations in these and the two adjacent provinces.

Similarly, if people were suffering from lack of water for drinking and processing sago in parts of inland Western Province, then similar scenarios would be likely in many other inland locations there and the adjacent Gulf Province.

Residents living in or near the affected areas, and field assessments by agricultural, water supply and health specialists, could provide the detailed information necessary to assist the Papua New Guinean Government in assessing the situation and formulating a plan to reduce the suffering for rural villagers and others.

Relief could include helping people move to other locations where they maintain ties, which is the traditional coping mechanism at such times for villagers living at very high altitude. It could also include the provision of water containers, water purification units, food aid and medical assistance, as the drought will almost certainly increase the incidence of malaria, typhoid, diarrhoea and possibly dysentery.

At this stage the Government has not requested assistance with drought relief, as it did in 1997, so that international development partners, NGOs and the churches could assist with transport, food aid, water purification, medical supplies and logistics.

That in itself will be complicated:

  1. Many transport networks in rural PNG are run down to some degree. Some locations that could be reached by road in 1997 can now only be accessed by helicopter or on foot. Many airstrips in remote locations are no longer serviceable.
  2. The PNG health system is under considerable strain and, in many rural locations, the air posts and rural health sub-centres fundamental to the system no longer function.
  3. The forthcoming national election in 2017 has the potential to distort food distribution efforts, as potential candidates and current serving politicians seek to gain an advantage from this climate-induced crisis.

In 1997, it was the action of the rural villagers and their urban-based wantoks which prevented widespread famine. Villagers and their urban relatives purchased over 80% of the additionally-imported rice. This resilience, and the wantok safety net, remain intact and will be critical in saving many lives again in 2015 and beyond.

The 1997 event scarred the memories of millions of Papua New Guineans: many people will be aware of what is happening and know what to expect in coming months. They will also know what they have to do to look after their families, unlike in 1997 when most people had not experienced the previous nation-wide food shortages of 1941.

We too must recall the lessons of 1997, so we can help them in their distress.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Alice Drury is an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia program, and currently undertaking a Masters of Iranian Studies at the University of Tehran

The UK reopened its embassy in Tehran the Sunday before last, eager not to be outdone by France and Germany in the jostle for a share of Iran’s enormous unrealised market potential as the country begins to open to trade. 

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated at the reopening ceremony that it was a necessary first step to 'support British trade and investment' in Iran. The reality is however, that after nearly two centuries of economic subjugation and political interference, the British will have to work much, much harder than their European rivals to gain a foothold in the Iranian market. Even then their position will be tenuous.

The significance of the two nations’ imperial history has been missed in the reporting on the reopening of the British Embassy. It stops at the most recent, relatively insignificant diplomatic spats: the protests which led to the Embassy’s closure four years ago in response to the UK imposing sanctions on Iran; Ayatollah Khamenei’s accusation of British involvement in the 2009 Green Movement; and the fatwa issued against British author Salman Rushdie.

These were headline-grabbing events at the time, but they were the symptoms rather than the cause of tensions, which run much deeper. Without paying heed to those tensions, such commentary does little to explain the significance of the renewed diplomatic and economic relationship and the challenges facing UK businesses.

Britain’s economic and strategic interests contributed significantly to the haplessness of Iran’s experience of the 19th and 20th centuries. To the great European powers France, Britain, Russia and Germany, the Persian Empire was regarded as little more than a barrier between them and India, the British Empire’s most valuable colony. Accordingly, Britain’s Iran policy was to keep the state weak and responsive to British interests, and prevent it from straying too far into Russia’s sphere of influence.

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British domination over Iran started with military confrontation when it expelled Iran from its former territory in western Afghanistan in 1856. It proceeded to pursue a policy of economic domination, made easy by Iran’s variously inept and corrupt monarchs, who were often all too ready to sell their country in order to fund their extravagant lifestyles. In 1872 the Shah agreed to what was then considered to be the most extraordinary surrender of a kingdom's resources to foreign hands: a single British national had been promised sole control over all of Iran’s future railways, forms of transportation, factories, agriculture and mineral extraction.

Another concession in 1890 granted a complete monopoly over the production, sale and export of Iranian tobacco to a Briton. While these two agreements ultimately collapsed under pressure from Russia, a further concession in 1901 granted exclusive rights of the country’s petroleum to a British prospector and led to the creation of the mammoth Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now British Petroleum). Thus the British found themselves in a position of control over Persia politically and economically, without needing to formally colonise and invest in the country. 

Things worsened for Iran after the turn of the 20th century. In 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to split the country into three zones – the south for British influence, the north for Russia and a neutral 'buffer' zone in between.

As well as completely debilitating Iran’s leadership, the impending risk of war between Russia and Britain ensured neither would bother to invest in Iran, leaving it poor and undeveloped. Desperate to find a third partner that might be able to free Iran from this foreign domination, Pahlavi King Reza Shah reached out to Nazi Germany. The Allies responded by invading Iran and forcing the King to abdicate the throne to his son. Finally, British meddling in Iranian affairs came to a head in 1953, after Iran’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalised Iran’s oil industry in an attempt to prise the country from the grip of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The British, along with the CIA, orchestrated a coup d’état and reinstated the dictatorial King Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, who imprisoned and killed many of Mossadegh’s supporters. 

Recalling events that took place in the 19th century may seem antiquated in a comment on modern day political and trade relations, but to Iranians this is recent history, and it continues to inform the country’s foreign policy. To a revolutionary Government that has promised never again to fall victim to Western hegemony, its credibility mandates that it concede little to the British. Claims of being a 'puppet' to Western capitalists is an easy and devastating political accusation to make of one’s more moderate opponents. Hence the minimal fanfare when the UK Embassy opened in Tehran. Iranian embassy workers were reportedly reluctant to attend the press conference and the opening was not mentioned in any official announcements published by President Rouhani or Foreign Minister Zarif. Iranian media also reported the story with headlines along the theme of 'Reopening of embassy chance to stop UK hostilities'. 

The reopening of the UK embassy in Tehran is a positive step for British business interests in Iran and bilateral relations in general. However, the British Government and those British businesses which ignore their imperial history in the Middle East do so at their peril. Deep-seeded mistrust fuels propaganda, which makes the relationship vulnerable to another flare-up of the kind seen in 2011. And that would not be good for business. 

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @foreignoffice


Delivering the 2015 Lowy Lecture in Sydney yesterday, General David Petraeus outlined a thought-provoking grand strategy for 'Greater Asia'. 

Geographically, Petraeus defines Greater Asia along a maritime axis from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, but also overland 'from Western Russia to Southeast Asia'. This is even broader than the Indo-Pacific construct, but conceptually compatible with thinking in Australia, aimed at breaking down geographical silos that have inhibited a more connected view of the Asian macro-region as a strategic continuum.

Petraeus' bottom-line logic is that rather than thinking of the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific as 'two autonomous spheres' we should approach Greater Asia as 'an increasingly integrated and interdependent strategic whole'. Even as US dependence on the Middle East for oil and gas continues to shrink, he highlights Asian countries' economic reliance on hydrocarbons from the Middle East as an enduring strategic connector for Greater Asia.

Another linking theme in the lecture is the indivisible nature of US alliance commitments – and US credibility.

Petraeus considers the US to be a 'permanent resident power' that cannot afford to disengage or withdraw from the Middle East or Asia Pacific. The security challenges facing both regions that he identifies are different but 'equally urgent and important'. According to Petraeus, two big winners have emerged from the struggle for power across the Middle East.

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First, Sunni extremists – manifested in the twin incarnations of ISIS and al Qaeda – have created far-flung terrorist sanctuaries. Second, Iran has exploited the chaos afflicting the Arab world to strengthen its position. Petraeus declined to pass judgement on the recent Iran nuclear deal in his speech, but in the question-and-answer conversation that followed, he argued that the US should explicitly threaten force if Tehran enriches uranium to weapons-grade. In the Asia Pacific, Petraeus focused on the challenges posed by China in the maritime and cyber domains, singling out the militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea as 'particularly aggressive'. Russia was also mentioned as a destabilising influence.

Petraeus highlighted a 'zero-sum game' trap whereby US efforts to engage in the Middle East or Asia Pacific are erroneously viewed as mutually exclusive options. Here, he invoked General George Marshall's concept of 'theateritis': 'the tendency of military commanders to advocate for their particular regional area of responsibility, rather than thinking about the global big picture.' Petraeus is supportive of the good intentions behind the US rebalance to Asia, but argues that the roll-out of the policy unnecessarily fanned the fears of Middle Eastern allies about US abandonment. Correspondingly, as the US has refocused on the fight against ISIS, East Asian states have questioned the Obama Administration's commitment to its signature policy in Asia. Petraeus singled out the failure to enforce US 'red lines' in Syria as compounding the concerns of Asian allies about Washington's resolve – further demonstrating how connected the two regions are.

Petraeus drew repeatedly and no doubt earnestly from his personal experience as a coalition commander in Iraq and Afghanistan to underscore Australia's importance as a 'treasured ally' of the US. He said that the alliance is becoming 'even more important', but offered few specifics beyond bullishly predicting that US-Australian strategic cooperation will be undiminished in future – and unaffected by Australia's economic proximity to China. The main recommendation from the lecture was a pitch for Washington to 'follow Australia's example' by increasing defence spending. This is flattering if not misleading, considering that Australia still spends a far smaller proportion of its national wealth on defence than the US. 

While the vision of Greater Asia presented by Petraeus in his Lowy Lecture is certainly expansive, beyond a general plea for increased military resources and confidence in the reliability of stalwart allies like Australia, the question was largely unanswered as to how the US and its partners can effectively counter the various hybrid-warfare challenges being posed, in series, across Greater Asia by Russia, China and North Korea – all of which possess nuclear arms. 

The unfamiliar and daunting nature of this challenge is perhaps sharpened by the fact that Petraeus is representative of the 9/11 generation of US commanders who obtained their combat experience 'in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan'. Despite Petraeus' commendable efforts to link together the US Central and Pacific Command areas of responsibility as a single geo-strategic entity, the question can legitimately be asked: how transferable is the accumulated stock of US military experience from these CENTCOM army-centric environments to PACOM's bigger, more maritime area of responsibility, including more capable potential adversaries than the US has faced on the battlefield in well over a generation?

In that narrow sense, therefore, the strategic geography of Greater Asia is probably more uneven than it appears.


There were huge protests over the weekend in Japan against legislation, approved in principle by the Abe cabinet in July, which will reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to permit the very limited exercise of collective self-defence. This fierce public opposition to the normalisation of Japan's Self Defence Forces highlights two connected problems for Prime Minister Abe. 

The size and cross-sectional nature of the protests highlight a serious policy communication problem for the Japanese Government in general, and a particular problem for the Abe administration. There is a strong bipartisan consensus, supported by Japanese public opinion, that Japan faces a very serious and growing security threat from China and North Korea. As shown by the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines released under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, there also is strong bipartisan support for Japanese foreign and security policy to become much more focused on these neighbourhood threats, for a stronger US-Japan alliance and for Japan to play a more active alliance and regional security role.

But there is partisan disagreement on how to do this, with the leader of the DPJ joining the leader of the Japanese Communist Party at the protest rallies. The partisan disagreement is fuelled by the public's unwillingness to support a more active Japanese security role in general, and particularly changes like collective self-defense seen to undercut the totemic war-renouncing Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution.

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Unfortunately, Abe, with his conservative, revisionist views and tense relations with much of the media, is not the leader to help bridge the gap between what policy and legal changes the Government thinks are necessary for Japanese security, and what many parts of Japanese society are willing to support. Rather, Abe is likely to widen or harden this gap that so frustrates Japanese security policymakers and those who want Japan to play a more active security role.

As the demonstrations show, Japan's battered opposition parties see an opportunity to wedge Abe on this issue. The media and governments in Seoul and Beijing likewise.

The protests, while large and loud, are not a significant political threat to Prime Minister Abe or his administration. Abe's position in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is rock-solid and it looks very likely that he will be re-elected unopposed as party leader this month. Second, the LDP faces no serious opposition party threat, and the popularity of Abe's cabinet has actually increased despite these mounting, headline-grabbing demonstrations, a slowing economy and an embarrassing flip-flop on the centrepiece stadium for the upcoming 2020 Olympics.

We should expect more demonstrations and denunciations inside and outside Japan, but the process of revising Japanese legislation to operationalise the limited right of collective self-defense seems as secure as Prime Minister Abe himself.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian c.


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

  • A new report authored by Michael Krepon and Toby Dalton from Carnegie on Pakistan's nuclear program. Essentially, will Pakistan accept achieving a strategic deterrent vis-à-vis India, or will it pursue 'full-spectrum' deterrence against targets both near and far?
  • There's also an accompanying blog post from Krepon on Arms Control Wonk.
  • Ahead of the massive World War Two victory parade in Beijing this week, Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times argues that China may be tempted by nationalism and militarism.
  • And speaking of militarism, the PLA has its military monkey handlers in Beijing to help clear the skies of birds in preparation for the parade.
  • Japan and China are also in a diplomatic row over UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's planned attendance at the parade.
  • A report from Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense has warned that China is likely to eventually declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
  • Also, two researchers from SIPRI have speculated on China's motivations for its island building in the South China Sea.
  • James Goldrick and Hugh White are involved in a debate over the future of Australia's surface naval combatants and shipbuilding.
  • Why does North Korea's aging submarine force still pose a threat?

The view from Tokyo

In the international politics of Japan's war memory, Yasukuni Shrine has become indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism.

Each 15 August – the anniversary of the ending of the Pacific War with the unprecedented noon-time radio broadcast by the Showa Emperor – a motley crew of right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many 'ordinary' Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalisations about the meaning of Yasukuni.

The shrine was founded by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to enshrine the spirits of all those who served the imperial restorationist cause in the civil war against the remnant forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. This includes restoration (isshin) heroes in the popular imagination, such as Ryoma Sakamoto, and excludes those who resisted them, as they had not served the emperor. Yasukuni is therefore deeply linked to the ideology of imperial service, and this is reflected in the imperial chrysanthemum crest that adorns the shrine. It's striking that the present Emperor (like the Showa Emperor from the late 1970s on) will not visit the shrine,

Yasukuni Shrine is controversial for its enshrinement of convicted war criminals, especially the 'A class' criminals (those who planned and made war) of the Tokyo War Crime Trials. This was a consciously provocative decision of the chief priest of the shrine in 1978, and prompted the Imperial family to discreetly distance itself from Yasukuni. Other convicted war criminals had been gradually enshrined from the late 1950s, with rather less contention. The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 marks the eligibility cut-off, meaning those killed in the service of the contemporary Self Defense Forces are excluded.

The cooperation of government ministries in providing details of military personnel and some categories of eligible civilians killed in conflicts up until the end of World War II was long controversial. Enshrinement is non-consensual, and if they object to it, family members cannot have it undone, because of a theocratic assertion that the souls of the dead are made indivisible.

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Yasukuni Shrine is also controversial for the Yushukan war museum that has been co-located with it since the late 1880s. While there are similar exhibition spaces at the Australian War Memorial and the like, what is problematic is the museum's revisionist depiction of Japan's Pacific war, with its narrative of liberating Asian peoples from Western colonialism and the downplaying of Japanese aggression and warcrimes.

Japan's critics, especially the governments of China and South Korea and some of their citizens, draw dire conclusions about the meaning and intent of Japanese political figures who visit Yasukuni. Japanese opinion polls generally show significant opposition to the visits, out of regard for foreign sensitivities. At the same time, there is widespread distrust in the motives of the Chinese and Korean governments in criticising the visits.

Arguably, a key motivation for both Prime Minister Abe visiting Yasukuni in December 2013, and former leader Junichiro Koizumi, was a desire to redefine the meaning of shrine visits against the interpretation of sometimes ill-willed critics. Both leaders stressed Japan's peaceful intent, their motivation to pay respects to the war dead, and not to glorify Japan's wartime past. Yet Yasukuni has acquired a totemic association with historical revisionism and indifference to Chinese and Korean sensitivities that has proven impossible to break.

For a fringe of right-wing activists, Yasukuni is precisely what its critics allege, and they are unrepentant. But for a large majority of those who visit the shrine, it's something important yet rather more mundane: a place to to mark remembrance of those who died in a military conflict that became a deep national stigma, disallowing a more consoling legacy that they died in order that Japanese might enjoy prosperity and freedom today.

Many types of people come to Yasukuni on 15 August, and with varied intent: it is, to quote Australian playwright Alan Seymour, the 'One Day of the Year' for the established organisations such as the association of war bereaved, and the much-thinned ranks of veterans groups.

A wide variety of 'ordinary folk' accompany their veteran or bereaved grandparents to Yasukuni, and often keep up the custom of visiting as a mark of respect to them after their passing.

Senior serving Self-Defense Forces officers visit Yasukuni to pray in honour of the war dead.

A bassman works up a sweat, the full body tattoo associated with gangsters – the yakuza – showing through his drenched white shirt. The main 'exclusive' yakuza organisations typically double as nationalist organisations and that has long been part of their self-legitimisation. Every 15 August yakuza are in abundance at Yasukuni.

An old man dressed in the even older uniform of the Russo-Japanese war period.

15 August is a key day for hardcore right-wing martial groups, who also gather on other significant public holidays and in response to disputes with Japan's neighbours. A certain demographic of working-class men, some associated with bikie gangs, or in parts of the construction trades, associate culturally with Japanese nationalism and can be seen in abundance at Yasukuni. There is also another notable demographic: often well-educated white-collar conservative admirers of the Imperial family, modest in attire and sometimes ill-at-ease in the company of the 'rougher' elements drawn to Yasukuni.

Dressed as a World War II soldier, this doll-like young man consciously blurs the boundaries of bishonen (beautiful young man) idol culture, manga-inspired cosplay practice and military re-enactment: at odds with most military cultures but not out of place in modern Tokyo. Yasukuni every 15 August comes to resemble to a military 'cosplay' festival, akin to the youngsters dressing up in outfits of their favourite anime and manga characters at Akihabara. There is a clear performative intent at Yasukuni. For many it is the annual equivalent of their '15 minutes of fame', Warhol-style.

A cheery Japanese chap dressed as a Wehrmacht enlisted man. He gave a warm welcome to visiting Israeli students, telling them in Japanese English, 'don't mind.' A young German neo-nazi who came to visit told this photographer that he would smash the camera if his face was photographed, as he feared losing his job. He readily admitted that his act was illegal at home, and said that the Holocaust had been stopped too soon. Japanese around him, some associated with the right-wing, were clearly made uneasy by his presence. Yasukuni can take on an international significance in ways that surprise Japanese.

Yasukuni draws all types, including this well-organised group visiting from Taiwan who are committed to restoring Imperial Japanese rule over Taiwanese territory. They reject the KMT-imposed Taiwanese state, but obey it and are strongly opposed to reunification with China. In uniforms and Salvation Army-like marching formations, they aim to raise the consciousness of Japanese people to 'the fact' that Taiwanese soil remains the domain of the Japanese Emperor.

Predictions of ill fortune drawn through a lottery in a Japanese shrine are left tied so as to leave the bad luck behind. Yasukuni uses the cherry blossom and an evocative subtle pink as motif colours, along with stark white and black and a variant of Chrysanthemum crest signalling the Imperial system. Cherry blossoms have been a potent aesthetic in Japanese militarism, inheriting an association in samurai culture. The cherry blooms beautifully and soon is lost: a motif for the flowering of beautiful doomed youth destined to fall too early. White is the colour of purity and of death, and the subtle pink hues of the cherry blossom evokes images of white silk lightly stained with the fresh blood of the fallen warrior. Yasukuni has an abundance of cherry trees and is a popular sightseeing destination in the spring. Arguably this has reduced the resistance of many Japanese to visiting the Shrine. It is also in a central and beautiful part of Tokyo.


The humanitarian tragedy unfolding daily in Europe has forced the West to again try and redefine its obligations to those who have been made vulnerable as a result of conflict in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war.

But it may also have stirred a desire to question why the burden is shared by so few countries. In particular, why are wealthy Gulf countries still able to salve their consciences by donating money to UN agencies, along with weapons to Syrian rebels, while at the same time refusing to sign the UN Refugee Convention or accept any refugees for resettlement. 

You won't hear it in polite political company of course, but Amnesty International pointed out in December last year the glaring inability of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to offer a single resettlement place for Syrian refugees. They are not the only guilty ones, but they are from the region, speak the same language, several have helped fuel the ongoing crisis in Syria, they are wealthy and have a huge appetite for expatriate workers.

One needs only to look at the table below to gauge how wealthy these states are and in some cases how many expatriate workers they import to fuel their economy, which allows them to live in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

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It seems to be no great sacrifice for them to open their doors to fellow Arab Muslims, allow them to settle in their countries, and in due course become citizens. For reasons that are too varied to go into in such a short space, the GCC won't sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and will remain happy for the West and some regional states to deal with the human misery that its policies help in part to create.

Sources: Arabnews.com, Migration Policy Institute, US State Department, Migration Policy Centre and Gulf Research Center, Times of Oman, Government of Kuwait

Perhaps the Australian Government could put aside aspirations for the chimera of a GCC Free Trade Agreement to publicly question the groups lack of commitment to the regional refugee crisis ,and their unwillingness to sign up to the UN Refugee Convention. Or, the Government could spend less time advocating for the Europeans to join in bombing Syria and more time in advocating for the Gulf States to join in accepting Syrian refugees. Perhaps refugee lobby groups could also expend some of their energy and advocacy in publicly questioning why the GCC appears unwilling to share the refugee burden in their own region, while Australia does.

There is something intrinsically wrong when Saudi Arabia can source 1.5 million people to act as domestic help, and a country like Bahrain can issue visas for more than 33,000 housemaids, and yet they can't even resettle one Syrian refugee. 

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones and Jonathan Pryke argue that Australia-PNG relations should be better after 40 years of PNG independence.
  • The Australian Senate committee investigating conditions at the detention centre on Nauru has found it inadequate and unsafe for the asylum seekers detained there.
  • In the first of a three-part series for the Aus-PNG Network, David Bridie criticises Australia’s lack of engagement with its closest neighbour, PNG, and shares the story of his personal connection to the country.
  • Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has made strong statements in response to reports that militias are training to create a breakaway Christian state. He has said that challenging the Government is an attack on democracy and defies the will of the Fijian people.
  • Pacific Island leaders are meeting in Port Moresby next week for the 46th Pacific Islands Forum. This year’s theme is ‘Strengthening Connections To Enhance Pacific Regionalism’, while climate change will be high on the agenda. Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor’s consultations with local communities has revealed other concerns, including West Papua and cervical cancer.
  • The Pacific Islands Development Forum is taking place this week in Suva and will be focusing on climate change. It is the third such summit held by the Fijian Government.  
  • The harsh impacts of the El Nino weather pattern continue to be felt in PNG’s highlands. Mike Bourke explains the complexities of the drought on The Conversation.
  • The ABC’s Bruce Hill spoke to PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill about what his Government is doing to tackle the drought, including considering overturning the ban on imported fruits and vegetables from Australia.

By Yanmei Xie, International Crisis Group’s Senior China Analyst, and Rachel Vandenbrink, graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University.

China’s unsuccessful invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the country’s Second World War victory over Japan was an example of diplomacy at its most passive-aggressive.

Beijing publicly announced the invitation in July. Subsequent negotiations for Abe to visit either before or after China’s commemorations failed. 

The inability to agree on the visit speaks volumes about a rivalry that both sides seem happy to keep alive for short-term political gain, while managing its intensity to prevent open conflict. The failure to agree on a summit meeting reflects deep and growing currents of mistrust, which are impeding prospects of any genuine reconciliation. 

Abe’s speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War included the requisite key words Beijing had been listening for, including 'aggression' and 'apology'. But the prime minister avoided a direct apology of his own. Japan’s past 'heartfelt apologies' remain, he said, but future generations should not have to keep apologising. The prime minister soon after gave a nod to his right-wing constituency by sending an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorialises Japan’s war dead, including 14 'Class A' war criminals.

Unsurprisingly, China was not impressed. The foreign ministry accused Japan of 'being evasive' on its past 'militarism and aggression'. The state-run Xinhua news agency said Abe offered a 'diluted' apology.

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Not that a more forthright apology from Abe was likely to move the Chinese Communist Party to give up history as a tool to keep Japan down and prop up its own legitimacy. The military parade that anchors China’s commemoration events will serve as a chest-thumping reminder to the public of China’s ascent – under the Party’s leadership – from a country under Japanese occupation to today’s global power. 

But Beijing’s muscle-flexing has had unintended consequences. Arguably, the threat perception created by China, especially since it began to patrol regularly a group of East China Sea islands that both Japan and China claim, but had been solely administered by Japan, has done the most to help Abe advance a more proactive security agenda at home. 

Under a process started by the previous administration and accelerated by Abe, Tokyo has embarked on defence reforms that are historic in the Japanese context, although still modest by other standards. In a country deeply wedded to the principle of non-aggression in international relations, the reforms are controversial, but the perception of an increased threat to the existing order is helping to usher them through.

Japan has reconfigured its defence orientation from deterrence of a Soviet invasion from the north to a 'dynamic defense force' capable of rapid response to threats anywhere in Japan – especially defending or retaking the remote southwestern islands facing China. In 2014, Japan’s defence budget grew by 2.2%, its first rise in over a decade. 

The Abe administration has also loosened a decades-old ban on arms exports, and 'reinterpreted' Japan’s constitution so that the Japanese Self-Defense Force could come to the assistance of allies and friends in conflicts, partially lifting a longstanding, self-imposed prohibition on collective self-defence. Indeed, under the aegis of 'proactive contribution to peace', Abe has presided over the greatest upgrade to US-Japan defence cooperation in decades. His Government has also stepped up cooperation with Southeast Asian countries entangled in maritime disputes with China, helping Vietnam and the Philippines to acquire patrol vessels and professionalise their coast guards. 

In short, Japan is enhancing its capability not only to defend itself, but also to project power and contend for influence in a theatre where China considers itself the natural leader.  Asia’s two most powerful nations are treading farther down a path of strategic rivalry in a region rife with flashpoints.

For now, it appears both sides understand the disastrous consequences of sliding towards open conflict. They have made progress on establishing a maritime crisis management mechanism scheduled for operation by year-end and aimed at preventing military clashes in the East China Sea. Faithfully implemented, this will go a long way towards averting accidents and miscalculation.

But without visible political will for genuine reconciliation, managing this rivalry is only going to become harder. A 2014 Genron-China Daily joint poll showed 93% of Japanese viewed China unfavorably, a staggering increase from 36% in 2006. Among the Chinese public, 87% viewed Japan unfavorably in 2014, up from 57% in 2006. In that same baseline year of 2006, Abe, in his first term as prime minister, agreed with the then Chinese President Hu Jintao to 'build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests'.

A decade later, the current bilateral relationship is moving ever further from that peaceful vision.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.


In recent days both Bob Carr and Gareth Evans have publicly argued that Australia has a 'moral obligation' to bomb Syria. Of the two, Evans' position is clearly the more thought through, pointing to ample 'grey areas' in the legal justification, and providing sober reflections about the efficacy of airstrikes in protecting civilians in Syria.

Yet, in this case, the 'moral obligation' argument is dangerously misguided, and reflects a failed lesson offered by recent history.

Four years ago I warned that the Libya intervention would prove a major strategic error; a view shouted down by three foreign policy heavy weights within the Australian Labor Party: Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans – and the personal regard I have for these individuals cannot be overstated.

However, the Libya intervention proved an unmitigated disaster. Libya is now a failed state. Some 'rebels' we supported proved to be Sunni extremists who helped destabilise the state, culminating in the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. A second civil war is now raging across Libya to the advantage of ISIS, with atrocities perpetrated on a horrendous scale.

On almost everything that is important to Rudd, Carr and Evans – human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, R2P, NATO-Russia engagement, legitimacy of multilateral institutions and the rule of law – the Libyan adventure was a disaster.

For example, during the intervention in 2011, members of the regime lamented giving up Libya's WMD program in 2003. Commentators have speculated that this 'mistake' spurred North Korea and Iran to further develop their own programs. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was also gravely discredited, and the West's abuse of the UN resolution authorising force betrayed Russia's trust, leading to the diplomatic impasse we face over Syria today.

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Now, in claiming Australia has a 'moral obligation' to commit to airstrikes in Syria, both Carr and Evans are readopting an extremely narrow strategic perspective with regard to the reasons for, and consequences of, employing military force: prescribing violent means without credible ends.

Carr and Evans have a noble aim: to strengthen R2P through its practice to deter and prevent acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing such as those we saw in Rwanda during the 1990s. But what strengthens R2P is not waving it around whenever we want to bomb someone – as Carr and Evans aptly pointed out during the Iraq war – but rather to remain clear-sighted about where R2P is effective and relevant, and sober about it being misapplied.

A good first step is being clear about the nature of the violence. If, for example, we are witnessing one-way violence being perpetrated against unarmed civilians by organised groups, such as in Srebrenica, Rwanda or East Timor, then R2P is relevant and would, where effective, override state sovereignty with regard to the use of armed force. 

In contrast, Syria, like Libya, is a civil war. Multiple armed groups are locked in conflict in pursuit of ideological and political objectives. Of course, civilians suffer enormously in civil wars. But to expect foreign airstrikes to protect civilians caught in one is fantasy. Moreover, there has been no suggestion of protecting Syrian civilians from the atrocities of the Assad regime – the proposition before us is to take sides.

Australia's obligation as a good international citizen is to do what we can to assist Syrian civilians suffering as a result of the conflict. If that is the objective, then what is the means by which it is best achieved? Bombing the place is surely way down that list. 

So what will be achieved by Australian airstrikes in Syria? Australia is not proposing to commit significant additional resources to the fight, and the Americans are already there. From a strategic point of view, the prospective benefit is vanishingly small. It's clear that airstrikes alone will not stop the ISIS advance, yet with Iranians fighting in Iraq and Russia propping up Assad, Western airstrikes may help extend the conflict to the point where a new Sunni-Shia strategic equilibrium emerges in the post-Iraq War era. None of that has anything to do with humanitarian intervention. If anything, the short-term human misery will be increased in pursuit of this higher strategic aim.

And there is a price to be paid by Australian bombing in Syria. Australia's current military campaign in Iraq has the solid legal foundation of being undertaken at the request of the duly-elected Iraqi Government. Bombing Syria is illegal without a UN Security Council resolution authorising it (notwithstanding dubious contentions to the contrary). This is problematic for us, because promoting rigorous adherence to international rules regarding the use of force accords with our own long-term security interests. It would be unfortunate if, for example, one were to call the South China Sea 'ungoverned space' for the purpose of employing military force.

None of this is to say categorically that Australia must not bomb Syria under any circumstances. But the arguments put forth are weak, the cost and risks are real, and the strategy is somewhere between unclear and nonexistent.

Humanitarian intervention is a weak argument for bombing Syria, even while protecting civilians remains a noble and worthy aim. Doing so with military means should not be shirked where it is both necessary and effective, but neither is true in this case.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.


There's a rule in economics called Goodhart's law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a useful measure. If a government chases a particular economic variable, then it becomes influenced by policy, and so loses its meaningfulness as an input. 'Information value' is lost in the interference. Because managing economies is hard and good information is scarce, that's a big problem.

The last few tumultuous weeks of action in Chinese financial markets shows Beijing struggling with Goodhart's law. 

First, state institutions are actively supporting equities, reportedly on Chairman Xi’s personal order to push prices up. Second, after long controlling the exchange rate, policy-makers briefly let it go, only to rush back in days later to fix it again. These panicked interventions have cost Beijing dearly in both money and credibility and jeopardise its entire reform process.

About a year ago, it became apparent that policymakers were aiming to boost the stock market, presumably to raise consumer confidence and hopefully some new equity along the way. It's understandable that leaders viewed share prices as a signal of their good stewardship. But by manipulating those prices – either through boosterism or direct intervention – they distorted the rationality of the market.

That bubble then popped, wiping out US$4-5 trillion, triggering a 'national team rescue fund' and a witch-hunt. Some academics think that until the politicians started tampering with it, China's equity market was doing okay interpreting information from the real economy (inputs) and converting those signals to sensible prices (outputs). They recommend the control freaks step away and let the market do its magic.

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That is easier said than done. The market is a capricious master. When Beijing devalued its currency two weeks ago, ostensibly in response to supply and demand, the reaction was so violent that the central bank was forced back in to support it. They've opened Pandora's box. As FT's Asia bureau chief David Pilling marvels: 'In order to convince markets the bank was seeking a market-friendly exchange rate regime it has been obliged to intervene on a massive scale. How perverse is that?' The reason Beijing is 'tied in knots' is because it is vainly trying to defy Goodhart's law: targeting prices while trying to persuade market agents that those prices are right. According to Pilling, that's what China's leadership means by 'a decisive role' for markets alongside a 'dominant role' for the state.

These recent episodes tell us a lot about the reform challenges ahead for China's policy-making elites. They want the discipline of capitalism, to avoid the imbalances that systematic targeting causes: huge piles of wasted or misallocated money. There's nothing inherently wrong with targeting outcomes. Many governments target inflation using (inter alia) inflation itself as a signal. That's just a simple feedback mechanism: inflation as both an input and an output. Yet even something as straightforward as inflation is actually hard to measure.

It's telling that China's national statistics bureau keeps the exact constituents of its inflation basket a state secret. So we have to take the bureau at its word. Likewise, it confidently churns out curiously smooth GDP data which never fall short. China's aggregate output must be a bogglingly complex thing, embedding a vast amount of private information. Yet the bureau knows it for certain just days after the quarter's end. How can this be? Essentially, Beijing can 'target' these CPI and GDP results because they are unchallenged: they are whatever Beijing says they are. Others don't get a vote.

But others do get to vote in the contested space of financial markets, where no single actor has a monopoly over information and the clearing price is continuously reached by consensus. Social systems like markets have to incorporate the perceptions, expectations and actions of millions of 'voters.' In the case of the foreign exchange market, they might be literally voting with their feet. Financial markets are a popularity contest, like elections are. Ruling elites may dislike the result. But compulsion (a.k.a. 'financial repression') is a resentful substitute. 

China's not collapsing. Most people on the street care about more mundane matters than the markets, and domestic press coverage has been silenced. Xinhua blames the West for the market turmoil, and the yuan devaluation probably was forced by external events like oil, Fed signaling and competitor devaluations.  Foreign commentators criticise Chinese actions as non-transparent or 'clueless'. But all the complaining overlooks one simple reality: a market-driven model will mean a huge decline in Beijing's control over its own economy.

China reached middle income status with the central authorities determining the most critical variables in the economy while letting private markets prosper in the gaps. Now on the brink of liberalising the big stuff like interest rates and currency – possibly even relinquishing controls over cross-border money flows – they are flinching.

Previously they possessed almighty powers to establish economic facts without heed for others' opinions. They commanded the public media narrative and always had the casting vote. It's said that the first casualty of war is the truth. Their 'war on the market' will destroy precious sources of independent economic information. Their latest financial smash-up highlights Goodhart's paradox: by 'saving' the market they risk burning it down.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user epSos .de.

  • Despite many misstatements by government and criticism from many quarters, there have been some developments in the investigation of the Bangkok blast. Police arrested one man (and gave themselves the reward money) and have released photos of several other suspects. Two of the suspects, including the yellow-shirted man seen in CCTV footage, are believed to have fled to Cambodia.
  • Anthony Davis, analyst with Jane’s Intelligence, provided his convincing theory of events and motives of the attack. 
  • ISEAS’ Le Hong Hiep explored the new dynamics of the Vietnam-US-China Triangle.
  • Vietnam will release over 18,000 prisoners in amnesty but no activists.
  • China’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig will continue drilling near the Vietnamese coast until October, according to officials.  
  • The Cambodian government has begun relocating thousands of villagers to make way for the unpopular and little discussed Lower Sesan 2  dam (Thanks, Milton). And there’s also this excellent account by Brian Eyler on the 990MW Wunonglong dam on the Upper Mekong, which could impact heavily downstream.
  • The NYT's Thomas Fuller questioned whether the tide is turning on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a democracy icon.
  • Myanmar set its highly disputed minimum wage at 3,600 kyat (US$2.80). 
  • Over at New Mandala, Gerhard Hoffstaedter offered an excellent photo essay from inside the weekend’s huge Bersih 4.0 (‘clean’ in Malay) rally which shut down Kuala Lumpur and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib.
  • Tens of thousands turned out for the Bersih 4.0 rally:


By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow.

While it's managing its response to serious economic challenges brought about by a budget deficit and drought, Papua New Guinea is preparing to host the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit and celebrate 40 years of independence from Australia this month.

These events are meant to be a high point in an important year for Papua New Guinea, entrenching its status as regional leader among Pacific island states and a confident emerging economy. Relations with Australia, an important backer of Papua New Guinea’s regional leadership ambitions and economic growth, should also be at a high point.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill is well disposed towards Australia. He visits frequently, and this year he has given speeches in Brisbane and Sydney. O'Neill was the only foreign leader to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in March. His children are educated in Australia and he has an impressive range of connections here. Many other Papua New Guinean members of parliament also have ties with Australia.

For Australia’s part, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has close connections with Papua New Guinea. She puts a high priority on all aspects of Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea, has a genuine love for the country and she has a family member working there, reinforcing her personal connection with Australia’s nearest neighbour. A number of Australian ministers, including Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Secretary Christian Porter and two parliamentary delegations have visited Papua New Guinea this year alone, adding depth to political connections between the two countries. With the key decision-makers both committed to growing and improving it, the Canberra–Port Moresby relationship should be in good shape.

But Australia–Papua New Guinea relations seem to be troubled in 2015.

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This year we’ve seen a diplomatic fracas over DFAT’s decision to establish a consular post in Bougainville; the early departure  of Australia’s High Commissioner Deborah Stokes; Prime Minister O’Neill’s declaration that all foreign advisers working for the Government (the vast majority of whom are Australian) should depart Papua New Guinea by the end of the year; harsh ad hominem attacks on former Treasury official Paul Flanagan and journalist John Garnaut for writing about the budget crisis; the controversy about Australian-employed security officers at the Manus Regional Processing Centre avoiding investigation for an alleged rape by departing for Australia; and a ban on Australian poultry imports and a range of vegetables (mostly sourced from Australian suppliers).

Taken together, these incidents could appear to be a rolling calamity for the bilateral relationship. Indeed, given DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese’s remark at the Lowy Institute last week that 'more than any other single relationship, the state of our relationship with Papua New Guinea is seen as a barometer of Australian foreign policy success', Australian diplomats have reason to worry.

We've had a number of conversations with young Papua New Guineans and with Australians interested in Papua New Guinea in recent months who are worried that bilateral relations are poor and are having a negative impact on the country. We tell them that it's worth remembering that things have been worse, both for Papua New Guinea and for the bilateral relationship. The macro-economic and governance crises of the 1990s created a number of frictions in relations with Australia. The infamous 2005 shoes incident involving Prime Minister Michael Somare at Brisbane airport had long-lasting repercussions for the bilateral relationship that were much more serious than any of the current discord in diplomatic, aid and trade relations.

There will likely always be bumps in the Australia–Papua New Guinea relationship. Even with the best of political stewardship on both sides, there will be unpredictable elements (and individuals) creating problems that are not easily solved and give rise to wider discontent. The Australian Government’s dependence on Papua New Guinea to run the Manus Regional Processing Centre as a key plank of its asylum seeker policy acts as a further constraint on foreign policy options.

But if Australian foreign policy success is to be measured by the state of our relationship with Papua New Guinea, it would seem a deeper and more strategic approach to managing it is required.

Photo courtesy of Julie Bishop MP.


By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow.

Papua New Guinea has been in the international spotlight a lot in the last month and it has been almost all bad news. Revelations of a record budget deficit, the emerging worrying impact of a serious drought, the suspension of Ok Tedi's mining operations, more evidence of horrific sorcery-related violence against women and the reported police shooting of student protesters at the University of Goroka last week are threatening to ruin Papua New Guinea's 2015 success story.

The country should have been enjoying the reflected glory of being the fastest growing economy in the world in 2015, realising the benefits of its first shipment of LNG from Exxon Mobil's landmark project, revelling in a successful hosting of the Pacific Games and preparing to celebrate 40 years of independence from Australia.

Our own conversations in Port Moresby a couple of weeks ago did not give us significant cause for optimism.

Senior corporate figures are for the most part positive about Papua New Guinea's long-term potential but our contacts among the younger generation of Papua New Guineans in both the private and public sectors were nervous about the Government's capacity to manage the immediate challenges facing the country.

Papua New Guinea is renowned for muddling through crises and avoiding the worst-case scenarios that economic forecasters and political analysts predict for the country. This history influences a seemingly unhurried approach to crisis-management – based in part on traditional Melanesian coping mechanisms and negotiation skills, and in part on an Australian-like 'she'll be right, mate' attitude – that can both alarm and reassure.

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Prime Minister O'Neill has stepped up his rhetoric on both the economic challenges and the drought this week. He visited the parts of the country hardest hit by the drought and frosts and announced a further 25 million kina in assistance.

In a speech in Brisbane on 27 August, he outlined his strategy to address the budget deficit by 'deferring non-essential spending'. The details of these deferrals will only be unveiled in a supplementary budget to be released in October, a month before the 2016 budget is due to be handed down. With a substantial MYEFO-forecast deficit of 9.4% of GDP, a large amount of expenditure already accounted for in preparation of the Pacific Games and protection of O'Neil's 'core policy areas – of free education, the provision of universal healthcare, improving law and order, and investing in key economic infrastructure' – tough decisions must be made, all while preparing next year's budget. A tall order for any nation.

It's of course not the first time Papua New Guinea has faced serious challenges. The macro-economic and governance crises of the 1990s in Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville conflict were very troubling times for the country.

It would be wrong to assume though, that because the current crises may not yet be as serious as previous ones, Papua New Guinea has the capacity to keep muddling through. It's by no means clear how the Papua New Guinea Government plans to manage the more serious medium and longer-term challenges the current crisis points present. It needs to engage in debate with the public and with international partners, including Australia, about how it responds to the current crises and how it should manage the challenges these crises signal for the future of the country.

Papua New Guinea is fortunate to have significant endowment of natural resources but its governments have not been successful in delivering the benefits to the wider population. Signalling that the bounty from the next major resources investment will solve the problems of today is a familiar promise from Papua New Guinea's governments. Young Papua New Guineans, concerned about their future, are demanding a more sophisticated approach from their leaders.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user BYU–Hawaii.