Lowy Institute

This week, Rohingya fleeing persecution on Myanmar were denied entry by several countries in South East Asia, leaving them stateless and stranded at sea. Indonesia and Malaysia have now announced they will take in a limited number of refugees, but there are still many at sea after being abandoned by people smugglers. There is a history refugee migration by boat in South East Asia, said Elliot Brennan:

The present problem in Myanmar, and the economic migration from Bangladesh, will not be the last irregular migration we see in the Southeast Asia or Europe or anywhere for that matter...We need to set up frameworks and regional responses for the irregular flows of people. If done correctly, this can be a boon and not a burden. That is what history has taught us about boat crises in Southeast Asia. But first, and of greatest and simplest urgency is to rescue the thousands of souls stuck at sea. 

That is also what Marie McAuliffe argued for. The region needs a long-term response to this humanitarian crisis, she writes:

Few regional actors are keen to see the displacement continue or escalate, but in the past, equally few have been prepared to help. The Philippines' willingness to provide humanitarian assistance is heartening, not just for the Rohingya stranded at sea but for the region as a whole. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and a member of ASEAN, the Philippines is well placed to lead on this issue, notwithstanding its own human security, economic, social and political challenges. Its leadership offers other governments a way forward, and creates the possibility for burden sharing.

Two posts this week from from former Australian diplomat Bob Bowker on Syria. First, Bowker wrote on the state of the military conflict itself, and warned that ethnic cleansing is a possibility:

For the first time in the conflict, one side may feel it could lose. For most Alawites, this is an existential conflict for a long-persecuted, mostly illiterate minority. Alawites fought their way to the top of the political system after the chaos of the post-independence period and reversed their historical exploitation at the hands of the northern Syrian Sunni and Christian elite. Alawites led in crushing the resistance of the Sunnis who had lost that contest – culminating in the massacre in Hama in 1982. But their success was always at the risk of dire retribution should their political grip weaken. That prospect now looms large.

Second, Bowker argued that the international community needs to start preparing for a humanitarian disaster in Syria:

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The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimise the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimising Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behaviour and those of the Assad regime.

Phelim Kine from Human Rights Watch pointed out the hypocrisy of the abusive 'virginity tests' that the Indonesian military forces on its female recruits:

Moeldoko and Basry's junk-science validations of a form of gender-based violence reflects entrenched attitudes that extend to other parts of the Indonesian security forces, which are proving stubbornly resistant to change. In November 2014, Human Rights Watch reported on the Indonesian National Police's imposition of 'virginity tests' on thousands of female applicants since 1965, in contravention of National Police principles that recruitment must be both 'nondiscriminatory' and 'humane.'

Hugh White continued a debate this week between him and Michael Cole over deterrence and Taiwan:

Some might hope that China can be convinced that the US is willing to fight, even if it isn't. This is called bluffing, and it's a dangerous and unreliable tactic. And this is precisely why America cannot reliably deter China from attacking Taiwan. As Michael himself acknowledges, there are real doubts that America would be willing to go to war with China. It seems likely that those doubts are shared in Beijing, and they cannot be dispelled simply by rhetorical reaffirmations of the Taiwan Relations Act, because they arise from a quite reasonable assessment of the balance between costs to America of reunification on the one hand, and the costs of war with China on the other.

Morris Jones wrote on the state of the Russian space industry:

Leasing Baikonur is expensive as well as strategically perilous. Relations between Kazakhstan and their former Soviet partners are sometimes difficult. The deterioration of Kazakhstan's economy opens the possibility that they could raise the rent for Baikonur in the future.

So Russia is building a new launch site in south-east Russia as a replacement. The project must have Kazakh officials quietly laughing. The Vostochny Cosmodrome is well behind schedule, and some construction workers have apparently not received pay for months. Nobody knows when this project will finally be completed, but it seems certain that Russia will not be able to withdraw from Baikonur for years.

How did the global financial crisis begin? Leon Berkelmans thinks new research might offer some clues:

I always thought that claim was odd, but I had not seen proof that he was wrong. I certainly lack the accounting expertise to find out myself. That is why a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Robert McDonald and Anna Paulson is really helpful (I've confessed my love for the journal before). These researchers (and others) have done the hard work so you and I don't have to. And the findings are grim. So far, those securities that the CDSs were written against have lost at least $10 billion.

Robert Kelly wrote on the internal dynamics of South Korea's relationship with Japan:

But even there, one can see the 'enemy image' at work: Abe's trip to the US, which is fairly traditional diplomatic activity that had little to do with Korea, is described as an 'icy blast from Japan.' The US-Japan summit, by two democracies whose assistance in managing the North Korea threat is crucial, is described as a 'shock,' that sent Korea 'reeling.' That South Korean diplomats could somehow not stop the Abe-Obama bonhomie means they are 'inept,' 'silent,' 'cowardly,' and so on. There have even been calls for the foreign minister to resign over the successful Abe summit with Obama.

This zero-sum, if-Japan-is-up-we-must-be-down mentality is deeply ingrained.

News broke this week that several foreign fighters want to return to Australia. Rodger Shanahan questioned some of their accounts and said that any returning fighters must be held responsible for their actions:

The Guardian has written an unquestioning account of Brookman's time in Syria. There are many holes left unexplored in his story. We're told he met an unnamed Australian 'humanitarian worker' in Turkey who somehow had the expertise to infiltrate him into Syria; that he had his passport stolen; that he only drove ambulances in Aleppo and treated injured people; that his wounds were caused by a Syrian regime bombing of the medical clinic where he was working, and that he was transported unconscious to an ISIS-controlled area. The only cliché missing is that he worked in an orphanage with sick children. Readers would be well advised to treat such accounts sceptically, as should the journalists who question such people.

What does the fall of Ramadi last week mean for Iraq? Lauren Williams:

Less than two weeks ago, media reports cited Sunni tribesmen pledging to unite in the fight against 'ISIS rats' and calling for swifter support from the Government to do so. They say their calls fell on deaf ears. When Iraq's undersupplied and poorly managed security forces collapsed on Sunday, Abadi called for the Shiite militias to join the battle. Videos surfaced (see above) of the army making a hasty withdrawal from the city on Sunday from a battle that left an estimated 500 people dead and forced some 25,00 people to flee the city of roughly 1 million.

Jenny Hayward-Jones reported from PNG on the diplimatic row over the Australian consulate on Bougainville:

The Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has depth and is bolstered by strong business links. The fact that the Papua New Guinea Government's retaliatory measures were aimed only at restricting the travel of Australians to Bougainville suggests there is no desire to harm the wider relationship. Indeed, Prime Minister O'Neill declared in his speech to the Lowy Institute last week that the relationship was in better shape than at any time since independence. On Monday this week I watched the Prime Minister give another positive speech about the bilateral trade and investment relationship alongside the visiting Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb at the Australia-PNG Business Forum in Lae, and the two had a friendly meeting afterwards.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth wrote on a new monument unveiled last week in Jakarta dedicated to the memory of those who died in the violence that erupted across Indonesia in 1998:

Yet victims and their families are far from seeing justice for the perpetrators. President Jokowi made a campaign pledge last year to reopen investigations into the riots and push for legal resolution of the human rights violations that occurred. A bill on forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is due to be deliberated by the Government this year, though relatives of victims have demanded an ad hoc tribunal.

The unveiling of the May '98 Memorial is a small step towards facing the events of the past, but it is a significant one.

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The view from Jakarta

Indonesia this week opened its doors to thousands of migrants stranded at sea, with the expectation that regional neighbours such as Australia could help with resettlement. Meanwhile in Jakarta, President Jokowi announced the first all-female selection committee for the country's anti-corruption body, and social media lit up over reports of toxic plastic rice entering the market from China.

After a meeting with Malaysia, Thailand and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday, Indonesia agreed to take in some of the thousands of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh now stranded at sea after being turned away by the navies of three neighbouring countries. Recognising the humanitarian crisis at hand, Indonesia's foreign minister Retno Marsudi has agreed to take in a share of the migrants, provided they can be resettled within a year. Indonesia has already taken in more than a thousand of the latest wave of migrants, many of whom were welcomed by ordinary Acehnese even after they were rejected by the navy.

There is strong public compassion in Indonesia towards the stranded migrants, in part because of their shared religion. The newly arrived migrants will join almost 12,000 asylum seekers and refugees already in Indonesia who are either awaiting verification of their refugee status or resettlement. Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, is currently able to resettle about 500 refugees a year. This means other countries in the region that are signatories to the convention, such as Australia and the Philippines, may be expected to take some of the load in resettlement.

Australia has already responded to this idea with a big 'nope', which means the issue will likely become another source of tension between Australia and Indonesia in the months to come.

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President Jokowi has yet to make a statement on the boat crisis, but has spoken to media to announce the new all-female line-up of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) selection committee. The nine women selected by the president to appoint anti-corruption commissioners have been hailed as 'heroines' by the local press, with the expectation that they can help save the KPK from a year of controversy and tension with the National Police.

Though the move to appoint an all-female committee has been labeled 'sensationalist' by some, none have questioned the suitability of the members and their varied backgrounds in law, psychology, sociology, management, governance and more. Observers have suggested that the appointment of economist Destry Damayanti as head of the committee signals an intention for the KPK to focus more on corruption in business, rather than political graft.

Meanwhile, the police this week dropped investigations into allegations of graft by Budi Gunawan, whose slated appointment as police chief sparked controversy with the KPK earlier this year. Budi was made deputy police chief last month in a closed-door inauguration. The new police chief, Badrodin Haiti, welcomed news of the all-female KPK selection committee, saying that women are usually 'more thorough' in their work.

A woman from Bekasi, Greater Jakarta, was the first to report the presence of synthetic rice in Indonesia this week, sparking panic on social media. The food seller claimed to have bought rice from her usual supplier at a Bekasi market, only to find that the rice turned to mush after it was cooked. She posted photos of the cooked and uncooked rice on social media and sent a complaint to the Indonesian Consumers' Board (YLKI). Similar reports had previously come from India and Vietnam of 'plastic' rice made of potato and sweet potato starch mixed with resin. The Bekasi mayor has confirmed that a lab result showed rice laced with a polyvinyl materials had been found in a local market. The Trade Ministry is investigating the source of the tainted rice, and one lawmaker has called its circulation an act of 'food terror', saying those responsible should be persecuted as terrorists.

Photo by Flickr user basibanget.

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Greg Sheridan writes today that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about US Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...US Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

Sheridan criticises Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, 'There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.'

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The US-Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various US spy agencies. And while the US Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the US military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host US strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

Photo by Flickr user US Air Force.

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Deterrence is a beguiling concept. It offers the hope that we can prevail over our opponents without actually fighting them because our mere possession of military power will be sufficient to compel them to our will.

This seductive idea seems to be the basis of Michael Cole's view that deterrence will allow America and its allies to defend Taiwan from China with incurring the costs and risks of conflict, and that they should therefore commit themselves to doing so. This view is set out in Michael's most recent contribution to an exchange between us about this issue, and I'd like to thank him for his thoughtful part in our exchange on this sensitive topic.

Alas, I think this view of deterrence is mistaken. Deterrence can work, of course, but only where the deterred power believes that the deterring power is willing to incur the costs and risks of conflict. So Washington can only deter Beijing from using force against Taiwan if Beijing is reasonably sure that Washington is willing to actually fight to do so.

Moreover, because the stakes are so high and the nuclear threshold is so unclear, Washington must convince Beijing that it is willing to fight a nuclear war over Taiwan if it is to deter China from starting a conventional one. Simply possessing armed forces, including nuclear forces, is not enough to do this. You also have to convince the other side that you are willing to use them, and are willing to incur the costs and risks of the resulting conflict.

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There is, as Michael acknowledges, a parallel here with the Ukraine. Many in the West believed Russia could be deterred from any military intervention in the Ukraine. But deterrence did not work because Moscow did not believe that Washington cared enough about Ukraine to accept the costs and risks of a military conflict with Russia.

Some might hope that China can be convinced that the US is willing to fight, even if it isn't. This is called bluffing, and it's a dangerous and unreliable tactic. And this is precisely why America cannot reliably deter China from attacking Taiwan. As Michael himself acknowledges, there are real doubts that America would be willing to go to war with China. It seems likely that those doubts are shared in Beijing, and they cannot be dispelled simply by rhetorical reaffirmations of the Taiwan Relations Act, because they arise from a quite reasonable assessment of the balance between costs to America of reunification on the one hand, and the costs of war with China on the other.

This assessment does not minimise the costs of unification, both to America and to the Taiwanese themselves. It simply sets them realistically against the costs and risks of war with China, which Michael seems to agree are exceptionally grave. And if Americans are not convinced of US resolve, why should we expect China's leaders to be? And if they are not reasonably sure that the US would be willing to actually commit its formidable forces to fight for Taiwan, how can they deter China from attacking it?

The conclusion seems clear: America cannot defend Taiwan unless it is really willing to fight China to do so, and unless it is plainly willing to do that, Washington should not mislead the Taiwanese into thinking that they can rely on American support if the worst happens.

Photo by Flickr user See-ming Lee.

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Today marks one year since the Thai junta came to power in a coup d'état.

The move was ostensibly made to save the country from deadly street violence that had crippled Thai politics and left dozens dead and hundreds injured during more than six months of clashes. The junta, attempting to placate international concern, promised speedy elections (initially, within five months) and a roadmap for reforms to break years of political deadlock. The promised elections have been continually pushed back. This week the junta said they would again be postponed by a further six months, to August 2016. 

The elusive elections are just one of the junta's failed promises. After a year at the helm, the junta is going nowhere fast. Thailand, the region's second biggest economy and a relative bastion of stability in Southeast Asia's tumultuous political landscape, is stumbling into a long period of dubious dictatorship. 

The junta's promise to break the political deadlock was cautiously welcomed by foreign governments and many Thais. Yet it has, in the past year, monopolised the political space and silenced dissent. In August it stuffed the legislature full of military officers (70 active, 36 retired). It was only last month that it lifted martial law, which had been in place since just before the coup — its lifting was likely only to avoid an odious one-year anniversary. In place of martial law is the draconian Article 44, which all but ensures military dominance over the political process. The Article rightfully earned the title of a 'Dictator Law' among commentators.

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The junta has continued the 'lawfare' strategy of the Yellow Shirts in retroactively impeaching former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for dereliction of duty in her government's failed rice subsidy scheme. It was indeed bad policy, but the process seems more of a witch-hunt to appease powerful Yellow Shirt supporters than it does due process. The symbolism is heightened by the reprieve given to Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader who had an equal hand in entrenching political deadlock and deepening street violence. He has spent the last year in the monkhood, until this week when he said he would drop the cloth and return to 'people's politics'. A divisive figure, his return to the political stage would be an agitation and a harbinger of trouble.

The past year has also been marked by renewed battle against insurgents in the country's deep south. In November, the junta, seeking a military solution to a political problem, gave 2700 HK33 semi-automatic assault rifles to civilian militias in the deep south. That approach has likely contributed to the uptick in unrest this year. In April, violence reached its highest level since the coup. In the past week alone there were 36 bomb attacks in Yala township. That follows a car bomb in April in the popular tourist destination of Samui. The junta has been keen to suggest violence in the south is linked to Red Shirt opposition linked to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. That's unlikely, though there are many among the increasingly disenfranchised Red Shirts who are waiting in the wings to recommit to street protests. 

Of recent note has been the entrenchment of trafficking and people smuggling rackets along Thailand's south and south-western borders. Earlier this year the US dropped Thailand to the lowest tier on its Trafficking in Persons Report 2014; it is now in the company of Syria and North Korea. This is significant given the reported collusion and bribe-taking between trafficking and smuggling rings and Thai law enforcement. This kind of high-profile corruption doesn't help investor confidence in Thailand's spluttering economy. 

Bangkok's foreign policy has also taken a hit. After coming to power as prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha's initial visits abroad were made up of an unglamorous list of non-democratic states: China, Laos, Vietnam and transitioning Myanmar. The chilly diplomatic welcome to office from the US and EU countries saw a shift closer to China and Russia. As political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak noted this week, 'Thai foreign policy will remain hostage to domestic politics.'

These problems have all been amplified by Prayuth's bizarre sense of humour and governing style. His press conferences are often headline grabbing (short list here; longer list here). In December he flung a banana peel at a journalist. In another conference he said that he would 'probably execute' troublesome journalists. The junta has arrested youths for displaying the Hunger Games-inspired three-finger salute – army officials said they had been detained for 'attitude adjustment'. Others have been detained for 'eating sandwiches with political intent' and reading Orwell's banned novel 1984.

Despite the record, many Thais still think the junta is the best of a set of bad options (though it must be noted, reliable polling of Thai views on the junta is not available). The vacuum of criticism has emboldened the junta, which is drafting a new and dubious constitution. The draft document hands immunity to the generals that led the coup and guarantees the military's place in politics.

In August, Prayuth's appointment as PM received the official blessing of the King. These may be the last blessings the ageing monarch gives to anyone. The King's passing will be followed by a period of mourning where political manoeuvring is restricted, if not altogether banned. The junta's hold on power during this period will be welcomed by many, but the junta has fashioned itself as the successors to the powers held by the revered peacemaker, King Bhumipol. That will cause problems in the real succession for the throne.

One year on, the junta has strengthened its grip on politics. There are few signs of a return to democracy; the junta is going nowhere fast.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Chinese authorities allegedly shut down the internet in Linshui after mass demonstrations demanding a high-speed rail line through the county turned violent. Read about how the protests — from censorship to anti-communist party hacking — are playing out online.
  • Tech startups in Pakistan want to disrupt the country's inefficient and dangerously unregulated labour market.
  • The most important market for Chinese smartphone makers may actually be India.
  • This podcast, on Japan's unique Twitter culture, looks at why it is common for Japanese users to have multiple accounts and maintain a different identity on each.
  • Internet company Baidu has built a Beijing-based artificial-intelligence supercomputer that allegedly has Google beat on image recognition. (H/t @niubi).
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked officials to befriend and recruit non-Communist Party intellectuals from new media organisations and to encourage them to make contributions to 'purifying cyberspace'. (H/t @fryan.)
  • Vietnamese mobile messenger app Zalo now has 30 million users, making it the only Southeast Asian-founded chat app that has conquered its home market.
  • The media outlet for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has published a series of feisty articles on defending cyber sovereignty and battling for online terrain. English translations here and here.
  • While hosing down alarmist interpretations of the above articles, the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project steers readers towards the revelation that an elusive 'All-Military Internet Security and Information Expert Consultation Commission' had its first sitting in Beijing.
  • A new report highlights fears Cambodia's new cyber laws will be used to further curb online free speech.
  • Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement has spawned a unique brand of digital protest art.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook was in China last week


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The US has taken its concerns with China's island reclamation efforts public by giving a CNN crew access to one of its brand-new P-8 surveillance aircraft as it monitors the South China Sea. You really do get a sense of how delicate the situation is, and how easily things could escalate from a misunderstanding or an accident.

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The view from Beirut

Spring is almost over and as summer fast approaches, Lebanon once again prepares for the massive influx of visiting diaspora that clogs the roads, snaps up all the holiday rentals, and fills the beaches by day and the rooftop clubs by night. The other great summer tradition in Lebanon is local speculation on whether this is the summer the unfinished war with Israel will be resumed.


The Lebanese resort town of Jounieh, north of Beirut. (Tumblr/Paul Saad.)

The last few years I have been in Lebanon there is always at least one prophecy that suggests this is the year it's all going to kick off. These warnings, combined with various security threats (summer of the ISIS bombs in 2014; summer of the Shi'ite area bombings in 2013; summer of the tyre burning protests in 2012), have seen the lucrative Gulf and Western tourist markets shrink dramatically, increasing economic pressures on this already fragile state.

So is this year going to be the 'summer of war'? The problem is that this prediction can no longer be formulated by a simple calculation of Israeli and Hizbullah strategic positions. As well as an Israel-Hizbullah conflict, we have the potential for an invasion by ISIS from Syria, and the potential for the return of that old faithful, civil war, which this time would pit Shi'a against Sunni.

Let's consider the evidence.

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Earlier this year there were reports of increased threats from ISIS that, this summer, the group plans to establish a Caliphate in Lebanon (or what would be left of it once the 17 out of the 18 official resident religions had been eradicated). While these can be dismissed as emanations from the ISIS propaganda machine, Lebanon remains alert to the threat of isolated bomb attacks from ISIS sympathisers.

However, the recent battle in the Qalamoun Mountains of Syria between Hizbullah and the Syrian army on one side, and various Sunni militias on the other, has been deemed largely a success for Hizbullah and Assad. The victors claim to have located and destroyed a number of armed cars waiting to be sent across the border to detonate. To the east of Lebanon in Arsal, the disunity between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS has disintegrated into armed conflict. The Lebanese Armed Forces have been pounding the area in an effort to destroy militant groups based there.

Within Lebanon, tensions between Sunni and Shi'a are rising at the political level as the major parties accuse each other's sponsors of behaving irresponsibly in Yemen. As I noted in a previous post, the rise of extremism in Palestinian camps has coincided with a spate of sectarian killings between Sunni and Shi'a which could spill over into the Lebanese street. The recent army attacks on Sunni militants in the north of the country help drive the perception among some Lebanese Sunnis that the Lebanese Armed Forces are a Shi'a-backed institution. All these incidents add up to increased tensions, but a resumption of civil war remains unlikely, for two main reasons: first, the shared belief that no one side is strong enough to win outright; and second, the risk of stalemate and descent into further chaos, which would open up the country to more ISIS attacks.

The threat of another Hizbullah-Israel war remains real, with a recent resumption of activity after a reasonably quiet year in 2014. On 19 January, Israel launched an attack on a Hizbullah convoy driving on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, killing seven members (some senior) and an Iranian General. This triggered a response from Hizbullah on 28 January, which the group launched from the Shebaa Farms area on the Lebanese side, killing two Israeli soldiers traveling in a convoy on the Israeli side of the border.

It was initially suggested that Hizbullah was in the Golan to investigate the possibility of opening up a new front against Israel, the somewhat shaky theory being that Hizbullah could attack Israel from Syria without suffering blowback in Lebanon. It is more likely that Hizbullah was monitoring the area because of concerns about a takeover by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al Qaeda groups, threatening Hizbullah weapons supply routes. Despite recent Syrian army and Hizbullah campaigns to retake the Syrian side of the Golan region, Quneitra is estimated to be still largely under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups.

Many of the players on the Lebanese stage are feeling pressure as myriad hot and cold wars are fought across the region.

Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to get on top of the Houthi movement in Yemen and reassure itself that the Iran nuclear deal does not mean Tehran has become Washington's new BFF. Netanyahu has cobbled together a right-wing cabinet, some members of which may not object to a showdown with either the Palestinians or Hizbullah. And of late Hizbullah has ratcheted up the action and rhetoric, possibly because it feels increasingly stretched militarily and therefore under threat. It's also hard to tell how much veracity lies in reports that the Assad regime is starting to crumble, but Saudi, Turkish and Qatari funding of the opposition forces appears to be having some effect. Overlaying all of this is the presence of ISIS, which threatens states across the Middle East both from within and without.

But the biggest threat to Lebanon, as always, is the potential for miscalculation by Israel or Hizbullah leading to the resumption of war. Judging by their recent spat, neither side appears to have taken on board the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As the snow melts and the ground dries out, Israel and Hizbullah appear still to be playing the same game, though nowadays the stakes are higher and the political terrain far trickier.

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Digital Disruption

Barack Obama's tweeting entranced the media earlier this week, but he isn't the only US official making Twitter-related headlines;  the social media service has recently played host to a number of high-profile disputes involving senators, ambassadors and spokespeople.

US Senator Tom Cotton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif continued to trade blows following Cotton’s letter to Zarif in March regarding nuclear negotiations, and US officials sparred with the mayor of Ankara over US rhetoric on police activity in Turkey compared with Baltimore.

In a wide-ranging piece for the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner looked at these examples and examines how 'trolling' – acting provocatively in an attempt to induce an emotional reaction – has become an increasingly popular tactic in diplomatic exchanges:

Does diplo-trolling really matter? Turkey remains a NATO ally. The same week that Cotton trolled Zarif, progress was made in the Iran nuclear negotiations. Isn’t the rest just bread and circuses? A useful distraction for officials trying to conduct actual statecraft?

Not necessarily. In the short term, social media engagement can raise the costs of negotiation. As a general rule, trolling is a weapon of the weak designed to harass the powerful into engaging their arguments; on the Iran negotiations, for example, Cotton is far less important than Zarif. This is not all bad — sometimes trolls, by engaging political leaders or spokesmen, bring transparency to a heretofore hidden set of policies. And to the trolls, this is a form of negotiation.

The problem is that crafting international agreements is hard work on a good day. Coping with online trolls simply adds to the transaction costs of negotiation.

In asking how digital platforms like Twitter will influence future foreign policy leaders, Drezner also included these spectacular quotes from Senator Cory Booker on the social media tactics of Islamic State:

In the long term, the more interesting question is how future generations of leaders — immersed in a world where texting, Twitter and Instagram are primary modes of communication — think about foreign policy. This past week, for example, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a voracious tweeter, despaired about the Islamic State’s social media power at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing. “I know something about memes,” he said. “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing.”

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Papua New Guinea has reacted to Australia's recent decision to establish a diplomatic post in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville by banning Australian travel to the province. This spat is proving to be an irritant not only for the friendly relationship between Canberra and Port Moresby, but also for relations between Port Moresby and government authorities in Bougainville.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's arrival in Papua New Guinea, November 2014. (DFAT)

Australia's aid spend in Bougainville is $50 million next financial year – larger than Australian aid programs in Samoa, Tonga or Kiribati. Establishing an office to administer a program of this size is understandable. It is perhaps surprising Australia has not sought to establish a consulate either in Bougainville or another location in Papua New Guinea before now, given the quantum of Australian interests in our nearest neighbour. For its part, Papua New Guinea maintains three consulates in Australia — in Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns — in addition to its High Commission in Canberra.

The Papua New Guinea Government has interpreted the Australian decision as a threat to its sovereignty, but it is unclear whether Port Moresby really believes this or was upset by what it called 'a lack of consultation' on the matter.

The Australian Government would be foolish if it failed to consider the consequences of a 'yes' vote for independence in Bougainville when the referendum is held. But it is not in Australia's interests to be perceived as cheering for the creation of another state in the Pacific that will likely be vulnerable and largely dependent on aid. Canberra has to be careful to remain neutral while ultimately prefering to see Bougainville remain an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea.

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This incident will be particularly frustrating for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has worked so hard to strengthen Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea and who is held in high regard in Port Moresby. Bishop would have hoped the fact that she had quarantined Papua New Guinea from the impact of the largest ever cut to Australia's aid program was good news for Port Moresby, but instead she finds herself on the defensive in the first diplomatic stoush with Papua New Guinea under her watch.

Prime Minister O'Neill has claimed the restrictions his Government has imposed on Australians traveling to Bougainville have been well received in the autonomous region but it is not clear that this view is widely held. Current President John Momis, for example, has said he wants Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato to lift the restrictions immediately. Polling in Bougainville's elections has just closed, with the count to take place next week. It would be unfortunate if this spat between Papua New Guinea and Australia damages Port Moresby's ability to develop a positive relationship with a new government in Bougainville as it prepares for a referendum on independence within the next five years.

The Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has depth and is bolstered by strong business links. The fact that the Papua New Guinea Government's retaliatory measures were aimed only at restricting the travel of Australians to Bougainville suggests there is no desire to harm the wider relationship. Indeed, Prime Minister O'Neill declared in his speech to the Lowy Institute last week that the relationship was in better shape than at any time since independence. On Monday this week I watched the Prime Minister give another positive speech about the bilateral trade and investment relationship alongside the visiting Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb at the Australia-PNG Business Forum in Lae, and the two had a friendly meeting afterwards.

Both governments have an interest in the delivery of an effective aid program in Bougainville. If they don't resolve this spat soon, it could end up undermining their own objectives.

There has clearly been some kind of misunderstanding, misinterpretation or miscommunication about Australia's intentions, but rather than rehash who should have said what and when, it would be in the interests of ministers in Port Moresby and Canberra to prove the maturity of the  relationship with a swift resolution to this problem.

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Everyone was hoping it wouldn't come to this. ISIS militants have taken control of the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi in Anbar province. With the Iraqi army in retreat and plans to arm Sunni tribesmen from the province in tatters, the Iraqi Government will now have to depend on thousands of Shiite militiamen to take back the key outpost.

But mobilisation of the Iranian-backed ­Shiite militias to try to wrest back the capital of Iraq's largest province from ISIS fighters raises the prospect of a major sectarian clash, and risks exposing a broader sectarian chasm in the country.

The fall of Ramadi and the dependence on Shiite militias now stationed outside the city represents a decisive failure of the American and Iraqi strategy to bolster Sunni partnerships in Iraq with the help of US air power.

The newly elected prime minister, Hadi al-Abadi, had pledged to bolster Sunni elements in the National Guard Forces and had promoted a plan to arm and train Sunni forces in the former al Qaeda stronghold of Anbar. He hoped to repeat the success of the Sunni Awakening councils that defeated the al Qaeda insurgency in 2008, this time against ISIS.

But the plan floundered. Shiite and Kurdish groups within the Government opposed the formation of the National Guard forces, wary of potential tribal allegiances with ISIS. Years of Shiite oppression of the Sunni in Iraq under former Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki have dealt a blow to the credibility of Sunni forces who cooperated with the Government, and prompted many of them to join the ISIS in what is perceived as a battle against their Shiite adversaries.

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Elsewhere, Iraqi forces, backed by Shiite militias including the Badr Organisation and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, as well as US air cover, proved critical in the recapture the cities of Nineveh, Diyala and Tikrit from the ISIS. But allegations of sectarian-fueled reprisal attacks and human-rights abuses against Sunni populations by the militias followed in their wake. As the battle moved into the Sunni heartland of Anbar, there were fears Shiite militants might exact their sectarian agenda in the province, hardening Sunni sympathies for ISIS and contributing to a belief that the Government and the army are unable and unwilling to protect the Sunni minority.

In Ramadi and elsewhere it has taken control, ISIS has executed those it believes have sided with what it describes as the apostate regime; many of those Sunni elements in Ramadi who sided with the Government have either been killed or have switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Less than two weeks ago, media reports cited Sunni tribesmen pledging to unite in the fight against 'ISIS rats' and calling for swifter support from the Government to do so. They say their calls fell on deaf ears. When Iraq's undersupplied and poorly managed security forces collapsed on Sunday, Abadi called for the Shiite militias to join the battle. Videos surfaced (see above) of the army making a hasty withdrawal from the city on Sunday from a battle that left an estimated 500 people dead and forced some 25,00 people to flee the city of roughly 1 million.

By Monday, thousands of Shiite militiamen massed outside Ramadi in preparation for the battle to rout an ISIS advance east towards Baghdad. Iran swiftly offered to assist in the battle, adding to growing unease that the calamity in the country is pushing Iraq further into its orbit. The US, engaged in delicate peace talks with Iran over its nuclear program, is now in the awkward position of giving air cover to Iranian proxies in the country, despite their historic enmity.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters that the militias have a part to play in the fight for Ramadi. 'As long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate,' he said, adding that the geography of the city 'limits the ability of airpower'.

Whether Abadi can control the militias remains to be seen. His track record has not won the trust of Sunni parliamentarians so far. If he fails to rein in the militias in Ramadi, the credibility of his leadership will look even more tenuous.

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Aid being brought ashore at a Rohingya camp in Myanmar. (Flickr/European Commission.)

The one-day summit scheduled for 29 May in Bangkok on the Rohingya refugee crisis poses many challenges for the region. 

Few regional actors are keen to see the displacement continue or escalate, but in the past, equally few have been prepared to help. The Philippines' willingness to provide humanitarian assistance is heartening, not just for the Rohingya stranded at sea but for the region as a whole. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and a member of ASEAN, the Philippines is well placed to lead on this issue, notwithstanding its own human security, economic, social and political challenges. Its leadership offers other governments a way forward, and creates the possibility for burden sharing.

Malaysia and Indonesia have now also agreed to provide temporary shelter to the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea — another positive signal ahead of the summit.

But we shouldn't underestimate the challenges that stem from the long history of neglect and abuse of the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted groups in the world.

Pivotal to the current crisis is the Myanmar Government's long-term systematic discrimination against the Rohingya. This  is most pointedly demonstrated by the Rohingya's inability to secure citizenship in Myanmar, rendering them stateless. In a country of around 54 million, Rohingya are thought to total between 800,000 and 1 million.

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Myanmar has long regarded the Rohingya as illegal migrants. In 2012, following extreme anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar's Rakhine province, Myanmar's President Thein Sein suggested the UNHCR resettle the entire Rohingya population. These statements were likely intended for a domestic audience, but they highlight deeply entrenched views in Myanmar, as does the silence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. UNHCR rejected the President's suggestions, noting that the Rohingya were within Myanmar and had not crossed a border so were not refugees.

Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have borne the brunt of Rohingya refugee flows, and their treatment has been mixed. At times the Thai Navy has been accused of involvement in serious human rights violations of Rohingya escaping Myanmar. Significant populations of Rohingya now live in these countries without legal status, and herein lies part of the challenge. Refugee resettlement to third countries such as the US, Canada, Australia or the UK is sensitive, as it is widely believed it could create pull factors triggering much larger population movements, as would improving their legal status in Malaysia and elsewhere.

The estimated size of the total Rohingya population in the region – between 1.5 to 2 million – is central to the ongoing difficulties facing regional actors. Those in need of protection are large in number and their needs are considerable; discrimination has resulted in poor health, low literacy rates, high morbidity and very low skill levels. Scale is important — the international cooperation that saw the successful resettlement of the small Bhutanese population (around 108,000) out of Nepal is unlikely to be repeated, at least not immediately.

One of the results of this tragic and enduring situation is that smugglers have profited from the growing demand to leave Myanmar and Bangladesh. The impasse involving thousands of Rohingya stranded on boats at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, some having been reportedly pushed back by Indonesian and Malaysian authorities, was a disastrous policy failure in the region and now finally looks to have been abandoned.

But a longer-term cooperative international response is required. This response needs to counter smuggling and trafficking networks, put much greater pressure on Myanmar to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, provide formal resettlement options, improve the Rohingya's legal status in countries in the region and further assist countries hosting Rohingya refugees.

This tragic situation has been a long time in the making and is a running sore for the region and ASEAN. Let's hope that the current crisis galvanises the international community on 29 May.

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

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The commander of Indonesia's armed forces, General Moeldoko, has strong views about criticism of the abusive 'virginity tests' imposed on female recruits and the fiancées of military officers. 'So what's the problem? It's a good thing, so why criticize it?' he told reporters in Jakarta on 16 May.

Moeldoko's comments were in response to queries about a Human Rights Watch report released two days earlier revealing the Indonesian military has for decades compelled female recruits and fiancées of military officers to undergo the invasive 'two-finger test' to determine whether their hymens are intact. Only those women with resources to either bribe military doctors or to tap connections within the armed forces or the Government are spared the painful indignity of these so-called 'virginity tests.'

Moeldoko is apparently untroubled by the fact that medical research has conclusively proven that 'virginity tests' do nothing more than inflict unneeded pain and trauma on women. Evidence includes WHO guidelines issued in November 2014 that stated, 'There is no place for virginity (or 'two-finger') testing; it has no scientific validity.'

Moeldoko's support for 'virginity tests' ignores the obvious discriminatory nature of the practice. It also runs Indonesia afoul of its commitments to international law, namely the prohibitions against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 16 of the Convention against Torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified.

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But Moeldoko is less concerned about the cruel and degrading treatment of women who seek to serve in Indonesia's armed forces or marry military officers than he is about their 'morality.' Moeldoko has justified the imposition of these tests as an essential 'measure of morality' of female recruits. He didn't see the hypocrisy of not obligating male military recruits to likewise prove their chastity. But he's adamant that 'there's no other way' to determine a women's morality.

The Indonesian military spokesman Faud Basry on 14 May echoed Moeldoko's opinions by asserting that 'virginity tests' are a means of screening out inappropriate female recruits. 'If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good,' Basya told The Guardian. Neither Moeldoko or nor Basya had any justification for why the Indonesian armed forced imposed 'virginity tests' on the fiancées of military officers.

Moeldoko and Basry's junk-science validations of a form of gender-based violence reflects entrenched attitudes that extend to other parts of the Indonesian security forces, which are proving stubbornly resistant to change. In November 2014, Human Rights Watch reported on the Indonesian National Police's imposition of 'virginity tests' on thousands of female applicants since 1965, in contravention of National Police principles that recruitment must be both 'nondiscriminatory' and 'humane.'

The National Police tried to brush off Human Rights Watch's exposure of the practice. A senior police official, Inspector General Moechgiyarto, confirmed that the National Police required the test for female applicants. But rather than condemning the practice and promising its abolition, Moechgiyarto defended it as a means to ensure the 'high moral standards' of the police and reportedly suggested that failure of the test was simply proof that applicants were engaged in sex work. 'If she (an applicant) turns out to be a prostitute, then how could we accept her for the job?' he said.

Other parts of the Indonesian bureaucracy have been more responsive in recognising the abusive nature of this practice. In December 2014, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo announced that his ministry would stop administering 'virginity tests' to women aspiring to be civil servants. Major General Daniel Tjen, Surgeon-General of the Indonesian armed forces, recently stated that the military was reviewing its recruitment procedures, including the 'virginity test' requirement for female recruits. 

What's absent is decisive action from President Joko Widodo to put an end to these tests by the country's security forces. Widodo can start by publicly denouncing the practice and instructing both the military and police to immediately stop using it. He can put teeth on that rhetoric by swiftly disciplining any of his top officials who disobey or contradict those orders.

Australia can also play a part. The Australian Government should place immediate conditions on its assistance and cooperation with the Indonesian military and police to ensure that its technical and financial support is not subsidising 'virginity tests.' The Government should also instruct the Australian delegate to the 17-22 May world conference in Bali of the intergovernmental International Committee of Military Medicine (ICMM) – which so far has been failed to condemn 'virginity tests' – to push for a resolution that commits all ICMM member countries to ban the abusive practice. 

Concerted domestic and international pressure may be needed to convince President Widodo, General Moeldoko and Police Inspector General Moechgiyarto that abusive 'virginity tests' are an unacceptable violation of women's rights under international law. Without that pressure, untold numbers of women will continue to suffer humiliation, pain and trauma based on a wrongheaded and discriminatory conception of 'morality.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AFN-Pacific Hawaii News Bureau.

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Last Friday we got a sense of how fraught Australia's foreign-policy position is becoming between its major strategic partner (the US) and its major economic partner (China), when a senior Penatgon official declared that the US was going to put B-1 bombers on Australian soil. The official 'misspoke', it turns out, though the sensitivity of the issue was revealed by the fact that none less than the Prime Minister hosed the matter down publicly within hours.

Part of what made the issue so sensitive is that, according to the media, at least, the Pentagon's B-1 gambit was linked explicitly to Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea. Yesterday the Lowy Institute hosted an in-depth discussion on that fraught territorial dispute with two of its non-resident fellows, Linda Jakobson and Bonnie Glaser, as well as the director of the Institute's East Asia Program, Merriden Varrall. You can listen to the 60-minute podcast here, or click below to listen to a short interview I did with Bonnie Glaser yesterday on this topic.

(NB: A couple of issues referenced in the interview which are worth linking to: first, the Wall St Journal article from 12 May regarding possible US military deployments to the South China Sea, and second, quotes from China's navy chief inviting the US to use the facilities China is now building in the South China Sea.)

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