Lowy Institute

Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense on Wednesday announced that sluggish recruitment figures were once again forcing it to delay its plans to end military conscription next year, one of the major goals of the Ma Ying-jeou Administration.

Convincing enough qualified young men and women to forsake the comforts of civilian life and enlist in the armed forces will always be a great challenge, one that has been made more formidable by recent controversies such as the July 2013 death of Army conscript Hong Chung-chiu and the 'Apache-gate' scandal earlier this year. At the very least, the Government should not make matters worse by sending contradictory signals about the nature of the threat facing Taiwan to potential recruits.

Sadly, such a signal is exactly what the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is about to broadcast after it allowed its honourary chairman, Lien Chan, to attend a series of events in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, which will include a goose-stepping military parade on 3 September of such proportions as to bring to mind the very fascism that was defeated in the war.

The Ma Administration doesn't seem to realise that it is shooting itself in the foot. The main issue isn't the KMT's longstanding disagreement with the Chinese Communist Party over the latter's historical revisionism and the role that communist forces supposedly played in the war, a battle of ideas which is of little interest to most Taiwanese (Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire during World War II).

The real problem is that Lien's participation in the events — even if he is going as a 'private citizen' — plays directly into Beijing's propaganda campaign (it has also extended invitations to retired generals in the Taiwanese military as well as a number of politicians on the island) and risks undermining the willingness of young Taiwanese to join the military. After all, why should young men and women adopt a lifestyle of hardship and risk their lives if the nation's political leadership doesn't take the Chinese military threat seriously?

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Mr Lien, a former KMT chairman and vice president, is also expected to hold a meeting with President Xi Jinping during his 'low-key visit'. All this comes a little more than a month after footage simulating a People's Liberation Army (PLA) assault on a mock-up of Taiwan's Presidential Office was made public, and on the heels of a new recruitment video for the PLA Navy whose bombast and militarism has caused concern among China's neighbours.

Yet by attending, Lien — and by extension the KMT — will be signaling that such belligerence, which again will be on display during the Victory Day parade, is of little concern to Taiwan. Never mind that the Second Artillery Corps continues to threaten the island nation with approximately 1500 ballistic missiles, that the PLA has held several exercises practicing amphibious assaults of the kind that would be launched to invade Taiwan, or that the efforts by China's intelligence agencies to penetrate Taiwan have intensified. All of this is happening in a period when, according to President Ma, relations between the two sides are the best they've been in sixty years.

As editorials such as this one in the state-run Global Times make amply clear, an authoritarian, expansionist, and nationalistic China remains an existential threat to democratic Taiwan, a situation that could get worse in light of the trend lines in Taiwanese society and the high likelihood that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will return to power next year.

Besides alienating the young Taiwanese whose faith in the military establishment hangs in the balance, Mr Lien's presence in Beijing will hardly be reassuring to Taiwan's security allies, chief among them the US, where doubts about Taipei's commitment to self-defence have never been entirely dispelled.

That isn't to say that China should always be treated like an enemy and that no efforts at conciliation should be made. Quite the contrary. But such diplomacy should never occur in isolation of the optics that those exchanges generate. Sending a high-profile representative to an event that celebrates militarism by a regime that refuses to let go of the past and which continues to threaten war against Taiwan's 23 million people for expressing their legitimate right to self-determination is not a wise decision. (Although James Soong, the third presidential candidate in the 2016 elections, will not attend the ceremony, it is reported that a representative of his party will do so.)

There is no doubt that young Taiwanese men and women are dedicated to defending their country and way of life. But whether they choose to do so by enlisting in the military will be largely contingent on how seriously their government takes national defence. Cavorting with a militarist regime at a time of rising apprehensions over China's belligerence and disregard for international law accomplishes just the opposite.

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PW Singer, Strategist and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recently released Ghost Fleet, was at the Lowy Institute yesterday. He sat down with Michael Fullilove for a conversation about the book, his thoughts on Edward Snowden and the future of cyber relations between the US and China.

Afterwards I interviewed Peter about the Ghost Fleet and its broader themes (here's my own review of Ghost Fleet). I asked him about how the fog of war might be changing for modern, networked militaries, and whether they in fact might be becoming too confident or reliant on their access to information on the battlefield. Peter's novel also speculates on the role global technology and internet companies might take in a conflict between the US and China. In the interview, Peter talks about the differences between modern multinational corporations and their predecessors in World War II, and how the reactions of modern corporations might differ:

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Australia's Ambassador in Washington, Kim Beazley, recently said that Australia's alliance with the US had reached a level of importance greater than during the Cold War, and more akin to its crucial importance during World War II. Recent developments in the realms of security and trade, however contested, seem to underline his claims. This at a time when change is coming for Australia's representation in Washington. Coming months will see increasing speculation over who will succeed Beazley, whose extended term expires at the end of this year.

The situation gives pause for thought: what kind of attributes do we look for in Australians who can serve as Ambassador to the US?


Kim Beazley presents his credentials to President Obama, January 2012. (White House.)

At one level, the question logically incorporates generic qualities of those who are suited to serve anywhere overseas and represent Australia's interests. And the desired traits – among them, integrity, energy, acumen, fine judgement, high powers of observation and interpretation, advanced interpersonal and relationship-building skills – are, we trust, cultivated within DFAT. But with certain posts, such as London, Paris and Washington, the question takes on another dimension due to the frequency of appointments from outside the Department, and primarily from the ranks of retiring politicians.

In the case of Washington, the question of who best serves the government's representational needs is especially timely for reasons that invite looking back as well as forward. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Australian diplomatic representation in Washington. From 1940, when RG Casey headed the new Legation with a staff of five, the Embassy (embassy status came in 1946) has grown to boast more than 250 staff today, and the building is about to be rebuilt to meet expanded needs.

The work of Australia's senior diplomats in Washington was the subject of a two-day seminar held at Deakin University in October last year, the results of which will be published soon. Certain patterns emerged from the exercise, including the long-term profile of ambassadors.

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Beazley, of course, is a former Labor Party leader. Before him were two senior public servants who were trained in External Affairs/DFAT, Michael Thawley and Dennis Richardson. Before them was former Liberal Party leader, Andrew Peacock. The mix is the same when surveying Australia's Ambassadors over the whole 75 years: of the 20 Australian ambassadors to the US*, ten have been professional appointees, moving to Washington either directly from External Affairs/DFAT or from another senior public service post, and ten have been from beyond the career service**: seven former politicians, one judge, one diplomatically experienced public servant (Frederic Eggleston) and one senior public servant in Don Russell, who emerged not from DFAT but Treasury prior to his becoming principal adviser to Treasurer Paul Keating.

There is great variety among those who have held Australia's most senior post in Washington. Our first, Richard Casey, has been described as a model diplomat, winning confidences and networking brilliantly with Washington's policy-making elite in the early 1940s. His successor, former Labor politician Norman Makin, was an abstemious man whose integrity was admired, but who hated the cocktail circuit and was reluctant to engage on key policy issues. Makin's successor, Percy Spender, former senior politician in the Liberal Party and Australia's most activist ambassador, loved Washington parties as much as he loved the idea of being a second Australian Minister for External Affairs, telling Canberra what to do.

In other words, even between three early political appointees, the variability between ambassadors makes it clear that the professional/political line has limitations as a means of distinguishing the characteristics and performances of Australians in Washington.

Similarly, during the turbulent years from the mid-1960s to early 1980s, Australia's ambassadors were the cream of the Department's professional diplomats, including three former permanent secretaries: Sir James Plimsoll, Sir Alan Renouf and Sir Nicholas Parkinson. Yet their experiences varied hugely, with the consequences of withdrawal from Vietnam, searching questioning of the ANZUS Treaty and difficult dynamics between the two countries' leaders shifting the ground beneath their feet.

Among the themes to emerge from the October 2014 seminar, which featured former senior members of the embassy, was the rise of Congress as a focal point for Australian diplomats and the relative decline in opportunities for meeting with Washington's most senior members of government. Instead of Percy Spender advancing Australia's interests in the 1950s over one of his semi-regular dinners with US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, today Ambassador Beazley might work hard to meet with a Congressional power-broker in relation to legislative measures affecting Australia's interests.

While discussion did not focus on the issue of political vs professional appointees, it was a question that was never far from the surface, and one that looms more prominently now, thinking towards Beazley's successor.

One former senior Embassy official has suggested that we might do well to tilt the balance towards professional diplomats: to the extent that ambassadors can be agents of change, diplomats' agendas tend to more ambitious and longer-term than former politicians', especially when the diplomats are not at the end of their careers. Against this view, some would argue that gravitas matters a great deal in Washington and former politicians bring a lot of this with them. If the Abbott Government is going to ready us for an announcement some time soon, we might start to see traces of one or other of these views.

* This includes the three Ministers of the Legation between 1940 and 1946: Casey, Owen Dixon, and Frederic Eggleston.

** While I have counted Casey as one of the non-career appointees, on the basis of his having been an elected member of Australian governments prior to his posting, he could also be said to represent professional diplomats, having served earlier and very successfully in Australia's High Commission in London, before a professional Australian diplomatic service existed.

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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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In his wide-ranging address to the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner earlier this month, News Corp CEO Robert Thomson took umbrage with Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which he termed 'distributionists'.

These companies, Thomson argued, have ushered in an 'age of content distribution' which was 'hostile to investment in reporters and reporting':

For the distributionists do indeed have powerful distribution channels, Google and Facebook, and pretenders like LinkedIn, which is spam central. None of them actually create content, and they certainly have little intention of paying for it, but they do redistribute the content created by others – they would argue that such redistribution is a natural extension of their role as social networks. I would argue that much of the redistribution is an unnatural act. But there are broader issues that are still unfolding for media companies, who are themselves struggling to profit from their news and other content, while the distributionists are helping themselves to that content, coopting and corralling audiences and consciously devaluing brands. The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behavior. That Google’s newly conceived parent company is to be called Alphabet has itself created a range of delicious permutations: A is for Avarice, B is for Bowdlerize, through to K for Kleptocracy, P for Piracy and Z for Zealotry...

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...More relevant to our discussion is the digital divot; the deficit in reporting resources created by the egregious aggregation of news by distributors for whom provenance is an inconvenience and who are contemptuous of copyright. The words Intellectual Property don’t appear in the Google alphabet. Without proper recognition, without proper remuneration, well-resourced reporting will be ever more challenged. When I arrived in Beijing, many a US newspaper had China correspondents – now some of those papers no longer exist in printed form. Mismanagement played a role, as did journalistic hubris, but the digital age has been hostile to investment in reporters and reporting. Why pay professionals when you have UGC, user-generated content? And why pay when you can purloin? 

The address prompted a considerable amount of coverage and reaction from figures such as Mumbrella's Miranda Ward, internet venture capitalist David Pakman, and media academic  and commentator Jeff Jarvis, who wrote:

[News distributors] didn’t create this “divot.” News publishers who didn’t manage to stay ahead of digital did. And besides, who said that having a single correspondent to cover, say, Asia, as some newspapers did, was ever adequate or sensible. Now we can hear many voices from around the world. That is a better system.

In a letter to The Australian today entitled 'Google hates piracy too',  Google Australia Managing Director Maile Carnegie objected to Thomson's distinction between user-generated content and professionally generated content:

In a colourful speech delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Awards, and reported on in The Australian, News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson had some clever language about technology and journalism (“Google a pirate: News chief ”, 14/8).

The digital divot he describes positions user-generated content against what he calls premium content. But his definition of premium content seems admirably simple: anything produced by a traditional news organisation. Might I suggest a broader definition?

Australians have shown that anyone capable of producing compelling content — premium or otherwise — can live off their talents. We’ve developed algorithms to allow copyright holders to control their content on YouTube so they can chose to block uploads, or they can chose to make money off re-use of their content.

Meanwhile, our search engine points people to the original sources behind news stories, and to the news stories themselves. We hate piracy as much as Thomson does. And we remove hundreds of millions of links that point to infringing content every year. But none of that is news. We have been doing this for years.

What is news is anyone in Australia capable of producing a great story, video or movie should surely have access to the same global audience, the same copyright controls, and even the same advertisers as more traditional news organisations.

Even if Thomson doesn’t consider these people as premium, millions of Australians do, and so do some of the world’s largest advertisers. It is not either/or. It is both and more. And since we so enjoy his speeches, may we suggest Thomson would be a natural on YouTube?

Photo by Flickr user Long Zheng.

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On Monday, The Australian published an exposé on Australian aid that would lead the layperson to believe fraud was endemic and chronic within the now defunct AusAID. That was followed on Tuesday by an editorial justifying the merger of AusAID into DFAT on grounds of rampant fraud.

This line of criticism is nothing new for the aid program, which has been subjected to years of criticism from the media on the issue. It also completely misses the mark for the public discussion we need in order to improve the delivery of Australian aid. 

Clearly, fraud should never be tolerated, and the government should strive to take all reasonable attempts to minimise fraud. But is fraud as rampant in the aid program as The Australian implies? The answer is a resounding 'no'. In 2012-13 the Australian aid program (then AusAID) reported net losses of $865,730 to fraud, equating to about 0.017% of annual aid expenditure. The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness found that fraud in AusAID over the 2004-10 period averaged 0.017%. So not only are levels of fraud extremely low, they are also consistently low.

The fact that fraud accounts for one tenth of a percent of our aid expenditure should be grounds enough to argue that it garners too much public attention, but let's dig a little deeper.

First, how does Australia compare to other donors? Comparable data across countries is limited; it seems Australia is unique in its fixation on this issue. This 2012 University of Portsmouth study identifies rates of fraud in the US aid program in 2008 at 0.85% of total expenditure, and 1.13% of the EU's aid program in 2009. By international comparison, then, 0.017% looks like it should earn Australia a gold star.

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The singling out of Australia's aid program from all government spending might be justified if it is an outlier or poor performer when it comes to fraud. But this is hardly the case. Take Centrelink, for example. Of the $86.6 billion spent on welfare in 2008-09, over 0.13% was reclaimed through fraud investigations, 13 times higher than the rate of all identified fraud in the Australian aid program. In another recent case, the Defence Department was scandalised when a single case of fraud was only discovered after $585,000 was racked up on a fuel card.

So it's remarkable that The Australian justifies the merging of AusAID into DFAT based on a tiny amount of fraud in the aid program. By all accounts AusAID was managing fraud exceptionally and consistently well, and there has been no proof that DFAT can or will do any better. In fact, with the aid program suffering its largest ever single-year budget cut, a major cultural shift occurring after the merger of departments, the loss of experienced aid program managers, and development spending decisions now being made by an agency with foreign, security and consular policy priorities, it's hard to see how DFAT will improve the already excellent rate of fraud minimisation.* It will be interesting to see if DFAT is as transparent about the rate of fraud in the aid program in the future. 

With all of this in mind, it's worth asking why the media keeps pursuing the issue of fraud in the aid program.

A simple answer is that it's easy. Because AusAID had sound fraud policies, the documents are easy to access through an FOI request and are bound to lead to a headline (I have to admit, it would be hard to walk away from a story on fraud that includes contracts paid to 'Joke Shipping Services'). Another reason is that stories like this appeal to those that don't support aid. Without mentioning how isolated and infinitesimal these individual cases are, it would be easy for a reader to infer that all aid is wasted (a quick look at the comments section of the exposé illustrates this point). 

But if we really want to talk about improving Australia's aid program, this conversation is a distraction. Fraud will never be completely removed from any aid program; aid is delivered in some of the harshest environments in the world and some degree of (and indeed appetite for) risk must be accepted. This is particularly the case if the focus on innovation Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been encouraging in the aid program is to be realised. There are instead a myriad of topics that investigative journalists could address, such as what impact the merger has had on the effectiveness of Australia's aid projects, how transparency of the aid program has changed under DFAT, and how the 20% cut to the aid program has affected relations with our aid partners.

It's time for The Australian to start asking the right questions. 

UPDATE: DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese sent a letter to The Australian in response to its story; the letter has now been published on the DFAT website.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

*The DFAT website published this report in June claiming fraud in the aid program had jumped to 0.029% in 2013-14, almost double the rate of fraud in AusAID’s final year of operation.

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  • The second India-Pacific Island Conference was held in Jaipur last Friday. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to increase engagement with the Pacific, with a focus on renewable energy, human resource development, IT infrastructure and assistance for disaster management using space technology. He also signaled future goodwill visits by the Indian Navy.
  • With the recent debate over the mandate and capacity of regional institutions in the Pacific, Nic Maclellan analyses the contesting views and issues influencing the transformation of regional architecture in the Pacific.
  • In the Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie Murray argues that the violence and sexual assault suffered by female refugees on Nauru constitutes a humanitarian crisis.
  • On Devpolicy, Bryant Allen explains the risks to food production from the El Nino-driven drought in PNG's highlands.
  • Violence against women is a major issue in Solomon Islands, where one in three women have reported that their first sexual experience was forced.
  • In a speech at the Lowy Institute last week, Peter Varghese, Secretary for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that 'more than any other single relationship the state of our relationship with PNG is seen as a barometer of Australian foreign policy success'.
  • Today is Repentance Day in PNG, and Parliamentary Speaker Theodore Zurenuoc has sparked controversy by announcing plans to burn all the 'demonic' cultural artifacts in parliament.
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Ross Burns' website, Monuments of Syria, chronicles the historic sites damaged in the present conflict.

The brutal beheading of Khaled al Asad, former Director of Antiquities in Palmyra, and the detonation of the beautiful little Temple of Baalshamin, built just after the Roman emperor Hadrian visited the desert city in AD 130, appear to have caught the world's imagination in a way that has had few precedents for some time in the savage conflict in Syria.

In light of the prolonged barbarity conducted by all sides in the conflict it may seem strange that these two events have rocketed to the top of the agenda of a conflict well into its fifth year. As the shock waves of the war have spread — with tens of thousands of victims of the conflict flooding Macedonian railway stations; a generation of children spending their formative learning years in a world of normalised violence; fatalities of the conflict reaching well over 240,000; a good half of Syria's population displaced; a sizeable proportion of the country's housing stock in ruins — why does one death and one 2000 year-old temple give us pause?

The answer is because ISIS has successfully opened a new front which it hopes will hasten the fall of the Assad regime. The threat of destruction of Syria's great array of significant ruins — treasures not only appreciated by connoisseurs of Classical civilisation or scholars of arcane Neo-Hittite palaces but by ordinary Syrians — is now pressed into service to stoke the conflict.

In the years before ISIS spread across Syria from Iraq, many monuments disappeared, with little to mark their passing. The loss of the only Seljuk-era structure in Syria, dated in the decade before the Crusades, caused a mild ripple, but a number of other notable buildings in frontline Aleppo disappeared into the caverns of the Islamist tunnel bombs with barely a mention. The funeral mosque of the most successful of the sons of that great Islamic hero Saladin lies in a pile of rubble at the foot of the Aleppo Citadel. Two of the major early works of the Suleiman the Magnificent's architect, Sinan, are either pulverised or reduced in part to tumbled stones.

ISIS's arrival in Syria's historic heartland, notably their seizure of Palmyra, brings a new dimension to this apparently mindless destruction. The fact is, of course, that it is not mindless at all; it has a very specific purpose.

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In the distant past, iconoclasm was a selective tool of both Byzantine and Islamic regimes intent on effacing the memory of earlier cultures. Much of the destruction in Syria for the first three years of the conflict, however, was a by-product of the fighting and the loss of any framework of government to keep petty or major crime at bay. With the rise of ISIS to supremacy in many parts of the country, stage-managed destruction is itself the message.

Having moved on from blowing up remote rural shrines, treasured for decades by local villagers, ISIS has advanced to bigger-picture stuff. And there is no bigger picture than Palmyra. This jewel of the desert was an elusive destination for seventeenth century European adventurers and for scholars tracing the cross-currents shifting across the poorly defined frontiers between Classical and Persian (even Chinese) worlds. Its temples, columned streets and tower tombs, stamped with a mixture of Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian and Semitic traditions, were largely left to slumber quietly over centuries.

ISIS sees them differently. The ruins are hostages in a war where savagery on all sides has redefined the unthinkable. We have seen how ISIS videographers contrive events such as the explosion of the Baalshamin Temple. They will continue their efforts to choreograph shock, to keep the world off guard and to use the ruins as weapons.

We don't know precisely why Khaled al Asad died but he represented a concept of Syria that ISIS cannot allow to survive. He was an archaeologist far removed from the Indiana Jones mock-heroic tradition. He was a doer and a scholar of integrity. He didn't excavate a patch of ground and then retire to his study. He was out and about every day, running his museum with its incomparable range of crisp limestone tributes to the dead, directing the conservation of new tomb finds. He was the picture of the archaeologist writ large, determined to show that there was much more to Palmyra than pretty columns or towering tombs. Under his direction, the city's Byzantine churches, early Islamic suqs and houses and even its first mosque were exposed. He showed Palmyra in all its complexity, its mixture of civilisations and faiths; and for that he had to die.

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China's navy, from its founding in 1949 to the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, was focused on preventing Taiwan from becoming formally independent. This goal did not require long-distance operations that would require an at-sea resupply capability. Now, however, Beijing has declared its status as a global maritime power. 

Amateurs, it is said, talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. The leaders of China's navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), apparently have finally understood the vital role played by logistics in any effective military force. The PLAN's current modernisation program may be dated to the mid-1990s, but until recently it failed to include expanding replenishment-at-sea (RAS) capabilities. 

Before the turn of the century, the PLAN included just one Soviet-built oiler and two relatively limited Fuqing-class oilers for its entire fleet. The ex-Soviet Komandarm Fedko-class replenishment ship began construction in the Ukraine in 1989, was purchased by China in 1992, and joined the PLAN in 1996 as the Qinghai-Hu (AO 885). It is a large ship, displacing 37,000 tonnes, making it almost as big as the most numerous US oilers currently operating. The Qinghai-Hu has four replenishment stations and China added a small flight deck and hangar capable of operating one Z-8 transport helicopter. The ship is reportedly underpowered, with an engineering plant based on just one diesel engine, but has supported ships deploying to Guam and on Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations.

The two Fuqing-class ships that joined the PLAN in 1980-1982 displace just 21,000 tonnes. They are equipped with four refueling stations, but have minimal stores replenishment capability. These ships have a small flight deck but no hangar, severely limiting their ability to operate helicopters.

China's lack of emphasis on underway refueling capability before 2005 is highlighted by the fact that Beijing actually built four Fuqing-class ships in the 1980s, but sold one of them to Pakistan in 1988, while assigning the fourth to commercial service.

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But additional oilers joined the PLAN in 2005, when two Fuchi-class ships were commissioned. The Fuchi oilers are the first modern RAS ships in China's navy; two improved versions of this class joined the fleet in 2014. This has meant that the PLAN counter-piracy task groups deployed to the Gulf of Aden and beyond have depended almost entirely on the first two Fuchi-class oilers; they were for the most part tasked with 'port and starboard' deployments, assigned away from homeport six of every 12 months. 

The improved Fuchi-class vessels now in the PLAN have four refueling and two stores transfer stations, providing the capability to deliver significant quantities of dry goods and ordnance at sea. They thus should be classified as a replenishment oilier or 'AOR,' rather than the standard 'AO'. This is the class of RAS ship required to support long-range operations, although their relatively small size – 22,000 tonnes – means that they require frequent replenishment from relay tankers. 

The PLAN in 2015 includes seven RAS ships. At least one additional Fuchi-class AOR is preparing to join the fleet and the PLAN should be expected to budget for additional ships of this class, or an improved version.

PLAN RAS ships have proven their capability at both astern and alongside refueling. Additionally, they all have flight decks capable of helicopter operations, though only the Qinghai-Hu and the Fuchi-class ships are equipped with the hangars necessary to embark Z-8 logistics support helicopters.

The Chinese navy's experiences in long-range deployments has increased significantly since December 2008, when the first counter-piracy task group departed for the Gulf of Aden. The past seven years of 'far seas' operations have brought home to Beijing the fleet's need to be logistically self-supporting if it is to be an effective tool of statecraft and able to support China's national security priorities at sea. These include disputes in the East and South China Seas, of course, but extend to defending the global trade routes on which China's economic well-being depends. 

China's recognition of the importance of logistics support for the PLAN's far seas operations is also recognised in its move to establish a relatively permanent facility at Djibouti. Establishing an overseas logistics system will support, rather than take the place, of RAS ships.

The increasing number of RAS ships entering China's fleet will also allow greater employment of the PLAN's aircraft carriers, the first of which, Liaoning, will within the next decade be joined by at least the first indigenously built Chinese flattop. Carrier operations require the near-constant presence of RAS ships, primarily to replenish aircraft fuel and ordnance, as well as being on-hand to refuel escorting destroyers and frigates.

The PLAN in 2015 has an adequate RAS force to support continuous far seas operations. Increased defence funding and support illustrate Beijing's recognition of the need for improved RAS capability. Additional replenishment ships will be built to better support both those operations as well as future aircraft carrier operations.

Photo courtesy of China Defense Blog.

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Last month Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific airline began to cancel some routes to mainland destinations – a surprising decision given the huge potential in China, where air journeys have doubled since 2008.

But Cathay's reason is not demand. It's because flights in China have become so unreliable that the airline could no longer profitably connect passengers through its giant Chek Lap Kok hub to onward intercontinental sectors.

Flight delays in China have become legendary. Eighty-two percent of Beijing's flights run late. Chinese airports and airlines are ranked the worst in the world for on-time departures. Beijing's own regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC or 'Chinese Airlines Always Cancel'), admits that one-third of all national flights are behind schedule. But this measure generously considers only 'gate-away' performance, ignoring the many hours that planes then spend idling on taxiways.

Beyond the comical and not-so-comical incidents of misery, stupidity and rage, China's choking airline system threatens its longer-term dream to build a globally competitive aviation industry.

Here is a typical day at a major terminal. Weather permitting, the first flights embark from 6am, with delays steadily building through the morning. An 8am flight may actually take off at 10 or 11am. With luck, the backlog subsides a little in the early afternoon, but starts building again from 4pm until 10pm, with the crescendo at dinner time. On a good day, factor in two hours extra. On a bad day, with delays accumulating over time and the cascade effects of late connections, passengers could be home eight hours late. By that time, at a Chinese airport far from town, taxi drivers are scarce, surly and extortionate.

And things are about to get much worse in the next month as Beijing locks down for its 3 September victory parade.

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The worst affected route is the east coast corridor from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou. Some of the nearby cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou suffer fearsome delays too. Given the geographical constraint on the country's seaboard, it's clear why high speed rail has been so successful and why train travel in China can compete with aviation over much longer distances compared with other countries. Observers were initially sceptical that the Beijing-Shanghai express (a 5+ hour trip) would pay off, but the Ministry of Rail evidently understood its edge. Better a reliable, comfortable connection than a faster but highly erratic one.

China's bullet-train success stems from other factors, of course. But the point is to underscore the importance of supporting infrastructure for industrial ecosystems. Germany builds great motorcars because it has autobahns. China itself leads in rail because of its population density and construction prowess. The US developed leading aeronautical businesses (eg. in avionics, aero-engines and composite materials) because of its open skies. It has thousands of airports and a fleet of 200,000 general (private and business) aircraft alone. These figures are one to two orders of magnitude more than China's. 

Predictably, Beijing has a plan: to expand, rapidly.

One expert calls China 'an airline factory' and surmises that 'perhaps because new airlines promote economic growth, CAAC is approving a lot of them' (CAAC may have safety concerns about this expansion, but China has a good track record, certainly relative to other Asian countries). Defying global trends, the industry is splintering in China as dozens of city governments start small full-service airlines, usually with a 'Big 3' state-owned airline partner. One hundred major new airports are sprouting up across the Chinese mainland and beyond. Not to be left out of the One Belt One Road party, the industry even has an (yep, you guessed it)  Air Silk Road. In the next 20 years China will need a new airliner every 29 hours, plus 500,000 commercial pilots to fly them

There is one problem remaining: airspace. Adding more planes and pilots won't ease congestion; it will worsen it. The military has been reluctant to cede its restricted zones (reckoned at about 70% of national skies versus 15% in America). While low-level flying is opening up slowly (for helicopters and drones), the PLA does not like to share higher altitudes. Filing civilian flight plans is a nightmare. Air traffic control issues are complicated everywhere, but local pilots have no doubt that the biggest problem is the Air Force's jealous control of China's skies.

This is not merely a rant about inconvenience. The Chinese airline industry has permanently lost domestic passengers to train travel. As a result, overseas flights are growing 2.5 times faster than internal ones, becoming a sensitive trade issue as Chinese airlines push out globally. Washington already gripes that its airlines get horrible slots in China's overcrowded gateways.

But the biggest victim could be China's own aspiration for an advanced supply chain of aerospace manufacturing and services. It wants to emulate Europe and America, not Russia. Without an efficient commercial sector, it will be harder to build the foundations for both civilian and strategic aviation excellence, even with China's money, energy and ambition. By hogging the skies, the PLA Air Force may be its own worst enemy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris.

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By Tristram Sainsbury, a Research Fellow in the Lowy Institute G20 Studies Centre, and Hannah Wurf, a Research Associate in the G20 Studies Centre.

Next week, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors will gather for their third meeting during Turkey's presidency. With just two and half months until leaders assemble in Antalya for this year's summit, these meetings give the G20 an opportunity to confirm 2015 outcomes and demonstrate that the G20 remains the premier forum for international economic cooperation.

While Turkey is gearing up for the G20 Summit, the government remains in a precarious situation. President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has not won the majority it needs to govern alone, and a coalition seems increasingly unlikely. The next round of elections could take place on 1 November, two weeks before the G20 summit. In the meantime, Erdogan has announced his intention to lead the summit. This is against the backdrop of a Turkish bombing campaign against ISIS, the 1.8 million-strong Syrian refugee crisis, and another terrorist attack in Istanbul this month.

This is not to downplay the successes of the Turkish G20 presidency to date. As Ussal Sahbaz and Feride Inan outline in the latest Lowy Institute G20 Monitor, Turkey has made headway on all three of its priorities this year (investment, inclusiveness, and implementation).

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Turkey has introduced two initiatives to add to the G20's ongoing efforts to pursue strong, sustainable, and balanced growth: an accountability framework and country-specific investment strategies that each G20 member will prepare. Turkey has also launched a World Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) forum promoting access to finance and aimed at integrating small and medium businesses into the global economy. The narrative of 'inclusiveness' will help the legitimacy of the G20 in non-G20 countries (eg. efforts to address energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa).

However, the G20 faces some long-term dilemmas. It will need to make progress across the broader G20 agenda, including decisions on the capital requirements for too-big-to-fail banks and the final eight recommended actions as part of the two-year G20/OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting agenda, and outline the G20's next steps in these areas.

Moreover, the second half of 2015 is crowded with global summits, including the UN Sustainable Development Summit in late September and the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change meeting in December. Decisions made at these conferences will define the future direction in key fields of G20 interest.

Following on from the Australian presidency, there are still questions about how to boost growth (in particular, what countries will do to reach the 2% growth target) and the progress of the Global Infrastructure Hub. The Hub now has a CEO (Christopher Heathcote) and a website domain, although details remain scarce. It is expected to deliver its initial business plan at the third finance ministers' meeting.

More ambition is needed for the G20 national growth plans. Earlier this year, we highlighted the need for more accountability to encourage implementation of the plans. More recently, Adam Triggs from the Australian National University has argued that 'critical reforms in key countries are not being implemented and...there is not the political will to fill the gap'. Last week, the Treasurer announced that Australia would be redrafting its growth commitments. More countries will need to do the same.

The global economy is still experiencing sluggish growth and faces a number of ongoing risks, including the eventual raising of US interest rates, the slowing of the Chinese economy, and the ongoing Greek sovereign debt saga. The G20 will have to respond, and Turkey will need to take a lead over the coming months in order to define its reputation as G20 president.

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The rise of economic nationalism in Indonesia has attracted criticism from Australian economists, bureaucrats and policy analysts. Among the many insightful analyses that have appeared in recent weeks, there has been little reflection on the popular resonance of nationalist interventions. Yet the ideological dimension of economic nationalism, and the public support its elicits, are fundamental for understanding the rise and resilience of nationalist policy-making in contemporary Indonesia. 

Over the past five years, Indonesia's parliament and ministries have introduced a spate of protectionist policies across a range of sectors, including export and import restrictions, the imposition of local content requirements, and mandating downstream processing. In a recent Lowy Institute paper (Trade Protectionism in Indonesia: Bad Times and Bad Policy), Arianto Patunru and Sjamsu Rahardja put this wave of nationalist policy-making in context, showing that historically, booms have unleashed a protectionist impulse, whereas once economic conditions deteriorate, technocrats usually move in to implement the necessary liberal reforms. This pattern inspired the axiom of 'Sadli's Law': that bad times make for good policy in Indonesia, and vice versa. 

Today, Indonesia is fast approaching another bout of those post-boom 'bad times', with growth slowing, domestic consumption contracting, and the rupiah the weakest it's been since the Asian Financial Crisis. But observers are scratching their heads, trying to explain why today the bad times appear to be reinforcing, rather than reversing, the protectionist trend.

One trope is that vested interests are to blame. Sometimes this refers simply to domestic industry groups lobbying for protection from foreign markets, but analysts also claim that rent-seeking elites use nationalist policy to suit their private interests.

Indonesia suffers endemic corruption, and a small, wealthy politico-business elite does indeed play a prominent role in national politics: (disputed) Golkar Party Chairman Aburizal Bakrie, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, and Chairman of the National Democratic Party Surya Paloh are the oft cited examples. I would actually argue it is often the capacity of oligarchic elites to avoid, rather than shape, state regulation (eg. avoiding taxes, court cases, and debt obligations) that marks their strength, yet observers are quick to paint a picture of policy-making where rational, technocratic policy-makers struggle to have their voices heard in a state captured by vested interests.

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This is a limited, perhaps even out-dated, characterisation of what shapes nationalist policy in contemporary Indonesia. In a recent Interpreter piece, Matthew Busch offers a more nuanced view on why Sadli's Law is a poor predictor of policy change in Indonesia. He argues that reform takes place when new power coalitions emerge among the Indonesian elite, providing openings for policy transformation. So while Indonesia's economic downturn deepens, Busch argues, reform is doubtful without a serious crisis or realignment within the political elite, something Jokowi's presidency has so far been unable to bring about. 

But we need to look beyond the elite level if we really want to understand the rise and resilience of economic nationalism in Indonesia. There are two fundamental dimensions to the nationalist phenomenon that deserve more attention: ideology and popular preferences.

My experience of doing research in Indonesia on resources policy has driven home how economic nationalism is undergirded by a deeply-held developmentalist ideology that is pervasive among policy makers, elected officials, and civil society. Of course, statist economic thinking has a long history in Indonesia. But as Patunru and Rahardja explain in their paper, the post-crisis neoliberal reforms Indonesia undertook in the early twenty-first century were painful. Memories of that pain have hardened the dirigiste resolve of politicians and lawmakers, who already maintained a healthy suspicion of markets, foreign capital, and liberal models of economic development. Today, the term 'neolib' has become a common way to disparage one's political adversaries. The current government's stated commitment to autarky (eg. via food self-sufficiency policies and domestic content requirements) reflects a renewed and widespread distrust of free markets and foreign economic intervention.

This distrust is not limited to the political class; it is shared by the broader public. The new government's support for protectionist policies comports with a rise in popular nationalist sentiment. Some analyses pay lip service to the role of political populism in democratic Indonesia, but few reflect seriously on the fact that policy makers and elected officials perceive, and thus respond to, a public preference for nationalist policy. Especially during election season, politicians and parliamentarians compete with one another to take the most nationalist stance on resource management, food imports, petrol subsidies, and the like. Last year's presidential election brought nationalist outbidding to new heights, with Prabowo Subianto engaging in aggressive anti-foreign bombast at every opportunity, and Jokowi following suit. 

Much pressure comes from the country's media and vibrant NGO community. The media channels nationalist ideas emanating from civil society organisations. Think tanks on mineral and energy issues all take the nationalist position, regularly commenting on the renegotiation of foreign mining contracts and the mineral export ban, for example, impressing upon the government to remain strong in the face of corporate pressures. Environmental and anti-corruption NGOs make similar arguments. Muhammadiyah, one of the country's largest and most influential Muslim organisation, inserts itself into debates on economic issues, and has proclaimed a 'jihad' on laws it believes undermine the national interest and kowtow to foreign capital. There is no polling I know of that has measured public opinion on trade policy, mining contracts, or food imports, so NGOs and the media are taken to reflect the general will of the people on these matters. 

My intention here is not to deny that vested interests matter. But the bifurcated image of myopic and rent seeking elites overwhelming the rational technocrats is simplistic. It misses the fundamentally ideological nature of these policies and their broad public appeal, even to constituencies which have no material stake in nationalist policies. This doesn't mean protectionism is here to stay. But it does help explain why today's nationalist turn is yet to meet the fate that Sadli's law predicts.

Photo by Flickr user Asian Development Bank.

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  • Southeast Asian stock markets stumbled on Monday. Meanwhile, the region's dwindling currency reserves are plunging states deeper into a currency war
  • Malaysia found another 24 bodies in a mass grave near the border with Thailand.
  • The Thai junta has been heavily criticised for its handling of last week's attack in Bangkok (see an excellent wrap here). Many argue that the junta has turned the tragedy into farce, claims supported by the arrest of a foreign journalist for carrying a helmet and body armour following the attack. The search for the bomber has turned up few clues. Separately, the attack has provoked a spike in interest in insurance against political violence.
  • Myanmar's best hope for peace lies with the nationwide ceasefire agreement, but it needs more support, says Thant Myint-U. Phuong Nguyen looked at why the endgame of the ceasefire deal is proving so difficult (see new reference guide to process here and roundup of excerpts rom the NCA here). Aung Din wrote on the low point in civil-military relations in Myanmar. 
  • An excellent post on these pages highlighted Myanmar's ruling-party purge. Now there are growing calls for unity ahead of the elections. The Economist argued that the military want the elections clean enough for investment to continue but dirty enough to win. 
  • Myanmar can learn from Cambodia's post-conflict experience, says Youk Chhang.
  • Over at ASPI's The Strategist, Graeme Dobell looked at Singapore and Australia's mismatched mateship
  • Typhoon Goni lashed the Philippines this week, with reports of over a dozen dead
  • The new and long awaited draft Thai constitution has been released (here in Thai). Unsurprisingly, it cements the role of the military as overseer of any democracy through what is being termed a 'super board' of military-appointed officials. Once approved, the draft will go to a referendum in 2016. If it is rejected, the process will begin again and elections will be further postponed. As such, the draft will be seen by many as an intentionally flawed document designed to keep the junta in power.
  •  Mahathir renewed his calls for the ousting of Najib and apologised for his choice of successors.

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China-bashing in the 2016 presidential election has begun in earnest. In past campaigns, many of the attacks on China were forgotten as candidates dropped out of the race or were defeated. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney pledged to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. He never got the chance, of course, and Obama's policies were unaffected by Romney's campaign rhetoric.

Sometimes, promises to 'get tough' with China during the campaign simply became irrelevant as presidents, once in power, confront the demands of real-world policy challenges. When George W Bush ran for president in 2000, he criticised his predecessor Bill Clinton for calling China a strategic partner, and instead said China should be viewed as a 'strategic competitor.' After becoming president, however, Bush dropped that label. When a Chinese jet collided with a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea, Bush worked hard to avert a US-China political crisis, and after the September 11 attacks, he welcomed Beijing's proposal to fight together against terrorism.

This time may be different, however.

China's repressive policies at home, combined with its transgressions in the South China Sea and massive cyber attacks on US companies and the Federal Government, make it an easy target. Moreover, criticism of China likely resonates with most Americans. Republican candidates will accuse Obama of being too soft on China and vow that if elected, they will stand up for American interests. Democrats, including Obama's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, are more likely to find fault with than defend the current Administration's approach to managing US-China relations. Regardless of who is elected president in November 2016, he or she is likely to adopt a firmer approach to China on a litany of issues.

So what are the candidates saying about China so far?

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GOP candidate Donald Trump condemned China's recent currency devaluation as 'the greatest theft in the history of the United States.' If elected president, Trump said, 'Oh would China be in trouble!' Carly Fiorina, another GOP contender, criticised China's cyber hacks on federal databases as an 'act of aggression' against America. She also warned against allowing the Chinese to control trade routes in the South China Sea and pledged she would be 'more aggressive in helping our allies...push back against new Chinese aggression.' In a lengthy critique of Obama Administration policies published in Foreign Affairs, GOP candidate Marco Rubio lambasted Obama's 'willingness to ignore human rights violations in the hope of appeasing the Chinese leadership.' He also accused China of pursuing 'increasingly aggressive regional expansionism.'

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has joined the fray in an effort to shield herself from the accusation that she was complicit in the implementation of a policy that accommodated China and failed to sufficiently stand up for American interests. Clinton acknowledges that as secretary of state she worked hard to build a better relationship with China and says she would continue to do so as president. But she also warns about the dangers posed by China's militarisation of the South China Sea and condemns China's 'stealing commercial secrets, blueprints from defense contractors' and 'huge amounts of government information' in its quest for an advantage over other nations.

The presidential campaign is just starting to heat up. The torrent of China-bashing in the remaining 15 months before the general election is likely to have a profoundly negative effect on China's image in the US, which is already unfavourable. In a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, only 35% of Americans had a positive view of China, while 55% had a negative one. China's image in the US has tilted in a more negative direction in recent years – as recently as 2011 half of Americans gave China a positive rating.

The negative public mood will likely align with harsher attitudes in Congress, reinforcing the proclivities of the next US president to adopt a tougher stance against Chinese trade policies, human rights violations, cyber intrusions, and assertiveness in the South China Sea. Despite a sincere desire for a positive bilateral relationship with the US, Xi Jinping is likely to prioritise the preservation of domestic stability, defence of sovereignty, and pursuit of the Chinese Dream.

Fasten your seat belts and get ready for a rough ride in US-China relations beginning in 2017.

Photo by Flickr user John Pemble.

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  • Front page story in The Australian today on Julie Bishop's investigation into corruption and  'rorts' on AusAID projects.
  • Popular photo blogger @humansofny has produced a stunning series of photos chronciling the everyday challenges of living in Pakistan. The series raiseed $2million towards ending slavery. Follow to see the new photo series from Iran.
  • The push for a woman to run the UN.
  • To celebrate World Humanitarian Day last week,  The Guardian spoke with front-line humanitarian workers addressing global crises.
  • NY Times on Africa's first year without polio.
  • Bill Gates provides an update on his investment in a machine that turns feces into water. 
  • Think the world is only getting worse? Think again, says Oxford economist Max Roser, who provides data-rich historical slides on human development. 
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