Lowy Institute
22 of 22 This post is part of a debate on MH17

The aftermath of the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has generated consensus among the world's leading countries on Russia's role in the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, this event has caused European leaders to substantially reconsider their attitude on the nature and scope of sanctions against Russia.

But in the absence of evidence pointing directly to the involvement of Ukrainian separatists in the tragedy, Russia still sees opportunities to defend itself against accusations and promote alternative versions of what happened. These versions are not being taken seriously by international media, politicians or the public in many countries.

Russian aviation experts suggest that the information from the aircraft's black boxes can only indirectly confirm the fact of a missile attack on MH17. The full picture of the catastrophe, these experts say, can only be developed based on the retrieval of the aircraft wreckage and a comprehensive assessment of the damage. They note that only through such a procedure was it possible to establish that the Russian Tu-154 passenger plane flying over the Black Sea in 2001 was downed by Ukraine's air defence forces.

Nonetheless, representative of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine Andrei Lysenko said analysis of the airliner's black boxes had already confirmed the plane had been downed after being struck by shrapnel from a missile that caused a massive, explosive decompression. These comments drew a sharp rebuke from Moscow: official conclusions can only be made upon completion of the investigation.

Representatives of the Russian Government and the state-controlled information space in Russia have put forth a variety of theories, including directly blaming the Ukrainian military for shooting down the plane with a Buk surface-to-air missile or a fighter jet which was supposedly flying in close proximity to the airliner. The Russian media only indirectly and inconspicuously mentions the possibility that the separatists could have launched a rocket from their own Buk system.

Independent experts in Russia believe that the Boeing was downed by a Buk missile fired from territory controlled by the separatists. But such missile complexes must be controlled by professionals, which is why most often the blame is placed on Russian military personnel who could be operating in Ukraine. This version is usually accompanied by an important caveat: the passenger plane was mistaken for another target. For example, the separatists received a false report regarding the flight of a Ukrainian military transport plane and mistook the Boeing for that plane. The intercepted communications between the separatists several minutes after the tragedy occurred seem to support this assertion.

This version is not one that can be swept aside by some massive information campaign engineered by Russian authorities.

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Their position is made worse by the dominant viewpoint in many countries, which is that while the separatists are directly to blame for the downing of MH17, the Kremlin is the main culprit in this tragedy. This is the viewpoint projected from Washington, although mainly relying on indirect evidence and without yet providing photos or information from satellites and other means of reconnaissance. The less frequently mentioned scenario, that the missile was launched from Russian territory, changes little: in either case, Russia and specifically the Russian president are the guilty party. This case is already proven for many politicians, experts and a large portion of the population of the world's leading countries.

The consequences for Russia depend on the outcome of the crash investigation. Even if it confirms that Vladimir Putin learned only after the fact about the 'mistake' made by the separatists and that there was no command from Moscow to shoot down the Boeing, this will not change the essence of the situation for the Kremlin. Its only chance for redemption is if somehow the blame for the tragedy is shifted to Kiev and the world community accepts this. But this is a fleeting chance, at best.

However, much time remains before the investigation will conclude, and the dynamics of the Ukrainian crisis and relations with the West are rapidly worsening in the meantime. The EU's adoption of the third and most painful round of sanctions signals that the conflict has already gained substantial momentum.

One particularly critical aspect of this crisis for the Kremlin is the show of solidarity on both sides of the Atlantic. From the early years of Vladimir Putin's leadership, a special emphasis was placed on strategic cooperation with the European Union. Until recently, relations with leading European partners even took precedence over relations with countries of the former Soviet Union. In Moscow there was hope that Brussels would take a much more moderate approach than Washington, and that conflicts of interests between America and many European capitals would have a mitigating effect.

Following the tragedy, Moscow lost much of its room for manoeuvre between European countries and the US. Now the political position of EU leaders has more clearly separated from the interests and pressure of European business. Furthermore, the Kremlin is seeing a new and worrying trend: the attitude toward Russia in the European business community has begun to change. The tough criticism of Russia coming from the leaders of German industrial associations has been particularly painful.

If Moscow and the fighters under its control are truly not responsible for the tragedy, it should do everything possible to help establish the true cause and in doing so at least minimise the collateral damage to its relations with the EU. Otherwise, even while the investigation is in process, the position of those accusing Moscow of all sorts travesties (not only the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines flight) will only grow stronger.

The question of Russia's responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis is now becoming a separate problem considered outside the scope of the MH17 tragedy. So as Moscow strives to keep the focus on the question of who shot down the aircraft, it should not forget that the answer to this question may not be the deciding factor in whether other countries decide to enact tough containment policies toward Russia.


Earlier this year Treasurer Joe Hockey negotiated a significant commitment among G20 Finance Ministers to aim for an additional 2% of global growth over the next five years. As countries develop their action plans for achieving this goal in the lead-up to the next G20 Finance Ministers' meeting in September, it's worth considering whether this is the right target.

While the 2% target has been highlighted as a major achievement of Australia's chairing of the G20 so far — getting these nations to agree to anything these days is laudable — it is interesting that we have placed GDP growth at the centre of the G20 agenda. This commitment comes at a time when the economic orthodoxy of pursing growth above all else is being challenged.

Whether it is the work of economist Thomas Piketty, the OECD, World Bank, or even the IMF, economists everywhere are talking about the idea of 'inclusive growth'.

Inclusive growth seeks to consider not only the pace of growth but also its distributional impact. The World Bank argues that the 'rapid pace of growth is unquestionably necessary for substantial poverty reduction, but for this growth to be sustainable in the long run, it should be broad-based across sectors, and inclusive of the large part of a country's labour force.'

While the concept of inclusive growth and related ideas of equity economics and social inclusion have been discussed for some time, it really came to the fore in economic theory following the global financial crisis. What has emerged in recent studies is that despite the extraordinary accumulation of wealth and economic growth, inequality has increased, particularly in the US but also in Australia and other countries. This has spurred an urgent debate on broader ideas around growth and its impact.

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Of course, growth is a good thing. But what the G20's 2% growth target fails to do is reflect the lessons of recent years that growth alone will not necessarily deliver benefits to everyone. The IMF has argued that tackling inequality is not antithetical to striving for growth. Instead the opposite is true: rising inequality is a drag on growth.

To provide further leadership at the G20, Australia should seek to build on the 2% growth target by adding the additional measure of inclusive growth. One option would be to commit to a 2% improvement in the incomes of the bottom 20% of households over the next five years. This would be simple, measurable, achievable and proportionate. It would incentivise nations to consider the distributional impact of growth and begin to address the inequality that persists in many nations, including our own.

It won't address all issues of measuring inclusiveness, particularly as income is just one measure of the distributional impact of growth, but it would be a start. 

Treasurer Hockey has an opportunity to build on his G20 success when he meets finance ministers again in September. By including even one measure that broadens the discussion from growth to inclusive growth, Australia would be leading the effort to finally grapple with inequality within and between our nations. Now that's a goal worth striving for.

 Image courtesy of REUTERS/Jason Reed.


There has been much talk recently of the slowing of reform in Myanmar. Criticism of Myanmar's government has resurfaced over the refusal to allow constitutional changes that would permit Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, as well as the high-profile sentencing of journalists and the ongoing communal violence and humanitarian disaster in Rakhine State. Last week the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar stated that there were indications the country was 'backtracking' in its reforms.

As such, a major government reshuffle perhaps should not come as a surprise.

A little over a year out from Myanmar's much anticipated elections, the resignation of two key ministers on Wednesday — Minister of Information Aung Kyi and Minister of Health Dr Pe Thet Khin — shows the Government's positioning (and perhaps responsiveness) after recent criticism. Previous cabinet resignations were later shown to be forced, creating speculation over this most recent reshuffle. Indeed, presidential spokesperson and likely new Minister of Information Ye Htut noted that the president had found shortcomings in the outgoing ministers' performances.

Moreover, both ministers have been under considerable pressure recently. 

The Minister of Health has been criticised for his handling of humanitarian aid groups which are providing medical assistance in troubled Rakhine state, and because of persistent low levels of health care in Myanmar despite significant increases in spending. Similarly, there has been ongoing criticism of media reforms under the Ministry of Information. The jailing of five journalists in July was met with wide censure in international press. In the absence of a functioning independent regulatory body, the Ministry has played the role of arbiter, leading to self-censorship by journalists (such as this internal memo by the Australian editor of the Myanmar Times asking his journalists not to report on the plight of Muslim without his consent).

The cabinet reshuffle elevates (pending parliamentary approval) two deputy ministers to the top posts of Information and Health. They are Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut and Deputy Health Minister Than Aung. 

Ye Htut is the high-profile mover in the reshuffle. Known locally as the Minister of Facebook for his prolific use of social media, he was pivotal in laying the beginnings of media reform from 2007 (a wonderful interview with him here). While his strong positions on press freedoms have put many local journalists off-side, he has proven a capable front man for Thein Sein, often stealing the limelight with his good command of English and soundbite media appearances. The former lieutenant colonel is close to the president and will proactively toe the government line. 

The reshuffle will mean three ministers have been replaced in the last two months. The Minister of Religious Affairs Hsan Hsint was sacked in June after angering much of the Sangha, the powerful community of 400,000 monks, following a raid on a monastery. As the presidential spokeperson said at the time of his dismissal, he 'acted beyond the president's instructions so we had to take action against him.' 

The reshuffle should strengthen the capacity of Thein Sein's government. The new ministers, notably Ye Htut, will be essential in shepherding through the last wave of reforms before the elections. As such their role will be pivotal to the public assessment of the ruling USDP's performance and ultimately its success in the 2015 election.


Part 1 of this series reviewed great speeches on Australia's place in the world, from Federation to Vietnam. In this post, I look at the period from Vietnam to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

1. Robert Hughes, 'The culture of complaint', New York, 14 January 1992

Bob Hughes was one of our great characters, an erudite commentator on art, history and politics. In 1992 he gave a series of public lectures at the New York Public Library (reproduced in his Culture of Complaint) in which he entered the American culture wars like a whirling dervish, railing against political correctness and euphemism and dispensing blows to both left and right. 

Hidden within this polemic was a thoughtful and generous account of multicultural Australia, which he presented as a counterpoint to the more ideological American version:

(Australian) multiculturalism asserts that people with different roots can co-exist, that they can learn to read the image-banks of others, that they can and should look across the frontiers of race, language, gender and age without prejudice or illusion, and learn to think against the background of a hybridised society. It proposes — modestly enough — that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures. It wants to study border situations, not only because they are fascinating in themselves, but because understanding them may bring with it a little hope for the world.

2. Paul Keating, Eulogy for the Unknown Soldier, 11 November 1993

On Remembrance Day 1993, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, an unknown Australian soldier, representing all Australians who have been killed in war, was interred in the Hall of Memory of the Australian War Memorial. Prime Minister Keating's eulogy that day is perhaps the finest speech in Australian history. It was composed of good, plain words, elegantly arranged. 

The speech began:

We do not know this Australian's name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, or precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances — whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was.

Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the forty-five thousand Australians who died on the Western Front. One of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War. One of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war, and one of the sixty thousand Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the hundred thousand Australians who have died in wars this century.

He is all of them. And he is one of us.

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3. Nick Warner, 'We are here as friends', Honiara, Solomon Islands, 24 July 2014

In the early 2000s Solomon Islands was nearly overwhelmed by ethnic violence, corruption, criminality and thuggery. By 2003, the Solomon Islands state was close to failing. In July, the Australian Government decided to accede to a request from Honiara and lead a regional intervention in the country — the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

On 24 July the first RAMSI personnel, comprising military, police and civilians including Special Coordinator Nick Warner, were deployed in Honiara as part of Operation Helpem Fren (pidgin for 'helping friends'). Hundreds of Solomon Islands men, women and children pressed against the cyclone fence around the perimeter of Henderson airport to get a look at the force. Most appeared happy and excited. Standing on the tarmac, wearing a red lei around his neck, Warner delivered a message to the people of Solomon Islands.

People everywhere have a right to live their lives peacefully, to go about their daily business without threats or violence or intimidation, to have their children educated in schools, to have illnesses attended to in hospitals and clinics, to have a government that is permitted to govern for the benefit of all people, free from intimidation or coercion by armed thugs.

Solomon Islands used to be such a place.

But for too long this country has suffered at the hands of a small number of militants and criminals who have terrorised Solomon Islands society, brought the country to its knees, and done a disservice to the reputation of Solomon Islanders as a good and generous people.

The men and women from around the Pacific who arrived on your shores today as part of the regional assistance mission come at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government, and as guests of the Solomon Islands people.

We are calling our involvement here Operation Helpem Fren, because that is what we are here to do. We are here as friends, to work in partnership with you, to restore promise to your country, to restore hopes for a better life to you and your children.

4. Owen Harries, 'Saying no can get to be hard', 29 November 2006

One of Australia's most eminent foreign-policy thinkers, Owen Harries is a political conservative but a foreign-policy realist. His opposition to the Iraq war put him at odds with the Howard Government. A few years after the invasion of Iraq, Harries delivered a thoughtful speech to the Lowy Institute on the lessons of the conflict for the US and Australia. He concluded:

I believe that the days when Australian foreign policy was a relatively simple affair are coming to an end. Dealing with an unsettled superpower ally, while simultaneously adjusting to the rising importance of China as a regional power and a trading partner, is going to require skills that Australia has not had much cause to practise until now...

Every alliance requires a degree of trust. It also requires discrimination and balance — and a touch of scepticism. What Australia must learn from the Iraq experience is that it should not commit itself to marching in lock-step with anyone — let alone a superpower which is simultaneously committed to an incredibly ambitious programme of global change, deeply divided domestically, and has the most inept president since Warren G. Harding in its White House.

It must learn to be as good an ally as it can be while maintaining its freedom of choice.

5. Julie Bishop, 'An utterly deplorable act', New York, 22 July 2014

As I have written before, Canberra conducted itself admirably in the days after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, an act that caused the greatest single loss of Australian life overseas since the 2002 Bali bombings. Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke plainly and clearly and helped to stiffen the Western response to this outrage. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was energetic in her diplomatic efforts. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was scrupulous in his support for the Government. Australian officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Australian Federal Police were highly professional. All in all, there was a sobriety to the response that was a relief after the circus antics of Clive Palmer and Senator Jacqui Lambie. MH17 had had a jolting effect on the Australian body politic.

The Foreign Minister's strong statement following the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2166 makes this list both because of the significance of the moment — this was, after all, a resolution drafted and negotiated successfully by Australia — and because of the righteous anger with which she delivered it.

Mr President, the message from this Council to those who were responsible for this atrocity is definitive — you will be held to account for your actions.

Australia will continue to do everything we can to ensure this barbaric act is thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.

We have an overriding objective — to ensure dignity, respect and justice for those killed on MH17. We will not rest until this is done. We will not rest until we bring them home.



As reported in the international media since mid-July, Operation Barkhane is  essentially a French anti-terrorist combat force of 3000 men, permanently stationed in the African Sahel. It has a centralised command headquartered in Chad and includes heavy arms, notably about 40 planes for combat and intelligence operations, stationed in various parts of the region.

As of today, Barkhane replaces temporary and country-specific force deployments such as Operation Serval in Mali, where in 2013  French troops and the Malian army drove militant jihadists back from the capital Bamako into their Saharan heartland.

Also formally part of Operation Barkhane are the armed forces of five regional countries: Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger. All these countries are menaced by absolute poverty and minimal state infrastructure (three of the five are at the very bottom of the recently released Human Development Index) and increasingly since the fall of Qadhafi, by militant Islamists bent on erecting their own Sahel-based caliphate. Connections exist between Barkhane and other deployments in the larger region, notably the Central African Republic (CAR), where a mixed  African-French-EU deployment of about 7000 troops is tasked with keeping a bloody civil war between northern Muslims and southern Christians from spilling into genocide (non-French EU soldiers are deployed only in the capital, Bangui).

Another crucial country in the region, Algeria, helps out informally: due to history, French-Algerian relations are never easy, but Algerian intelligence agencies share information on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  

The internationally little known DGSE (Direction Generale de Securite Exterieure), roughly the French CIA, is playing a central role in Operation Barkhane. One of DGSE's main functions is to prevent the creation of  another Afghanistan, a safe heaven for young French Muslims to be indoctrinated and to gain fighting experience in the field, returning home as potential terrorists. The 500-plus French nationals reported to be fighting  with ISIS in Iraq and Syria have understandably set alarm bells ringing in Paris.

The anti-terrorist and peacekeeping forces in the Sahel are a patchwork of national, foreign and multinational units.

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Deployments are complicated by the fact that the few functioning local armed forces are often sent into neighboring countries for local reasons. For example, Chadian troops had to be withdrawn from the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic following their 'bad behaviour' (diplomatese for behaving like an occupation force rather than as peacekeepers). French troops serve as as an indispensable combat element but also as arbitrators when local feuds threaten to overshadow the main function of operations — that is, the fight against jihadi terrorism. 

France has a long history of 'robust' interference in African affairs to safeguard its interests. When negotiating  Operation Barkhane during an extensive visit to the region in mid-July, President Francois Hollande was accompanied not only by Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian but also a sizable delegation of businessmen. The French parastatal Areva, one of the leading global suppliers of nuclear power stations, gets its uranium mainly from Niger. Large French multinationals such as Orange (telecom) and Bouygues (construction and telecoms) dominate the regional market down to Cote d'Ivoire. While in Abidjan, Hollande was warmly welcomed by President Allassane Outtara, whom the French had helped, in 2011, to oust his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo.

Operation Barkhane is one in a long succession of French interventions in post-colonial West Africa, and probably not the last. In Nigeria, geographically situated just below the Sahel zone, another terrorist force threatens the stability of one of Africa's largest and potentially richest countries. Boko Haram might well be the deadliest and most dangerous of all these terror groups, as demonstrated by the brazen and globally highlighted kidnapping of 200 school girls recently in the Muslim north of Nigeria. On 27 July Boko Haram struck for the first time in neighbouring Cameroon when it kidnapped the wife of Amadou Ali, Cameroon's vice-president, in the border town of Kolofata.

The kidnapping and the lack of effective pursuit of Boko Haram by Nigerian authorities has shown their blatant lack of will and capability. Despite its large and supposedly well-trained army, Nigeria will clearly need outside help to cope with homegrown Islamic terrorism. Effectively, this can only mean European military assistance, with some indispensable American support in reconnaissance and logistics. 

Considering that Cameroon was a French colony (with a British-dominated north), and Nigeria was held by the British, Boko Haram now challenges both former colonial powers. It is to be hoped that London will recognise finally that due to its colonial history, it carries additional responsibilities in Africa too.

Under the joint leadership of France and the UK, the two most powerful and battle-ready armed forces in Europe, the EU will have to step up and do much more to secure long term stability on a continent whose much predicted bright future will remain elusive if it does not manage to provide basic services for its citizens, and protect them too.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Luc Gnago.


This week our links are focused on the Pacific Islands Forum taking place in Koror, Palau.

  • On the Devpolicy blog, Seini O'Connor asks: what can the people of our region expect of the regionalism project?
  • Islands Business provides a detailed backgrounder on what Pacific leaders will be addressing at the 45th Pacific Islands Forum meeting.
  • For the second year running, Australia's prime minister is not attending the Forum. Whilst Tony Abbott's absence may be understandable, it represents a missed opportunity.
  • In his opening speech, President Tommy Remengesau of Palau stressed the importance of ocean health for Pacific island countries. Further to last year's Forum meeting, which included the adoption of the Majuro Declaration, the impacts of climate change in the region will be a key issue for discussion.
  • PNG is using the Forum meeting to further establish itself as a regional aid donor. Its delegation has been lobbying hard for the appointment of Dame Meg Taylor as the new Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat. She is one of five candidates; whoever gets the job will have plenty to deal with.
  • Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo of Solomon Islands will be presenting an independent review of RAMSI to leaders that was commissioned by the Forum and the Government of Solomon Islands.
  • Prime minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu has used the Forum as a platform to advocate for changes to the 'Least Developed Country' graduation processes, an issue which also affects other Forum members. 
  • There have been calls for Forum leaders to follow the lead of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and discuss West Papua at its meeting, but this will most likely go unheeded.

In my previous post I argued that the last few months have seen a spike in punditry claiming that Northeast Asia's status quo is about to change, and that conflict is more likely. Japan's constitutional revisions have provoked exaggerated responses from South Korea and China, while Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent successful trip to South Korea has been interpreted in Japan in a similarly negative manner.

But much of this is exaggerated nationalism and posturing from regional hawks (and some American think tanks) about a stable, but disliked, status quo. As I argued, South Korea is not in fact 'finlandising' or going over to China. Such talk is more indicative of the Japanese right's glee in snubbing Korea whenever possible.

Not to be outdone, one can always rely on Chosun Daily in Korea or the Global Times in China (here is a link of special interest to Australian readers) to overreact to Japanese military developments.

But most of this is overstated and little of it is helpful.

Northeast Asia is fairly stable. It could certainly be better, but compared to many regions, it is doing rather well. Trade and tourism are robust. The problems of state failure and irregular wars, so common elsewhere, are not apparent. As Dave Kang has noted, much of the maritime tension is being 'fought' by fishermen and coastguards. For all the big talk, there has been no war in the region since the 1950s.

So should you really care that Japan 're-interpreted' its constitution? Not so much, for three reasons:

1. Until Japan actually spends more on defence, the 're-interpretation' makes little difference

Japan spends less than 1% of GDP on defence. This is even lower than the European members of NATO, who are routinely castigated by the US for free-riding (as the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating yet again).

It takes huge amounts of money to field comparatively small military forces. The logistical tail (the number of support staff, technicians, trainers, crew, and so on) behind each actual warfighter or platform is longer today than ever before. Modern militaries — basically since World War I — have also increasingly relied on technology and combined arms tactics whose complexity requires even greater resources (Stephen Biddle explains all this nicely in the opening chapters here). The long, troubled, and hugely expensive history of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aptly demonstrates the spiraling costs and troubles of modern military platforms.

So sure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may want to buy an aircraft carrier, but does a troubled economy have an extra US$5-10 billion for that? Perhaps, but until the budget numbers change, it's all just talk. Read More

2. Unless Japan can actually translate that extra spending into genuine capabilities, that too reduces the importance of the 're-interpretation'

A basic materialist approach to Japanese 're-armament' would simply be to look at GDP percentages. But bigger budgets are not enough either, because money has to be translated into capabilities — the deployment of modern complex platforms by highly skilled technicians in complicated ways (combined arms, the networked battlefield, C4ISR, and so on) to achieve a goal. Very few modern militaries have been able to do that successfully, and most of them in the twentieth century were Western. Just throwing money at the defence ministry is not enough.

Japan too of course had a reasonably effective military in the twentieth century. But World War II was seventy years ago and was followed by a decisive social break against 'bushido', militarism, and so on. Since then the Japanese military has not fought once. No one really knows how well it will fare (a point that applies to all regional militaries, actually). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Japan's navy is the most competent, followed by the air force, then the army, but these are soft qualitative judgements at best. (Here is a good outlet on this issue.)

Finally, it has been widely noted that the Japanese public is either indifferent or opposed to the 're-interpretation'. That should be comforting to those worried about militarisation. Abe may be able to squeeze more resources out of the finance ministry because his parliamentary coalition is unnaturally large due to the quirks of Japanese election law. But without public support (not just tepid uninterest, but genuine support) he will find it hard to build a force capable of much beyond homeland defence. A serious expeditionary or power projection capability — necessary to do anything serious with the Americans in the region — will require public support. At the moment at least, it is not there.

3. Engaging in 'collective self-defence' is a right every other country in the world has. By embracing it, Japan is becoming more, not less, normal, and so more predictable

David Pilling makes the useful point that collective self-defence is the right of every other country, and that Japan moving in that direction is no big deal. Pilling couches the argument in normative language, stating that it is Japan's right to arm itself as it sees fit and align itself with whomever it likes. All that is so, but it is clearly uncomfortable to Seoul and offers fuel for Chinese efforts to isolate Japan in Asia over its alleged militarism.

A better interpretation is that Japan's defence normalisation makes it more like every other country in the world and therefore more predictable. It is Japan's weird post-war state — radically pacifist yet disturbingly unrepentant about the empire, located in Asia but not really a part of the region — that makes it such a hot potato. The more Japan is responsible for its own military and security, the more like every other country it is, and the more it will come under pressure to conform to modern democratic norms on the use of force.

A more independent and normal Japan will be less tied to the US and more a part of its own region where it will have to engage in normal diplomatic back-and-forth, including finding a modus vivendi with South Korea and China. A Japan responsible for its own defence, directly facing the costs of bad behaviour, such as historical denial, is far more likely to come around than one permanently hiding in America's shadow as some kind of weird semi-pariah.

Northeast Asia is fairly stable. China's rise is unnerving, but compared to places like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, South Asia, or central Africa, regional politics is fairly predictable. Local elites are nationalist, but they are calculating too. There has not been a major war since the 1950s, and the non-state violence so common elsewhere is non-existent. Nor do regional states spend as much on the military as the this year's World War I analogies suggest. There's no need to make it worse with hyperbole.

Image from REUTERS/Issei Kato


As readers of The Interpreter may have heard, I've just launched a revised second edition of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.

Most of the speeches in my book are about Australian history, culture and politics, not Australian foreign policy.

As I've argued before, foreign policy is Australia's area of speechmaking underperformance. Too often, Australian foreign policy speeches are workmanlike rather than profound. They have content but not much flair. However, the pickings are much richer if we broaden our perspective from foreign policy narrowly-defined to Australia's place in the world more broadly.

In a two-part post, I'll nominate ten great speeches about Australia's place in the world. These first five cover the period from Federation to Vietnam (transcripts for selections 1 and 2 are not online, but all of the speeches selected here are featured in the book):

1. Vida Goldstein, 'You will soon be citizens of no mean country', London, UK, 17 June 1911

Australia was in the front rank of nations when it awarded (most) women the right both to vote and to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902. In subsequent years, Australian suffragists tried to coax their British cousins down the same path: our parliament passed resolutions recommending the policy, and our activists carried the word to the UK in person. 

The most prominent of these women was Vida Goldstein, who organised an international contingent to march with 40,000 others in a 1911 suffrage procession through London. Goldstein gave a rousing speech at Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the march, urging the Brits to follow our lead in awarding women the right to vote. 'I know that you will soon be citizens of no mean country', she concluded.

2. Billy Hughes, 'It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country', 18 September 1916

Billy Hughes was prime minister for most of the First World War, earning the affection of Australia's soldiers and the sobriquet 'The Little Digger'. In 1916 Hughes became concerned by the depletion of Australia's military strength through the appalling casualties of the Western Front, and was converted to the cause of conscripting Australians for service overseas.

His speech to a monster public meeting in Sydney in September 1916 created immense (though ultimately inadequate) momentum for the conscription cause:

Nearly three hundred thousand men have enlisted. Why should some take on their shoulders the burden that belongs to all? If life be such a sacred thing that no government or no individual has a right to lay hands upon it, why should these three hundred thousand be chosen to die, that we may live, unmolested, allowing the roll and thunder of battle to pass over us undisturbed? This war must be brought home to every man and woman in this great Commonwealth of Australia. If voluntaryism fails, the war must not fail. The interests at issue are too great. Australia must do her part. It may be that voluntaryism will save us; but if it does not, then we must still be saved.

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3. John Curtin, The Battle of the Coral Sea speech, 8 May 1942 

Towards the end of a slow sitting day on 8 May 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin rose and announced to the House of Representatives that battle had been joined in the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east, between Allied forces and a Japanese naval task force seeking to capture Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian territory of Papua. The address was short in length and spare in language, which added to the drama of the moment.

Old hands regarded this as Curtin's finest speech, especially its closing moments:

I ask the people of Australia, having regard to the grave consequences implicit in this engagement, to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation. As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have – it may be for many of them the last full measure of their devotion – to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory. In the face of such an example I feel that it is not asking too much of every citizen who today is being defended by these gallant men in that engagement, to regard himself as engaged in the second line of service to Australia. The front line needs the maximum support of every man and woman in the Commonwealth. With all the responsibility which I feel, which the government feels, and which, I am sure, the parliament as a whole shares, I put it to any man whom my words may reach, however they may reach him, that he owes it to those men, and to the future of the country, not to be stinting in what he will do now for Australia. Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant setback suffered by Japan and many now regard it as a turning point in the battle for Australia. It was also a turning point in our relations with the US, and underscored the prescience of Curtin's statement in the Melbourne Herald of 27 December 1941 that 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'.

4. Robert Menzies, 'A spirit, a proud memory, a confident prayer', 26 June 1950

Prime Minister Robert Menzies told a British diplomat that the purpose of this speech to the Adelaide chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was to 'restore the Commonwealth relationship to its proper place in the forefront' of Australian foreign-policy thinking. Menzies was sceptical of the UN, in which former external affairs minister HV Evatt had put such faith, preferring an interests-based approach and especially close relations with Britain and the US, Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.

The British Commonwealth is more than a group of friendly powers. It is more than a series of concerted economic interests. It is and must be a living thing – not a corpse under the knives of the constitutional dissectors. It would be the tragedy of our history if what began as a splendid adventure and grew into a proud brotherhood should end up as a lawyer's exercise. When the Commonwealth ceases to be an inner feeling as well as an external association, virtue will have gone out of it.

5. Arthur Calwell, 'I offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated', 4 May 1965

In response to Prime Minister Menzies' 1965 announcement that Australia would send an infantry battalion to Vietnam, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell laid out Labor's opposition to Australia's participation in the war in a finely argued parliamentary statement. The party politics of the Vietnam War were, in fact, strikingly similar to the party politics of the Iraq war nearly forty years later. In both cases a Coalition government sought to shrink the US-Australia alliance to the dimensions of a single conflict, while a Labor opposition argued that the war was inimical to the interests of both countries. Calwell's remarks laid out Labor's case in plain English, argument upon argument. They were anti-war without being anti-American, and were substantially vindicated by history.

Here is Calwell's rousing conclusion:

May I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security.

21 of 22 This post is part of a debate on MH17

It is now two weeks since the downing of MH17 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. In that time we have witnessed frenetic activity by leaders in Europe, the US and Australia. But amid the flurry of diplomacy, little seems to have changed for the better, either for the investigation or for the conflict more generally.

If anything, the situation is even uglier. International investigators are still being held back from the crash site, even though they have the backing of an Australian-drafted UN Security Council resolution supported by all Permanent Members. The Ukrainian Government's decision to launch an offensive towards Donetsk has put the crash site dangerously close to the battle zone. Ukraine faces fresh elections after its governing coalition collapsed. And Western pressure on Vladimir Putin has not shifted his resolve one iota. According to recent reports, Russian military aid to Ukrainian separatists has actually increased.

One glimmer of hope for Western audiences has been the broad sanctions regime Brussels and Washington have just announced, which certainly appears to be a more robust Western response to continued Russian defiance over its role in Ukraine's civil war.

Prior to the downing of MH17, the EU and US had embarked on a minimalist 'first line' of sanctions that focused on individuals close to the Kremlin. The aim was to put pressure on Putin by taking aim at his entourage. But asset freezes and travel bans against prominent politicians and businesspeople were largely ineffective. Russian parliamentarians named on the 'no fly' list wore their status as a badge of pride. And while the US claims to have made Russia 'weaker' by engendering an estimated $100 million in capital flight, the sanctions did little to dampen Putin's resolve.

Indeed, US sanctions of any kind on Russia are largely symbolic, given the absence of any real trading relationship between the two nations. The EU's 'sectorial' sanctions on energy, arms sales and finance, on the other hand, have more promise. The Brussels-Moscow trade axis is more than ten times larger than the US-Russian relationship. And the EU's sanctions go much further than before, targeting core Russian businesses.

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They restrict the sale of technology for oil exploration, which hampers Russia's desire to exploit its contested claims in the Arctic Circle. They include a ban on weapons sales, estimated at some €20 billion annually. And they forbid Europeans from buying debt or equity in state-owned Russian banks, except for short-term trading. The list of embargoed individuals has also grown.

But these sanctions won't go anywhere near far enough to deter Putin. At best, they are a small PR victory. At worst, the length of time taken to negotiate them will only reinforce Putin's calculation that Europe is divided.

To begin with, these sanctions don't lock the EU into a long-term course since they are reviewed every three months. Actual energy trading will continue, and the focus on oil exploration leaves Russia's gas sector unmolested. A crucial compromise to win the backing of Paris was that the military embargo could not be retroactive. That gave the green light to a 2011 French deal to sell Russia two Mistral helicopter carriers at a price of €1.2 billion.

The aspects of this package with the most teeth are the EU's financial sanctions. Putin will find it harder to obtain credit, which will drive Moscow closer to Beijing. China is likely to charge a steep price for that credit, as it did during the global financial crisis. Even so, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's response that Russia would not bother engaging in 'hysterics' with tit-for-tit sanctions was a sure sign that Moscow is confident in Europe's fragility. Just like Kosovo and Chechnya in the 1990s, when the tokenistic suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe and the NATO dialogue process lasted a mere six months, Russia intends to simply wait Europe out.

In fairness, the EU's response had to be carefully negotiated. Internal wrangling, coupled to a precarious economic position, each played a strong role. There are already concerns that the total cost of the sanctions might drive the EU into recession. Opinion polls in Germany put support for tougher sanctions against Russia at 52%; a majority, but by no means a convincing one. Angela Merkel was extremely reluctant to impose broad sanctions that would hurt Germany's high-technology sales, especially in computers and advanced machinery. That is why the initial call for a ban on 'dual use' technologies was watered down to 'military end-users'.

Hence the brunt of the pain from sanctions will be felt in London's financial district. This is unsurprising as well. The UK, with a low stake in Russian gas imports, is the nation with the least to lose in terms of vulnerable overdependence.

But the upshot is that Western responses – whether justified or not in their assessments of Russian culpability – have been monumentally weak. Faced with the opportunity to send a clear message to Moscow, Europe and even the US have settled once again for half measures.

All of this suits Putin very nicely. Caught between a thirst for Russian gas and domestic vacillation, the EU may score points in the propaganda war, but it has failed strategically in an important test of its resolve. As the war in Ukraine drags on, any hope that some good might come of the MH17 tragedy must now be nearly extinguished.

Photo by Flickr user Jeroen Akkermans.


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.

  • Despite a negative response from China, constitutional reinterpretation has paved the way for greater military cooperation between the US and Japan. 
  • Largely overlooked, however, have been the potential constitutional constraints on the US to fulfil its alliance commitments to Japan.
  • Doubts aside, Japan joined and hosted the annual US-India naval exercises, Exercise Malabar. Undertaken off the south coast of Japan, the drills will conclude on 30 July 30 . 
  • Meanwhile, China also began nationwide military exercises, which included naval drills in the disputed East China Sea. The scale of the land component reportedly caused mass disruption to China’s domestic air traffic.
  • Increased competition with China has been cited as a reason for the accelerated development of India’s submarine launched ballistic missile system, again raising concern over the subcontinent’s nuclear balance. 
  • Amid regional tension, Indonesia has called on China to make the Indo-Pacific ‘peaceful’.
  • The recent overture again highlights Indonesia’s increasing concern over the impact of regional disputes
  • On a more positive note, China and South Korea worked towards managing their differences by announcing the establishment of a defence hotline between capitals.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation


Two reader comments I'd like to flag in response to my piece highlighting new research by the Brookings Institution's Charles Frank, written up in The Economist, which suggests renewable energy is still way too expensive to take over from coal, oil and gas.

Here's OfKember:

The basic inadequacy of Frank's analysis is that it takes no account of the amount of emission reduction needed from the power sector over time. Sure, it's cheapest in the short term to switch to gas if you want to go from high- to low-carbon power production (and how is that news?), but by 2050 we need to be approaching a zero-carbon power supply (see the IEA's recent Energy Technology Perspectives report) . Either the new gas plant gets CCS (ed. note: carbon capture and storage) or it has to be replaced before the end of its operating life, either of which rather messes with his comparative costs. (Interestingly he dismisses the prospect of widespread storage by saying the technologiy isn't competitive without subsidies yet - well yes, but it seems odd to suppose it will stay that way for the next forty years.)

Chris Williams wrote:

I am surprised The Interpreter is seduced by The Economist's rubbery economics. In comparative economics of energy, TE's analysis sureptitiously excludes a range of coal power externalities that current debates have exposed as being the 'true' costs of coal power, and which ought to be allocated in any cost-benefit analysis. While economists are about it, they could also declare all the subsidies that coal mining, transportation and generation have been allocated over the years to develop the industry's critical mass. Sure, they are sunk costs now. On a level playing field, however, the renewable energies are not being permitted similar startup costs to reach critical mass, whether these be by government subsidy or by a customer levy which reduces over time.

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By mimicking a British magazine, The Interpreter does Australian industry and science a disservice. CSIRO has just developed solar technology that heats water-under-pressure, which was previously a barrier to large-scale solar power plants. China's mainstream media has picked up this breakthrough, but both Australian media and The Economist are notably silent on this significant Australian achievement. It's time for The Interpreter to give credit where it is due. Good on you, CSIRO, keep up the energy breakthroughs so that, one day, Australia may become a technology leader rather than a laggard.


What should be done about corruption in developing countries? Stephen Grenville discussed this issue in commenting on the recent work of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (universally known in Indonesia as the KPK or the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi).

It is important to note that the problem of corruption is hardly ignored in developing countries. In Indonesia, corruption has been at the top of the public policy agenda for decades. Indeed few topics attract more local attention than corruption. When a 'big fish' politician or official is caught by the KPK, it is headline news. TV programs cover the prosecution of leading politicians or officials in vivid detail.

And the KPK has caught some big fish. The recent arrest and subsequent sentencing of Ratu Atut Chosiyah attracted enormous press attention. Ratu Atut had been a high-profile governor of the province of Banten, just to the west of Jakarta. She and her family had built up an extraordinary political dynasty complete with extensive business links across Banten. But recently the KPK moved in on Ratu Atut. She didn't last long once the KPK focused on her and her family, and she is now in jail.

The KPK has caught quite a few other big fish lately too. So the problem of corruption is widely recognised in Indonesia, and institutions such as the KPK are landing some heavy blows.

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But Stephen Grenville points to two worrying problems with this aggressive approach. The first is that unless there are reasonable checks and balances on the powers of corruption commissions, gross injustices can occur. The second is that if officials come to live in fear of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns, the bureaucracy will choke up because everybody will avoid taking decisions.

An example of the first problem appears to be recent suggestions that the Vice President of Indonesia, Dr Boediono, might be prosecuted by the KPK for decisions taken by Indonesia's central bank, Bank Indonesia, in 2008 when Dr Boediono was governor.

There are pros and cons to the decisions taken by Bank Indonesia in the midst of a banking crisis at the time. However, these were typical policy decisions that central banks all around the world are expected to take in the midst of a crisis. Yet for several years the KPK has been hounding Bank Indonesia officials for their decisions about monetary policy. KPK has put one senior executive of Bank Indonesia in jail. It seems quite remarkable. But the KPK has the bit between the teeth. The latest indications are that it is quite possible that the KPK will soon focus on Dr Boediono. If so, it will be a gross injustice committed against one of Indonesia's outstanding leaders (disclosure: Dr Boediono is a friend).

The second problem – that the Indonesian bureaucracy will choke up for fear of witch hunts – is just as serious. While the aggressive role of the KPK is to be welcomed, if the result is that bureaucrats all over Indonesia run for cover then government across the nation will clog up. If an attempted prosecution of Dr Boediono were to lead to reluctance on the part of the central bank to take difficult decisions in the midst of a financial crisis, then the consequences for economic management in Indonesia would be serious indeed.

Photo by Flickr user F Mira.


The 'Unity Journal' case in Myanmar has been cited as an example of media freedom under threat and as proof that reforms are slowing down. The case began with an article published in Unity Journal in early 2014, which claimed that a named defence facility was really a chemical weapons factory. The Government denied the report, claiming the accusations were baseless and highlighting that it relied only on comments from 'locals'.

Officials also reportedly confiscated unsold copies, and arrested and charged the journalists as well as the journal's CEO, citing violations of national security. Following a trial, the group was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for trespassing and taking photographs inside a defence facility without permission. In July, they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.

On The Interpreter, Andrew Selth put the chemical weapons claims in perspective, and Irrawaddy also took a closer look. Many criticised the Government's initial response and the journalists' sentences. Commentaries ranging from Amnesty International to the New York Times condemned the Government response, while some seemed seem to suggest that the quality or accuracy of the story was less relevant than the outcome of the case.

However, the quality and accuracy of the article is relevant, as is the legality of the journalists' behaviour. Critical assessment of this case and the article has generally been neglected in favour of portraying the journalists as victims who were merely 'doing their jobs'. But this is not entirely accurate.

Although the 'chemical weapons' claim was on the Journal's front page and in the article's heading, there were few references to it in the article itself. However, the article did discuss other sensitive issues including alleged land confiscation, and included descriptions and photographs of the site and its (military) personnel, including claims of presence of 'Chinese' workers. Any of these were likely to annoy or embarrass the Government.

The article gained significant international attention and has been described as 'investigative reporting', suggesting it was a well-researched and evidence-backed piece. It wasn't.

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The article's sourcing was hazy and questionable. It provided no supporting evidence, especially for the central allegation, despite one of the journalists claiming he had such evidence. The article also lacked a clear focus, dedicating paragraphs to irrelevant information (such as the origins of bricks used at the site and its water and electricity sources). The concluding paragraphs were straight-up opinion.

One Myanmar journalist and political analyst criticised Unity Journal's journalistic ethics for publishing the article, citing the lack of credible evidence, irrelevant information and potentially misleading use of photographs. Bertil Lintner eloquently described the article as 'a crap report' that 'was poorly researched'.

Others in Myanmar understood that the journalists were probably in the wrong. For example, the secretary of the Interim Press Council suggested the Government should forgive the journalists' mistakes, since 'some media people are not professional' and are inexperienced, while U Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Journalists association said that journalists had a duty to maintain ethical standards and strive for accuracy.

It may not be palatable for some, but we need to recognise these faults when using this case in claims about media freedom in Myanmar.

Even if the journalists' claims were accurate, the article did nothing to support or prove this. Conversely, the Government didn't help its cause by initially seizing unsold copies. This made critical assessment, which may have worked in the Government's favour, much harder.

The guilty verdict also shouldn't be surprising. The journalists admitted committing the offences. In an interview shortly after publication, the CEO separately admitted that his staff entered the facility. The legal defence against trespassing (arguing that the facility did not have 'No Entry' signs) was weak, as the journalists admitted knowing it was a defence facility and wrote that locals had been warned about trespassing. As journalists, they would know even without reading the Official Secrets Act or having signage in place that defence sites have restricted access.

The guilty verdict was not surprising, but the sentence of 10 years imprisonment with hard labour was, even if the Official Secrets Act allowed for up to 14 years. While journalists who trespass on military facilities in other countries are also likely to be arrested and charged, their sentences are not likely to be so severe. Moreover, since the Unity staff who were charged each played different roles, and therefore had different degrees of involvement, it doesn't seem fitting that they all received the same sentence. 

The sentence supports a view that the Government was using this case to punish the journalists and send a message to the local media, which is hard to dispute. During the trial, the prosecution reportedly submitted a list of 40 witnesses for what appeared to be a straightforward case. It sent a clear message about how the Government viewed, and would treat, national security issues. Specifically, it served as a warning that the Ministry of Defence and its facilities were off limits.

While there are numerous cases involving official interference with the media that deserve scrutiny, this case is relatively straightforward: The journalists wrote an article of questionable quality whose main claims they did not (and perhaps could not) support, they broke the law while doing so and they were punished for it.

Recent news that an appeal was granted will be welcomed. If successful, it may result in a lighter sentence while still allowing the Government to punish the journalists and send its message. An amnesty is also a future possibility for political leaders.

For now, this is likely of little reassurance to the journalists and their families. But the case serves as a lesson about the importance of journalistic diligence and the standards journalists are supposed to follow. It should also send a message that freedom of the press does not mean journalists are free from their responsibilities, including in complying with local laws and reporting accurately.

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

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