Lowy Institute

For six weeks, from 3 September to 14 October, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, disappeared from view. The rumours it triggered became increasingly outlandish. He was dead or dying; body doubles were being prepared (a favorite theory about his father); his sister was running the country (a female leader in North Korea?); factional infighting had broken out in the backrooms of Pyongyang; or he had been pushed aside in a coup.

As if to illustrate just how untethered the commentary had become, The Onion ran its own pretty funny mock story.

Now that the 'Young General' is back, the hangover has kicked in. Increasingly, the noteworthy story of the last two months is not Kim Jong-un's disappearance itself, but the explosion of over-the-top media speculation it unleashed, particularly in the West. In South Korea (where I live), the media coverage was obviously sustained, but not nearly as unhinged. I think we can draw a few conclusions from the speculative fun we all had last month:

1. The Kims get sick too, but the regime can stumble on for awhile.

This seems pretty banal, but everyone seemed to forget that Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il suffered from a stroke and disappeared from view for twice as long back in 2008. At that time too, there was some hysteria, but nothing like this time around even though it was longer. I am not sure why.

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It is worth noting that the Kims, obviously, lead pretty unhealthy lives. All three Kim monarchs were seriously overweight, if not obese, in their prime. All were rumoured to be heavy drinkers and smokers, possibly abusing narcotics. Kim Jong-il's consumption of Hennessey was legend. North Korea even has a semi-formal prostitution service – the 'joy brigade' – for its elites, presumably including the top leader. The Kims are the modern versions of the self-indulgent tyrants of antiquity, like Nero, living a lifestyle of gross over-indulgence. Not surprisingly, they have recurrent health issues.

But the state does not fall apart as a result. Presumably even North Korea, focused as it is on the 'Sun King,' can muddle through on autopilot for at least a few months, a prediction I made before Kim Jong-un resurfaced. The Kims are the focus of global media attention, but there is a whole cluster of family, retainers, flunkeys, high-ranking Korean People's Army and Korean Worker's Party officials deeply vested in the continuation of the Kim monarchy. If these figures did not turn on each other in a factional power struggle after Kim Jong-il unexpectedly died in 2011, it was hard to see them doing so in these circumstances.

I've often thought a good analogy for North Korea is the mafia. North Korea engages in all sorts of illicit activities, from its well-known proliferation efforts to its less well-known meth operations and insurance fraud. The DPRK is what happens when the godfather and his cronies manage to take over a whole country; the Kims are the Korean version of the Corleones.

In such a structure, all the top players are bound to each other by blood, shared knowledge of each other's criminality and desire to keep the lifestyle and money rolling in. In the same way the Corleone family survived the Don's near assassination and semi-retirement, so will the Kim gangster-ocracy. No one (in either family) wants the structure to fall apart because they are all complicit in its awfulness and enjoy its rewards, so the incentives are huge to put the system on autopilot when el hefe is temporarily incapacitated.

2. The media focus too much on the Kims

Part of the problem must be the unique global media focus on the Kims, and specifically on the leader. In my experience with media as a commentator/talking head, I am routinely asked about the Kims themselves, including their personal habits, their mental state and their absurdities (Kim Jong-il's platform shoes and bouffant hair-style were favourites). The working assumption is often that they're just 'bonkers', as a Sky TV reporter asked me once.

But clearly no country with a large population can function without some manner of institutions tying the society together. And North Korea, in its own unique, gangster-ish way, has those. The most important are the Army and the Party (probably, as we don't really know), soldered together by the personal relationships of the extended Kim clan. It is a curiously feudal or patrimonial structure, especially for a state that, in its ideology, formally condemns feudalism as backward and reactionary. It is not 'Weberian' or rational. It is massively economically dysfunctional; it led, for example, to the famine of the 1990s. For this reason political scientists often define the DPRK as fragile or brittle and it is regularly near the top of the Fund for Peace' annual Failed State Index

But North Korea has managed to survive far greater challenges and hurdles than many thought it could overcome. Despite the death of Kim Il-sung, the cut-off of Soviet subsidies, the famines, the extreme isolation following the nuclear tests, the sudden death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's disturbing desire to party with Dennis Rodman, the regime lurches on. Clearly there is much more going on that just a sun-king monarchy, however relentless the media focus on the top leadership.

3. The media enjoys the sheer lunacy and freedom to wildly speculate that North Korea opens up

Perhaps I watch too much media coverage of North Korea, but I am always struck by how 'unplugged' North Korea allows otherwise bland media networks and reporters to be. A year ago, wild unsubstantiated rumours circulated that Kim Jong-un's uncle (Jang Song-thaek) had been executed by wild dogs tearing him apart. This 'story' originated in some obscure Chinese paper but was quickly picked up by Western media with little fact-checking. Almost certainly, the sheer luridness of it was appealing: North Korea is a black hole, the boy-king is probably bonkers anyway, so sure, why not run that story?

Similar media hype of North Korean kitschy ridiculousness can be seen in the stories about its discovery of a unicorn. Once again, the story went viral (Google it and see), probably for the sheer lunatic fun of reporting on North Korea. It's almost like you can say anything. That must be fun in a way. Consider all those 'Kim looking at things' tumblrs. At some point, this is not really news anymore. It's comedy. But they are actually really serious ethical issues about laughing over North Korea, a place where hundreds of thousands are executed or imprisoned in appalling conditions. Remember that next time you hear some gratuitously parodic depiction of North Korea.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prachatai.


A recent paper in Nature says that 'no other country is investing so much money or generating so much renewable energy' as China. 'Its build-up of renewable energy systems at serious scale is driving cost reductions that will make them accessible to all.'

The International Energy Agency reckons China accounts for 56% of the US$250 billion in annual global renewables investment, and that solar could become the world's leading primary energy source by 2050. Beijing has recently rejuvenated its nuclear program too. China's Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, proclaimed at the UN Climate Summit that his country would strive to peak absolute CO2 emissions 'as soon as possible.' Apparently China is shifting its stance on climate change, and backing its words with manufacturing muscle.

A field-trip across China reveals a more nuanced reality on the ground.

A wind farm in Tianjin, China.

For a start, as the Nature essay notes, today the vast majority of China's non-fossil electricity generation is from hydro-power, and the country's gigantic dam projects are controversial. One problem with all renewables is 'intermittency'; they need rain, wind and sun, which are capricious, so backup thermal plants must stand by. Another problem is 'curtailment'. By 2020, there could be well over 300 GW of wind and solar capacity installed, representing almost 20% of China's total nameplate capacity, but actual generation might be only 8% of the total.

Coal supplies three-quarters of China's electricity and 67% of its total primary energy (although 16% of this is exported in manufactures). A Xinjiang official boasted his province might have one trillion tonnes of coal reserves: 'our black treasure will supply China's needs for a century.' I have noted before that coal underpins China's growth model; Inner Mongolia achieved a 159% energy efficiency gain between 2002 and 2009 but exploited this to make fourteen times more cement and steel.

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The much-touted UHV lines, transporting power from west to east, all originate at coal-fired complexes, not wind and solar farms. Although coal's trajectory has moderated and will eventually peak, a coal glut is the immediate concern. Recent regulations (a sales taxsupply consolidation, import bans) appear intended to support the mining sector's profitability. 

A power utility explained that a large (1000 MW) modern ultra-supercritical thermal plant earns 25-30% return on equity, compared to 8-12% for renewables, even with subsidies from one to the other. Coal is a third cheaper than wind power. The reason is simple: coal is superabundant. Global prices have halved since 2011. A manager at a power equipment maker says that coal power is seeing a resurgence in orders, spurred by the fuel's competitiveness. He disclosed that President Xi Jinping, heading China's leading small group for energy security, has 're-emphasized the importance of coal.'

China's real objective is not so much low carbon as 'clean carbon.' China's emissions already exceed the US and EU combined, it emits more per capita than Europe and could overtake America by 2017. A Rolling Stone essay portends that 'what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt — or at least ameliorate — global warming.' James Fallows, quoted in Mother Jones, describes Beijing's attempt to (using climate change argot) 'bend down its curve.' He continues: 'The Chinese government is pushing harder on more fronts than any other...to develop energy sources other than coal. The question is, will they catch up? Who will win that race between how bad things are and how they're trying to deal with them?'

But pollution is the real issue driving Chinese policy today, not climate change. This winter is off to a dreadful start. Sulphur and nitrogen emissions standards in wealthy cities have been greatly tightened, and 'scrubbing' is (in theory) compulsory. The coal import restrictions target dirty high-ash and sulphur coals. However, the  National Energy Administration's Action Plan actually permits a 4.8% annual coal-fired power generation growth until 2020, according to analysts at Bernstein Research. China does require that its generators become more efficient (310g/kWh by 2020) but the CO2 emissions benchmark that regulators target is American shale gas, a fuel the Nature paper disparages.

China's cheap coal has become both a blessing and a curse. As long as it is cheap, it will be used plentifully. About as quickly as China installs solar panels and wind turbines, it will build the giant ultra-supercriticals alongside, currently at a rate of one every two weeks. And we may reach 'peak coal' demand only to find that supply has barely responded and coal is more affordable than ever. Fundamentally changing coal's economics is necessary. Burying CO2 is fancifully expensive, so burning coal in the first place must be made more costly. 

The most promising solution is a carbon price determined through an emissions trading scheme. To date, progress has been sketchy, but last Friday Europe pledged to revive its flagging carbon market, and to cut its 1990-level CO2 emissions 40% by 2030. China's energy intensity/GDP today is twice OECD levels, suggesting room for improvement. But GDP might expand four times by 2030. China's renewable energy manufacturing machine is racing against cheap 'clean' coal.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nick Cross.


By Anna Kirk, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program.


Police in Malaysia arrested 14 people in October suspected of planning to join ISIS, including three 'key players'. These arrests bring to 36 the number apprehended in Malaysia on suspicion of trying to join ISIS. Earlier this year, police foiled ISIS-inspired Bali-style attacks on pubs, nightclubs and a Carlsberg brewery.

An estimated 20-30 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS in Syria, though the real figure could be higher — the deputy chief of the police CT division admitted as much in August. A Malay-speaking unit was set up to fight in Syria, and Malaysians have been fighting for rebel groups in the country since the onset of the civil war. In May, a 26 year-old Selangor man, identified as Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki,  killed 25 elite Iraqi soldiers in a ISIS suicide car-bomb attack. 

In the past months there appears to be a significant uptick on ISIS's campaign for Southeast Asian recruits. Social media, particularly Facebook, continues to be a key tool for ISIS's networking and recruitment. In July,  direct recruitment appeals were made through a YouTube video.  This month, an advert-style back-page photo in ISIS's  glossy English-language magazine 'Dabiq' appeared with a photo showing three stoic-looking Southeast Asian men and a child.

The latest arrests, however, are no cause for panic. For one thing, they demonstrate Malaysia's functioning counter-terrorism capability. They have also prompted the country's defence minister to lobby for greater regional cooperation on the ISIS threat. Moreover, the current recruitment figures may be manageable. In fact, according to public estimates, Malaysia fares better than Belgium, Denmark or Australia on a per capita recruits basis

But what remains worrying is how the Government responds. An ill-fitted response could stir greater support for ISIS in conservative enclaves of the country, where debate on the role of Islam in society and a louder lobby for  stricter adherence of sharia law and hudud has increased recently. Several new ISIS-inspired Malaysian militant groups (ADI, Dimzia, BAJ and BKAW) have expressed their intent to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate and have sent fighters to Syria.

The Government must draw a strong but careful line in the sand on ISIS. This is complicated by domestic politics.

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Fifty percent of Malaysia's 30 million people are non-Malay minorities and almost 40% are non-Muslim. Malaysia has in the past managed to navigate through potential ethnic and religious conflict (far better than its neighbours Thailand and Indonesia) but it has often done so by appeasing Muslim conservatives and jettisoning the interests of minorities. Stability is similarly challenged by a youthful population. With 48% of the population under the age of 24 (of which 29% are under 14), employment growth and social inclusion will apply pressure on government for years to come.

With Muslim-dominated parties and pro-Muslim policies disproportionately dominating the political realm,  the role of Islam in the country has for decades been debated. These public debates have been spurred to appease conservatives but have also provoked wider debate in society.

In Malaysia's illiberal democracy, the United Malay National Organization is first and foremost a party that governs for the Muslim majority, with policies that reflect the influence that conservative groups and the strong Muslim business lobby have over it. Prime Minister Najib has since 2010 tried to dilute some of this influence and win more of the non-Muslim vote through his '1Malaysia' policy, a policy that has been under consistent pressure.

The authority of Najib's UMNO party is further challenged by conservatives, including in Sabah and Sarawak, attempting to install strict sharia law (following the footsteps of neighbours Aceh or Brunei). These conservative groups, including some in the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, are forcing Najib to walk a difficult line between appeasing conservatives and combating extremists.

A failed policy could push more youth to the extremes.

Thankfully, Najib's popularity received a boost on the back of his proactive response to the MH17 disaster. This may improve his ability to push through difficult policy. Similarly, Malaysia's new seat on the UN Security Council will appeal to the pride of Malaysians, particularly as it will pursue the worthy issue of child casualties in war as a UN Security Council member. It will also allow the Government to continue its strong peace-building image  that was successful in negotiating the southern Philippines conflict.

But perhaps the strongest arrow in Najib's quiver will be proactive and inclusive domestic policies supported by Malaysia's 2015 budget. At the unveiling in October, Najib noted that 'the government gives importance to the development and improving the welfare of the rakyat (population) in Sabah and Sarawak' . With these words (both Sabah and Sarawak were mentioned over a dozen times each in the address) has come sizeable infrastructure money for development in the country's two eastern states, where the threat of extremism is perhaps largest. While a considerable portion of this cash will go to hard security ($200 million will go to bolstering security in Sabah), the long overdue infrastructure development of the eastern regions will do more to stem extremism than any number of boots and bullets.

Still, difficult times are ahead. In the very near future, as Najib tackles ISIS and domestic extremist groups, he will likely be drawn into a larger and far more perilous debate on religion and Islam in Malaysia. That debate risks waking a sleeping giant at a volatile time.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user shafraz.nasser


By David Schaefer, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security program. 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.

  • India's latest military technology purchase was announced over the weekend, with New Delhi opting for an Israeli-made anti-tank missile over a rival system pushed by the US.
  • Carl Thayer makes the case that Vietnam is skilled at manipulating strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.
  • A new Adelphi paper by William Choong warns that more effort will be needed to stabilise relations between China and Japan.
  • With the proposed transfer of more missile-defence hardware in North Asia, Clint Richards argues that the substance of trilateral cooperation between Japan, the US and South Korea validates Chinese fears of encirclement.
  • US and South Korean military forces have once again delayed the transfer of wartime command authority on the peninsula.
  • The Philippines recently conducted its first trilateral naval drill with the US and Japan. Among other things, the exercise practiced the new protocol for unplanned encounters at sea, which was ratified earlier this year at a meeting of regional countries in China.
  • Why Narendra Modi should begin to invest serious effort in building relations with Indonesia.
  • The Heritage Foundation has published a handy series of charts which depict recent economic, political, and military trends in Asia – as well as illustrating the stake which the US has in the region. Here is one on regional naval configuration:

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.


America's second-most senior diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, is retiring, and this week he penned some parting words of advice for his colleagues. While his wisdom is worth reading in its entirety, one point is particularly germane to Australia's foreign policy choices: 'connect leverage to strategy'. This means 'effective strategy requires leverage, connecting concepts and goals to available instruments of national power'.

The Australian Government is facing a tricky strategic decision: whether or not to sign up as a founding member of the recently launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The economic demand for such an institution is widely recognised and reform of existing architecture is stalled in the US Congress. But as an initiative of the Chinese Government, it is opposed by the US on the basis that there is no guarantee the new institution will adhere to international lending norms.

Washington's strategic concerns are obvious: the new institution will give China an added mechanism to advance its broader interests, likely at the expense of the US.

Canberra is caught in the middle. China is Australia's largest trading partner and the Abbott Government is trying to conclude a free trade agreement with Beijing. Snubbing the AIIB risks harming those delicate negotiations. Moreover, the creation of the bank is an inevitability and, as argued here recently by Philippa Brant, without a seat at the negotiating table Australia has no hope of ensuring that the bank will be designed according to best practices.

On the other hand, the US is Australia's closest ally, and Secretary of State John Kerry allegedly made a personal request to Prime Minister Abbott not to join. Thus, whatever its decision, Australia is going to disappoint one of its major partners.

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Cabinet is reportedly divided on the issue, and no Australian representative attended the launch ceremony last week, a move criticised by former Ambassador Geoff Raby. Beijing responded with flexibility, its Ministry of Finance stating that any country ratifying the (still to be drafted) Articles of Agreement before the end of 2015 can still officially become a 'founding' member. 

What is the optimal strategy? Burns' dictum prompts a question: where can Australia achieve the greatest leverage? Consider three scenarios.

In Scenario 1, Australia declines to join the AIIB. The Bank will be established anyway, but Australia will have zero leverage over its structure and operations. Moreover, if the refusal is interpreted as evidence of Canberra simply doing Washington's bidding, it will reduce perceptions that Australia can offer an independent voice on regional issues.

In Scenario 2, Australia expresses a willingness to be involved in (or at least observe) negotiations for the AIIB's Articles of Agreement over the next 12 months. Let's assume these Articles of Agreement offer weak protections on matters like environmental protection, procurement and governance, or it is clear from the drafting that Beijing will be unconstrained in using the Bank to pursue its strategic interests. In this situation Australia would have some leverage: it could refuse to ratify the final agreement, making a statement such as 'having witnessed the drafting process, we conclude that the AIIB fails to meet international norms'. Such a public withdrawal would undermine the Bank's credibility before it even began, and thus is a scenario Beijing would want to avoid. The threat of withdrawal would accordingly provide Australia with leverage during the drafting process.

In Scenario 3, the Articles of Agreement are sufficiently robust and Australia officially becomes a founding member. But what if, over the succeeding years, China uses its outsized voting power (or some other tactic) to circumvent the rules, and AIIB-sponsored projects end up falling well short of international standards, or are used perversely to advance Chinese interests?

Even then, Canberra would retain some leverage. Participating in the Bank's operations would give Australian officials insight into how decisions are made, as well as the capacity to monitor projects on the ground. If the creation or running of a project sparked grave concern, Australia could again threaten to withdraw from the Bank. After all, no international agreement is permanent; countries always retain the ability to pull out. But again, an Australian withdrawal would undermine the Bank's credibility, especially if Australia chose to make its knowledge of impropriety public. As in Scenario 2, the potential for withdrawal offers Australia ongoing leverage in the Bank's operations.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that China (or any other country) will necessarily seek to use the AIIB for nakedly strategic purposes. Rather, this post is a thought experiment to determine where Australia's leverage is greatest. As William Burns counsels, Canberra should connect that leverage to strategy. In this case, leverage comes from participation. Strategy should accordingly follow.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Moura Pinheiro.


It is certainly fitting to examine Gough Whitlam's foreign policy record and considerable achievements. However, in seeking to whitewash the controversy over Whitlam's role leading up to Indonesia's brutal invasion of East Timor in December 1975, Gary Hogan's piece does us all a great disservice.

I concede that it would have been a difficult task to dissuade Indonesia from this course by mid-1975, and that a more principled policy may have led to some cooling in bilateral relations. But what Hogan offers us is bad history and an even worse ethics.

In my most recent book, Ethics and Global SecurityI and my co-authors argue that ethics is not an optional add-on to questions of international security. Rather, bad ethical choices will cause more insecurity, for more people, and create lasting damage that future generations are forced to repair. This is surely true of East Timor.

In my ANU doctoral research, published as In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety, I wondered what might have been different had key policymakers, including Whitlam, worried more about this. To their lasting credit, some, like former Foreign Affairs head Alan Renouf and former Secretary of the Department of Defence Bill Pritchett, did so.

Here I will simply address two of Hogan's most misleading claims, then consider — using the historical record — what might have been done to avert the tragedy. How it reflects on Whitlam, readers can decide for themselves.

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First, Hogan's claim that: 'Armchair strategists have accused Whitlam of giving Suharto a sly wink during their meetings, virtually assuring him of Australia's acquiescence in the event of East Timor's annexation by force. The written record does not support this.'

I assure readers that the record does in fact confirm this. There is an official record of the meeting published by DFAT in its collection of documents about the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor, along with statements Whitlam made to parliament after the civil war and a private message he sent to Soeharto saying that 'nothing he had said earlier should be interpreted as a veto on Indonesian action in the changed circumstances'.

Hogan continues: 'But if it did, there were understandable contemporary factors at play...Early indications were that Fretilin would kill more East Timorese than Indonesia ever might.'

This is the first time in almost 30 years of study that I have heard such a claim, which is grossly misleading. What we have is the evidence of the fighting during the August civil war and Fretilin's conduct after they won, which showed no evidence of widespread repression or reprisals. The brief war was brutal and some crimes were certainly committed, leaving a bitter legacy with the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT). 

Yet apparently, Indonesia would not kill large numbers, says Hogan: 'Neither Whitlam nor Ford, perhaps not even Suharto, had any way of predicting how stubborn Falantil's resistance would be, or how brutally oppressive Indonesia would become as a colonising power.'

What everyone knew is that Indonesia's military and Suharto initiated the massacres of Indonesian communists and leftists in 1965 (I have read Keith Shann's cables sent from our Jakarta embassy in October-November of that year), and drove and directed the violence. It was widely predicted during 1975 that similar violence would be visited on the Timorese if Indonesia invaded, as the war crime at Balibo and the massacres in Dili during the invasion would attest. Prior to the invasion, The Age even published a cartoon by Bruce Petty: a line of Indonesian tanks labelled '1966 massacre of PKI' headed in the direction of a sign saying 'East Timor'. Earlier that year our Lisbon ambassador, Frank Cooper, cabled Canberra about Portugal's concerns about Indonesian intervention because 'they foresee a bloodbath in Timor unless there can be some supervision of Indonesian actions on the ground'. And Bill Pritchett's briefs for the Defence Minister certainly warned of a long guerrilla war.

Hogan's other misleading claim is this: 'In addition to the threat of chaos under Fretilin, the active support of communist regimes around Asia was an article of Chinese Communist Party policy in 1975. At the height of the Cold War, communist rule in Dili was as inimical to Australia's interests as it was intolerable to Jakarta.'

It was well known that Fretilin was split between social democrats and a small group of Marxists, and that the moderates were far more dominant, charismatic and effective. The historical record shows that Fretilin's leadership made many efforts to reach out to the Australians and the Indonesians (as did the UDT, something its leader Joao Carrascalao confirmed to me personally many years later, when I asked him about his meetings with Indonesia's intelligence chief Ali Moertopo). 

Could things have been different? What we know is that Alan Renouf first drafted a policy for Whitlam prior to the Prime Minister's 1974 visit to Indonesia that supported East Timor's self-determination, yet promised we would work with Indonesia to prevent the new state from threatening its stability. Whitlam changed the policy on the run. The next year, Renouf tried to raise the same points privately with Indonesia, but Whitlam had already cut the ground from under him. How much bloodshed and horror, and how much damage to Indonesia's international reputation, may have been averted had Renouf's policy worked?

Let the words of Nobel Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta highlight the tragedy here. In February 1975, UDT and Fretilin had jointly cabled Canberra begging for Australia to support talks between themselves, Australia and Indonesia 'for cooperation towards peace stability SEA (Southeast Asia)'. This request was ignored by Whitlam. Years later , in his book Funu, Horta despaired at how 'all our assurances of friendship, co-operation, membership of ASEAN, a foreign policy that was tantamount to Finlandisation of East Timor—all fell on deaf ears. In retrospect, I cannot see what assurances and concessions we could have offered to buy our own survival.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bobby Graham.


A Soviet Backfire bomber escorted by a Norwegian F-16, 1988. (Wikipedia.)

My thanks to colleague Anthony Bubalo for alerting me to this extraordinary 2013 paper published by the US Naval War College all about how the Soviet Union planned to hit America's aircraft carrier fleet in the event of war (h/t also to Information Dissemination, where Anthony found the paper).

The article is written by former Soviet naval officer Maksim Tokarev, and contains a depth of detail about Soviet military operations that I have never seen before. So there's plenty of red meat for the military wonks, including the fact that the Soviets planned to send a fleet of 100 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles against a US aircraft-carrier battle group, fully expecting to lose half of them to enemy action.

But there's also wit and drama, which you rarely find in these types of papers. Here's an account of an air-crew briefing for a mock raid by Soviet Backfire bombers (pictured) on a US carrier fleet somewhere in the Pacific:

...a young second lieutenant...fresh from the air college, asked the senior navigator of the regiment, an old major: “Sir, tell me why we have a detailed flight plan to the target over the vast ocean, but only a rough dot-and-dash line across Hokkaido Island on way back?”

“Son,” answered the major calmly, “if your crew manages to get the plane back out of the sky over the carrier by any means, on half a wing broken by a Phoenix (ed. note: the name of a missile carried by the US Navy's F-14 fighters) and a screaming prayer, no matter whether it’s somewhere over Hokkaido or directly through the moon, it’ll be the greatest possible thing in your entire life!”

Tokarev also writes that the naval air force, tasked with sending its bombers against US carrier fleets, did not trust the targeting information they got from satellites or other intelligence methods. 'The most reliable source of targeting of carriers at sea was the direct-tracking ship' or 'd-tracker', a destroyer or other ship that shadows the US fleet constantly in peacetime, sending back coordinates just in case war breaks out. And when it does?

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It was extremely clear that if a war started, these ships would be sent to the bottom immediately. Given that, the commanding officer of each had orders to behave like a rat caught in a corner: at the moment of war declaration or when specifically ordered, after sending the carrier's position by radio, he would shell the carrier's flight deck with gunfire...He could even ram the carrier, and some trained their ship's companies to do so; the image of a “near miss,” of the bow of a Soviet destroyer passing just clear of their own ship's quarter, is deeply impressed in the memory of some people who served on board US aircraft carriers in those years.

One other incredible detail about the targeting of US carrier battle groups:

...if you see a carrier in plain sight, the only problem to solve is how to radio reliably the reports and targeting data against the US electronic countermeasures. Ironically, since the time lag of Soviet military communication systems compared to the NATO ones is quite clear, the old Morse wireless telegraph used by the Soviet ships was the long-established way to solve that problem...While obsolete, strictly speaking, and very limited in information flow, Morse wireless communication was long the most serviceable for the Soviet Navy, owing to its simplicity and reliability.


Sam Roggeveen recently pointed to an article by Peter Gumble which asked whether Germany will ever escape its past. Gumble pointed to one of the first rationales for the European project: the formation of the  EU as a bulwark against a German-caused conflict in Europe. He argues that this is still used as a justification for the EU, but that it won't be enough for future generations of Europeans.

This line of reasoning ultimately falls short in two important aspects. First, Germany has atoned for the worst ever state-led crime in history, the Holocaust, and continues to do so. Contrary to other countries under the banner of fascism until 1945, there is not even a trace of an official German excuse or justification for its Nazi past. Whether this also applies to the collective memory of the Germans is another question.

The eminent historian and philosopher of the Holocaust, Saul Friedländer, has in a recent publication examined the ebb and flow of the formation of the collective memory surrounding the Holocaust, both in Germany and globally. This collective memory is in part reflected by the tremendous echo generated by Holocaust (NBC TV miniseries, 1977), Shoa (directed by Claude Lanzmann, 1985) and Schindler's List (directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the book by Thomas Kennealy, 1993). Friedländer's conclusion is ultimately pessimistic. He believes that the historically correct memory ('Hitler's willing executioners') will fade when the grandchildren of the Germans seduced by Nazi ideology reach adulthood.

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I am not sure whether I can follow him all the way there. My anecdotal experience points to an ongoing no-go zone of Nazism and Hitlerism respected by most Germans, young and old. The exception, in form of a right-wing fringe, continues to be relatively small, and their motives are as much conditioned by 'traditional' xenophobia as by Nazi nostalgia. 

Also, prominent and formerly respected German writers such as Martin Walser, Günther Grass and Botho Strauss, connected in some form with Germany's Nazi past, have all suffered serious blows to their reputation.

Thus, it can be said that Die EU als friedensprojekt ('The EU as peace project') continues to resonate with young people in Germany and throughout Europe. More so, as the peace rationale not only covers Europe's 70 year-old past but also includes more recent sorry chapters of the continent's history, such as the violent implosion of the former Yugoslavia.

Second, the peace narrative has been supplemented by two more compelling reasons for the growing relevance of European unity. In the Asian Century, with the Indo-Pacific replacing the North-Atlantic as global fulcrum, only the EU, not individual European countries, will be entitled to take a seat at the global high table. The change from the G-8 to the G-20 is the first step in this direction and will be followed by more reductions of European over-representation in international governance bodies. 

The third and often overlooked pillar of growing European unity is the EU as a cooperative platform to tackle the big challenges. Anybody who has worked or traveled within the Schengen area realises the tremendous advantages of this transnational area of free movement. The correlative to free movement within is of course the management of a common European border, highlighted by the wave of illegal immigrants stemming from the south. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that this monumental challenge could be better managed country by country. Mayhem, mistrust and tit-for-tat policies by individual countries would ensue if UKIP and other Le Pens were put in charge and able to apply their misguided isolationist credo. Notwithstanding the recent ballyhoo about one seat in the UK House of Commons (of how many hundreds again?), this is definitely not about to happen. 

European unity is here to stay. It will grow in fits and starts, as is to be expected for such an ambitious undertaking. But it will grow, partly because of the uniquely dark European past in the first half of the 20th century (for its Western part) and through to 1990s (for its Eastern part). But more and more, it will grow because it is the only imaginable way for the continent to stay relevant and prosperous in the world at the dawn of the 21st century.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Malik_Braun.


Diplomacy is a French-German film set in 1944 about Hitler's order that Paris be destroyed before it can be retaken by the Allies. It centres on the intense discussions between the German general who has to give the order and a Swedish diplomat trying to dissuade him.

The New Yorker's David Denby writes:

...the movie presents an argument between civilization and barbarism, between the pleasure principle and the death instinct. But the filmmakers mostly avoid high-flown rhetoric in favor of the intensely practical give-and-take of negotiation. (Director Volker) Schlöndorff, dedicating the movie to the late Richard Holbrooke, makes a case that diplomacy can solve the most intricately knotted problems. As Hemingway wrote, in a slightly different context, it would be pretty to think so.


In this debate, both Thomas Mahnken and Elbridge Colby argue that a secure sea-based second-strike capability might embolden China to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy.

Their arguments are based on an article by Thomas Christensen, which drew the conclusion that China's nuclear strategy is based on a textbook of the PLA's Second Artillery Corps, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, which calls for blurring the line between conventional and nuclear war.

Christensen's conclusion is problematic for several reasons.

First, the Second Artillery is responsible for implementing China's nuclear strategy, not making it. This is the responsibility of China's top political leadership.

Second, Christensen mistranslates a critical term and misunderstands the cultural context in which the textbook was written. Christensen interprets the terms of 'conventional war under nuclear deterrence', 'double deterrence' and 'nuclear forces as a shield for conventional forces' as if China would combine nuclear and conventional coercive means to achieve its diplomatic objectives. But the original meaning in Chinese is that if an adversary were to use nuclear forces as coercion against China in a conventional conflict, China would need its own nuclear capabilities to deter this potential coercion.

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Rather than emboldening China to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, a secure nuclear retaliatory capability will give China an equal footing in which to fight a conventional war with the US, where neither side could coerce the other with nuclear weapons. Recall that the direct driving factor of China's nuclear weapons program was the nuclear threats from America during the Korean War and Taiwan Crisis. China has already achieved mutual deterrence with America, and current China-US strategic relations are stable. However, US homeland missile defence has the potential to neutralise China's nuclear deterrent, and China may be forced to build up its nuclear arsenal in order to restore strategic stability.

Thomas Mahnken also mentioned the 'consequential' fact that China apparently, to some extent, co-mingles the deployment and command and control of its nuclear and conventional forces. While sharing his concern on possible escalation, two points have to be made.

First, China does operate both conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles, but China does not deliberately co-locate its conventional and nuclear missiles to confuse its adversary. Conventional and nuclear missiles require different operating sites, so technically it is not easy to co-locate them. Besides, co-locating different missiles to confuse the adversary would undermine the survivability of China's nuclear forces, which is not in China's interest.

Second, every country to some extent, including America, co-mingles the deployment and command and control of its nuclear and conventional forces. For example, America co-mingles the deployment of its SSNs and SSBNs, and US strategic bombers could be used for both conventional and nuclear purposes.

Potential China-US conflict escalation is a focus of current international relations scholarship. China is developing asymmetric means (in American terms, anti-access/area denial capabilities) to counter superior US military forces, and accordingly America is developing the Air-Sea Battle concept to address that. We should make it very clear that it is the interaction between these strategies that would cause escalation, rather than the strategies themselves. In order to understand the mechanism and try to reduce the escalatory risk, we need to analyze both sides' strategies and their interaction.

Simply blaming one side is not constructive and will not help.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Hagel.


Gough Whitlam with the author in Manila, 1973.

Gough Whitlam had political courage and a vision for Australia. A forward-looking, pragmatic realist, he sought to reshape Australia's approach to the countries of North and Southeast Asia, the region in which we are forever situated.

It was stimulating to be a senior official in the then Department of Foreign Affairs when Gough became prime minister on 2 December 1972 and the winds of change swept so forcefully through this country. Three days after his election, Whitlam said:

...the change of Government provides a new opportunity for us to reassess a wide range of Australian foreign policies and attitudes...the general direction of my thinking is towards a more independent Australian stance in international affairs, an Australia which will be less militarily orientated and not open to suggestions of racism; an Australia which will enjoy a growing standing as a distinctive, tolerant, co-operative and well regarded nation not only in the Asia Pacific region but in the world at large.

Whitlam certainly did 'reassess a wide range of Australian foreign policies and attitudes'. It was Whitlam who pushed through Australia's transfer of recognition from Taiwan to China and the need to substantially develop relations with Indonesia, our large and growing neighbour of increasing importance.

Whitlam redirected Australian foreign policy away from its established World War II roots based largely on the 'anglosphere'. He also acknowledged that the US and its allies, including Australia, had virtually lost the war against North Vietnam. He completed the withdrawal of Australian forces from the Vietnam War and abolished conscription, which was feeding young Australian troops into a losing conflict.

On East Timor, Whitlam's critics maintain he gave 'the green light' to Suharto for the Indonesian invasion in December 1975. Between 1973 and 1975 I was present at all Whitlam's meetings with Suharto (in Jakarta, Wonosobo, the Dieng Plateau, and in Townsville and Magnetic Island in Queensland). Gough told Suharto he believed the best outcome of the decolonisation of this neglected Portuguese colony would be for it to become part of Indonesia. But he maintained this would need an educational process of some years in East Timor, Portugal and Indonesia, followed by an act of self-determination.

Indonesia knew at the highest levels that Australia would not condone the use of force. Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December, almost a month after Gough had ceased to be the prime minister.

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Gough's active and productive involvement in foreign affairs was not without error. I think it was a mistake to confirm that Australia recognised Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of the Soviet Union. And while Gough made some good diplomatic appointments — for example Stephen Fitzgerald to Beijing and Mick Shann to Tokyo — he also made the bad political appointment of Senator Vince Gair to Ireland.

Gough has been criticised for damaging relations with the US. I accompanied Gough on his visit to Washington in 1973. President Nixon and Dr Kissinger were annoyed by the Australian Government's changing attitude to Vietnam and Cambodia. In my view, their criticism was fed largely by highly critical remarks made by other ministers such as Jim Cairns, Clive Cameron and Tom Uren.

Gough was determined to pursue an independent Australian foreign policy within the framework of the alliance with the US. He believed the alliance did not equate to compliance, and that understanding China's policies and role in the region did not equate to supporting it where we had disagreements.

Gough was attuned to the end of Western colonialism and wanted to avoid Australia being seen as the last European colonial power in the region. It was for this reason that he wanted to hasten the movement of Papua New Guinea towards independence, which he did in close co-operation with then Chief Minister Michael Somare. 

His strong support of an Australian republic was reinforced naturally by his dismissal by the Governor General. But he also saw the need for an Australian republic in the wider context of Australia's identity in the world. He saw the final public abandonment of the White Australia policy, which he acknowledged was started by Prime Minister Harold Holt in the late '60s, in the same light.

I had many conversations with Gough Whitlam over a period of 45 years. I recall clearly that he said to me in 1973, 'I have always had a long-standing and deep belief that we must have good relationships with China, Indonesia and Japan as well as with the United States and Great Britain.'

It was a pleasure to travel with him. While he expected well informed, culturally sensitive and carefully evaluated advice from officials, he was receptive to other views. I observed during these trips that many leaders were impressed by Gough's knowledge of their countries, histories and cultures, which he was often able to relate to Australia. This was particularly evident in his eight hours of discussion with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. In Manila the head of the Catholic church, Cardinal Sin, was surprised when Gough detected a mistake in a Latin inscription in the Manila Cathedral. After checking, the Cardinal had it changed.

Gough had an excellent and at times self deprecating sense of humour. There are many stories I could quote, but two will have to suffice.

On an official visit to Papua New Guinea we attended a colourful Sing-Sing in Goroka. A local who was very short in stature and wearing little more than bird of paradise feathers on his head and red and white football socks on his feet was standing beside me looking at Gough and me. I realised he wanted some explanation. I had acquired some very rusty Pidgin, and when he next pointed at Gough, I said to the Papua New Guinean, 'Him long fella number one belong Australia.'

An Australian official turned to me. 'Do you realise you have just referred to the Prime Minister as the biggest prick in the country?'

Overhearing this, Gough said to me, 'Thank you comrade. Not all my attributes are known to public servants.'

Another story I recall was when I was travelling with Gough on a somewhat criticised visit he made to 15 countries in four weeks. In The Netherlands, as we waited in an outer office to call on the prime minister, Gough browsed through the London Times. He looked up and said, 'Have you seen this comrade? Guinea-Bissau, Bangladesh and Grenada have just been admitted to the United Nations. They are creating these countries more quickly than I can visit them.'

Gough was a towering figure in the pantheon of regional leaders. I am proud to have served him as a foreign policy adviser and from March 1975 as ambassador to Indonesia.


Forecasts of China's growth always attract interest, even when they are a year old. Larry Summers and Lant Prichett are getting another good run with the paper they published last year (see my earlier post), which analyses emerging-economy growth in general, but of China and India in particular.

There is sophisticated econometrics here, but the key argument is a simple but powerful rule-of-thumb: 'reversion to the mean'. One of the great insights (not just in economics) is that natural phenomena vary around a mean, and when there is an observation well away from it, chances are the following observation will be closer to the average. You might flip a coin and get three 'heads' in a row, but the best forecast for the next toss is still 50:50. Applying this rule-of-thumb to China tells Summers and Pritchett that it's growth rate during the three decades before 2008 is an outlier in the history of global economic growth, and so in the future there is likely to be a lot less, and somewhere around the mean.

Economics has other rules-of-thumb which would support the idea that China's growth will slow. Herb Stein's famous 'law' is that 'unsustainable events don't go on forever'. And of course 'trees don't grow to the sky'.

But a powerful case can be made that reversion to the mean of global economic growth is not the most likely outcome for China, at least any time soon.

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Even the most powerful rules-of-thumb must be used in the right context. Let's start with another one, the rule of convergence. In the right circumstances, poor countries will converge towards the levels of per capita GDP achieved by the mature economies, because the technology to do so already exists. Accumulating the necessary capital and technology has been done before by quite a few countries. If they can do it, why not China and India? In this context, the more relevant mean is the average per capita GDP in mature economies. China and India have a long path of potential convergence –adding capital and technology – before they will run into the technological frontier where the mature economies currently are.

What about another favourite rule-of-thumb: the story of the statistician who drowned while crossing a river with an average depth of only a metre? The moral here is that there is a range of experiences – often widely different – hidden within the average. True, Brazil had more than two decades with no growth at all in per capita income. On the other hand Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong (and earlier, Japan) had quite long periods of fairly sustained economic growth which have taken them to high levels of per-capital income. What relevance does Brazil's failed growth experience have for China? It's a warning that you can mess things up for a sustained period, but China already knows this from its own experience.

Where does this leave us? It's stale news to say that China can't sustain the double-digit economic growth that occurred in the three decades before 2008. Since then, China's underlying growth has been 7-8%, with an exceptional year in 2010 when there was a gigantic temporary policy stimulus. Proper analysis shouldn't rely too much on the average experience of all emerging economies (many of them clearly quite different from China), but look at the variety of experience in the convergence process, and ask if China's actual circumstances will allow it to mimic the success stories rather than the failures. 

The serious debate is whether China can sustain an underlying rate of economic growth around the current pace or whether there are specific factors, such as financial problems, environment, demographics and rebalancing difficulties, which could take this down to 3%, as Michael Pettis argues. The history of emerging economies tells us that it's easy to mess up and fall off the convergence path. But China has done pretty well for the past three decades, and that experience is relevant to the forecast.

To look at these specifics is more useful than thinking in terms of 'reversion to the global mean'. If China achieves even 5% growth until 2050, it will reach OECD average per capita GDP. That's amazing, but not unrealistic.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Richard Atkinson.


As commentators rightly eulogise Gough Whitlam's foreign policy achievements, most of the attention has focused on his grand outreach to communist China and the independence of Papua New Guinea. These two acts were conspicuous hallmarks of Whitlam's game-changing diplomatic moments.

A 1979 Peter Nicholson cartoon from The Australian on then Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock's attitude to Indonesia's treatment of East Timor.

However, in terms of hard-nosed negotiating and high stakes versus high ideals, China and PNG were relatively easy accomplishments. Whitlam was pushing on an open door in both China and PNG, both of whom stood to gain from his gestures. Measured by degree of difficulty and complexity of task, Whitlam's engagement with Suharto's Indonesia is an even greater testament to a visionary statesman who put Australia's national interests above all else, including domestic politics.

The reason Australian governments today instinctively comprehend Indonesia's overriding importance to our national interests can be sheeted home mainly to Gough Whitlam.

But Whitlam was seized by the importance of Asia to Australia even before he entered politics, witnessing the decline of colonial power and influence in our region through the eyes of a World War II airman. Although Whitlam's handling of relations with Indonesia has been criticised by some, mainly over the issue of Portuguese Timor's independence, this stems from writing history retrospectively. The actions of leaders and decision-makers cannot be evaluated through a contemporary lens. Whitlam's dealings with Suharto and his involvement in the events which led to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor may only be fairly assessed in context.

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A typical 30-something Australian in 1975 had grown up against a backdrop of World War II, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, an undeclared conflict in Borneo, and the Vietnam War. In 1975, the Cold War was raging, with both Saigon and Phnom Penh falling to communist forces in April of that year. Almost all of Whitlam's senior cabinet ministers had direct personal experience of world war.

War was a clear and present reality of the international system, while the culture of violence was far more acceptable than it is today. To some extent this explains how a 1965 pogrom, where between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed, could pass largely unremarked by the outside world.

By contrast, a 30-something Australian in 2014 has never witnessed open warfare in our region. Despite territorial disputes in North Asia and contested waters in Southeast Asia, it is almost unthinkable that miscalculation might convert these flashpoints into armed conflict. We are products of our Weltanschauung ('worldview'). So was our 21st prime minister. Any criticism of his handling of East Timor's self-determination needs to take this into account.

While Indonesian President Suharto had met Prime Minister William McMahon in 1972, relations between Australia and Indonesia had laboured under the shadow of Konfrontasi until Whitlam's visit to Jakarta in 1973. 

Suharto dealt with nine Australian prime ministers throughout his 32-year presidency. Notwithstanding the warmth of his relationship with Paul Keating, Suharto first showed genuine respect and admiration for an Australian prime minister in 1974. In one of the more bizarre vignettes of Australian diplomacy, Suharto took Whitlam to a secret cave in the Dieng Plateau, near his Yogyakarta home. A syncretic Muslim, Suharto often retreated there, alone or with spiritual advisers, to receive the mystic wisdom that helped him guide the Indonesian ship of state. Whitlam, and by extension Australia, had been drawn closer inside Suharto's confidences. 

It was also during this visit that Whitlam expressed to Suharto his preference that Portuguese Timor become integrated into or associated with Indonesia, though in a way that would be acceptable to the Australian people. There is no doubt that Whitlam's clear preference was for the peaceful political integration of East Timor into Indonesia after it was decolonised. There is equally little doubt that Whitlam viewed Australia's paramount interest as maintaining good relations with Indonesia – he said so twice during a meeting with Suharto in Townsville in 1975. Given the unlikelihood that there would ever be the 'measured and deliberate process of decolonisation in Portuguese Timor' described in Australian official policy, Australia's national interests would always trump the aspirations of some East Timorese.

Armchair strategists have accused Whitlam of giving Suharto a sly wink during their meetings, virtually assuring him of Australia's acquiescence in the event of East Timor's annexation by force. The written record does not support this. But if it did, there were understandable contemporary factors at play.

Early indications were that Fretilin would kill more East Timorese than Indonesia ever might. The millions who died during Angola's civil war, which also followed Portugal's precipitous withdrawal, are a salutary reminder of this very real possibility (not to mention the violent seizure of power by Frelimo in Mozambique). There is no doubt that the violent aspects of Fretilin were whitewashed by the mainstream Australian press after 1975. Some theories attribute this overly sympathetic treatment of Fretilin to squaring up the ledger with Indonesia for the Balibo Five killings. 

In addition to the threat of chaos under Fretilin, the active support of communist regimes around Asia was an article of Chinese Communist Party policy in 1975. At the height of the Cold War, communist rule in Dili was as inimical to Australia's interests as it was intolerable to Jakarta.  

If Whitlam, knowingly or unknowingly, reassured Suharto over the invasion of East Timor, he was hardly alone among world leaders. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger had met with Suharto in Jakarta literally hours before Operation Seroja (the occupation of Dili by force) was launched. It is easy to imagine Suharto receiving two nods and two winks from the US President and his Secretary of State. It is hard to imagine the Americans did not inform Australian diplomats of what had transpired.

Neither Whitlam nor Ford, perhaps not even Suharto, had any way of predicting how stubborn Falantil's resistance would be, or how brutally oppressive Indonesia would become as a colonising power.

Whitlam, for one, had other preoccupations from Remembrance Day 1975 until Indonesia's invasion of East Timor on 7 December. A caretaker government was holding the reins in Canberra. The nation's constitutional crisis and an acrimonious election campaign eclipsed concerns over the Indonesian military operation unfolding one hour's flying time from Darwin.

For all the hurly burly of domestic politics in early December 1975, caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had a message passed to Suharto through Australia's Ambassador in Indonesia Richard Woolcott, assuring Suharto that, should Fraser become prime minister, he hoped for the same kind of personal relationship Whitlam enjoyed with the Indonesian President. De jure recognition of Indonesian dominion over East Timor was given by the Fraser Government several years after the 1975 invasion (see Nicholson cartoon above from 1979).

Whitlam had set the bar for Australia-Indonesia relations. Fraser and all subsequent Australian leaders have understood the national self-interest inherent in the current Government's 'Jakarta not Geneva' maxim.

In his time, Suharto remained the most reliable friend Australia had in the region, despite the best efforts of some to derail the relationship. For his part, Whitlam always remained tight-lipped on any mystic wisdom he may have imparted to Suharto in a Javanese cave in 1974. 

Image courtesy of nicholsoncartoons.com.au