Lowy Institute
  • Pakistan's Interior Minister is concerned Indian intelligence may be using social media to spread rumours that could bring down the morale of Pakistani forces.
  • Five experts review and respond to Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age, a new book by former British Ambassador Tom Fletcher.
  • There's a new tool to take down terrorism images posted online. Is it a game changer?
  • Israeli diplomat @EladRatson on how Israel became a digital diplomacy powerhouse and (allegedly) the first country to use algorithms and code to revolutionise public diplomacy.
  • The US State Department has changed its approach to countering ISIS messaging abroad.
  • Power has been drastically realigned and this academic argues Canada needs a whole-of-government digital strategy in order to engage with the emerging global digital system.
  • Emoji gender equality is finally here and emoji users now have more diverse female options than salsa dancer, princess and bride. 
  • An Al Jazeera debate on whether the UN's #NextSG process is transparent enough.
  • Turkey's President turned to social media to help foil last weekend's coup; it's not the only way cyberpower shaped Turkey's future this week.
  • As China considers its options on how to manage new forms of media, a boutique agency run by Egyptian Sameh El-Shahat is behind a series of online videos promoting China's global ties. 
  • Bougainville (approx. population: 300,000) must have one of the world's smallest communications budgets, which is why this video is so impressive.
  • NZ's Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief executive on how his diplomats are easing into the world of social media.
  • New app game PokemonGO may be the digital phenomenon of the decade and it's no surprise to see governments (including UK, Canada and Italy) jumping in on the action given the enormous potential:  


In less than 24 hours, Papua New Guineans will know the fate of  Prime Minister Peter O’Neill when the national parliament sits for a vote of no-confidence. There are three possible scenarios: O'Neill may survive the vote; he may opt to relinquish the nation’s highest office to a colleague; or, worse, he will be deposed unexpectedly in the manner of some of his predecessors. It is difficult to predict what outcome will prevail in a country known fittingly as the ‘the land of the unexpected'. 

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last year (Photo: DFAT)

Should O’Neill survive the vote, he will declare his uttermost respect for the constitutional processes. He will claim to have duly followed a court order, to have respected the people’s wish by subjecting himself to the vote, and to have survived with the confidence of MPs who have the best interests of the nation at heart. His victory speech will be aimed at discrediting his critics. He will use the victory as important ammunition to change the narrative against him. A victory for O’Neill may dishearten those who perceive the vote of no-confidence to be the ‘last straw.’

In the second scenario, O’Neill will step aside and allow the government caucus to nominate a new prime minister within the coalition. Writing from Alotau where government MPs are meeting, one of O’Neill’s staunch supporters and leader of Social Democratic Party, Powes Parkop revealed that 'we (MPs) are …putting pressure on him (O’Neill) and trying to advise him to face the allegations and step aside'.

If this is true, one of the MPs closest to O’Neill may be nominated. Opposition Leader Don Polye also hinted that the underlying priority is to replace Peter O’Neill, not the government. A replacement PM from within government ranks is more likely given these sentiments, and the fact that government MPs outnumber the opposition's two to one.

Should O’Neill insist on staying in power he risks an unexpected desertion by his colleagues. This would bring a humiliating end to his controversial reign.

Read More

O’Neill may insist on staying because leaving the prime ministerial position would reduce his grip on the police force and make him more vulnerable to mounting corruption allegations. However, the bloody protests, ongoing workers’ strikes, and worsening economic conditions might prompt MPs to consider that O’Neill’s insistence on staying would be primarily in his own interests, and not for the stability and welfare of the nation.

The defection of Petroleum Minister Ben Micah to the opposition exemplified this possibility. Micah argued that 'as a responsible person who has concerns, I cannot sit in a government that is slowly allowing the country to (fall) into hell'. Many Papua New Guineans would expect the same from their MPs tomorrow — to 'be conscious of the issues out there', and not within.

If tomorrow’s no-confidence vote succeeds, it will be the fourth such vote to unseat a prime minister since PNG gained its Independence in 1975. The merits of the scheme have been debated at length. Former Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan once confessed that the fear of it often meant a prime minister has to spend ‘quite disproportionate amount of his time and energy keeping individual politicians “happy"'.

But the PNG Supreme Court has held that ‘a vote of no confidence is an integral part and a legitimate process of a democratic Parliament’ that ‘should never be curtailed or suppressed.’ The Court rightly ordered a recall of the PNG Parliament after it was abruptly adjourned to diffuse a potential vote of no-confidence on the back of shooting at an unarmed student protest in June. 

For many, the question now is who will be the next prime minister, if not Peter O’Neill? But that misses the point. The most critical issue for the country at this juncture is who is 'fit' to be PM.

Any party leader within the government and the opposition would happily claim the office, but would he or she be a ‘fit and proper’ person? After this relentless and bloody pursuit to remove O’Neill, Papua New Guineans should not be content with achieving a new national leader tomorrow. Rather, they should demand their future prime ministers adhere to a higher moral and ethical standard. 

12 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

Dr Michael Leach makes a number of inaccurate claims in his Interpreter post: 'The PCA ruling, Australia and Timor-Leste'.

Dr Leach asserts Australia is engaged in a ‘two-step’ in its approach to international law with China and Timor-Leste. He also appears to accept a premise of Australia’s ‘persistent refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste’. The facts, however, are quite different.

Australia takes a consistent approach, whether in relation to the Timor Sea or the South China Sea. We believe parties to disputes should resolve them peacefully, in accordance with international law. This is the approach Australia and Timor-Leste have taken in the Timor Sea. 

In previous negotiations, Australia and Timor-Leste were unable to reach agreement on permanent boundaries. As an alternative, both countries agreed to put in place arrangements to enable joint development of the resources. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea actively encourages countries this type of approach. It’s a practical way of working together to overcome disputes. The arrangements between Timor-Leste and Australia have been cited as best practice.

Far from a ‘refusal to negotiate’, Australia in fact has made significant concessions. Under our joint arrangements, Timor-Leste receives the vast bulk of revenues (90% of the Joint Petroleum Development Area). This has allowed it to develop a US$16 billion petroleum fund.

Australia takes its treaty obligations seriously and believes in sticking to the agreements we have made. This is an expression of our respect for international law.

Dr Leach claims that CMATS is ‘inoperative’ but this is not the case.

Read More

CMATS provides for a 50/50 revenue split between Australia and Timor-Leste, despite 80% of Greater Sunrise lying in an area of exclusive Australian seabed jurisdiction. Greater Sunrise will be developed when the Greater Sunrise Joint Venture and both governments agree on a development plan.

Australia’s long-standing preference is to resolve maritime boundary issues through negotiation. This is common practice and international law specifically allows this. Around 30 countries including Canada, Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Mexico and France, take the same approach.

Importantly, where a country takes Australia to an international court or tribunal, Australia engages in that process. In fact, we are participating in two arbitrations initiated by Timor-Leste and we will abide by the decisions of the arbitrators. We have called on the parties to the South China Sea arbitration to do the same.

We are also participating in a separate conciliation process initiated by Timor-Leste. The conciliation will be heard by a five-member commission appointed by Australia and Timor-Leste. Although a conciliation is not a legally binding process, Australia is engaging in the process in good faith, in accordance with our international legal obligations. 

Despite our differences, Australia is, and will remain, committed to our relationship with Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s stability and prosperity are important to Australia and a key focus of our bilateral engagement, including through our $93.7 million aid program.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yeowatzup


'May you live in interesting times' is a modern western saying that is often wrongly described as an ancient Chinese curse. But you get the feeling that those working on the Chinese G20 Presidency would be justified in feeling burdened with the curse of an interesting 2016.

G20 finance ministers and central bank governors are preparing to meet in Chengdu, in the Sichuan Province of southwest China, on Friday and Saturday. It will be their third gathering under the Chinese G20 presidency, and their final opportunity before Leaders gather in Hangzhou in early September.

Once again, near term economic challenges seem likely to dominate discussions. The IMF has downgraded its growth forecasts from what it expected three months ago by 0.1%, to 3.1% in 2016 and 3.4% in 2017. The Fund also warned of significant economic, political and institutional uncertainty, which could lead to future downgrades.

Events in recent months have certainly been as surprising as they are significant. Since the last time finance ministers met, voters in the UK have elected to leave the EU; a decision with enormous economic and geostrategic implications for both the UK and EU in coming decades, and broad implications for the way advanced economies are managing the flows of globalisation. IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld has said that Brexit threw a 'spanner in the works' of their world economic forecasts. It is sure to be a prominent topic of discussion over the weekend.

And something that has not even been included in the IMF's analysis is the recent activity in Turkey, a member of the G20’s three-member governing troika (involving each of the past, present and future hosts), which is managing the fallout of an attempted coup. This event will likely have profound ongoing political ramifications in an already uncertain part of the world.

These add to a long list of prominent challenges facing those around the G20 table. To name just a few, there are the risks associated with China's ongoing economic transition, the spillover effects of potential changes in monetary policy settings, elections in the US, an upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy, and the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

And while policymakers continually state their willingness to use all tools at their disposal (monetary, fiscal and structural), doubts remain over how constrained these tools are in a world of disaffected voters, heightened sovereign debt levels and already-accommodative monetary policy settings.

Against this backdrop, the IMF is urging a familiar prescription: political leadership from finance ministers and central bank governors.  We were in a similar situation earlier this year, and the significant global financial market volatility at the start of 2016 and the panama papers scandal in April were not enough to jolt the G20 from its malaise. There are reasons to be cautious about seeing the necessary political leadership this weekend.

Read More

In classic style, China, as G20 host, is likely to push a technical, bureaucratic, long-term agenda. China’s presidency has long promised a vast array of blueprints, action plans, guiding principles, indices, strategies and cooperation initiatives. Such action has been a hallmark of recent agreements by Energy Ministers and Trade Ministers.

As I pointed out in the latest G20 Monitor, the two most recent meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors have shown encouraging signs of incremental progress in areas as broad as financial safety nets, climate finance, international tax, tax transparency, and financial regulation and investment. This meeting will need to be seen as deliver on the platform established at these meetings, and contribute to the ten major results that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi foreshadowed would be delivered to leaders in Hangzhou.

The contributions are undoubtedly positive. However, a technical agenda of positive incremental change is not enough to convince commentators like former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the G20's relevance. As Mohamed El-Erian noted, strange things happen when advanced economies persist in low, non-inclusive growth. And 2016 is just over half way through; there is plenty of time for it to get more interesting.

So we can only hope that 'this meeting is different' and ministers and governors heed the calls to demonstrate political leadership. There needs to be a much clearer sense on how the G20 is managing risks and getting out of the low, non-inclusive growth path. Martin Wolf has suggested several areas of action, which includes reforming capitalism, greater demand support, prosecuting an enhanced tax agenda, and fighting the quacks. These are all sensible areas for the G20 to be involved in.

On a more basic level, if the finance ministers and central bank governors of the economies with the most stake in the current liberal economic order won’t make the political case for preserving it, then who will?

Photo: Getty Images/VCG

11 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

The Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision places more pressure on the US than China, as Washington must now act to support this emphatic judgement. Failure to do so will further weaken America's credibility, and undermine the rules-based order it seeks to preserve.

In order to determine how the US may effectively respond, China's strategy must be understood.

In recent years a number of high profile strategists have described China's South China Sea (SCS) encroachment as 'salami tactics'. Here on The Interpreter, Derek Lundy eloquently explained what is meant by this (though none will eclipse this gem from Yes Prime Minister). Indeed, the depiction of China's approach in the SCS as 'salami tactics' is now a widely accepted norm.

Nevertheless, this is contestable. In my view China is not employing salami tactics at all, but rather a wholly different strategy. This challenges a consensus, and requires a substantive explanation.

To my mind, there are three pre-conditions that need be met for a salami strategy to be employed: 

  • a strategic interest must be contested by two or more opposing actors
  • the aggressor must deliberately calibrate provocations below the thresholds of opposing actors
  • and effective military options without serious escalation are clearly limited.

On all three counts the SCS fails.

Read More

First, while the SCS is claimed by China as sovereign territory, it is not by the US. In the case of the latter, the concerns are expressed in terms of freedom of navigation and the rule of law. There isn't any slicing – China claims the whole of the SCS and is taking strategic steps to enforce that claim.

Contrast this with say, the Berlin blockade, where the Soviet Union was overtly attempting to 'slice' a piece of influence, and it's immediately apparent the SCS is quite different. A modern comparator is the Senkaku islands. The US has explicitly included these islands in its alliance commitment to Japan, therefore the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute would meet this first criterion. 

With regard to the second requirement, there is remarkably little evidence that China is carefully calibrating. Its island reclamation activities have total disregard for how the US might respond, with Beijing taking as given that Washington will cede the strategic space. This is not salami slicing but expressly challenging; the only constraint is American power, not American wrath.

Again, there are plenty of alternative examples for comparison. North Korea's provocations are innumerate, but they are carefully measured. The regime makes sure that while these actions are sufficient in scope to get the world's attention, they are not severe enough to incur a decisive response.

Finally, unlike many flashpoints, America's military options in the SCS are not especially limited. If, for some reason, America perceived China's reclamation as a direct and immediate threat, the US could render those islands inoperable without difficulty. Moreover, the initial objectives would be achieved without a wider conflict, even though escalation may be China's response.

Contrast this with Ukraine, the best example of salami tactics today. Any attempt by NATO to expel Russia from Ukraine militarily would require a massive escalation of an ongoing conflict, carrying immense risk and with great uncertainty over whether the core objective would be achieved.

These distinctions are important, as framing China's actions in the SCS as 'salami tactics' will lead to ineffective policy responses. Accordingly, our apprehension of China's strategy in Asia needs rethinking.

At risk of oversimplification, the respective grand strategies of the major powers may be summed up as follows: The United States plays poker, the Russians chess, and the Chinese — Go.

Poker is based on ambiguity and incomplete information. To that end the nuclear age was made for the Americans. In Europe, the US convinced the Soviets they held pocket aces and would go all-in to defend Europe. This seemed credible. After all, the loss of Western Europe would pose such an existential threat to America that a nuclear war could be initiated to prevent it. To sell the message, the US barrelled the pot with forward deployed bombers and artillery units. The bet was never called, and the Russians ultimately folded.

But this doesn't work in the Asia Pacific. It's hard to sell the idea that China's expansion in the South China Sea poses an existential threat to the US, and distant offshore deterrents don't look like aces. In other words, if the Americans go all-in against China, they're going to be called.

Meanwhile, chess is for the Russians – and salami tactics is for chess players. That is, to play a closed game, gain space through positional play, and gradually improve your freedom of action at the expense of your opponent.

But the Chinese are not playing chess, they're playing Go. The vast majority of China's land borders have been settled, while Beijing rapidly lays stones in the SCS. Given the asymmetric objectives between China (gaining territory) and the US (preserving the existing order), 'flexible response' approaches will not be effective.

So how should the US respond to China's advances in the South China Sea, preferably without hegemonic war?

The US must adjust its strategy and build its own islands in the South China Sea. This has multiple advantages over alternative courses of action, and is the only option likely to be effective long-term. Indeed, it is probably the only response that China will understand.

In the wake of the PCA ruling, now is the perfect time. Washington should undertake land reclamation on behalf of the Philippines, and do so under the auspices that the matter has been settled under international law.

No doubt many will advocate other approaches being exhausted first but, just as with Go, by the time the danger becomes obvious it may well be too late. At which time, America will be praying that its weak 7♠ , 2♥ holding somehow manages to win.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Goode


It has been written before, quite correctly, that a key strategy in dealing with the terrorist threat is national resilience. And one part of developing such resilience is language. The wrong choice of words can unnecessarily inflame or sensationalise a situation. Conversely, rational and thoughtful language can put contemporary issues into perspective and build resilience.

Earlier this week on the Ten Network current affairs program The Project, host Waleed Aly, addressing the Sonia Kruger 'controversy', described himself as scared, afraid for his country and terrified about what the fear of terrorism was doing to friends and family. But this earnest confession was simply another example of the way our socially-mediated society has made words such as 'scared' and 'terrified' rather meaningless.

I say this based on events both one century ago and half a century ago. One hundred years ago this week the 5th Division of the 1st Australian Imperial Force lost more than 1900 dead and 3500 wounded in one day. I can only imagine what terrifying thoughts were going through their minds as they climbed over the top of the trench and into the withering machine gun fire from German forces. And I can only imagine what Australian society did to cope with this national tragedy.

Fifty years ago next month the late Corporal Philip Dobson was on the battlefield in South Vietnam treating wounded Australian soldiers, the other medics in D Company 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment either dead or wounded. With New Zealand artillery fire crashing around him and incoming fire from the Viet Cong shredding the rubber plants around him, he must have been very, very scared.

Rather than deciding which television personality had a right to be scared and to what degree, The Project could have used the events of a century ago at Fromelles to put the terrorist threat into perspective, and the efforts of Corporal Dobson half a century ago to put the concept of fear into perspective.  Because the program was focused on the concerns of two media personalities, an excellent opportunity was lost to use a high-rating television show to help build societal resilience by referring to times when real fears were overcome and real resilience was required.

I wonder what the men of the 5th Division or the rain-soaked soldiers of D Company would have thought of television personalities describing their fears as a result of a terrorist attack that occurred over 10,000 km away, or how the Australian public was able to cope with the death and wounding of 5500 Australians in 24 hours. The currency of fear has certainly been degraded since that time.


One of the biggest manhunts in post-Suharto Indonesia has found its target, and Santoso, Indonesia's most wanted terrorist, is dead.

He was found and shot on 18 July by the elite army unit Kostrad; not by the police who had been searching for him for the last five years. His death has implications for the risk of violence, military-police relations, and the draft anti-terrorism law now being revised in parliament.

Santoso aka Abu Wardah (in cap on right) with confidant Basri aka Bagong (Photo courtesy of Tinombala Operation Task Force)

Santoso's death may mean the end of his group, the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, even if the remaining stragglers manage to hide out for a few months more. But it does not mean the end of terrorism in Indonesia. In fact, the risk of retaliatory action in the short term is high, although the capacity of would-be terrorists remains low.

The 40-year old Santoso was a not-very-bright commander whose ego vastly exceeded his skills. He stepped into the role of field commander at a critical time, however, after police had broken up a training camp in Aceh in early 2010 and discovered a gold mine of information that led to the arrests or deaths of dozens of senior jihadi figures. The toll on terrorists from post-Aceh operations turned police into their number one enemy and Santoso entered the fray with gusto. By the time he was shot, he was responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen police and had tried to kill many more.

Read More

He may have called himself the Zarqawi of Indonesia, after the late insurgent leader in Iraq, but in fact he could not see very far beyond the town of Poso. Even after he swore allegiance to the new 'caliph' of ISIS in July 2014, his goal was more to attack Detachment 88, the counter-terrorism unit of the police, than to achieve any ideological or religious goal.

But in the course of his five-year campaign in the jungle outside Poso, he and a few more capable adjutants managed to train more than a hundred extremists in basic military tactics and weapons skills, creating an impressive alumni network that today stretches from Sumbawa to Syria. His supporters used social media effectively on his behalf, making him one of the very few Indonesians whose name is recognised by luminaries in the global jihad.

He was also the only jihadi leader who controlled territory, even if only a few square kilometers in the Poso hills, and who thus kept alive the myth that jihadists were using violence in the service of building an Islamic state. The mantra of Indonesian ISIS supporters was that if you couldn't go to Syria, go to Poso. It was to augment Santoso's forces that Indonesians in Syria worked to divert Uighurs fleeing China to go to central Sulawesi rather than Turkey. 

Now that myth is shattered, and there could be a stronger focus on going to Basilan, in the southern Philippines, where Indonesians in Syria have already recognised Aby Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon as amir for Southeast Asia.

There is another implication of Santoso's death. While the Kostrad unit that found him was part of a joint police-military operation, the military is losing no opportunity to trumpet its success. This will undoubtedly work to its advantage in the drafting of the anti-terrorism law, where it has already been lobbying hard for for a greater role in fighting terrorism. If it succeeds in getting several categories of terrorism acknowledged as explicitly the military's domain (dealing with attacks on Indonesian embassies abroad, for example) this could strengthen its hand as other security legislation, such as a revised bill on the TNI itself, comes up for debate. The new national police chief, Tito Karnavian, has unusually good diplomatic skills, but he is going to have to use them to ensure that the police do not see more of their internal security role eroded by a confident and far more popular military establishment.

The military's role in Santoso's 'martyrdom' has not gone unnoticed in extremist social media, with pro-ISIS groups effectively declaring war on members of the Kostrad team that killed him. Attacks on soldiers have been very rare and largely confined to conflict areas in Indonesia, but this development could change the terrorist perception of the enemy.

Overall, the death of Santoso removes an important symbolic figure from the jihadi movement and leaves it temporarily without a local focus. If the Indonesian jihad was centered until Monday on Poso, where is it now and what are its goals? As it struggles to find answers, the incentive for revenge will remain high.

10 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

The Hague tribunal decision last week in the South China Sea case will have far reaching implications, finding that any ‘historic rights’ China claimed within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of other states were extinguished by UNCLOS itself, and China's subsequent ratification of the treaty in 1996. 

Despite some claims to the contrary, China’s stated refusal to accept the decision does not signal that the UNCLOS framework is unsuitable to solving complex maritime disputes. On the contrary, as Robert Beckman, head of the Ocean Law & Policy Programme at the NUS Centre for International Law argues, this authoritative decision will likely influence government legal advisers and negotiators for years to come.

While some commentators now urge consideration of ASEAN as the multilateral body to address the dispute via negotiations, Beckman considers the decision to be a ‘game changer’ likely to reinforce the current positions of ASEAN parties to the South China sea dispute, including Indonesia, which can now be expected to assert that the decision applies to their own EEZ claims. As such, evolving international jurisprudence will clearly frame and delimit any future multilateral or bilateral negotiations. This highlights the reality that while negotiations will always be a vehicle for settling boundary disputes, such negotiations should take place within the framework of international law.

While China has said that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction, the process was not entirely one-sided. The Tribunal was at pains throughout to ensure that China was informed via its embassy to The Netherlands. China also made its positions known throughout the proceedings in a variety of ways, and the Tribunal openly stated that it factored China's positions into its deliberations. It is too early to conclude definitively on the impact of this landmark decision, as China needs to be given time to absorb and reflect upon the findings. China will have to decide if it wants to be part of the rules-based order that UNCLOS frames, as its ratification of treaty and its stated positions and actions in international fora have often suggested.

Timor-Leste has been quick to note that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s call for China to respect an international rules-based order is at odds with Australia’s persistent refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste. This refusal was made more complete by Australia's withdrawal from the UNCLOS dispute mechanisms shortly before the restoration of Timor-Leste's independence in 2002. This move was clearly an effort to avoid the increasingly strong presumption of a median line boundary in international law. The Australian government is playing a two-step on the issue, urging China to respect international law describing the verdict as 'final and binding' while refusing to abide by an independent umpire in maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste. If Australia wants to model good international citizenship to the region, it should reinstate its recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, and the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, for maritime boundary delimitation.

Read More

While Stephen Grenville urges the South China Sea parties along the path of negotiated settlements like CMATS, the 2006 treaty, which seeks to delay a maritime border determination for 50 years, is hardly a model for the rest of the world to follow. CMATS remains inoperative as a resource sharing agreement, some nine years after its signing. Timor-Leste considers CMATS void due to its claims that Australia spied on its negotiation team in 2004, and is therefore tainted by bad faith. 

On 11 April Timor-Leste initiated a compulsory conciliation under UNCLOS that Australia has no choice but to go with, although the determination will be non-binding, and Australia is challenging jurisdiction. For these reasons, CMATS can hardly be held up to China and other claimants in the South China Sea dispute as a model for problem solving. It is not clear why The Philippines would heed Stephen Grenville’s call to follow the CMATS model and jointly develop resources with China, when such resources are within their exclusive economic zone under international law. Closer to home, it is also possible that ASEAN could in future take a position on the Australia-Timor-Leste dispute that will not please Canberra.

Despite the Australian government’s reaffirmation of CMATS in the wake of the UNCLOS decision, the Opposition's recent commitment to revisiting a maritime boundary in line with international law, and submitting to arbitration if it cannot be resolved, demonstrates how fragile this aspect of Australian regional foreign policy now is, lacking bipartisan support. This was probably the only major foreign policy difference between the two major parties. In light of the close election outcome, DFAT and its defenders can no longer pretend this remains a settled position of the Australian state.

As Beckman concludes, states concerned with the importance of a rules-based order for the oceans will emphasise that the award is final and binding, and call on China to act in accordance with it. We have already seen this position reflected in Minister Bishop’s comments. But he also notes that states calling on China to abide by the decision will appear hypocritical if they do not 'first reflect on the implications of the award on their own claims and activities’.

Photo Jefta Images / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

  • Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill will face a vote of no confidence motion in Parliament this Friday. Despite a very healthy majority, lobbying for numbers has been fierce this week in the land of the unpredictable.
  • For a primer on how PNG got to this point, watch ABC’s just released Foreign Correspondent episode, 'A Bloody Boycott', detailing the recent police shooting of students in Port Moresby. You can also read a detailed account from Eric Tlozek here
  • UPNG lecturer Win Nicholas reviews PNG’s recently proposed SME policy, which is extremely protectionist in nature.
  • Jenny Munro writes about the struggle of West Papuan refugees currently residing in PNG trying to gain citizenship.
  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Leaders meeting finally met last week in Honiara, where they confirmed the appointment of the new Director-General, Fiji’s Amena Yauvoli. The Secretariat is said to be in a difficult financial position. The full outcomes of the meeting can be seen here.
  • MSG leaders also delayed a decision on the West Papuan liberation movement's bid for full membership (it currently has observer status), until September, appeasing Indonesia. Vanuatu, which has been lobbying for West Papua has expressed strong dissatisfaction over the delay while the liberation movement remains upbeat about its long-term prospects.
  • Former parliamentary secretary for international development assistance Bob McMullen calls for an Australia and/or New Zealand funded, Pacific-focussed development finance institution to assist private sector investment in the Pacific.
  • The ADB has launched its biannual Pacific Economic Monitor, which discusses how sluggish performance of resource-rich economies have dampened growth in the region.
  • The World Bank this week extended its Pacific Possible series with new research on labour mobility. The research, launched in Suva, advocates for an additional 240,000 more Pacific Islanders to migrate and work abroad by 2040. Such reforms could generate up to $10 billion in additional income relative to the business as usual scenario. Comments on the research are still welcome.
  • Other research papers in the series include Deep Sea Mining, Fisheries, Tourism and Non-Communicable Diseases. The complete report will be launched later in the year.


It was billed as a major foreign policy address. But while US Vice-President Joe Biden's just-completed remarks at the Paddington Town Hall in Sydney didn't quite live up to that billing, it did have its points of interest. Biden's mood was subdued, stoical and above all reassuring: America was in Asia for the long haul. There was lots of standard-issue uplift ('instead of asking "Why?", Australians and Americans ask "Why not?') and even a rhetorical flourish about refusing to 'worship at the shrine of orthodoxy'. And as you would expect, there was plenty of generous praise for the US-Australia alliance.


My first impression is that Biden didn't say anything particularly novel about the regional security situation or America's commitment to the region. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the speech, as regards Asia Pacific security, was just how emphatic Biden was about America's continuing regional commitment. Again, none of this was new, but it was a point of emphasis that was no doubt aimed at Beijing and other regional capitals. Biden began by talking up America's military capabilities: it's unmatched ability to project naval and air power all over the world, and its intention to maintain a qualitative edge for years to come. And America was planning to move more of its most advanced capabilities to the Pacific, he said.

Biden then talked about America's commitment to maintaining the 'rules-based order' in the region, a phrase that is also popular in Australia. It's worth checking out these two pieces about how the Chinese read this phrase.

As for America's commitment to the region, Biden said several times that the US is a Pacific nation; 'we will maintain that posture as long as we exist', he said. Repeating President Obama's phrase from Canberra in 2011, Biden said 'We are all in' and that the US is 'not going anywhere'... because 'our presence essential to maintaining peace and stability...America is the lynchpin.'

Read More

Biden also used a phrase from his grandfather: 'with the Grace of God and goodwill of the neighbours', America's presence in the region would endure. I'm not sure that he intended it, but that oblique reference to the goodwill of the neighbours was as near as Biden got to acknowledging that some countries in the region (OK, just one) might actually object to America's 'lynchpin' status and its promise to stay forever. It would have been fascinating to hear Biden address in detail the tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea and other regional security issues.

A few other stray points of interest: Biden boasted that he had spent more time than any world leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And in describing the US-Australia alliance, he mentioned intelligence sharing and referred to the 'Five eyes' community. That's not a term which used to appear in the public utterances of any leader from those five countries. Thank you Edward Snowden.

Also on the alliance, Biden said it was a measure of the closeness of our two militaries that Australian military commanders had been put directly in charge of US troops. 'We don't let that happen very often', he said to chuckles. He emphasised that there was 'no daylight between our fighting forces', which is exactly what worries some people here in Australia who prefer that Australia is not so closely tied to US military decision-making.

Near the end of the speech, Biden turned to domestic matters: 'Don't worry about our election; the better angels will prevail'.

It was a tone of reassurance and comfort which matched the rest of the speech. But to bring comfort is also an acknowledgment that comfort is required. Evidently the Vice-President and his advisers judged that allies and friends in the region needed to be reminded that America's economic and military strength is enduring, and need to be assured that, in its presidential politics, the US is not lurching towards demagoguery. That in itself is a worrying sign.


Incredible though it may seem, after the events in Turkey this weekend Lebanon is looking like one of the most stable states in the Middle East, despite not having a president or a fully-functioning government


I arrived in Lebanon in early June this year and was immediately struck by the calm mood of the people. Since 2015 fear of an ISIS invasion had receded, in part because of Syrian and Iraqi armies regaining large swathes of ISIS territory. The garbage crisis that predominated in 2015 has been resolved to an extent (though I noted no one was able to tell me to where the garbage had been taken). In the south, traditionally a spot of high tension, all was calm. Neither Israel nor Hizbullah have any desire to alter what is known as 'the balance of terror' and commit to a new conflict. Both actors have their sights firmly set on what is happening in Syria. Furthermore, the Syrian refugee situation did not at first glance appear to be causing any more tension than it had in earlier years.

As such, my first weeks in Lebanon didn't feel like I was in Lebanon at all. No political tension? No major security threats? But then, slowly but surely, the reality of Lebanon's fragility asserted itself once more.

Read More

On 12 June a bomb went off in the headquarters of Blom Bank in Hamra, West Beirut. Despite major structural damage no-one was injured, as the bomb was deliberately timed to detonate when local residents would be eating Iftar after Ramadan and the streets around the bank would be empty. It became clear the following day that Hizbullah was responsible for the bomb attack. The purpose behind it was a warning to Blom Bank, whose strict interpretation of the new anti-money laundering legislation issued by the US had resulted in ordinary Shi'ite civilians being unfairly targeted, affecting their business transactions. Violence, it seems, still talks in Lebanon; the following day the major banks got together to discuss how to ameliorate the effects of the legislation on the Shi'ite community.

In the weeks that followed, a very different kind of attack took place in the tiny Christian village of al-Qaa, on the border with Syria. On 27 June eight suicide bombers from Syria attacked the village, killing five civilians and injuring 15. The shockwaves of this event reverberated throughout the country, particularly in the Christian areas in the north, around Mount Lebanon. 

The major cause of shock was the fact that the terror cell had managed to rustle up no less than eight suicide bombers (one of whom blew himself up in a field rather than be taken by the Lebanese Armed Forces). For the Lebanese, and particularly Lebanese Christians, the message was clear: Syrians can no longer be trusted in Lebanon. The change in attitude has been astounding. Syrians in Lebanon have always generated minimal respect from the Lebanese, as many work in menial jobs and are in lower socio-economic strata of the population. Now, however, the situation is changed; fear and distrust have replaced disinterest and mild contempt. 

Syrian workers (some of whom who have lived in Lebanon for years) are now under curfew in the northern villages of Lebanon. Many of these Syrians are themselves Christian, fleeing from ISIS, but no exceptions are made. The local police enforce the curfew and there are army checkpoints on major routes into Beirut which make slipping through the net difficult. In the far south, I noticed there was considerably less tension. Local officials there told me they only imposed curfews during significant public events, like a fete or a funeral. This is likely because there are far less Syrian refugees in the south than in the north, and because it's an area heavily saturated with Hizbullah and its supporters, who generally keep an eye on newcomers.

While an invasion by ISIS now appears remote, in some ways the threat to the Lebanese from the organisation is closer than ever. Until now the Christian areas of Beirut have been left in peace, but the week before I arrived a suicide bomber was arrested for planning an attack on a popular night time hangout area in the Christian east of the city. Later during my stay, another four individuals were arrested for planning an attack on a bar in the same area using semi-automatic weapons. There is now considerable concern that an attack on a major Christian area in Beirut itself is imminent. But let's not forget that suicide bomb attacks have been occurring in Lebanon since 2012, in the Shi'a areas of the country. 

There is a saying in the Middle East about Lebanon: when the region is on fire, Lebanon is calm; when the region is calm, Lebanon is on fire. Somehow, without a president or any real functioning government, Lebanon hangs on. For how long it can continue to do so in the face of major security threats coming out of Syria and Iraq, as ISIS territory breaks apart, is anyone's guess.

Photo: Flickr/World Bank/Dominic Chavez


Last week David Aedang, Nauru’s newly re-elected government, released a statement taking aim at Australian and New Zealand media outlets for their allegedly unethical and biased coverage, specifically naming four of them:

‘It’s time for the Australian and New Zealand media to show more respect to the people and Government of Nauru following the national election that saw the Government returned with an increased majority, according to Nauru’s justice minister.

‘David Adeang said certain media outlets like the ABC, Fairfax, the Guardian and Radio New Zealand have “unethically attempted to influence our domestic politics by spreading lies, promoting Opposition MPs and refusing to report the huge progress Nauru has made over the past three years under the [President Baron Waqa] Government.”’

Since a less-than-kind assessment of the Nauru detention centre from the BBC in 2013, the only Australian media to visit the island have been The Australian’s Chris Kenny last year and Channel Nine's A Current Affair in June of this year. In 2014 the cost of applying for a media visa jumped from $200 to $8000 (ostensibly to raise government revenue), and attempts by reporters and photographers from ABC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian Australia and SBS to visit the island have reportedly been stonewalled or denied outright

During Australia’s recently concluded election campaign, Labor leader Bill Shorten said that as prime minister he would allow journalists and independent observers onto any offshore detention centre run by Australia. Several government ministers correctly pointed out that this wasn’t something an Australian prime minister could unilaterally decree (the next day Shorten acknowledged that ‘in terms of restrictions, obviously we have to work through with the government of the jurisdiction’). Among the detractors was Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who told The Australian:

‘It’s an issue for the Nauruan government as to who they allow into their country…the Australian government has no policy which restricts people, including journalists, from going to Nauru, and what Mr Shorten did last night was to be very tricky.’

Read More

While it’s undeniably true that the Nauruan government decides who comes into their country and the circumstances in which they come, the Australian government also decides whether or not the conditions on Nauru (including media access) are acceptable enough to run a detention centre there, and if not, whether diplomatic resources should be invested in attempting to adjust those conditions. 

Dutton has previously stated that as immigration minister he doesn’t ‘intend to lecture Nauru as I wouldn’t expect them to lecture us in terms of who should come to our country’. But why not? The Australian government runs many diplomatic posts, trade missions, and other institutions in states with questionable standards of press freedom and accessibility. But few of these institutions are as important in domestic politics as this detention centre, and few of those nations are as diplomatically close to Australia as Nauru. 

Perhaps the Nauruan government is correct, and the controversy surrounding the detention centres is unwarranted; the accounts of both Kenny and A Current Affair’s Caroline Marcus provide a more measured characterisation of conditions on Nauru than, say, this Guardian Australia interview. But the accuracy of Kenny’s and Marcus’s reportage has no bearing on the broader democratic implications of running an isolated detention centre in an environment with far lower standards of media scrutiny. On this issue, the standard the Australian government abides by is the standard it endorses.

But what exactly is this standard? Following Shorten’s comments on Q&A last month, Nauru’s government released a broad statement on media visits; the document is worth reading in its entirety, but as it’s quite long here are some relevant extracts:

‘Just like Australia, we will not allow those who we believe want to come to Nauru to incite violence, hatred and tension within our country.

‘Unfortunately there are some media outlets and some refugee advocates who would do just that if they came to Nauru…

‘The presence on Nauru of media who have no respect for our security, culture and laws, will likely incite refugees and asylum seekers who already are angry that they are not in Australia, to acts of violence and other acts. We saw this with a recent visit from UNHCR.

‘It is for reasons of safety and security that we are not able to allow all media onto Nauru, and we will never allow media who we believe will intentionally incite violence and unrest to further their story.

‘We will however — subject to normal application procedures and approval — allow media outlets who will be respectful and objective, and who do not have a record of spreading untruths about our country.’

The Australian government should either accept this standard as adequate, or work with the Nauruan government to adjust the terms. To throw up its hands and do neither (and to suggest the Opposition is erring by picking one of these options) is, at best, a politically convenient stance that undermines Australian government transparency.

Photo: Getty Images/Stefan Postles

9 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

Australia’s febrile domestic politics produced another petty point-scoring moment after the shadow defence minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, sought political mileage from last Tuesday’s historic South China Sea arbitration

Senator Conroy criticised the government for not sanctioning Freedom of Navigation of Operations (FONOPs); in response, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop slapped Conroy down for unnecessarily raising tensions on a delicate matter. Bishop did, assert however, that Australia would continue to exercise its rights of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea ‘as it has always done.’

So what has The Hague ruling changed in terms of freedom of navigation? 

On the one hand, it does not, as ANU military law specialist Professor David Letts argues, change the ‘fundamental basis for ships operating in the South China Sea’. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has always permitted vessels to transit through high seas, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and territorial seas, noting that transit through territorial seas is conditional on not undermining ‘the peace, good order or security of the coastal State’. These rights haven’t changed. Moreover, Australian governments have never recognised China’s nine-dash line claim as limiting the right of its vessels, military or otherwise, to travel through the high seas in the South China Sea. 

On the other hand, it is now clear that the nine-dash line can never be the legal basis for China to seek to regulate movement in the South China Sea, should it have ever contemplated this, (as, for example, through the declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone). It is also clear that very few of the Spratly features (whoever owns them) generate territorial seas or EEZs. The tribunal found that nearly all were, in their original state, too insubstantial to generate maritime zones. The waters around them, barring where the EEZs of the Philippines and Vietnam protrude, are effectively the high seas.

Read More

The Conroy-Bishop spat is essentially two people talking past one another. Bishop’s version of a FONOPs appears to refer to any Australian military navigation through the South China Sea. Conroy’s notion appears to be an operation a la the US FONOPs program, which deliberately and specifically challenges the coastal state’s interpretation of its rights where these are believed to be excessive. For him, just traversing the South China Sea is insufficient. He is proposing, for example, that our forces pass within 12 nautical miles of a Spratly artificial island while conducting an activity that discounts it from being innocent passage. Under UNCLOS, this could be a military exercise, weapons practice, intelligence collection or launching of a helicopter. This would show that Australia does not recognise that the artificial island generates a territorial sea.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten are further avoiding these legal issues by saying that where our platforms go and what they do are operational matters that they don’t comment on. This is a nice dodge, but it’s clear that where our forces go and what they do in the South China Sea has legal, strategic and international ramifications that are not just matters for the military.

Still, it is unlikely that Australia’s politicians will be pulled up on these legal niceties, either in Australia or by China. Even before the judgment, China’s Global Times made clear that while China’s elites know UNCLOS chapter and verse, they aren’t that fussed about 12 nautical mile limits; their beef is that they see US warships in the vicinity of their island-building efforts as ‘harassing’ China, regardless of the legalities. This is another case of ‘ships passing in the night’. China is more concerned about the presence of the US in its sphere of interest than about adherence to international law. Its worldview of international law is possibly different to that of the West; as I argued recently, China’s history may have led to a pragmatic rather than normative embrace.

So which of Bishop’s and Conroy’s approaches to FONOPs make the best policy for Australia? While there is substantial public support for FONOPs (the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll found 74% of Australians were in favour of Australia conducting such operations in the South China Sea), it certainly seems sensible for Australia to take a low key approach for the moment. We need to both avoid inflaming tensions and get a sense of how the ruling is going to shape the region before acting further. Bishop’s minimalist take (that Australia will keep doing what its always done in accordance with international law) is canny, and puts the burden of escalation on China. Avoiding very public FONOPs is less likely to provoke a reaction from China, because China’s interests in the South China Sea are very much about projecting to domestic audiences that China’s government is reclaiming Chinese sovereignty and returning China to greatness.

The question might be asked, however; why bother doing low key FONOPs if these do not convey a message? One reason is that Australia’s leaders are subject to legal advice that says that Australia must continue to practice freedom of navigation or else see customary law evolve in a direction in which would not allow Australia free transit through the South China Sea. But this leaves the job of promoting the merits of a rules-based global order largely undone.

This is where Conroy’s approach has merits. He wants to convey our support for the rules-based global order in a very tangible way. Promoting the importance of international law is clearly something that is very much in Australia’s interest. My colleague Danielle Cave and I have advocated that Australia’s public diplomacy could do more here. Australia shouldn’t assume that international law and UNCLOS have much sway in countries of our region. Rule of law and separation of powers have very shallow roots in many of these nations. The job here is to persuade our neighbours that a region where international law prevails is one in which peace and security is more likely to endure for all, large and small countries alike.

Bishop has made a start in this direction by drawing attention to the reputational costs that China will face if it ignores the ruling. Here time is not on China’s side. Although the ASEAN and South East Asian response has been muted at this point, it is likely that over time the ruling will be repeatedly raised and will provide an unwelcome distraction for China’s leadership. Because of the permanence of borders and maritime rights in the South China Sea, defying international law is likely to be more burdensome for China than the comparative case, the US’s defiance of the outcome of the 1986 International Court of Justice case

US support for military action against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was ultimately forgotten and made irrelevant by the changing political times, including the end of the Cold War. The same is not likely to occur in the South China Sea.

Photo: Getty images/Stefan Postles


An excellent quick video published by The Atlantic and narrated by Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution on the historical and contemporary role of Islam in Middle Eastern politics:

(h/t @BrendanTN_).

US presidential race 2016

Can a devout Christian make Donald Trump more likeable? Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort seems to think so. Speaking soon after the revelation that Mike Pence will be Trump's running mate, Manafort said Pence will appeal to supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. That was news to many Bernie Sanders supporters ('Stop telling us what we're thinking. I voted Sanders, I donated to Sanders, and I'll vote for Clinton in November' commented one). 

The brutal truth is that both presumptive candidates for president have to make more registered votes in their own party, let alone those outside the tent, like them. This report from Pew Research suggests dislike and distrust are at record measures this year. The report states:

Overall satisfaction with the choice of candidates is at its lowest point in two decades. Currently, fewer than half of registered voters in both parties — 43% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans — say they are satisfied with their choices for president.

Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt reckons Pence will do the job of the getting the GOP to fall into line. Hewitt's support for Trump comes across as somewhat half-hearted (perhaps, like speaker Paul Ryan, he thinks Trump is not 'his kind of conservative') but Hewitt is firmly in the anyone-but-Hillary camp and is therefore backing Trump. He describes Pence as a 'governing choice' and a:

 ...perfect fit for both a party in desperate need of bandages and balm, and a decidedly unconventional nominee who, if he indeed rides the wild currents of a turbulent year in a deeply divided country to the White House, will need a partner in the West Wing who can work the Washington corners and conference rooms...

So far, there hasn't been a lot of bandages and balm on display at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Read More

Anti-trump protestors have been despatched  — for now — but pro-Trump sections continue to trade insults with those Republicans who just don't like the man. Many of the latter, including John Kasich, are staying away. This absence of the GOP Governor from a GOP Convention in his own state is drawing plenty of ire. This from Politico's rundown of Day One:

Manafort said Kasich, who has not endorsed Trump and won’t attend the convention, was “embarrassing his state” on MSNBC and then repeated the sentiment in other appearances.

And when Kasich announced he would speak at the NAACP convention, also being held in Ohio this week, Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant not formally in the campaign structure, tweeted, “@JohnKasich is a jerk-off stoner who will never be president.”

Noting that Kasich once signed a pledge to support the nominee, Stone added, "Unity my ass!"

As to the Convention's official proceedings, a speaker line-up heavy on TV celebrities and Trump family members and light on politics (Ivanka Trump told a radio interviewer 'It's not going to be a ho-hum line-up of, you know, the typical politicians') has leant an air of unreality to the event. A contributing factor is the presence of actor Scott Baio, who backed Ronald Reagan and is now behind Trump. Baio is still best known for Happy Days, the 1970s television series set in the 1950s. Those old enough to remember the show will also likely remember the infamous episode in Series 5 when Fonzi jumped a shark on waterskis, a moment that has come to define acts of desperation by television producers.

This could be the week the Republican party jumps the shark.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images