Lowy Institute
16 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia has prepositioned 50 Australian Federal Police officers, presumably from the International Deployment Group, in London. The Foreign Minister is on her way to Kiev to personally negotiate access to the crash site for the AFP and Australia's aviation officials, to be part of an international investigation under the leadership of the Dutch Government.

A police-led, military-enabled force is the right solution for the Australian Government to propose, but several conditions must be set before police and officials can be deployed to the crash site.

The crash site is in an active combat zone, and as the OSCE reminded us only days ago, there are more than 100 separate armed groups surrounding the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic. No intervention will be able to proceed without explicit guarantees from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments that they will exercise their influence to limit the activities of military forces in the vicinity of the crash site. Even then, there would still remain the possibility of rogue actors in the area. For that reason, whatever international force is sent should be armed for their personal safety.

Yet the crash site is located only a short distance from the Russian border, and for that reason it would be far too provocative to deploy international military forces in any strength to secure the international investigation effort. If Putin were to allow the deployment of NATO military assets within 30km of the Russian border, this would open him to severe domestic political criticism. Already there are some suggestions that Putin is under domestic presure for appearing to have bowed to foreign leaders. Too much provocation and Russia will respond with a show of force of some type, perhaps including additional deployments of military units to the border with Ukraine.

So the best solution will be an armed international police force with a limited mandate to secure the crash site and protect investigators.

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

The good news is that this effort is being led by Australia and the Netherlands, who have recent and extensive experience working alongside each other in Afghanistan. Australian military, intelligence, police, and diplomatic officials worked together with their Dutch counterparts for five years while our soldiers served alongside each other in Uruzgan. Those established mechanisms for cooperation will go a long way to offsetting the fact that we are poised to deploy a substantial force to a country in which we haven't had any diplomatic presence for some time.

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15 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

With fighting intensifying in the pro-Russian rebel enclave in eastern Ukraine, security of the MH17 investigators and the crash site is imperative. 

A temporary cease-fire proposed after the destruction of MH17 last week never materialised. Ukrainian military forces have launched an offensive in the city of Donetsk, where heavy shelling is being reported. Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down on Wednesday south of the MH17 crash site. There are further reports of investigators on the scene being 'chased away' by separatist rebels.

It is becoming clear that some form of international security force will need to be employed for the investigation to carry on in the long-term.

This force will need to be more substantial than the 40 unarmed military police the Netherlands intends to send and the 50 Australian Federal Police that Prime Minister Tony Abbott says are on standby.

Yesterday morning Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a hint of one of the options under consideration by the OSCE and the Australian, Dutch and Ukrainian governments: peacekeepers. Peacekeepers under a UN mandate may be the best option to provide security for the crash site and are likely to be the most politically expedient. 

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The UN Security Council mandate secured by Australia and the Netherlands earlier this week leaves open the option of using a peacekeeping force to secure the crash site and the safety of international investigators. The language used in the mandate is clear. The Security Council called for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident', demanded that the armed rebel groups in the area 'refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site' and most importantly expressed 'grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site.'

A UN peacekeeping operation could be built off this mandate. Such an operation would need to be authorised by the Security Council and passed by its five permanent members, including Russia. This would be difficult, but Russia passed the resolution authorising the investigation earlier this week on the condition that the resolution did not assign blame. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to show goodwill and further de-escalate the situation, particularly if the peacekeeping forces came from countries outside of NATO.

To a degree, the crisis in Ukraine is driven by what Russia considers the creeping influence of the European Union and NATO along its 'near abroad'. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cited the expansion of NATO membership to former Soviet Republics as a threat and would probably never accept a NATO security mission to eastern Ukraine.

A UN peacekeeping operation could include forces from more politically appealing non-NATO countries. While forces from Australia and the Netherlands would be included (they may even establish a bilateral security force to go in immediately), in the coming months personnel from non-NATO countries could be integrated into the operation. Malaysia and Indonesia, which suffered significant causalities in the incident, may wish to participate. Other major peacekeeping countries like India and Brazil could be asked to contribute.

It is critical to establish security around the site to ensure the investigation into the cause of the MH17 disaster can proceed unhindered. Moreover, the speed with which the investigation can commence in earnest will be crucial in determining the fate of MH17 and ensuring that justice can be delivered for the victims and their families. The investigation is also likely to take some time; the investigation at the crash site of Pam Am flight 103 took months. Ensuring the safety of investigators is also a high priority.

A multinational UN peacekeeping operation is the best way the meet all these objectives.

Photo by Flickr user Jeroen Akkermans.

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  • Should Prime Minister Modi's new role be best understood as 'CEO of India'?
  • There are reports of mutiny in the ranks of the Indian National Congress. Is there any hope of a revival for the beleaguered party?
  • Richard Ellings looks at how to strengthen the US-India relationship.
  • New data on India's forest cover points to an upwards trend, but observers suggest the numbers may be too good to be true.
  • Will Modi's coming to power bring about a new phase in China-India relations?
  • John Garnaut reported last week that the Australian Government may be considering attempting to return 157 asylum seekers being held on the high seas to India. After consultations in New Delhi this week, it seems unlikely that India will accept any non-nationals.
  • Some amazing aerial photographs of India taken by drone.
  • The UN has managed to get over a million views of its Bollywood-style campaign for gay rights . Check out the video below:

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Recently Sam Roggeveen flagged an op-ed by veteran China watcher Paul Monk on the Chinese Communist Party's meddling in Australia's Chinese-language media. 

The op-ed is a great read. But Monk presents only one part of a wider story. The Chinese Government, through its propaganda bureau, has been buying up Chinese language media everywhere, not just in Australia, in an effort to influence the roughly 35 million 'overseas Chinese' who are citizens of other countries. 

In the US, China's program dates back to the mid-1980s, when a wave of mainland Chinese migration changed the profile of the Chinese-American community. In the 1990s, the Chinese Government came to control either directly or indirectly three of the four major Chinese-language newspapers in the country, and this control has continued. The exception, World Journal, has been accused by the Epoch Times, a pro-Falun Gong paper, of towing the Party line, though World Journal's website is blocked on the mainland. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief in November 2001, Mei Duzhe outlined four main tactics the Chinese Government deployed to influence Chinese-language media in America: 

First is the attempt to directly control newspapers, television stations, and radio stations through complete ownership or owning major shares. Second is the government's use of economic ties to influence independent media who have business relations with China. This leverage has had major effects on the contents of broadcasting and publishing, effectively removing all material deemed 'unfavorable' by the Chinese government. Third is the purchasing of broadcast time and advertising space (or more) from existing independent media. Closely related to this is the government's providing free, ready-to-go programming and contents. Fourth is the deployment of government personnel to work in independent media, achieving influence from within their ranks. 

2001 is a long time ago, but these tactics have changed little. What has changed is the scope of Beijing's 'media outreach.' A geographic sampling of overseas Chinese media outlets to have been either acquired in full or financially supported by mainland media over the past decade includes the UK's Propeller TV, Thailand's Singsian Daily, Arab Asia Business TV, Italy's Europe Times and France's own Europe Times, content from which is circulated in Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Greece and Portugal.

In other words, Beijing's intrusion into Australian Chinese-language community media is part of a broader strategy. 

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It may be unfair to look at acquisitions  or financial support arrangements and assume Chinese government influence. But the evidence is there. In March, People's Daily ran a long piece on the Chinese media's efforts abroad. Alongside presenting the rationale for purchasing overseas Chinese-language media, the author had this to say: 

The core task of going abroad is ... to improve our ability to set the agenda. In setting the agenda at a high level and choosing our angle, we should insert Chinese values into objective reporting to quietly ease the way for the transmission of Chinese values. 

Beijing also actively courts overseas Chinese media that it doesn't control. In an effort to make itself the centre of Chinese-language reporting worldwide, the Government inaugurated the Forum on the Global Chinese Language Media in 2001. 

Last year the forum invited 450 representatives of Chinese language media from 58 countries. Predictably enough, the main talking point for the event was President Xi Jinping's 'China Dream.' Attendees were also given government-friendly tours of mainland trouble spots, including the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, which have been the epicentre of Tibetan self-immolations in recent years. 

Australia had one of the strongest national contingents at the forum, with 43  media professionals representing a broad swathe of the nation's Chinese language radio, television and print media, including the ABC and the SBS. 

Subsequent mainland coverage of the forum quoted Australian representatives' impressions of their state-sponsored tour through Tibetan areas. 'Our Tibetan compatriots were very friendly, Their lives are peaceful. I'll go home and spread news of the real situation (in Tibet),' said Su Zhongchao of Australian Chinese Daily Online News. 

Photo by Flickr user whatleydude.

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Keep up with what's been happening in the Pacific island region with this week's links:

  • The incumbent Cook Islands Party, led by Henry Puna, has been returned with a very slim majority. However, the leader of the Democratic Party, Wilkie Rasmussen, is planning to challenge the results.
  • I caught up with Fred Samuel, the Vanuatu Government's chief information officer, to discuss ICT, development, policy, infrastructure & more.
  • After an inordinate and largely inexplicable delay, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has a new commissioner: Frank Prendergast, who has 25 years experience with the Australian Federal Police.
  • A group of voyaging canoes will visit Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu before heading to Sydney to draw attention to the impact of climate change on ocean health.
  • The Parties to the Nauru Agreement countries have increased revenues earned from tuna fishing, but according to Giff Johnson, there is more to be done to conserve the resource.
  • Further to  announcements that Radio Australia capacity is to be gutted, the issue may be raised  by Pacific island leaders at the forthcoming Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Palau.
  • As the Commonwealth Games get underway in Glasgow, this item features Nauru, which is the most successful country taking part in terms of 'people per medal' since 1990. Nauru is hoping for great things from this guy, Itte Detenamo, who is a current Commonwealth record holder: 

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Lisa Williams is author of the new Lowy Institute Analysis, China's Climate Change Policies: Actors and Drivers. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Australian Government.

As the world prepares to fight for (or against) a global climate change deal at the 2015 talks in Paris, China is quietly prosecuting its own kind of environmental crusade.

At the infamous Copenhagen climate change meeting in 2009, China was accused of 'wrecking' the talks, humiliating other world leaders and blocking any useful agreement. Contrast this with China's domestic record on greenhouse gas emissions:

If China is so reticent in international negotiations, why is it taking such a proactive attitude domestically? There are three significant domestic motivations for China's actions.

First, energy supply in China has always been a problem, since strong economic growth has fueled increasing energy demand. In an attempt to relax the link between growth and energy demand, the Chinese Government has long had a goal to reduce energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP). To diversify the energy supply base, the Government has supported renewable and nuclear energy development since at least the early 2000s. And since energy makes up about 80% of China's emissions, energy sector reforms have had a significant (but difficult to quantify) impact on China's emissions profile.

Second, China's extreme air pollution problems are adding a sense of urgency to the need to decouple economic growth from dirty sources of energy.

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The majority of the densely populated eastern seaboard regularly experiences dangerous smog, which has a depressing array of public health, social and economic impacts. In the last three years, the public displeasure has been heard by China's leaders, who know the smog problem is one that could eventually destabilise the 'harmony' they have tried so hard to protect.

Third, the smog problem has combined with long term economic concerns to create headaches for the leadership. On the one hand, economic growth has formed the basis of the Party's legitimacy, and China's leaders have recognised the need for economic reforms to rescue a slowing economy. But at the same time, China's leaders know they cannot follow the emission-intensive development path of much of the developed world.

China's policy makers are increasingly merging their economic restructuring goals with environmental and energy issues into a new vision for China's future: the so-called 'ecological civilisation'. Nowhere is the connection more obvious than in the 12th Five Year Plan's 'strategic industries', of which three out of seven are new energies or environmental industries. China aims to increase the strategic industries' share of GDP from about 3% in 2009 to 15% by 2020.

It would be remiss not to mention the challenges the Chinese Government faces in actually implementing its environmental and economic goals: reticence of powerful vested interests, legal and administrative hurdles, and generally low capacity on environmental governance, to name a few. Still, on the whole China's domestic concerns are leading it to a 'green' economy at a much faster rate than international pressure could ever hope to achieve.

Whatever happens in the next round of international climate change talks, China seems to be in the low carbon race for the long haul.

Photo by Flickr user Lei Han.

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One of the messages of John Edwards' Beyond the Boom is that Australia sailed through the 2008 crisis unscathed. As a result, Australia's GDP in 2013 was 16% higher than in 2007, while many of the G7 countries had barely regained their pre-crisis GDP level: the strongest rebound, in Canada, was only 8% above its 2007 GDP. These are feeble recoveries. The damage of the 2008 crisis is, however, even more serious and lasting than these figures suggest.

Economic recoveries usually involve a strong 'catch-up' component, when income grows much faster than its underlying trend rate. Workers and enterprises, unemployed during the downturn, are brought back into full production. Business cycles are often described as 'V' shaped. The implication is that that economies get back to their pre-downturn trend line.

There is growing evidence that this catch-up has not occurred during the present global recovery. The recovery is not a 'V'; it is a reversed 'J', never getting back to the old trend line.

One compelling study of the issue is provided by Johns Hopkins economist Larry Ball. Ball took the potential growth rate estimates made by the IMF and OECD in 2007 showing how each of the OECD economies could grow if running at full productive capacity. He then compared these 2007 potential growth trends with the similar potential growth trends shown in the latest OECD and IMF forecasts. The latest estimate is well below the 2007 estimate. He attributes the difference to the damaging effect of the 2008 global financial crisis. Here's how he summarises his results:

I find that the loss in potential output from the Great Recession varies greatly across countries, but is large in most cases. Based on current forecasts for 2015, the loss ranges from almost nothing in Switzerland and Australia to over 30% of potential output in Greece, Hungary, and Ireland. The average loss for the 23 countries, weighted by the sizes of their economies, is 8.4%.

This graph of the US (above), from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), illustrates the point. The sharp downward break in actual GDP growth (the solid line) in 2008 has not been reversed. Eye-balling this as far forward as the actual data take us, it doesn't look like the US is getting back to its old trend line (the darker blue dash line) any time soon, or ever. The lighter blue dashed line shows the best current guess of where the potential growth trend lies.

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Nor are most of the other 22 OECD countries Ball examined doing any better. The current potential growth paths (as calculated by the IMF and the OECD) have fallen about as much as the actual fall in GDP during the recession. These countries are now on a permanently lower growth trajectory. Countries which suffered the biggest recessions (notably, the eurozone peripheral countries like Greece and Spain, but also eastern Europe) have lost the most in terms of potential growth.

Less marked examples of this phenomenon have occurred in the past, where a recession discourages investment and leaves a permanently smaller capital stock. Technological progress and innovation are less dynamic in downturns. Most notably, workers who lose their jobs adapt to worklessness and remain jobless either because they stop looking for work or take early retirement. Sometimes their sojourn in unemployment has diminished their skills. Those in education stay there longer, with little accumulation of work-relevant skills.

Iin the jargon, it's known as 'hysteresis', and as a result output never gets back to the original potential growth path. In the US, the participation rate — the proportion of working-age population either working or looking for work — has fallen from nearly 66% in 2007 to less than 63% now. 

The powerful lesson here is: 'don't have a recession and, if you have one, recover quickly'. If you want to see what lasting damage a serious recession does to potential output, look at Larry Ball's graphs for Ireland, Spain or Greece.

But the CBO graph shows that something else is happening: the new potential output trend is not only lower, it is also flatter than before. This takes us to a broader debate about 'secular stagnation'. For example, the US used to have a potential annual growth rate of around 3%. The CBO now thinks it is just over 2% and some estimates are lower still. Demographics are reducing the relative size of the workforce. Various other factors are adding to the fall in participation in the workforce. Productivity seems to be slower in many countries.

There are plenty of esoteric arguments among the cognoscenti about all of this, and plenty of room for differences of opinion. A sensible concept of GDP is hard enough to measure and predict, and productivity is harder still. Many of the huge benefits we receive from technology (not just new products, but quality improvements in old ones) come to us at little or no extra cost, and probably don't get fully measured in the national accounts. Perhaps some of those who have dropped out of the work force are enjoying their new-found leisure, which is not counted at all in GDP.

There is, however, no doubt that the 2008 crisis was hugely damaging, and the inability of most of the OECD countries to achieve a normal rapid recovery has left a deep and permanent scar on living standards. In Australia we missed this bullet, through a combination of competent policy and good luck. The Hanrahans, with their relentless gloom, should be reminded of this.

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

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.

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After a year of political stalemate, the ruling Cambodian People's Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party struck a deal (after a five-hour meeting) to end their political impasse.

Shortly after the announcement yesterday, seven elected CNRP politicians and one activist who had been arrested the previous week following clashes at Freedom Park were released (they still face charges).  The move suggests that their detention may have been politically motivated.

The CNRP, led by the formerly self-exiled Sam Rainsy (pictured; click on the image to see video of his speech to supporters), will now take their 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, which they had boycotted since the July 2013 elections.

The two parties released a joint statement stating that they agreed to 'work together' in parliamentary institutions to arrive at solutions for the country 'based on democratic and rule of law principles'. The statement announced that reforms to the National Election Committee and the leadership of the Senate and the National Assembly will take place. The president of the National Assembly will be from the CPP, the first deputy from the CNRP, and the second deputy from the CPP.  

According to posts on Sam Rainsy's Facebook page, the agreement has also concluded that:

  • The CNRP will  receive the chairmanship of 5 commissions out of 10 in the National Assembly.
  • Establishment of a new constitutionally mandated election commission made up of 9 members: 4 from the CPP, 4 from the CNRP, and 1 by consensus between the two parties.
  • Election dates are yet to be determined (although other reports have indicated these will take place in February 2018).

The breaking of the deadlock should bring an end to repeated protests and violent clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces. But, as Prime Minister Hun Sen stretches into his third decade at the helm, the political tensions between the two parties will likely remain for some time yet. 

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14 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night I Skyped with Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows to talk about the MH17 tragedy. James is perfectly qualified, because he is firstly a pilot and aviation enthusiast (here's his NY Times op-ed on why this tragedy was not Malaysia Airlines' fault), and he is an exceptionally smart observer of American politics.

We talked mainly about how this tragedy is playing out in Washington (Are the media and Congress focused on it? [0:00]; Why is Obama getting so much leeway from Republicans? [1:15]; Is Obama leading from behind? [3:47]), but I also asked him what advice the Obama Administration might have for the Abbott Government on the tricky question of Putin's attendance at the G20 (8:09).

Lastly (11:28), I drew on Jim's aviation knowledge and his background living in and studying China (here's an earlier interview with Jim about his book China Airborne) to talk about whether this tragedy resonated for him in the Asia Pacific context. Specifically, does China's November 2013 declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone pose a threat to aviation in the East China Sea?

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13 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

A makeshift memorial at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. (Flickr/Roman Boed.)

With 193 Dutch citizens killed in the MH17 tragedy, the Netherlands is in shock. The country is mourning. Everybody seems to know someone who is directly affected by this terrible loss. The mourning is slowly but surely transforming into outrage that will push the Dutch Government into visible response and action. 

We don't know exactly what happened. But is seems plausible that it was an 'unintended' incident in an armed conflict between separatists on the one side and  national Ukrainian forces on the other. Unintended or not, factions and individuals are still accountable for what they have done. The questions 'Who did this?' and 'Who supplied the military support, technology, know-how and weaponry to execute such an attack?' are relevant to the victims and the population at large. Justice needs to have its way. The public is expecting and demanding as much. 

But how on earth is justice going to have its way in this complex situation? There are a number of hindrances.

The first  priority in this crisis is to repatriate the bodies and the belongings of the victims. While in a war the enemy may become dehumanised, we, the Dutch, are in no way part of this conflict. To us this is about people. We see images of insurgents posing for the world press with toys of children who died in the crash. That is disgusting. So people demand respect and dignity. We are humans. You cannot dehumanise us. We are not part of this conflict. 

The humanitarian focus may, at the same time, hinder the search for justice. Justice requires that a suspect is identified. It requires a thorough investigation into the events, which is not going to be easy. Only one of the parties to the conflict (the Ukrainian Government) seems to have an interest in facilitating the inquiry. That in itself is telling. The other party (the separatists) is controlling the space in which the evidence is scattered. This means that the assistance of the separatists, which is required for the humanitarian priority, is conflicting with the search for justice. In this dilemma the approach of the Dutch Government is to focus on indirect diplomacy: trying to convince Russia to push the separatists to assist the international and Dutch efforts on both the humanitarian and investigation fronts. The Dutch Prime Minister has been on the phone with President Putin a number of times and with an increasing sense of urgency in his messaging. The public demands solutions. Quick. Putin needs to be aware of this. 

This leaves us with a number of serious questions. One of them is: to what extent does Putin still have an impact on the ground? The second one is: if he does have impact on the ground, then why would he choose not to assist the international investigation?

The answers to these questions will, at least partly, depend on the pressure he will feel from the international community. Putin's influence on some of the factions within the amalgam of groups that oppose Kiev has reduced because he failed to directly and militarily intervene in the conflict. Some groups will no longer listen to the boss in Moscow. This seems the eternal fate of those who engage in proxy warfare. But even if Moscow can impact some of the groups in eastern Ukraine, political will is still required to assert pressure. Nothing seems to indicate that Putin is impressed or motivated by moral or legal considerations. Instead he calculates risks and potential gains. And that is where international political and economic pressure comes into the equation. 

Putin wants to lead Russia into a new era of relevance; to return to the international platform after a humiliating post-Cold War period in which Russia was relegated to the position of loser. Loser of the Cold War. Loser in the eyes of the West. A relic of the past.

But what Putin is doing regarding the current conflict in Ukraine in general, and the aftermath of the MH17 tragedy in particular, is the very opposite of bringing Russia back to world status. That should be the message we send, and that is what will pressure the Kremlin. It might trigger activities from Moscow to regain lost influence among the players in eastern Ukraine; it may lead to pressure on the groups to cooperate. It is the only carrot that will work. The threat of sticks may need to come simultaneously, and the sticks may need to be sharpened and must be tailor-made. They need to hurt. Sharpened sticks made of targeted sanctions. 

The sticks may hurt us as well, but things have changed. There is already much agony and pain in Dutch society following last week's events. We can take more. There are strong calls for action and justice. The Dutch are not calling for revenge, but for respect for human dignity and moral values. In my opinion, this can only be achieved if we offer the carrot and simultaneously show the sharpened stick, with only one objective: bring the actors of this crime to justice. 

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12 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

When US officials talk about the US-Australia alliance, they almost always highlight, as President Obama did in his November 2011 speech in Canberra, that Australians have fought alongside Americans 'in every single major conflict of the past hundred years.' This is a fact to be celebrated, but statements on both sides of the Pacific that Australia is America’s 'deputy sheriff' in Asia, compounded by the enduring concept of US-led 'hub-and-spoke' alliances in the region, have only reinforced perceptions of Australia as a dependable junior partner.

Australia’s own actions in recent years have portrayed a country reluctant to step out on its own. Canberra has often appeared unwilling to take a leadership role in the region or on the world stage, much less help to manage the US-China security competition in Asia. When Canberra does lead, it is too often on niche issues deemed more appropriate for a 'middle power.'

Through American eyes, this appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including an overly-modest self-assessment of Australia’s power and influence, the perception that Australia’s real national security challenges do not extend far beyond its periphery, and the belief that there is little to be gained by inserting itself politically between the world’s two largest economies, both of which have an outsized effect on Australia’s economic wellbeing.

But in recent weeks, Australia has taken steps that suggest these assumptions may no longer be predominant in Canberra. Even if driven by domestic politics, Australia has played a leading role in marshaling the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Capitalising on Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quickly traveled to New York to introduce a binding resolution calling for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation.' It passed unanimously. Back in Canberra, Prime Minister Abbott went so far as to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be welcome to attend November’s G20 summit in Brisbane if Russia proves complicit in the attack.

Meanwhile, only days earlier, People’s Liberation Army General Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, was in Canberra to help announce that Chinese troops would train with Australian soldiers and US Marines together for first time in October’s Exercise Kowari in northern Australia.

This activism — best understood, in my view, as Australian initiatives to support Australian interests — only builds upon recent efforts to deepen economic and security partnerships with leading regional countries, including Japan and India. No longer content to simply be a spoke in an American-led order, Australia is increasingly positioned to contribute independently or in concert with fellow Asian countries to help maintain regional peace and stability.

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Are these harbingers of a more pro-active Australian foreign policy? Only time will tell, but Washington should hope the answer is squarely in the affirmative.

It turns out that the US doesn’t need a 'deputy sheriff' in Asia or more broadly on the international stage. Instead, it needs willing and capable partners who share America’s vision for a rules-based international order. It needs countries with comparative strengths and the power to complement, supplement and sometimes replace the traditional role of the US.

Few countries, if any, fit this bill as well as Australia. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia carries substantial normative authority (particularly outside Southeast Asia) as a modern, liberal country in Asia, distanced by physical geography and national security perspectives from both Europe and the US. Together, this provides significant untapped potential for Australia, even in pursuit of its own interests, to act in ways that advance US goals in the region and the world.

But this is not just about Australia’s latent influence. It’s also the case that the regional security environment in Asia increasingly demands this kind of leadership from America’s partners. It is no longer sufficient, much less wise, for Canberra to sit on the sidelines while hoping for the US and China to resolve a growing set of serious differences on their own. To the contrary, US-China cooperation is far more likely to spring from activities led by third-party countries or regional institutions, which is what makes the announcement of the October exercise in northern Australia so important. Tony Abbott was right when he told General Fan last week that the trilateral exercise would be 'good for the stability of our region.'

As to Australia’s burgeoning relationships in the region, analysis by the Center for a New American Security, my home institution, has argued that intra-Asian security networks can at times contribute more to deterrence and regional security when they are largely independent of the US rather than always being led by Washington.

Of course, decisively dropping the 'deputy sheriff' badge and moving toward a more pro-active and independent foreign policy — in which Australian actions are commensurate with its power and influence — will inevitably produce friction with the US. For example, both countries will be competing for the ears of new leaders in India and Indonesia, while disagreements are likely to emerge on climate and energy. But if done transparently and in the spirit of healthy competition, this should not be something to be feared in Washington. On balance, there is no doubt that, even if sometimes at odds with the US, greater Australian involvement in world politics — again, even in pursuit of its own aims — will ultimately advance American interests.

Australia is in a unique position to move the international community, contribute independently to peace and stability in Asia, and help to manage the competitive aspects of the US-China relationship. Here’s hoping that recent events aren’t just a fleeting burst of Australian activism.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.

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  • Over 100 people have died in the past week as Typhoon Rammasun hit northern Philippines, northern Vietnam and China.
  • Typhoon Rammasun marks the beginning of typhoon season in Southeast Asia and much of the region remains ill-equipped, as this Oxfam release notes about the Philippines.  
  • China moved its oil rig out of disputed waters this week. Carl Thayer explains four possible reasons why.
  • Filipino President Bengino Aqinuo III is facing a movement for his impeachment after a Supreme Court ruled he had acted unconstitutionally in spending for an economic stimulus. 
  • On Monday, Thailand conducted a headcount of Myanmar refugees, sparking fears that a refoulement (similar to that seen with undocumented Cambodian workers) may be about to occur. Since Thailand's military government took power, warmer relations with Myanmar's military have ensued.
  • Nicholas Farrelly explains why Myanmar matters.
  • Under considerable pressure (as I examined last week), Malaysian PM Najib announced today that he has negotiated directly with Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed PM of the 'Donesk People’s Republic'.
  • Here and here are two great in-depth pieces on how the region's insatiable appetite for hydrodams continues and why they are so contentious. (Thanks Milton.)
  • Final talks’ took place today between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and the Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
  • Last week Cambodian opposition party protesters, demanding the re-opening of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, clashed with police:

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11 of 20 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Australian diplomacy at the UN has kicked up a gear over the last two weeks. On 14 July the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165, drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg, setting up a new mechanism to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria. And yesterday it approved Resolution 2166, tabled by Australia, demanding a 'full, thorough and independent investigation' into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine. This can only be a small consolation for the Australians, Dutch, Malaysian and other families who lost loved ones in the catastrophe. But both resolutions are evidence of Australia's increasingly confident diplomacy at the UN.

In a Lowy Institute Analysis published last month, I argued that the Australian team in New York had outperformed expectations in the Security Council through 2013 and the first half of 2014. Their biggest success before this month was Resolution 2139, tabled with the Luxembourgers and Jordanians in late February, which called for unfettered access for aid agencies working in Syria. The mere fact that Australia and its allies got Russia and China to sign up to this demand was a diplomatic coup.

But by last month, Resolution 2139 looked like an illusory success. Syria has consistently failed to fulfill its terms, and with Russia at odds with the West over Ukraine, any serious follow-up resolution seemed unlikely. Australian officials felt obliged to pursue the issue, but feared that they could end up 'going backwards' by sparking a fight with Moscow or settling for a pointlessly weak rebuke to Damascus.

Painstaking diplomacy delivered a pragmatic alternative. To satisfy Russia, Resolution 2165 shies away from sanctions or other penalties against Damascus for its non-compliance with the Council's earlier demands (although it hints that such measures are possible in future). But it goes beyond Resolution 2139 by authorising UN aid agencies to make humanitarian aid deliveries without the Syrian Government's prior consent while also directing monitors to check these aid consignments for hidden weapons or other illicit supplies for the rebel groups.

This is a decent compromise, showing just enough deference to Moscow's concerns while putting in place a concrete plan to ease the situation. The same could be said, in very different circumstances, about Resolution 2166 on the MH17 investigation.

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To get Moscow's support for the Ukrainian resolution, Australia and its allies watered down their text. Security Council Report, a think-tank that tracks day-to-day UN negotiations in detail, summarises some of the intricate niceties involved:

In the initial exchange over the original draft, it seems China and Russia stressed the importance of not prejudging the outcome of the investigations. The initial text of the draft resolution contained a paragraph which condemned the 'shooting down' of flight MH17. This was changed to 'the downing' of the MH17 flight. This was likely done as some members insisted that no conclusions should be made until a thorough investigation is completed, making the reference to 'shooting down' unacceptable.

But the details are still solid, including a specific demand for investigators to access the crash site and a call for whoever is responsible to be held accountable.

Australia seems to have learned the art of letting Russia save face at the Security Council while backing it into concessions on matters of substance. This is no small feat as Britain, France and the US have ended up colliding with Russia at the UN in unproductive spats over both Syria and Ukraine.

But the devil is still in the details.

Both the new aid mechanism for Syria and the MH17 investigation could backfire. If Damascus wants to discredit the humanitarian deliveries authorised by Resolution 2165, it won't find it too hard to stage the 'discovery' of a cache of weapons in an aid truck cleared by UN monitors. And the MH17 investigation could be drawn out and ultimately prove inconclusive – the US and NATO can offer the investigators signals intelligence and satellite imagery on the incident, but Moscow will say this is fixed.

All diplomatic deals are ultimately vulnerable to poor or dishonest implementation. But the last fortnight's deals over both Syria and Ukraine are clearly preferable to the alternatives: giving up on the humanitarian effort in the former case, and getting caught in an escalatory cycle of denunciations with Moscow over MH17 in the latter. UN diplomacy is the art of the possible. Australia seems to have mastered this art well.

Photo by Flickr user Scott Garner.

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