Lowy Institute
  • China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, visited Vietnam in yet another sign of improving ties. Carl Thayer looked at the establishment of the  China-Vietnam defence hotline and asked what's next.
  • The Institute for Security and Development Policy looked at Slavery and Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong.
  • Meanwhile, there are fears of an emerging Cambodia-Thai organ trafficking ring in kidneys.
  • Burmese cats are returning from the brink of extinction in Myanmar through a dedicated repatriation program.
  • Almost two months after al Qaeda announced its intent to carry out operations in Myanmar,  Naypyidaw unveiled a new CT unit.
  • Malaysia joined 20 nations (including Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) to set up the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. An Interpreter post recently argued why Australia should join.
  • In what is often a forgotten point of view, an International Crisis Group report on the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar noted that:
    Rakhine Buddhists have tended to be cast as violent extremists, which ignores the diversity of opinions that exists and the fact that they themselves are a long-oppressed minority. They are concerned that their culture is under threat and that they could soon become a minority in their state. These fears, whether well-founded or not, need to be acknowledged if solutions are to be developed.
  • Over at the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok, a look at why reconciliation should spearhead reform in post-coup Thailand.
  • And finally, Vietnamese are the most optimistic country when it comes to views of their children's future financial well-being, according to this Pew Research:


This VICE News video of the 2014 RIMPAC exercise (the largest international maritime exercise in the world), held in June this year, is worth 14 minutes of your time.

It includes (from 8:24) a tour of the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark, but focuses mainly on the US Marine Corps' attempt to return to amphibious warfare after more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this site we regularly debate the status of the pivot/rebalance. Maybe it has lost momentum at the political level, but it clearly figures prominently in US Marine Corps talking points.


Turkey appeared to take a step closer toward membership in the coalition against the Islamic State on 20 October. It agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and heavy weapons to transit through its territory to defend the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane, located less than a mile from the Turkish border. Up to 200 peshmerga will arrive in the area over the next week, with some reports suggesting they will only provide heavy artillery support from outside the city.

US Secretary of State Kerry with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, September 2014. 

The US has been under pressure to take action on Kobane because the city's border location has enabled the international media to cover the fighting there relatively closely, and because the local population is firmly against ISIS and has been putting up valiant resistance. While some military analysts have noted that Kobane isn't as great a strategic prize as Iraqi locations like Mosul, failure in Kobane would deal a heavy blow to both the tactical assumptions of the air campaign and to the Coalition's global public credibility.

Over the last week the US initiated a substantial air campaign followed by weapons and ammunition drops into the city. This Coalition military effort has made solid progress in driving ISIS fighters back to a small section of the city. ISIS rallied somewhat over the weekend but was unsuccessful in its efforts to cut Kobane off from the border crossing.

So, Coalition credibility restored? Somewhat.

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The military action comes after weeks of speculation that Kobane might be left to its fate. As Foreign Policy's Kate Brannen notes, the delay, coupled with the fact that the US has potentially expended a lot of its leverage with Turkey over this issue, means the US is making a huge bet on Kobane. Time will tell if it pays off. 

On the surface it seems as if Turkey has acceded to US requests, but Turkey remains an ambivalent partner in the fight against ISIS. It sent a lower-level official than the other Coalition members to a meeting at Andrews Air Force Base last week. It allows the US to conduct air surveillance operations out of its Turkish bases, but full combat missions are still ruled out. In an article in The Guardian, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu expressed dissatisfaction with the Coalition's 'Iraq first' strategy and its lack of clarity on the endgame in Syria. President Erdogan has been critical of the fact that at least one US arms drop has fallen into the hands of ISIS militants, claiming that he personally warned Obama about this possibility.

The Kobane issue and the delayed Coalition action there reflect Turkey's sensitivities about the status of the Kurds in light of its 30-year struggle with its own sizeable Kurdish minority. Although Ankara has been engaged in a peace process with the leaders of the Kurdish PKK, it still designates the group as a terrorist organisation, as does the US, NATO and the EU. The EU's designation has been challenged by a number of its own member states, however, and a range of other important players like Russia have refused to brand the PKK terrorists. 

Ankara therefore has a significant stake in shaping how the Kurds in Syria and Turkey are perceived globally. Whereas Turkey has (perhaps surprisingly) had fairly good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region from which the peshmerga hail, it has been vexed by the growing autonomy of Syria's Kurds amid that country's descent into chaos. Stronger links between Syria's Kurds and the PKK would potentially place Turkey's internal security in jeopardy, as would the possibility of further Coalition moves to strengthen Syria's Kurds militarily or politically. 

We can only speculate as to the reasons for Turkey's concessions on Kobane. Some commentators have cited Turkey's increasing isolation and US pressure as key factors. Perhaps a more specific quid pro quo (either with the US or the main Syrian Kurdish Party, the PYD) has been hammered out. Perhaps Turkey has calculated that it cannot afford to sit this one out and risk further Kurdish unrest inside Turkey, a further influx of refugees and international opprobrium. Perhaps Turkey regards strengthening the peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurds as one move in a long game to strengthen the (Iraqi) form of Kurdish nationalism it prefers.

By staying engaged with the Coalition (but only just), shrouding its true motives and continuing to elicit US attention to its concerns, Turkey is for the time being maximising its influence and room for maneuver. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.

  • Civil society groups walked out of the World Bank's official safeguards consultation over concern about a proposed reduction in the Bank's social and environmental standards.
  • Oxfam has called for the Australian Government to enact the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
  • 24 October was World Polio Day. Check out this interactive map to see global hot spots.
  • Related, this story from Pakistan, where terrorist forces aim to stop polio vaccinations. Pakistan is one of only three countries, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio is still endemic.
  • 24 October was also  UN Day. Read this research paper from UN watcher and New York University academic Richard Gowan: Peacekeeping at the precipice: Is everything going wrong for the UN?
  • China's use of coal falls for the first time this century; but will this  change its negotiating position at UN climate talks later this year? 
  • Lastly, a podcast from Freakonomics Radio called Fixing the world: Bang for buck edition. Economists and intellectuals decide how to spend the world's combined aid budget.

I was in Fiji last week to get an update on Chinese assistance to the country, as part of a larger project I'm doing mapping Chinese aid activities in the Pacific islands, to be launched in early 2015.

Navua Hospital, built with Chinese aid assistance, Fiji. (Author photo)

Fiji is becoming popular again in the post-election environment.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Fiji after his trip to Australia for the G20 next month (we should expect some announcements, as is common in Chinese high-level visits, though apparently nothing too big in terms of aid is on the cards). Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is dropping by this week, and the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and Japanese are all developing new programs (with new loan financing) for Fiji. Prime Minister Bainimarama will attend the Seventh Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting in Japan next year,  his first time in eight years.

With all that international attention, suddenly Chinese assistance might not look so appealing. My trip revealed two main insights about the challenges confronting Chinese aid in Fiji.

1. Chinese aid is not as quick or efficient as assumed

It is frequently said that developing-country leaders like Chinese aid because it is quick and efficient. I've said this myself too. While this is sometimes the case, it is actually far from a universal truth.

I was surprised to see a number of projects that had been agreed to when I was last in Fiji, five years ago, still underway or only recently completed.

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Two low-cost housing projects in Suva are funded through China Eximbank loans that were signed in 2010. But these loans came from the regional concessional loan package announced back in April 2006 at the 1st China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Nadi. Construction started in early 2011 and the projects have only just been completed. In fact the project was halted due to a dispute over building standards and subsequent cost blowout. It took a plea by Prime Minister Bainimarama during a visit to Beijing, and the Chinese Embassy stepping in with some grant funding, to resolve the dispute and get the project completed.

Similarly, the Somosomo mini-hydro project on the island of Taveuni was originally discussed with China in 2005. A Chinese team did a survey in 2010. The Chinese contractor, Hunan Engineering Construction Group, signed the contract in September 2013 and started work in July this year. The grant-funded dam is scheduled for completion in September 2015. This is some ten years after the project was first proposed and five years after the first Chinese site survey.

The efficiency of Chinese assistance is usually used as an explanatory factor by developing countries as to why they sometimes take on Chinese aid over 'traditional donor' support, which can be encumbered with complicated processes. But clearly it isn't just a matter of China pledging a loan and a project being built a couple of years later.

2. It all comes down to design

We've heard numerous stories of inappropriate or unsustainable Chinese aid projects. Time and again it seems problems stem from issues around design. A Chinese company will implement a project according to a design usually done by a separate Chinese company. As the Chinese aid system currently stands, it is difficult to negotiate changes to the design down the track.

The new Navua hospital (pictured above) is a case in point. According to the Chinese, the design for the hospital was approved by the Fijian Government. Chinese aid is managed through the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in Fiji and it appears the Ministry of Health had no involvement at the design stage.

As a result, when the hospital was handed over to Fiji in July, health officials discovered a number of design features that weren't ideal. Toilets are too small and frequently get blocked, tiles on the kitchen floor are too slippery, basins are too shallow to clean medical instruments, and telephone connections are in strange places. The ramps connecting the two wards are steeper than the usual standard. This has led to the hospital manager instructing staff not to transfer patients on trolleys. Instead they must use an ambulance to move people between wards less than 20m apart.

The Health Ministry is happy with the workmanship and professionalism of the Chinese contractor, Yanjian Group. But it will now have to resolve some of these design issues at its own cost. This might have been avoided had the PMO involved them.

It can be a challenge working within the Chinese aid system. As I've outlined previously, much depends on strong government processes around project negotiation and implementation. In Fiji's case, it seems there could be better involvement of line ministries, particularly at the design stage.

But it is important to note that despite these challenges, Chinese assistance in Fiji is supporting some priority areas such as health care, rural infrastructure and housing. And I drove along some very smooth Chinese-built roads. Going forward, the Chinese embassy is keen to use its grant aid to support projects that have a positive impact on the people of Fiji, including in climate change and renewable energy. 

The Fiji Government hasn't yet put in its wish list for projects to be funded through the new US$1 billion regional concessional loan facility announced at last year's 2nd China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Guangzhou. It is smartly waiting to see what's on offer from the other agencies that are now re-engaging. The Asian Development Bank and World Bank loans have lower interest rates than China, and allow for local contractors and consultants.

The PMO needs to be more proactive with project design, insist documents are provided in English and consult with its own experts before signing contracts. This will help ensure projects built with Chinese aid are appropriate and therefore well received. It is a good sign that the Chinese embassy has recognised the problems with its project design processes.

Given some of the challenges with Chinese projects and the very tied nature of its aid program, coupled with the fact that more options are now available, we may see the newly-elected Fijian Government prioritise loan assistance from other partners ahead of China in the next year.


President Jokowi announced his first Cabinet on Sunday evening on the grounds of the State Palace, six days after his inauguration and four days after he scrubbed carefully orchestrated plans to unveil his selection of ministers at Jakarta's port. The initial announcement was delayed after Jokowi took the unusual step of submitting the names of his ministerial selections to Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and anti-money laundering agency for vetting. The agencies reported that eight candidates were suspected of involvement in criminal cases, forcing Jokowi to replace them and reconfigure his selections.

President Joko Widodo introduces newly appointed State Secretary Pratikno.

The delay was also extended by intense negotiations over posts between Jokowi and opposition parties, and between Jokowi and factions within his own party. The final list does not include any opposition figures, indicating that the standoff in the Indonesian legislature between Jokowi's minority Great Indonesia Coalition and the opposition Red-and-White Coalition is likely to continue. The lineup does, however, include a number of senior figures from Jokowi's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, an indication that the influence of party chair and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri remains particularly strong, even now that Jokowi has taken office.

Beyond that, I would suggest four questions to better understand the implications of the announcement.

First, who has Jokowi chosen to shepherd his signature policy initiatives, like maritime connectivity, expanded healthcare, and increased spending on infrastructure? For these posts, Jokowi has chosen little-known technocrats for ministries including maritime affairs, health, and transport. These businessmen and bureaucrats are said to have been personally chosen by Jokowi for their managerial abilities, to further those policies he cares the most about. 

Second, who is filling 'wet' positions (those known to be a source of political patronage) like energy, state-owned enterprises, and agriculture, and how does that square with Jokowi's campaign for cleaner government?

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Jokowi is spreading the patronage around among his coalition, giving the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises to former trade and industry minister Rini Soemarno, a Megawati confidante; the Ministry of Agriculture went to a young businessman and acolyte of Vice President Jusuf Kalla. On the other hand, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the wettest of them all, went to a former state oil company official who was reportedly forced out in retaliation for his efforts to clean it up.  There are signs both of principle and compromise.

Third, who has taken the key economic portfolios? Here, Jokowi has continued the practice of appointing a trusted technocrat to the key finance portfolio while offering political supporters microeconomic portfolios like trade and industry. It is a dichotomy that soothes markets watching macroeconomic indicators for signs of weakness, but frustrates foreign investors who are made to navigate a complex maze of protectionist legislation and regulation.

Finally, who is filling positions where Jokowi is likely to take less of an interest, like foreign affairs and defence? These ministers are likely to have outsized influence, as Jokowi delegates to them in areas where he's shown less interest and feels less comfortable.

Retno Marsudi will become Indonesia's first female foreign minister, but is otherwise a fairly orthodox selection. Like former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa before her, she is a  graduate of the twelfth class of Indonesia's foreign ministry, a group of diplomats in their early 50s who were mentored by Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia's foreign minister from 2001 to 2009. As a career diplomat, Retno is likely continue to pursue a foreign policy that emphasises non-aligned rhetoric while skewing slightly toward the West, managing the tension inherent in Indonesia's 'independent and active' foreign policy as most of her predecessors have.

Ryamizard Ryacudu, Jokowi's new defence minister, is more problematic. As Army chief of staff, he took a hardline stance on separatist movements, which made it more difficult to achieve the negotiated solution that ultimately ended the insurgency in Aceh. Human rights activists have noted that he defended Army human rights abuses during this time. He has strained relations with neighbouring countries like Australia and Singapore, and with  the US. Ryamizard is a Megawati loyalist whom she chose in the last weeks of her presidential term to become head of the Indonesian Armed Forces. The appointment was quashed by Megawati's successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had quarrelled with Ryamizard over policy towards Aceh.

Notably absent from the roster is Luhut Panjaitan, a retired general and minister who remains the closest advisor to Jokowi with a military background. During the transition, Luhut seemed likely to become coordinating minister for politics, law, and security, a key position in liaising with foreign militaries and security services. Instead, a retired Navy chief of staff, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, will fill the role. Naming an admiral to the role is likely a nod in the direction of Jokowi's maritime emphasis, but is not unprecedented; under SBY the position was held by an admiral for five years.

Foreign Minister Retno is said to have less experience and clout with the military than colleagues in the diplomatic corps such as outgoing deputy foreign minister Dino Patti Djalal. Her appointment thus raises questions as to whether the foreign ministry can prevail when disagreements emerge between it and the military, as exists on the question of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In these situations, the military's voice might could become louder, leading to less clarity about specific Indonesian policies, as I have argued in a Lowy Institute analysis released earlier this month.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Darren Whiteside.


Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Former Prime Minister of Australia Gough Whitlam passed away this week at the age of 98. Sam Roggeveen interviewed Nonresident Fellow Murry McLean on the legacy of Whitlam's foreign policy for Australia: 

I talked with Murray McLean this morning, and as you will hear, he argues that Whitlam established the basis for a fully independent Australian foreign policy, setting relations with Asia on a truly equal basis while also tenaciously defending the ANZUS alliance. McLean provides some wonderful historical detail from the early 1970s, when not only Australia but the US, Canada and others were re-thinking their relations with China. When we chatted after the interview, he recommended this 2012 essay by Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to Beijing, on Whitlam's historic 1971 visit.

Historian James Curran wrote on the tumultuous relationship between Whitlam and Nixon and its effect on the Australia-US alliance: 

But it was the speed and direction of the Australian moves which put Whitlam on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. At a time when Washington was trying to rebalance its regional policy following the subordination of other concerns to the fighting in Vietnam, Labor's policy prescription in Asia was bound to throw relations into a tailspin. Against Whitlam's impatience for Australia to be accepted in Asia in a new way and his eagerness to embrace a world less constrained by rigid bipolarity, American officials maintained the need for incremental change, with one eye on the fragility of détente and the other on the persistence of great-power politics.

The new Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, was inaugurated in Jakarta this week. Lowy Institute Research Fellow and Indonesia specialist Aaron Connelly had this to say on Jokowi's attendance at the G20 Summit: 

It would be a mistake for Jokowi to skip the G20.

It is an important opportunity for the new president to engage in debates in Brisbane over proposed measures to boost global economic growth and fund infrastructure projects. Given the the importance of commodity exports to the Indonesian economy and the dire need for improved infrastructure throughout the archipelago, the outcome of those debates could be key to Jokowi's ability to deliver growth and prosperity at home, despite significant macroeconomic and political headwinds.

Rory Medcalf reflected on Jokowi's inaugural address:

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The inauguration speech of Indonesia's 7th President, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, was powerful despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it. It contained a striking blend of personal humility, national pride and an ethos of unremitting work. But as an analyst of Asian geopolitics, I was most struck by its message about Indonesia's rightful aspirations as a seagoing Indo-Pacific power; an archipelagic country connecting two oceans.

And Catriona Croft-Cusworth attended Jokowi's inaugural parade in Jakarta:

The peaceful celebrations are a sign of acceptance by supporters of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, and, hopefully, a sign of a peaceful and constructive term ahead for Jokowi as president. However, with only a minority in the House of Representatives against Prabowo's bulky coalition, Jokowi will have to do more than win the hearts of the people to succeed in making significant changes as president

In a detailed and important post, Senator John Faulkner wrote on the need for a wide-ranging review of Australian intelligence:

Enhanced power requires enhanced accountability. The greater the potential for that power to infringe on individual liberties, the greater the need for accountability in the exercise of that power. This is not to suggest that our security and intelligence agencies are acting perniciously or misusing their powers. But in the relatively recent past those powers were used inappropriately, with a consequent erosion of public trust. We must be conscious that enhancements we agree to now may lend themselves to future misuse in the absence of appropriate and effective accountability mechanisms.

Julian Snelder on the contradictions in Hong Kong's future with China:

Francis Fukuyama addresses this paradox in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. He says that a well-functioning society needs three building blocks: a strong state, rule of law and public accountability, delivered in that sequence. Hong Kong's protesters are demanding the third element, while China itself works on the second, so perhaps the tension between them is understandable. China's state media has praised Fukuyama's book as a vindication of its cautious, paternalistic approach. Fukuyama himself has wondered where China is heading. He argues that China, which built a modern state two millenia before Europe, still lacks an impersonal, impartial legal system.

The Lowy Institute's East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall took a look at the Chinese Communist Party's Fourth Plenum:

When thinking about China, even when the language may sound familiar (and in the case of 'rule of law', reassuring), the underlying concepts are often completely different. The ultimate implications are not going to be what we expect if we take the terminology at face value. While there will very likely be some important and positive developments at this Fourth Plenum, we should not expect to see Chinese judges' decision-making suddenly de-linked from Party considerations. 'Comprehensively advancing the rule of law' does not equate to a separation of powers and a rollback of the Party-state's role in legal affairs. Rather, it should be understood as a sophisticated development in how the Party manages governance and control.

Mike Callaghan argued that the World Trade Organisation is in trouble

The WTO needs a major shake-up. But this will only come if the crisis confronting the global trading system is acknowledged. On reflection, it is probably unfortunate that the Bali deal was reached. The WTO trade ministers meeting last December was widely seen as make-or-break for the WTO. If there had been no agreement, there would have been a crisis, and the need for changes to the way the WTO operates would probably have been confronted. Now the WTO is in a crisis, but this is not getting sufficient recognition.

In a new Lowy Analysis, Dirk van der Kley takes a detailed look at China's foreign policy in Afghanistan:

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

The battle for the Syrian city of Kobane is quickly becoming symbolic, said Rodger Shanahan:

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jack Amick.


'The umbrella revolution won't give Hong Kong democracy, protesters should stop calling for it' says Eric X Li, a vocal advocate of the CCP's authoritarian model. 'This is about inequality, not politics, so democracy can't fix the problem.'

Actually, if Hong Kong did have universal suffrage, it is quite conceivable its citizens would elect a populist leader running on redistributive policies. 'Tyranny of the majority' is precisely what Hong Kong's elites fear. Chief Executive CY Leung crassly told foreign reporters this week that allowing public nominations for his post 'would give too much power to poor and working-class residents.' Inequality is a major source of unhappiness and property is the root cause of Hong Kong's inequality. A progressive populist could raise Hong Kong's tax rate and flood the real estate market with land and free housing.

Li is wrong that universal suffrage couldn't bring that about.

But what about his broader arguments? Eric Li praises China's government as responsive, meritocratic and efficient, especially in delivering economic development. He further argues that it is representative because it is politically, and not just economically, legitimate and practices a consultative, 'consensual' style of executive deliberation. China has the system that's right for its present needs, Li argues, and surveys of citizen satisfaction would concur. By contrast, Li can fluently cite a dismal litany of failed electoral democracies.

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Francis Fukuyama addresses this paradox in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. He says that a well-functioning society needs three building blocks: a strong state, rule of law and public accountability, delivered in that sequence. Hong Kong's protesters are demanding the third element, while China itself works on the second, so perhaps the tension between them is understandable. China's state media has praised Fukuyama's book as a vindication of its cautious, paternalistic approach. Fukuyama himself has wondered where China is heading. He argues that China, which built a modern state two millenia before Europe, still lacks an impersonal, impartial legal system.

The Communist Party's Fourth Plenum this week focused on 'governance according to law.' The Plenum may disappoint foreign observers, but Xi Jinping rightly wants 'power confined within a cage' of regulation, meaning a continued draconian campaign on corruption, less local interference in courts, and hopefully a lower caseload for judges and improved transparency in sentencing. Xi Jinping's political actions have been strongly centralising, and it is clear Communist Party rule will be strengthened. Officials offer a circular justification: the Party wrote the law, so there is no conflict between its authority and the proper application of justice. 

Hu Shuli writes this week that China's original 1979 'rule of law' was a traumatised reaction to the Cultural Revolution's 'rule of the people.' Today the Party's power over society is immensely greater. She courageously opines that now 'the rule of law is fundamentally incompatible with an authoritarian system.' But a true 'separation of powers' is not going to happen; in fact the term is an official taboo. Even 'constitutionalism' is seen as a seditious attack on 'the people's democratic dictatorship'.

The country has no shortage of laws; it's the selective prosecution of them that's the problem. Foreign legal scholars like Jerome Cohen and Carl Minzner have expertly documented an arbitrary 'rule by law' culture that has undermined societal trust by created an overweening, unanswerable bureaucracy.

Which brings us back to the problem of Hong Kong, the well-functioning civil society without a vote. The students on the street are fighting for freedoms they already possess, as much as the right to new ones. They mistrust the Party's monopoly over all forms of power, including the judiciary and the media, and there is fear of a regression of public accountability.

It is worth considering that we are already almost 20 years into the 50-year 'One Country Two Systems' framework. We cannot imagine how China will look in 2047; yet on current trends its legal system will still be vastly different than Hong Kong's. Probably in another decade, the reality of that impending collision will start to sink in. History may record Occupy Central as the first tremor of concern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pasu Au Yeung.


China has just launched another spacecraft to the moon. The flight will carry a small capsule around the far side of the moon before returning to earth. If all goes well, the capsule will parachute to a soft landing on the flat steppes of Inner Mongolia, where China usually lands its space capsules.

Officially, this flight is a test of a capsule system to be used in a future robot sample-return mission, which should launch in a few years. Unofficially, the mission serves as another reminder of China's long-term goals of sending astronauts to the moon. The capsule is a scale replica of the crew descent module used on China's Shenzhou astronaut-carrying spacecraft. (Some analysts still refuse to believe China wants to place footprints on the moon. It's another delicious example of politics trumping reason.)

Publicity for this mission has been unusually tight, even by the typically guarded standards of the Chinese space program. This seems to be a trend, judging by recent missions. Perhaps China wants to advance further without tipping off America to its growing achievements. 

Photo by Flickr user Jose Maria Cuellar.


The Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre will present a weekly selection of links in the lead-up to the Brisbane G20 Leaders’ Summit on 15-16 November.

  • European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy have issued a joint letter to EU leaders about key issues for discussion at the Brisbane Summit.
  • Jeffrey Owens outlines the extensions in the G20 tax mandate stemming from the Cairns Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting.
  • The Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre, Mike Callaghan, asks if the G20 can save the WTO following warnings from Roberto Azevêdo, the head of the global trading body, that it had descended into 'paralysis'. This follows Azevêdo's announcement that consultations will take place on the future of the Bali decisions and post-Bali work program.
  • The pressure for climate change to be discussed by G20 leaders in Brisbane is building following a statement given last week by US G20 sherpa Caroline Atkinson that members should give a political push to specific steps that will reduce global warming.
  • RBA Deputy Governor Philip Lowe delivered an address titled 'Investing in a Low Interest Rate World', a topic that have been the focus of many discussions around the G20 table this year.
  • Last week, the Lowy Institute hosted Wayne Swan to talk on the G20 and Australia's role in international economic governance.
  • Australian G20 organisers are aware of 21 protests being planned during the Brisbane Summit.

Since 11 September 2001, new threats to Australia's national security have emerged, with Australians targeted by terrorist organisations at home and abroad.

Close to home, the threat of terror became a shocking reality with the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the 2009 Holsworthy Barracks terror plot, and other planned attacks on Australian soil, prevented by authorities. On 12 September 2014, based on advice from agencies, the Government moved the Australian terror-alert level from Medium to High for the first time.

The powers, functions, and resources of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) have changed and expanded dramatically since the September 11 attacks. The current security environment does require such enhanced powers. However, this has come with a share of controversy. Recent information coming from the material disclosed by Edward Snowden, for instance, reveals something of the nature of Australia's intelligence cooperation with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, and raises questions about the extent to which this cooperation might circumvent national laws relating to the surveillance of citizens.

In the heightened atmosphere of war and terrorism there is also a danger that proper effect will not be given to important measures to safeguard the rights of Australian citizens. In the case involving Joseph 'Jihad Jack' Thomas, for instance, the Victorian Court of Appeal overturned his conviction because admissions he made whilst in custody in Pakistan had been obtained by ASIO and Australian Federal Police (AFP) agents contrary to Australian legal safeguards. The case of Dr Muhamed Haneef revealed the capacity of counter-terrorism laws to infringe the rights of an individual and to deny just treatment. The Haneef case also highlights arguments, which have not been resolved, about the power to detain people.

The decision to go to war in Iraq raised questions in Australia about the quality of intelligence assessments and the public use the government made of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. By contrast with Australia, the UK has conducted at least six major inquiries into issues surrounding the role of intelligence agencies in the Iraq war.

The protection of our hard-won democratic freedoms demands enhanced oversight of the AIC's expanded powers. With legislative change extending the powers of security agencies, the requirement for reliable, effective external oversight arguably becomes more critical to maintaining an essential level of trust in the community about agency operations.

In a paper posted on my website today, I make eight recommendations to improve oversight and scrutiny:

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  1. It is the parliament to which the intelligence agencies are accountable, and it is the parliament's responsibility to oversight their priorities and effectiveness. The Australian Parliament has no better or more authoritative forum than the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to do this job. But the provision requiring a prescribed balance of PJCIS members between the Houses has been an unnecessary impediment to ensuring the best qualified eligible parliamentarians serve on the committee. This should change to ensure the PJCIS has the capacity to draw on those parliamentarians with the greatest expertise and experience.
  2. The AFP now plays a central role in Australia's counter-terrorism framework. To ensure comprehensive and consistent oversight arrangements it is critical that the AFP's counter-terrorism elements be added to the list of organisations reviewable by the PJCIS.
  3. Currently the PJCIS is charged with reviewing the administration and expenditure of intelligence agencies. I would argue that the powers and access of the PJCIS should be enhanced to include access to the classified annual reviews of intelligence agencies.
  4. Currently the PJCIS can only request a matter be referred to it by the responsible Minister. In the US and UK, the equivalent committees set their own agenda and work program. It is time for the PJCIS to be given the power to generate its own inquiries if it believes, following consultation with relevant agencies, that such action is necessary and appropriate.
  5. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) provides detailed scrutiny of the legality and propriety of intelligence agencies' operations. The Government and the Parliament must ensure the resources and level of staffing provided to IGIS continue to meet the growing demands and responsibilities placed on them by the expansion of the Australian intelligence community and its powers.
  6. There should be broader and more formalised liaison between the PJCIS and other oversight bodies including the IGIS and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.
  7. In recent years, in some instances the Parliament has used sunset clauses when intelligence agencies have been granted unprecedented powers. These unprecedented powers include AFP preventative detention orders, AFP control orders, and ASIO questioning and detention powers. The lifespan of too many such sunset clauses has been too long. It is simply not possible to predict the nature and extent of terrorist threats over a ten-year period. Giving future sunset clauses a three-year lifespan would be more appropriate to meet immediate threats to national security and give a new Parliament, with a fresh perspective, the opportunity to reconsider their necessity.
  8. Not only has oversight of the intelligence agencies failed to keep pace with their burgeoning role and powers, it has been decades since the effectiveness and adequacy of the oversight framework have been critically examined. It is time to satisfy the Australian community, the Parliament, and the agencies themselves that we have got this right. The time has come for a thorough review of the current arrangements for oversight of Australian intelligence agencies. The inquiry should encompass the role, powers and scope of existing oversight mechanisms and consider the adequacy of the legislative framework which governs oversight; the degree to which it is coordinated and comprehensive; and whether the resources allocated to such bodies are adequate.

Enhanced power requires enhanced accountability. The greater the potential for that power to infringe on individual liberties, the greater the need for accountability in the exercise of that power. This is not to suggest that our security and intelligence agencies are acting perniciously or misusing their powers. But in the relatively recent past those powers were used inappropriately, with a consequent erosion of public trust. We must be conscious that enhancements we agree to now may lend themselves to future misuse in the absence of appropriate and effective accountability mechanisms.

Photo by Flickr user sobriquet.net.


In just two months' time, international forces in Afghanistan will hand over security responsibility to local personnel. In preparation for the handover, and the eventual withdrawal of foreign militaries, Beijing has substantially raised its traditionally low-key diplomacy in the country.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the Chinese embassy in Kabul

China has pursued dozens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic mechanisms with Afghanistan and surrounding countries that have focused on the issue of security. As I write in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, diplomacy is one of China's two major policy pillars in Afghanistan (the other is to substantially increase economic engagement).

Beijing's key interest in Afghanistan is security. China wants to prevent the spread of terrorism, and in particular terrorist ideology, into the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well to ensure that Afghanistan does not function as a strong base for Uyghur militancy. Beijing will not commit militarily to Afghanistan, so how will it use diplomacy to prevent new instability spreading to Xinjiang?

Beijing will attempt to reduce the security threat in two main ways.

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  1. Stabilise Afghanistan, or prevent further deterioration in the Afghan security environment.
  2. If 1. fails, limit the spread of new instability regionally and reduce the direct threat to Xinjiang.

Beijing's direct influence in stabilising Afghanistan is limited. It will commit huge levels of economic support. Diplomatically it is encouraging surrounding countries to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But security will be left to Afghan forces and any residual foreign troops. The US will likely play the role of mediator in Afghanistan if necessary, as happened during the recent electoral deadlock. 

On point 2, Beijing has more diplomatic options. China maintains contacts with a broad range of actors and groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Since the Karzai Government came to power in 2001, contact with the Taliban has often been via intermediaries. But more recently Beijing has reportedly rebuilt the direct links it had with the Taliban prior to the US invasion in 2001.

Beijing seeks guarantees that Afghanistan won't function as a base for Uyghur militant groups. It also wants Chinese investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. There are mixed views to how effective this approach will be. Some Chinese sources say the Taliban doesn't want to raise the ire of Beijing because this could complicate the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Others question the Taliban's commitment to China's requests. Insurgents have attacked Chinese resource projects in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and in 2012 Reuters quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying it opposed China's largest investment in Afghanistan, a copper mine near Kabul.

Beijing has also vastly increased its regional diplomatic footprint. China hopes to achieve a consensus on the Afghan issue among surrounding countries because they are at the front line of containing any new Afghan instability. What this consensus may look like is vague, but could include increasing regional cooperation on issues such as anti-narcotics and counter-terrorism, with practical measures such as intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and judicial or law-enforcement training (some of these already happen bilaterally or through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

There are clear obstacles. Officials in Central Asian countries are suspected of close links to the drug trade. And there are long running concerns that Pakistan's security and intelligence services help shelter terrorists. Also, many countries in the region have antagonistic relationships with each other.

Despite challenges, Beijing's diplomatic approach may suffice to quell the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The number of Uyghur militants sheltering in Afghanistan (and Pakistan too) in all likelihood remains small, and the capability of external Sunni Uyghur militant groups to launch attacks in China appears limited. It would take a significant capability leap from these groups to be a constant operational threat to China. 

However, diplomacy, economics or military intervention cannot prevent the spread of terrorist and religious propaganda into Xinjiang. This was consistently identified by Chinese interlocutors in research interviews for my Lowy Institute Analysis as the greatest external threat to Xinjiang's stability. 

The Chinese Government probably hypes the ideological threat from abroad – as many governments do. Xinjiang's problems are overwhelmingly domestic, stemming from a disenfranchised Uyghur population that chafes under religious repression, economic imbalances and ingrained discrimination. But concerns abound that ideological messages could resonate with this group.

The most prominent external Sunni Uyghur militant group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, undeniably encourages violence in Xinjiang and supports Uyghur separatism. Its media output has become more sophisticated in the past few years. Other groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda have also expressed ideological support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, although this doesn't appear to have led to operational support. 

Chinese analysts understand the limits of diplomacy in regard to Afghan security, but it is seen, along with an economic contribution, as the least-worst policy option. Shi Lan of the Xinjiang Academy for Social Sciences sums it up: 'Dialogue is the best choice we have for solving this issue. Of course, I feel it may be difficult to achieve results with dialogue, but we have to try.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters.



A few times over the past year, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has referred to Australia as a 'top 20 nation' or a 'top 20 country'. She prefers this to the standard description of Australia as a middle power, a term she has mostly avoided. As she responded to the Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher: 'Middle of what? There are something like 186 countries, so that makes us the 90-something country.' 

For the conservative side of politics, the term 'middle power' is often seen as having been claimed by Labor for its multilateral-leaning internationalist agenda. To those of a proactive bent it can seem terminally unambitious, a supine acceptance of Australia's middlingness in the order of things. Alexander Downer famously pooh-poohed the term and presented Australia as a 'considerable country'.

Minister Bishop's use of the term 'top 20' raises the question of whether Australia is and can remain a top 20 nation. If the league table is about economic power, Australia is comfortably in the club: Australia has overtaken Spain and is the 12th largest economy in the world. Unlike some G20 members (I'm looking at you, Argentina and South Africa), there is no question that Australia is a top 20 economy. (Australia is also in the top 20 polluting countries). Australia is comfortably ranked in top 20 by military spending and development aid. Australia's diplomatic representation may be the lowest in the G20 and its international broadcasting has been cut, but overall there is no question that it's an accurate appellation. 

The issue then becomes whether Australia will stay a top 20 nation. Economic trends and demographics are against it. In purchasing power, Indonesia's economy passed Australia's years ago. PwC projects that Australia will remain in the top 20 in GDP by purchasing power in 2030 but will have dropped out of the top 20 by 2050. As other countries' economies grow, this will give them the funds to invest in greater military spending and even in development aid, as has happened with China and India.

So, is calling Australia a top 20 country just setting ourselves up for inevitable failure?

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A more positive perspective is that it might act as an encouragement, helping Australia to commit to remaining a top 20 nation and taking the decisions needed to maintain this status. For example, the Defence White Paper process could focus on what investments would be needed for Australia to stay in the top 20 in military capability; this would give a hard-edged focus to the exercise (and probably throw up some uncomfortable truths).

There is no shortage of advice on what is needed to make Australia's economy internationally competitive, whether in trade, labour force, tax reform, productivity or science and innovation. What is usually missing is the political will to implement these prescriptions. A sense of Australia as a top 20 nation can help give political impetus to push for economic reform.

When I attended the Crawford Australia Leadership Forum – Gareth Evans' answer to the 2020 Summit – I was struck by the division of discussion into two streams: 'global realities' and 'domestic choices'. The international stream ('global realities') dealt with topics such as China-US relations, India, Indonesia and the Middle East, topics which are, for the most part, outside Australia's control; they are realities with which Australia has to deal. By contrast, the stream on 'domestic choices' dealt with issues such as productivity, competitiveness, energy, inequality and growth; these are all areas where Australian policy settings can have a major effect. 

If it is true that international power derives at its base from economic strength, as has been a popular refrain in the US, the 'top 20' tag can help us recognise this reality and the importance of a continuing focus on economic policy. It fits with the Minister's focus on economic diplomacy: of economic goals as a driver of diplomacy. It suggests the need to strive for a larger Australia in international 'weight'.

The question of whether Australia stays in the economic top 20 is likely to determine if Australia has the clout that enables it to contribute to a conducive international order. Focusing on being a top 20 nation may help keep Australia's eye on that prize.

The Australian Institute of International Affairs' National Conference 'Foreign Policy for a Top 20 Nation' will be held on Monday 27 October in Canberra with speeches by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Lowy Institute experts Mike Callaghan and Rory Medcalf.

Photo by Flickr user Tal Bright.


If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the ABC even claimed that a hill near the town was 'strategic'. Tactically important perhaps, but strategic ? I don't think so.

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS's main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

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While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organisation and it realises that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defence. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, who appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ogbodo Solution.