Lowy Institute

[I]t is much easier for an expansionist power to insert an asset in disputed waters than it is for the defenders to remove it. This is the key issue here: how to remove a hostile asset without escalating the dispute using lethal force. 

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

The UN Security Council observes a minute's silence for the MH17 victims. (UN photo.)

The clocks at the UN were approaching midnight on Sunday night when the Security Council concluded an emergency session on the Gaza conflict, and then immediately reconvened for consultations on an Australian draft resolution dealing with the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17. Unscheduled late-night meetings, especially on the weekend, are uncommon at the UN. Two back-to-back meetings at such a late hour involving such major crises may well be unprecedented. But with the debris-strewn crash site becoming more contaminated with every passing hour, there was no time to lose. 

Negotiations had been conducted earlier in the day on a resolution calling for an independent international investigation and demanding that armed groups in control of the crash site immediately provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access. But at the eleventh hour – in the most literal sense of all – the Russians threw a sickle in the works. At the midnight meeting, the Russians came with their own resolution. Vitaly Churkin, a protégé of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said he had problems with 'ambiguities' in Australia’s draft.

British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, angry over what he saw as blatant Russian obstructionism, told reporters: 'it looks like typical Russian delaying  tactics. It's extraordinary that they've introduced some new amendments which they didn't introduce earlier in the day.' 

Just hours earlier, the language of the draft had been softened to make it more palatable to Moscow. It referred now to the 'downing' of the Boeing 777 rather than its 'shooting down'. But the Russians wanted the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, to take the lead, rather than Ukrainian crash investigators acting with the help of the ICAO. 

After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, Churkin indicated that Russia’s reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.

Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.

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Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.

Australia enjoys a lot of goodwill on the Security Council, not least for its efforts to secure resolutions boosting humanitarian aid to Syria. What made its achievement doubly significant was that it came precisely a week after unanimous passage of its resolution, co-sponsored by Jordan and Luxembourg,  opening the way for more cross-border aid to Syria.

The presence in the chamber of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, along with her Dutch and Luxembourg counterparts, was meaningful and well-received. It provided a clear demonstration of Canberra's determination. It gave Australia's words extra emotional power. Though the nitty gritty of the negotiation was conducted by Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, Julie Bishop was heavily involved behind the scenes.

Raising a hand in support of a UN resolution is a very different thing from lifting a finger where it matters, and the test of this resolution will be in its implementation. Russia claims it has already offered assistance, but America's ambassador Samantha Power said there should never have been any need for a resolution if Moscow had used its influence over the separatists to allow for unfettered access. For the Kremlin not to have condemned the “armed thugs” for tampering with evidence and blocking investigators sent a powerful message, she claimed: 'We have your backs.'

Since the shooting down of MH17 the chamber of the Security Council has felt more like a courtroom. Even after this resolution, Vladimir Putin is still very much in the dock.


A delightful profile of US Vice-President Joe Biden by the New Yorker's former China correspondent, Evan Osnos. This quote will get a lot of mileage as the MH17 story develops:

To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: “I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”

“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line. 

“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

But as the Russia scare-mongering ramps up, this Biden judgment should also be remembered: 

Other than being crazy enough to press a button, there is nothing that Putin can do militarily to fundamentally alter American interests.” 

There's also a killer quote early on in the piece illustrating the Obama-Biden relationship:

The trials facing the President and the Vice-President, who are separated by nineteen years and a canyon in style, have brought them closer than many expected—not least of all themselves. John Marttila, one of Biden’s political advisers, told me, “Joe and Barack were having lunch, and Obama said to Biden, ‘You and I are becoming good friends! I find that very surprising.’ And Joe says...

This is a family website, so I will leave you to read the punchline here


Indonesia's General Elections Commission (KPU) is tomorrow likely to confirm a victory by Joko ('Jokowi') Widodo over presidential rival Prabowo Subianto by a margin of somewhere between 4% and 6.88%. While supporters of Indonesian democracy collectively hold their breath in anticipation of a negative response from Prabowo, it is useful to also look beyond Indonesia's domestic politics to the foreign policy and defence implications for Australia resulting from a Jokowi presidency.

Prior to the election, Jokowi and his vice presidential candidate Jusuf Kalla released a policy platform or Vision Mission (Visi Misi) statement to the KPU which included defence and foreign policy objectives. The statement was predicated strongly upon securing Indonesia's economic and security interests in the maritime domain and enhancing Indonesia's identity as an archipelagic state. 

Advised by a cohort of talented Indonesian intellectuals, the statement reflected the authors' views of the Indo-Pacific region as a single geopolitical and strategic entity. 

In a significant development for Australia, the statement committed a future Jokowi-Kalla government to an increase in defence spending from 0.8 to 1.5% of GDP and to building the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) into a regional maritime power of consequence. It further committed to enhancing regional defence diplomacy and maritime cooperation through multilateral entities such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), of which both India and Australia are members. 

Although the statement did not refer to any specific countries, the sub-text was clearly China. Priorities included defending Indonesia's outer islands, protecting natural resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and strengthening the regional architecture in order to 'prevent the hegemony of major powers'.

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The third presidential debate on 22 June on 'International Politics and National Resilience' revealed further insights into Jokowi's thinking on foreign policy and strategic issues.

On the Australia relationship, the candidates seem to agree there was a trust deficit between Jakarta and Canberra, but Jokowi offered more considered analysis. He indicated his willingness to work towards ameliorating this deficit through business, education and cultural diplomacy, but cautioned that a government he led would not abide perceived condescension or disrespect from its southern neighbour. 

On the South China Sea, a critical security issue for the region, Jokowi generally kept to the foreign ministry line that Indonesia was not directly involved in the dispute but would continue to work towards a diplomatic solution. His equivocation during the debate about Indonesia's ongoing commitment to mediating in the dispute can be attributed more to inexperience on foreign policy matters than an indication of any forthcoming policy shift.

If Jokowi is confirmed as Indonesia's next president on 22 July, as widely anticipated, Australia can expect a degree of policy continuity with Jakarta. At the same time, Australia could also expect a more assertive and more militarily capable Indonesia over the next five years. 

A key disjuncture from the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono period will be the weakening of high-level executive support in Jakarta to steer bilateral relations through the inevitable peaks and troughs. In short, Canberra can expect the troughs to be deeper and to last longer without the champion of bilateral relations represented by SBY. 

On the upside, powerful systemic forces are likely to enhance Australia's utility in the minds of Indonesian defence strategists, mitigating against the risk of protracted bilateral tensions. There is a higher-stakes game emerging in the Indo-Pacific, with China's increasing presence in Southeast Asian states' EEZs

The Jokowi-Kalla Visi Misi statement recognises the realities of contemporary geopolitics in its strong emphasis on Indonesia's maritime domain. Indeed, Australia, through a combination of its geographic proximity to Indonesia's maritime approaches and middle power defence capabilities, may assume an increasingly important role in the strategic policy of a future Jokowi government. 

 Photo by Flickr user Hendrik Mintarno.

8 of 13 This post is part of a debate on MH17
  • Prime Minister Abbott announces that former Air Chief Marshal (and now Lowy Institute board member) Angus Houston will go to Ukraine as his personal envoy.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has gone to New York to lead diplomatic efforts for a binding UNSC resolution mandating an independent investigation.
  • Here's The Guardian's latest report on the content of the draft UN resolution.
  • John Garnaut on what China will do in the UN Security Council. Will Xi follow Putin or Abbott.
  • James Fallows in the New York Times: don't blame Malaysian Airlines.
  • Obama calls on Europe to do more; says 'We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing'.
  • Marc Ambinder on how Obama's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, used the KAL007 shootdown in 1983 to pressure the Soviet Union. Here's Reagan's address to the nation:

Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control. Putin’s defiant annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine inflated his popularity at home. Despite a flaccid economy, his approval rating approaches levels rarely seen beyond North Korea. But the tactically clever and deeply cynical maneuvers of propaganda and military improvisation that have taken him this far, one of his former advisers told me in Moscow earlier this month, are bound to risk unanticipated disasters. Western economic and political sanctions may be the least of it.


In September 2010, the Australian Labor Party's Greg Combet sat down with The Australian's Samantha Maiden to explain why the coal industry 'absolutely' had a future. Given Australia is a leading coal exporter, this should have been unexceptional, except that Combet had been put in charge of the development of a carbon price for Australia. Trained in engineering, economics and labour relations, the rising star of the Gillard Government had the unenviable task of navigating between the popular 'soft energy path' policies supported by the electorate (wind, solar, tidal, efficiency) and the realpolitik of energy policy. 

This was five months before the unveiling of the Labor-Green carbon tax. History will record the highly capable Combet as another victim of the Australian carbon pricing debate, along with three prime ministers and a federal opposition leader, all of whom have been defeated or deposed since the start of 2007, in part due to an inability to construct a coherent narrative on carbon pricing. So what has gone wrong?

Winding the clock back to the late 1990s, arguably the single most significant failure of Australian climate policy was the Howard Government's rejection of Environment Minister Robert Hill's proposal for a modest carbon price in the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol. On the other hand, the problem for the Labor Party is that it has allowed itself to be drawn into fruitless debates on 'targets and timetables', and devised complex policy instruments without clear goals, or a means to satisfactorily explain them.

Economics 101 tells us that pricing carbon, ceteris paribus, will lower emissions relative to other factors. The strength of direct pricing is its ability to capture the low-cost efficiency and conservation opportunities and encourage marginal fuel switching. Indeed, the experience of the northern Europeans since the 1990s has been that carbon taxes do in fact reduce emissions from what they would otherwise be, and mostly without a loss of industrial competitiveness.

But there are two distinct differences in the Australian experience.

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Firstly, the Europeans implemented carbon taxes within a broader tax reform agenda, essentially forging a no-regrets response irrespective of global pricing. Secondly, the broad political support ensured a credible commitment to ongoing carbon pricing, in contrast to the highly contested debate in Australia, which has resulted in a labyrinth of carve-outs, compensation payments, and reliance on overseas permits for imported abatement.

The script is supposed to run as follows: a low starting price followed by a rising price with greater global buy-in. But the Labor-Green script has run backwards: a high starting price, then falling to the European price, and now a repeal of the price entirely, due to the inability of Labor to consolidate its carbon package. 

The ambitious Australian scheme was caught between a price that was too high for a starting price but too low to drive a switch to low-emission electricity generation. The sort of carbon prices required to displace incumbent baseload coal start from typically $60 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) for gas and in excess of $200 per tonne CO2-e for baseload solar. 

But even if carbon pricing had run to script, economics alone won't allow us to convert marginal abatement into long-run deep abatement. To understand this, we need to look at how electricity is generated.

Regional electricity markets were developed during a period when nearly all electricity was generated with thermal or hydro-rotary turbines. The problem is that a broadening of the electricity mix is introducing a suite of unintended consequences that are not captured by energy or carbon markets.

For example, the degree to which renewables can be integrated is dependent on the growth of 'flexible generation'. We are already seeing this globally with gas-fired generation complementing wind power, which is crowding out the potential for low-emission baseload and locking in a vague medium-emissions future scenario. This highlights the need for a greater focus on low-emission baseload, a notable omission in Labor's plan.

The divergence of climate and energy policies over the past decade has proven expensive, delivered only marginal abatement, and failed to provide a plausible long-run pathway to low emissions. A credible framework will integrate climate and energy policy to provide investor certainty, clear goals, and a broadening of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation's charter beyond 'soft energy'. Few would argue that the Abbott Government's 'Direct Action Plan' is better than a well designed carbon tax, but perhaps the repeal will at least provide an opportunity to reset the debate and examine the mistakes to date.

Photo by Flickr user Qian.

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

The spectre of the MH17 outrage is casting a long shadow across AIDS 2014, the 20th international AIDS conference, which opened yesterday in Melbourne. Six of its delegates, including one of the world's leading HIV/AIDS scientists, Dutchman Jeop Lange, were among the flight's 298 passengers.

The mood at last night's opening was sombre and the six were well missed. But HIV has stalked many of the 12,000 people attending this week-long conference, so the threat of death has never been far from their minds. As Australia's eminent jurist Michael Kirby (pictured) said in his opening address last night, people affected by HIV/AIDS are no strangers to suffering, irrationality and hatred. They are also no strangers to death.

So the conference refuses to be bowed by an outrageous act. Instead, it is using the tragedy to spotlight an ongoing outrage: the human rights abuse, happening in many parts of the world, which curses the lives of people either infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

It's true there has been significant success in pushing back HIV's advance over the past three decades. UNAIDS estimates that the global effort to fight HIV has averted 7 million deaths since 2002 and averted 10 million new infections. Globally, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections continues to decline. New infections among adults in developing countries in 2012 were 30% lower than in 2001

Advances in treatment have been a large part of the success, with an estimated 14 million people now on anti-retroviral drugs. But of the 35 million people living with HIV, more than half of them do not know they are infected. And the profile and intensity of transmission differs between regions, with Sub-Saharan Africa remaining the global centre of the epidemic with an estimated 70% of all new HIV infections in 2012.

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The Asia Pacific's position is mixed. It has one of the world's lowest overall rates of HIV prevalence but because of the sheer number of people living across the region — 60% of the world's population — it is also home to the second highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS, at 4.8 million.

Over the past three decades, fears about HIV/AIDS have shifted from a concern for a potentially devastating impact on the general population to a situation where those fears have not been realised. In many parts of the world, and notably in Asia, the disease now largely affects three particular segments of the population: men who have sex with men; male, female and transgender sex workers; and people who inject drugs.

It is the identity of these populations and how they are regarded by broader society which presents a major challenge in responding to HIV/AIDS. Simply because of who they are, it is difficult for them to access the prevention and treatment services that are fundamental to a successful HIV response. In addition to dealing with the risks and reality of legal penalties, each of these groups often has to deal with the broader issue of popular stigma and discrimination which impacts negatively on their human rights on a daily basis. Prohibitive laws, discrimination and stigma combine to create major barriers for the key affected populations to access health services.

The extent of this discrimination and stigma shows through in these UNAIDS statistics: same sex acts are criminalised in 78 countries and punishable by death in seven countries; sex work is illegal and criminalised in 116 countries; people who inject drugs are almost universally criminalised for their drug use or through the lifestyle adopted to maintain their drug use; 42 countries have laws specifically criminalising HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission.

So it's not surprising there is a major push by the conference to spotlight human rights. Its organisers, who represent a 25-year history of successful partnership between science, community, government and advocacy, see Melbourne as a watershed for human rights and have released the AIDS 2014 Melbourne Declaration. Its call to end discrimination and eradicate criminalising laws is based not only on human rights but on hard scientific evidence that accessing prevention and treatment reduces HIV incidence.

The conference wants the memory of its dead delegates to galvanise a renewed push against hatred and irrationality, whether in war-torn Ukraine or a back lane in Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of AIDS 2014.

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

For Western audiences, Moscow's initial prickly attitude to the downing of MH17 can be read as an example of how not to manage a crisis. Even with the weak hand he inherited, President Vladimir Putin has been consistently strong when on the foreign policy offensive, devising creative ways to advance Russian interests. He has made the West look hypocritical over South Ossetia, reckless in Libya, and rashly misguided on Syria. 

But as MH17 demonstrates, Putin's Kremlin is one-dimensional when it finds itself on the back foot. Rather than a preparedness to assist, it has instead focused on an unconvincing sleight of hand, backed by bellicose denials. 

The first mistake was having the state-controlled media devise frenzied conspiracy theories in an ill-judged attempt to deflect blame from pro-Russian separatists. One account seized on the similarities between Malaysian Airlines branding and the livery on Russian government aircraft, insinuating that Kiev had tried to bring down Putin's plane. Another story (quickly exposed as fraudulent) featured an air traffic controller's claims that Ukrainian fighters brought down MH17.

Putin's second mistake was to issue a muted statement of condolence, most of which was spent chastising Kiev for creating a war zone. His omission of any mention of the separatists was interpreted as a tacit admission that they had fired the missile, and cemented suspicions that Moscow had something to hide.

A third mistake was the cavalier way Russia has treated requests for assistance. Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was told, astonishingly, that Sergei Lavrov was on holiday, and that nobody else at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could speak to her. Putin stonewalled Mark Rutte, the Netherlands Prime Minister, over appeals for Russian aid to secure the bodies of Dutch nationals that lay strewn around the crash site. Eventually an exasperated Rutte bluntly told the Russian leader that he had 'one last chance' to help.

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From a domestic perspective, Putin's vigorous defence of Russia was understandable. He sees trial by an independent media as a Western affliction and has prevented it from gaining a foothold at home. Domestic political reasons prompted his officials to stress that there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement.  And Moscow's confused response strongly suggests the Kremlin was as surprised as anyone else by the downing of MH17. 

But in an international tragedy, winning external public relations battles is initially much more important than domestic manoeuvring. On that score, Putin's crisis management strategy has failed badly. It has failed to deflect attention away from suspected Russian involvement in the shoot-down, much less the ongoing conflict. And it has failed to mollify foreign governments demanding a secure crash site to identify and repatriate their nationals. Hence Russia has appeared obstructionist rather than proactively seeking to help.

A public relations disaster prompted by MH17 is potentially a huge blow to Russia's regional ambitions.

In Ukraine and elsewhere, Putin has relied on pushing plausible deniability to its limits. Proof that Russia was supplying the separatists, either with missiles or the technical assistance to operate them, would make any continued support hard to justify. Yet backing down in Ukraine would send a clear message to Moscow's allies in Tashkent, Astana and Minsk that Russian primacy can be challenged. In turn, that would threaten Putin's Eurasian Union, which is effectively a politico-economic bulwark against an EU-China geopolitical pincer. Without it, China, the US and the EU could tempt Russia's neighbours into more explicit multi-vector foreign policies. 

If these included deals on oil and gas, Russia's main strategic multiplier would be significantly diminished. And a weakened Russia might also encourage the myriad ethnic groups on its own territory, many with long historical memories, to try their luck at secession. The West, too, recognises that Russian bellicosity stems from its vulnerability. A Russia fragmented along ethnic lines — resulting perhaps in some new states with nuclear weapons — would be a far more horrifying prospect than Putin trying to re-consolidate control over the post-Soviet space.

All of this is why a coherent Russian response to MH17 is vital.

So what could Moscow have done differently? It is unrealistic to have expected a full capitulation from Putin, especially since he was backing the likely culprit. But he could have acted more decisively and even achieved many of his aims by using his penchant for brinkmanship. 

In a crisis like this, three objectives are critical. First, deflect suspicion by publicly taking a sincere and conciliatory posture, with promises of full cooperation. Second, protect one's interests by limiting damage. Third, take advantage of proximity by seizing the initiative. 

Using that formula, Putin could have expressed horror at the loss of MH17 and promised to persuade the separatists to stop fighting immediately, regardless of any 'provocations'. He could then have called a Security Council meeting to guide its focus towards accessing the crash site, rather than who was to blame. Finally (and this is the insidious part) he could have declared Eastern Ukraine a dangerous warzone and unilaterally nominated Russia as the regional power with the capacity to secure it. That could have been the pretext to roll 12,000 troops across the border, ostensibly to create a cordon sanitaire to MH17's resting place.      

This would have fooled nobody, but it would have been harder to argue with a 'compassionate' Russian military presence, especially if UN-backed inspectors were then allowed full access to the site. It would also be nearly impossible to dislodge Russian forces once the recovery mission had been completed. 

Perhaps it is better, especially for the Ukrainians, that Putin's response has been so hastily contrived.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray.


In recognition of the International AIDS conference in Melbourne this week, an AIDS-themed edition of our regular Aid & Development Links. The conference opened yesterday with a minute's silence for the delegates lost in the MH17 disaster. 

Firstly, the latest facts from UNAIDS Gap report for Asia and the Pacific:

  • In 2013, there were 35 million people living with HIV. 4.8 million are in Asia and the Pacific.
  • New HIV infections have fallen by 38%  globally since 2001, but in Asia and the Pacific there were an estimated 350,000 new HIV infections.
  • Indonesia is cause for concern, with new HIV infections rising by 48% since 2005.
  • India accounts for 51% of all AIDS-related deaths in the region.
  • In Asia and the Pacific, only in Thailand and Cambodia are more than 50% of people living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment
  • Of the 35 million people living with HIV in the world, 19 million do not know their HIV-positive status. But as people find out,  they seek life-saving treatment. For example, In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 90% of people who tested positive for HIV went on to access antiretroviral therapy. 

AIDS analysis and readings: 

  • The Guardian reviews the status of recent claims of an AIDS 'cure'.
  • Oilsearch’s role in partnering with the PNG Government on  HIV prevention, testing, counseling and treatment services is an important model for developing countries.
  • Dream of Ding Village,  by Chinese author Yan Lianke, is a novel that offers a disturbing insight into the AIDS epidemic in China resulting from blood-selling.

Helpful AIDS 2014 Conference links:

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

One consequence of the tragedy over MH17, apparently at the hands of Russian-backed separatists, is that it raises the question of whether President Putin should attend the Brisbane G20 Summit in November. Some newspapers are reporting that Australia is threatening to ban Putin.

The predominant view among the Australian public is probably that Putin should not be invited to the Brisbane Summit. But things are not straightforward and Australia may be placed in an invidious position. Moreover, depending on how things develop, the character of the G20 may change significantly.

The G20 is an informal forum. There are no rules on membership or revoking membership. Decisions are based on consensus. As such, it is not really up to Australia to decide not to invite a G20 member to a summit. This was made clear to the Australian Foreign Minister in March. In response to comments from Julie Bishop suggesting that Russia's participation in the Brisbane Summit could be brought into question because of events in Ukraine, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) foreign ministers issued a communique saying that they 'noted with concern, the recent media statement of the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014. The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all member States equally and no one member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character'. The Russian Foreign Minister went further and said 'we altogether not just Australia formed the G20'.

But to repeat, there are no formal rules, and events have moved on since March. There are a number of scenarios as to how things could play out in the lead-up to the Brisbane Summit. The preferred outcome would be for Russia to co-operate on all fronts, including the investigation of the crash of MH17, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and resolving the situation in the Ukraine. In such a situation, tensions over Putin's attendance in Brisbane would decline.

Another scenario is that Russia's belligerent attitude continues and intensifies in coming months. All G20 members are outraged and agree that Russia's actions are such that they should not participate in the G20, including official meetings, the G20 finance minister meetings in September and October, along with the leaders' summit in Brisbane.

Such an outcome would change the character of the G20.

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It would move from being purely an economic forum. A precedent would be set and political and security considerations would be a factor in determining future attendance, and would likely be discussed at the summit.

A third scenario is that Russia's attitude is considered less than acceptable to many countries but that some G20 members oppose excluding Putin from the Brisbane summit. The view of the BRICS will be particularly important. So far China has warned Western nations against rushing to implicate Russia. At the BRICS Summit on 16 July, leaders condemned the sanctions imposed on Russia to date. The position of some other European countries may also not be straightforward. Much of Europe's response to imposing sanctions on Russia prior to the crash of MH117 was weak, primarily due to the close economic interactions between Europe and Russia. Europe failed to present a united front on sanctions against Moscow and the Netherlands was among the European countries least inclined to challenge Russia.

If the last scenario develops, Australia could be in an invidious position.

Australian public opinion, and that in some other countries, may remain strongly opposed to allowing Putin to attend the Brisbane Summit. It is possible that, given such controversy and the prospect of a hostile reception in Australia, Putin may choose not to come. But if Australia did not let Putin attend, other countries may oppose and conceivably bring into question their attendance. Should this eventuate, the future of the G20 could come into question, particularly if those not attending were major emerging markets. The strength and significance of the G20 is that it brings together the leading advanced economies and emerging markets. In addition, political and security issues would be brought front and centre in G20 deliberations, overshadowing the economic agenda.

The coming months could be very tricky ones for Australia, given its role as G20 chair for 2014. At this stage the Prime Minister's approach is appropriate. He has been firm in his condemnation of the situation, acknowledged that Russia's attendance at the Brisbane summit is an issue, but said Australia would be reluctant to act unilaterally because it is an important international gathering and that it is necessary to see how things develop.

Photo by Flickr user Bohan_Shen.


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

Yesterday, Lowy Institute Research Fellow James Brown provided some quick analysis on the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 tragedy:

The priority for the UN Security Council is to secure international access to the crash site rapidly, before evidence can be destroyed or disturbed. Australia is ideally positioned to lead an international crash investigation team. For a start, we are not the US or Ukraine. Secondly, we have highly skilled air crash investigators, who have recent experience working with Malaysian Airlines on the MH370 crash. The Australian Government should consider volunteering Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston to lead the air crash investigation, given the international trust he has built on the MH370 search and his previous military experience.

Australia should consider the possibility that technical and possibly security support will be needed for the crash investigation and should be prepared to offer both. Given the proximity to the Russian border, NATO and the OSCE will not be ideally positioned to contribute to this effort. Armed police, as opposed to military, may be a less provocative solution to guarantee security for air crash investigators.

Elliot Brennan looked at the tragedy from a Malaysian perspective:

As more information comes to light, Malaysia will move from grief to anger. The Malaysia ‘brand' has been devastated by these two tragedies of its state-controlled airline (which wears the national colours) and this will impact on the national psyche. The public will demand that its government, already reeling from the March MH370 disaster, react strongly and swiftly to the downing of MH17. The muscular Twitter comments by the Minister of Defence has already paved the way for Malaysia to demand the international community act against the perpetrators of the attack. After strong condemnation for its sluggish response to the MH370 disappearance, Prime Minister Najib's government will seek to reassert itself and demand a strong and united response to the tragedy.

Israel has launched a ground offensive in Gaza. Here's a podcast I did with Lowy Institute Middle East expert Anthony Bubalo with his first reactions. Earlier in the week Anthony wrote that despite the 'brutal familiarity' of the current escalation, the status quo changes with every new conflict or crisis:

For one thing, domes, walls and indifference have sucked the vitality out of Israeli politics. There is no need to take risks, to use Israel's strength to take bold positions and ask even bolder questions about what it might mean to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Politics has largely become a race to the right, so much so that even an old hawk like Prime Minister Netanyahu starts to look cautious and statesmanlike relative to some of his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, outside the dome and the wall, Palestinian politics is ossifying and failing. In the current environment the only two viable political positions seem to be apathy (if you have money and a job) or militancy.

Unless something changes it is only a matter of time before older-generation leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and groups like Fatah and even Hamas are replaced by more radical and more nihilistic alternatives. And there are plenty around, given the ferment in the Arab world at the moment. That too is happening gradually although, as with the seemingly rapid advances made by ISIS in Iraq, things can change quickly on the ground once momentum shifts decisively.

So no, things will not be the same after this conflict. Relative calm will return. Israel will put its Iron Dome system back in its silo. Hamas will lick its wounds and begin rebuilding its arsenal, this time aiming for rockets that can reach Haifa. The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.

On Indonesia, Catriona Croft-Cusworth commented on rising tensions following the disputed presidential election, arguing that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs to step in and ensure a peaceful transition:

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Tensions are growing over how each of the two new 'presidents' and their supporters would handle a potential defeat. Prabowo's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mainstream quick count results suggests he is still determined to take the presidency by any means at his disposal. In Jakarta, rumours are spreading about the nervousness of Chinese Indonesians, who remember becoming the targets of unrest in 1998. Last Friday, Prabowo addressed a rally at a 'Pray for Gaza' event, which blocked the central Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Jakarta with crowds including members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group notorious for violence.

On the other hand, a Prabowo win would be hard to swallow for Jokowi's supporters, especially with reports of vote-counting irregularities continuing to emerge. The most important step now is to ensure that any challenges to the results are pursued through the appropriate legal channels. Now would be the time for the actual president, Yudhoyono, to step in and ensure a peaceful transition, no matter what the results announced by the KPU on 22 July.

 The Australian Government repealed the carbon tax on Thursday, and Fergus Green discussed the potential global ramifications:

Symbolically, the scheme's repeal deals a small but largely insignificant blow to global climate efforts. The large global community of policymakers who are serious about tackling climate change has already written off Abbott's Australia (along with Canada) as a climate wrecker. The carbon price repeal simply cements that perception. In the face of numerous recent climate policy developments in China, the US and India, Australia's antics will have little impact.

In sum, it is a small backward shuffle from a country that is already at the back of the pack. The BRICS summit concluded in Brazil this week, with the main announcement being an agreement on the capital base and headquarters for a 'New Development Bank' with a US$100 billion reserve fund. The Lowy Institute's Mike Callaghan wrote on whether this represents a solidification of the BRIC countries as a powerful bloc in global governance:

The motivation to form a new development bank was a political one, and the main significance of Fortaleza is also political. Notwithstanding all their differences, the establishment of the development bank will continue to provide a core for the BRICS to rally around. Furthermore, it could be a grouping that not only unites against what it perceives as Western domination of international institutions, but also a force countering Western sanctions against one of its member, Russia being a case in point.

In short, while the new development bank may at this stage be more symbolic than significant, the BRICS continue to deepen as a political grouping and will be around for some time to come.

Tess Newton-Cain looked at West Papuan efforts to join the Melanesian Spearhead Group:

It hasn't taken long for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and other pro-independence groups to to respond to Melanesian Spearhead Group's (MSG) recent announcement on the WPNCL's membership application, made during the MSG summit in Port Moresby. And the response can be characterised as something of a 'good news, bad news' story.

The good news was that the WPNCL, with strong support from Marcus Haluk (Chairman for the Working Group of the all West Papua pro-independence organisations), announced that a conference of reconciliation would be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu at the end of  August.

The aim of this meeting is to put forward an application for membership of the MSG (here's a primer on the Melanesian Spearhead  Group) by an umbrella group of all West Papuan people, as recommended by the MSG leaders in Port Moresby. The conference organisers have expressed their confidence that this new application will be ready by the end of the year...

...The bad news is that hard on the heels of this announcement came the news that pro-Indonesia West Papua Autonomy campaigners, Franz Albert Joku and Nicholas Simion Messet, would not be invited to said conference.

Hugh White questioned whether Prime Minister Tony Abbott understands the 'China challenge':

If Abbott really understands what's happening in Asia, he would understand how serious China's challenge is, and he would recognise that Abe's policy will only lead to further escalating rivalry and an increased risk of war. Which is why even after last week I still think that Abbott either doesn't understand what is happening in Asia or he does understand and he thinks that escalating rivalry is a good idea.

I prefer to think he still does not understand. Once he does understand he will, one hopes, have enough imagination to see that there are more than two ways to respond to China's ambitions. We do not have to choose supine surrender or inflexible resistance.

Julian Snelder wrote on the state of the US alliance system in Asia:

Here in Asia, there is heated debate about the durability of US alliances. Last week saw the visits by the Japanese prime minister to Australia and Chinese president Xi Jinping to South Korea (accompanied, inevitably, by a planeload of business people). Xi Jinping proposed 'a new Asian security architecture' devoid of US military treaties, which he called a 'Cold War relic.' American newspapers have seized on Beijing's intent to undermine and unravel the alliance system.

Nowhere is China's effort more apparent than in South Korea, which is highly dependent on China economically. The two countries certainly are clear on what they stand against — Japanese revisionism — something I hope Tony Abbott pondered during his feting of Shinzo Abe. But it is less clear whether Beijing and Seoul advocate the same objectives, for example on how to deal with North Korea. While the headlines trumpet Seoul's 'shift to Beijing', amore nuanced view is that Seoul is not yet looking to replace the US as its protector, but is working an 'inside game' to exert pressure on Japan and to shape future Korean reunification outcomes.

And finally, Jasper Wong looked at China-Saudi relations:

Since 2011, however, the courtship has hit a bump in the form of the Syrian uprising. China has marched in tune to Russia's lead, vetoing a number of UN resolutions on Syria. Newspapers closely aligned to the Saudi royal family swiftly castigated China's complicity in keeping Assad in power. Prominent groups and the former chairman of the Supreme Judiciary Council even called for a boycott of Chinese goods. A rare outburst by the normally stoic King Abdullah expressing his exasperation over UN inaction on the crisis underlined the extent to which the fall of the Assad regime has become the overriding goal of the Saudi establishment

That outcome has not materialised. Yet the Saudis seem to blame the Russians and the American more than the Chinese. The only setback to China-Saudi relations has been a two-year suspension of the Gulf Cooperation Council-China strategic dialogue from 2012 to 2013. The Syrian crisis brought some of China's old interests (its close ties with Russia and its strong belief in non-intervention) into conflict with emerging interests. China, however, seems to have placated Saudi anger.

Photo by Flickr user John Tornow.

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

'This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia.' The Malaysian Prime Minister's words summed up his country's mood to the news of another downed Malaysia Airlines flight. Of the 298 victims, 43 were Malaysian nationals, including 15 crew and 2 infants, according to the airline. The nationalities of 41 passengers remained unverified at the time of writing. 'The flight's passengers were from many nations but we are all united in grief' said Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Coming so soon after the MH370 disappearance, this tragedy has shocked Malaysia. The Malaysian Minister of Defence had earlier taken to Twitter to condemn the apparent attack. 

As more information comes to light, Malaysia will move from grief to anger. The Malaysia ‘brand' has been devastated by these two tragedies of its state-controlled airline (which wears the national colours) and this will impact on the national psyche. The public will demand that its government, already reeling from the March MH370 disaster, react strongly and swiftly to the downing of MH17. The muscular Twitter comments by the Minister of Defence has already paved the way for Malaysia to demand the international community act against the perpetrators of the attack. After strong condemnation for its sluggish response to the MH370 disappearance, Prime Minister Najib's government will seek to reassert itself and demand a strong and united response to the tragedy.

The state-controlled airline will face media scrutiny about its decision to fly over the war-torn area, which some airlines had decided to avoid in recent months. Malaysian Airlines took to Twitter to say that the flight route was 'declared safe and unrestricted by ICAO and IATA', the bodies charged with monitoring international airspace.

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For Malaysia Airlines, this could be a knockout blow. Already reeling from the MH370 tragedy, the airline posted a loss of 443 million ringgit (A$148 million) in the first quarter of 2014 and its shares have lost over 25% of their value in the first half of the year. Some 30,000 bookings had been cancelled or delayed as of April in response to the disappearance of MH370.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott noted in an address to parliament that 'this looks less like an accident than a crime'. Indeed, this should be a watershed moment for new curbs on the movement and security of military grade weaponry. Pressure will be on China and Russia as permanent members of the UN Security Council to support UN resolutions to stop military weaponry getting into the hands of non-state actors. This should include greater movement toward full participation and implementation of the 2003 Wassenaar Agreement (in which Russia is a participant, but China — and Malaysia — are not), an agreement that promotes transparency and greater responsibility for transfers of conventional arms, including missiles.


Not too long ago, Deng Xiaoping's 'hide your strength, bide your time' motto informed China's interactions with the outside world as it slowly worked its way up to become the world's second largest economy. As it goes on a 'resource quest' spanning the globe, people might find this axiom surprising. It is clear now that China is attempting to assume a global role commensurate with its economic weight. We see this in China's relationship with Saudi Arabia, where in seeking to secure its long-term energy security, China has to navigate the complexities of the Middle East.

Economic interests are the obvious drivers of the Saudi-China courtship, with the energy sector the bedrock. The partnership is an obvious one given the centrality of energy to both economies. China appetite for oil is growing, while Saudi Arabia has 17% of world's proven oil reserves and is China's largest oil supplier.

Unsurprisingly, both governments have a strong desire to ratchet up bilateral cooperation, reflected in three major bilateral visits in three years. Following King Abdullah's historic visit to Beijing in 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao reciprocated twice, first in 2006 and then in 2009. Agreements on energy, health, transportation, and quarantine were signed.

This combination of high-level visits coupled with deal making continues.

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The announcement of an expansion of the oil refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia by Premier Wen two years ago and the signing of agreements to boost cooperation in space during Crown Prince Salman's visit to Beijing this March demonstrates that both sides continue to value this approach to their bilateral relations.

Since 2011, however, the courtship has hit a bump in the form of the Syrian uprising. China has marched in tune to Russia's lead, vetoing a number of UN resolutions on Syria. Newspapers closely aligned to the Saudi royal family swiftly castigated China's complicity in keeping Assad in power. Prominent groups and the former chairman of the Supreme Judiciary Council even called for a boycott of Chinese goods. A rare outburst by the normally stoic King Abdullah expressing his exasperation over UN inaction on the crisis underlined the extent to which the fall of the Assad regime has become the overriding goal of the Saudi establishment

That outcome has not materialised. Yet the Saudis seem to blame the Russians and the American more than the Chinese. The only setback to China-Saudi relations has been a two-year suspension of the Gulf Cooperation Council-China strategic dialogue from 2012 to 2013.

The Syrian crisis brought some of China's old interests (its close ties with Russia and its strong belief in non-intervention) into conflict with emerging interests. China, however, seems to have placated Saudi anger. China wasted no time in sending envoys to Egypt, France and Saudi Arabia to explain the rationale of its second Security Council  veto on Syria in February 2012.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also mounted something of a charm offensive in the Arab world, including through an interview with Al Jazeera in January this year which was widely circulated in both Western and Arab media.

Wang Yi's efforts paid off, yielding not only the resumption of the third round of the GCC-China strategic dialogue but also a turnabout in Riyadh and the GCC's stance on the role that China should play in its region.

Yet none of this really resolves the tension between Beijing's long-held belief in non-interference and the requirements of its new role as a global actor. China will find itself in ever stickier situations as it stakes its interests in other parts of the world and discovers that its traditionally held principles will require an overhaul in light of new and emerging interests. 

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed.


For some solace on this dreadful day, take in an inspiring short documentary about 'the forest man of India', the story of one individual who has fought erosion and species extinction since 1979 by single-handedly planting a forest now equal in size to New York's Central Park:

(H/t Kottke.)


This morning I recorded this conversation with Lowy Institute Middle East expert Anthony Bubalo about the escalation of Israel's military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As the NY Times reports, after ten days of air operations against Hamas, Israel has overnight launched a ground operation.

Anthony talks about the operational as well as political objectives of the operation, and about how it could ultimately end. He says both sides are aiming towards a cessation of hostilities, and that the military conflict is a struggle to set the terms of that cessation.

If you want more of Anthony's thinking on the crisis, see his post from Tuesday, which argues that 'things will not be the same after this conflict...The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.'