Lowy Institute

Chinese submarine support ship in Colombo Port, Sri Lanka. (PLA photo.)

The visit of the Chinese Type 039 'Song' class submarine to Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this month passed with little notice, but it's the first time one of the People's Liberation Army-Navy's (PLA-N) diesel-powered submarines has emerged in the Indian Ocean, and its a rare PLA-N submarine visit to a foreign port. Naturally, this visit, and an Indian Ocean patrol by a Chinese nuclear submarine at the start of this year, is prompting discussion about the expanding reach and capability of China's navy.

Yet beyond signaling China's willingness to deploy its submarines far beyond the first island chain, this visit also highlights a dilemma the PLA-N must address as it develops into a blue water navy: how to rescue its submarines in the event of disaster.

The submarine 'Great Wall 0329' docked at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal in Sri Lanka from 7 to 14 September, just before a one-day visit to the country by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yesterday the Chinese Ministry of Defense's spokesperson Colonel Gen Yengsheng confirmed that the submarine visited while in transit to join the PLA Navy task force engaged in counter-piracy operations near the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden. The US, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia were all notified of the deployment.

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Submarines have deployed to support Indian Ocean counter-piracy missions before: in 2010 the Dutch navy sent a Walrus class diesel-electric submarine to conduct reconnaissance of pirate operations and ports. But the Chinese Type 039 is a smaller submarine. And though the US military's Pacific Commander describes China's submarine fleet as 'large and increasingly capable', China's commanders have little apparent proficiency in long-range deployments. The visit to Sri Lanka is the leading edge of Chinese conventional submarine operations.

The presence of Chinese submarines in the eastern Indian Ocean and approaches to the Malacca Straits, should it become regular, will change the strategic calculations of a number of other navies in the region.

As Chinese submarines range further from home, the Chinese Navy must find a solution to the vexing problem of how to rescue downed or damaged submarines. The risk of submarine accidents is real: since 2000 there have been at least 30 incidents reported by the world's 40 submarine-operating navies. In 2003, all 70 crew onboard the PLA-N Ming-class submarine 'Great Wall 61' suffocated after an engine malfunction while on patrol in the Bohai Sea. The risk of collisions will also increase in coming years as Asian waters become home to more submarine activity. China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Japan all have plans to grow their submarine fleets over the next decade. 

In a 2008 article, International Submarine Rescue: A Constructive Role for China, US Naval War College professors Lyle Goldstein and William Murray highlighted both the importance of submarine rescue for the Chinese Navy and its limited capabilities in this regard, raising the prospect of international naval cooperation to help China bridge this gap. Though the PLA-N now participates in international naval exercises like RIMPAC, it has (in the opinion of Australian naval officials) been less than enthusiastic about integrating into common international naval logistics systems. International cooperation on submarine rescue is particularly sensitive, given the opportunities it affords for rival naval personnel to observe the characteristics of Chinese hulls and systems.

Yet China must find a way to be able to rescue its submariners. The political impact of failing to rescue a downed submarine can be immense, as Russia learned during the Kursk incident. In China's 2003 Ming incident, the PLA-N's failure to find the doomed submarine for more than two weeks created sufficient political heat that then Chinese President Jiang Zemin was prompted to personally visit and investigate. A decade later, public scrutiny is more intense, as shown by the response to the 2011 high-speed train crash. The pressure on a Chinese government seen as unable to rescue submariners would be intense.

Broadly, there are two ways to achieve the rescue of sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. Both rely on the availability of diving bells (or submersibles) able to dock with the submarine and transfer crew to the surface. Both rely on a response that can locate and reach a downed submarine within 72 hours.

The first method is to position submarine support vessels, or submarine tender ships, within a reasonable range of operating submarines. This is the approach China has taken to date to support submarine operations close to home. In 2010 the PLA-N launched a Type 926 submarine tender optimised to carry a UK-constructed LR7 submersible, the most advanced of its type in the world. But the tactical difficulty in using tenders for submarine rescue is that their presence affords competitor navies a reasonable estimate of where China's submarines are operating.

The second method of submarine rescue is to rely on a network of international partners who allow you to fly in a rescue submersible to the port nearest a disabled submarine, and then have the logistics necessary to transfer the submersible to a ship able to steam to the accident site. This was the principle behind the 2004 development of ISMERLO, the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office. ISMERLO provides a hub to standardise submarine rescue procedures and equipment, coordinates submarine rescue exercises like Bold Monarch, and is a platform to coordinate real-time submarine rescues. China has been an observer since 2010, though has done little to deepen its involvement and provides no details of its submarine rescue capabilities to the ISMERLO database.

There may still be opportunities for international engagement as China weighs how to provide submarine rescue capabilities further afield. In a 2010 address to the Royal United Services Institute, the PLA-N's then Northern Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Tian Zhong concluded that 'international coordination for submarine rescue may be the best way of saving the submarine and avoiding nuclear leakage', and signaled that China was 'looking forward to more extensive cooperation' in the submarine rescue field. Subsequently, Chinese naval observers attended ISMERLO, NATO, and US submarine rescue exercises. But to date China has neither fully participated in any combined submarine rescue exercises nor concluded any international agreements that establish logistics channels necessary for fly-in submarine rescue.

So when the 'Great Wall 0329' operates through the Indian Ocean it will be accompanied by the Changxing Dao', a Type 925 submarine support ship. China has yet to resolve the dilemma of how to underwrite the safety of its submariners far from home. How it manages this problem will indicate much about the sort of international power China plans to be.


I picked up my tickets for tomorrow's AFL Grand Final the other day. My team, the Sydney Swans, is playing and I should be excited to be going. Instead, I have been infected by the unease gripping Melbourne. I ask myself, am I taking a risk by attending the game? 

We are told by our political leaders we should continue to live our lives as normal, but since Tuesday night's shooting of the teenager who – allegedly spurred on by Islamic State propaganda – stabbed two policemen outside a police station in Melbourne's south-east, the threat of domestic terrorism feels very close indeed.

Before 11 September 2001, Australians had little experience of terrorism, and it was reflected in our laws. George Williams has written that before 9/11, only the Northern Territory had laws relating to terrorism.

Things feel a bit different now. In recent months we have witnessed the barbarism of the beheadings of Western journalists by Islamic State operatives in the Middle East. These reporters were very brave individuals who at great risk brought us reports from the conflicts in Syria and northern Iraq, the crucible of the operations of the fanatical terrorist sect. But we know terrorism can be random, and that you don't have to travel to dangerous places to become its victim.

The internet has made it easier for terrorists to spread their message and recruit. It has also made it easier for them to spread fear, to intrude on our lives and work their way into our daily consciousness, making us question our actions, our security, the very way we go about our business. Our politicians are responding. Australia has joined military efforts overseas, while at home policy makers are addressing gaps in Australia's domestic security apparatus, including in our laws.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind as our political leaders formulate their responses.

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The first regards the legislative response, and the risks associated with knee-jerk law-making in times of heightened fear. Australia's domestic counter-terrorism legislative output after 9/11 was larger than countries facing much greater threats and we know that many of those laws were never used. More laws, alone, will not make us safer. Bret Walker, the former independent national security legislation monitor, warned in The Guardian this week that 'The problem is that people think that passing laws makes us safer. Well not unless the laws are necessary because we lacked power to keep us safe.' 

I am not arguing that we don't need further laws covering different aspects of terrorism, particularly ones relating to Australians traveling to the Middle East to join Islamic State. But history has taught us that counter-terrorism laws with the built-in potential for abuse can lead to grave injustices and make a country's social problems worse.

Concerns have been raised about a number of elements in Australia's proposed terror laws. Examples include the prosecutions of journalists for reporting security operations even when there is a public interest in doing so; the immunity from prosecution for uses of force by ASIO officers; and the expansion of highly secretive preventative detention laws where the original need for such laws is questioned by criminal law experts.

Northern Ireland is the paradigm case for how executive overreach in counter-terrorism laws and policy can go wrong. Hundreds of Catholic nationalists, many of them innocent, were interned under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, which permitted detention without charge or trial. They were subject to a range of mistreatment, including what today would be regarded as torture. The internment policies were widely viewed in hindsight as a failure, having led to the alienation of the Catholic population and the escalation of violence.

Which brings me to my second point. This is not a time to be alienating  (or alienating further) particular segments of our society. Laws are an important but ultimately limited response to a problem which has at its core the radicalisation of lost, isolated, angry young Muslim Australian men. As a society we cannot afford to create further cause for feelings of disenfranchisement or marginalisation. We must strengthen our liberal democratic resolve to nurture a polity in which difference (ethnic or religious or otherwise) is respected and tolerated. We do not want to be a society in which women wearing hijabs or burqas are spat upon

We look to our political and community leaders here to come up with some thoughtful long-terms policies and programs to deal with disaffected youths who feel they are not fitting in or are not fully accepted by their country. Having said that, we also need local Muslim leaders to step up and condemn unambiguously the behaviour of the fringe minority who want to do harm to 'disbelieving' Australians, as Islamic State leaders are inciting them to do. 

Finally, we must confront the reality that we do not have all the answers. Some of these problems need to be addressed by the Arab and Muslim world. 

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times wrote this week about the idea that the rise of the Islamic State is triggering long overdue soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about 'how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst'. He referenced a thought-provoking piece by the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, Hisham Melhem, that what is actually going on here is the chaos of an 'entire civilisation that has broken down', that the Arab world today is more violent, fragmented and beset by extremism than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Melhem argues that no one theory can explain what has gone wrong in the Arab world in the last century, and why more recently the promise of the Arab Spring has given way to civil wars and the 'tapestry of horrors in Syria and Iraq'. 

It is a compelling articulation of the problem and reinforces the idea that today's terrorist threat goes well beyond our abilities to fix. There is some comfort to be had in the fact that Western leaders seem to have recognised this, and that for a longer term solution the engagement of regional powers, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, is critical.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Corey Oakley.


Earlier this morning I spoke with the Lowy Institute's 2014 Telstra Distinguished International Fellow Stephen Hadley about the situation in Iraq and Syria. You can listen to the interview below. Hadley, who was President George W Bush's National Security Advisor from 2005 to 2009, will be in Australia in late October as part of his fellowship.

Some highlights from our discussion:

  • US strategy in Iraq and Syria will only work if local ground forces are willing to fight ISIS and other groups.
  • The President's stated goal to 'destroy' ISIS is a high bar. The US will degrade ISIS and defeat it in Iraq by taking back the territory it controls.
  • Obama was wise not to put a time limit on the operation. It sends the message that he is serious and will see it through. The US should see substantial progress in Iraq over the next year, but Syria is a longer term proposition; the President has said it will last beyond his Administration.
  • The strategy in Syria is two-fold: to degrade ISIS and other extremist groups; and buy time for vetted, moderate ground forces to be trained and equipped.
  • Last, I asked Hadley if America's return in force to the Middle East had dealt the final blow to the Asia pivot. His answer from 8:10.

You can listen here.



Yesterday I posted the first responses to our Mandarin Code give-away, asking you to nominate your favourite novels about modern China for a chance to win a copy of the new political thriller by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. Here are some more of your responses on Twitter: 


Two Lowy Institute researchers have also made recommendations. Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton-Cain nominated Mao's Last Dancer which 'was a great book full of insight - it's not a novel but I'm putting it out there anyway.' And China expert and Nonresident Fellow Linda Jakobson said this: 

What's my favourite novel about modern China? My answer is two-fold: My all-time favourite is Ba Jin's The Family. Though published as a book 81 years ago The Family continues to shed light on the intricate relationships within a Chinese family, still very pertinent today. It is an autobiographical novel by Ba Jin, the pen-name of Li Feigan (1904-2005). The novel paints a vivid picture of inter-generational conflict between traditional ways and more progressive aspirations in an upper-class family in the city of Chengdu. I have read the book several times. I have also seen it as a play, most recently in Beijing in 2005 at the classic Capital Theatre on Wangfujing with a stellar cast of famous actors. This year's favourite is Night Heron by Adam Brookes, a former BBC correspondent in Beijing, a compelling spy thriller set in China. Adam has the atmospherics just right, with lots of familiar people, places and situations depicting modern China.


With the passing of the presidential baton from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Joko Widodo just a month away, Indonesia is at a political crossroad, with the first clear break from the politicians who were part of the Soeharto years. Monday's Indonesia mini-update at the Lowy Institute, a half-day version of the Australian National University's annual analysis of Indonesian politics, economics and social developments, revealed an economy also at a transition point.

The easy years of the commodity boom are over. Growth was a respectable 5-6% throughout SBY's decade, and the macro-economics were well managed. But growth has now slipped below 5% and the global economic environment is unhelpful.

SBY's second presidential term achieved much less than the optimists had hoped. Petroleum subsidies (affecting not only fuel but also electricity) still count for over a fifth of budget expenditures. These, together with the large financial transfers to regional governments, leave the national budget with no room to manoeuvre. There has been painfully slow progress in addressing the backlog of needed infrastructure projects. Sharp increases in labour costs in the formal sector are making Indonesia's large-scale manufacturing uncompetitive. Corruption remains endemic. Income maldistribution has worsened appreciably.

The president-elect brings corruption-free credentials and a successful administrative record, albeit at the sub-national level. The incoming vice-president is experienced and energetic. But the election campaign gave extra momentum to nationalist economic sentiments which are never far below the surface in a country where memories of foreign colonial exploitation still linger. Measures to force greater domestic processing of ore exports are gradually being sorted out at a practical level, but some damage lingers to Indonesia's reputation as a welcoming host of foreign investment.

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A better assessment of the prospects will be possible when Jokowi picks his ministerial team. So far he has skillfully side-stepped pressure from the nationalist PDI-P, the political party he is associated with, to appoint party cronies with their baggage of dirigist economics. But Jokowi's own philosophy has not yet been clearly articulated.

All this is playing out in a global economy full of gloom, especially regarding the prospects of emerging economies. Indonesia did successfully handle the 'taper tantrum' in the middle of last year, when global markets over-reacted to the prospect of America unwinding its quantitative easing. Indonesia came through substantially better than other members of the 'Fragile Five' (India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey) identified by financial markets to be at greatest risk. But markets remain nervous and Indonesian government bond yields remain well above those of countries like the Philippines, whose bonds were previously ranked alongside Indonesia's.

If the going does get tougher, Indonesia is poorly placed to handle a more serious crisis, either at the global level or domestically. As a still heartfelt legacy of the 1997-8 crisis, Indonesian policy-makers would be reluctant to seek help from the IMF. The operational effectiveness of the Chiang Mai Multilateral Initiative is extremely doubtful. Domestically, the Financial Sector Safety Net bill was rejected by parliament in 2008 and has little prospect of early revival, leaving policy-makers with few options in the event of financial-sector problems. 

An experienced commentator at the mini-update likened the current situation to the early 1980s, when a commodity boom was ending and Indonesia required strong structural reform to set the economy on a less resource-dependent development path. At that time, policy-makers rose to the challenge, introducing growth-enhancing reform measures. 

Jokowi operates in a far more difficult political environment compared with the 1980s. Will Indonesia, without the easy boost of spectacular commodity prices, squib the necessary structural changes and slip into the much discussed middle-income trap? Or will it reprise the restructuring of the 1980s, which could put it back on the 7% growth rates which characterised the Soeharto years? This is Jokowi's economic challenge.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ignatius Win Tanuwidjaja.


Catch up on news, commentary and analysis from and about the Pacific island region.

  • Jas Kaur reflects on the results of the Fiji elections and what lies ahead for the country and its people whose leader now has a democratic mandate.
  • Transparency Solomon Islands has released its research into how often MPs in the last parliament contributed to legislative debate.
  • After an unprecedented seven rounds of voting, Vanuatu has a new head of state: Fr Baldwin Lonsdale.
  • Also in Vanuatu, new research on the economic impact of cruise ship tourism is now available from the IFC.
  • Australia, where the bloody hell are you? More criticism of Australia's position on climate change, this time from Tony de Brum of Marshall Islands.
  • And on Devpolicy, Stephen Howes is still waiting for the Australian Government to make good on pre-election promises regarding the Seasonal Workers' Program.
  • In the Spring edition of Advance, I discuss the importance of knowledge sharing for policy making in the Pacific.
  • Christopher Loeak, president of the Republic of Marshall Islands, prepared this video message ahead of the UN Secretary-General's climate summit held this week in New York:


Slashfilm writes:

In Captain Phillips we saw a bit of the story of men caught up in Somali pirate rings, and now Fishing Without Nets offers a much deeper exploration of the lives of men who take up criminal activities on the seas.


At the upcoming APEC Summit in Beijing, China is hoping to announce a formal MoU for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Offers to join the Bank have been sent around the region, including to Australia. So should Australia sign on?

Little is publicly known about how the Bank would work. According to reports, the initial capital for the bank will be US$50 billion, financed by members and by issuing bonds. China's finance minister Lou Jiwei has stated it will be 'more a commercial entity than an inter-government entity'.

Rather than seeing this as a threat to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank, as many have suggested, the other option is to look at it as an opportunity.

As I've highlighted previously, China is involved in a growing web of development banks (including the ADB and World Bank). Undoubtedly, the AIIB — alongside the BRICS-led New Development Bank — is an attempt by China to have more of a say in the governance and operations of global financing institutions. China is frustrated with the slow pace of the World Bank and IMF reforms and wary of the Japanese-dominated ADB.

Australia could be cautious and wait to see how the AIIB develops. But as we know from the history of the Bretton Woods institutions, it is easier to shape these institutions by getting involved early. They prove challenging to change down the track. It is natural for the country committing the most dollars to want to have the most influence. China's desire in this regard shouldn't be seen as inherently problematic. But by signing up to the AIIB now, Australia has greater opportunity to influence its governance and operation. Those countries that sign the MoU at APEC will get to be part of the governing structure, and thus have voting rights.

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The idea for the Bank is a good one. The region has immense infrastructure needs. A recent ADB study indicates that US$8 trillion must be invested between 2010-2020 to meet infrastructure needs in developing countries in Asia. China has money.

The Bank will initially be focused in Asia, but may later extend into the Pacific islands region. Australia has an interest in ensuring infrastructure projects are undertaken wisely and that external debt doesn't become a problem for developing countries. Funding infrastructure in Asia also fits well with the Australian Government's economic diplomacy agenda.

There are obviously some big questions involved in signing up to the AIIB now when so little is known about it. Why should Australia support an institution that could undermine existing ones? How much can it really influence China anyway? These are legitimate concerns, but China will proceed with the Bank whether or not Australia and other Western countries join. Our experience with China's development financing activities tells us that we have more chance of influence by engaging than by not.

China is involved in large infrastructure projects already, and it faces a backlash over its risk assessment, labour rights, and the environmental and social impact of some projects. A regional bank — even one that is China-led — provides a better framework for decisions about projects and financing, particularly those with cross-border implications. Chinese companies undertaking AIIB-funded projects will likely operate under stronger oversight than in China Eximbank-funded projects.

The more countries that sign on, the less China-dominated the bank will be, and thus the greater the ability to establish principles and practices that will lead to sustainable development outcomes. In this regard it is promising that the AIIB working group set up by China is headed by Jin Liqun, former vice president of the ADB.

Signing an MoU is just the beginning. Countries can work with China to set up the Bank in a way that blends some of the efficiency of Chinese lending with the good governance safeguards of the Bretton Woods institutions. Australia can and should play a leading role in supporting infrastructure development in Asia. Joining now will give Australia greater say in the role that the Bank comes to play in the region.

Photo by Flickr user arfldani nugraha.


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

  • Despite announcing that modernisation of the armed forces will be among the government's priorities, Luhut Pandjaitan, Senior Advisor to Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo, has emphasised that Indonesia will continue the policy of pushing for dialogue to resolve tough regional issues such as the South China Sea
  • A Chinese surveillance vessel was detected within the US exclusive economic zone off Guam observing major US military exercises, Valiant Shield. This follows a similar incident at RIMPAC exercises earlier this year.
  • Japan is looking to develop a new early-warning aircraft due to concern over its aging fleet of US-made surveillance equipment. 
  • In a letter to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has suggested they meet on the sidelines of upcoming international conferences. Since coming to office in 2013, President Park has refused to meet Prime Minister Abe one-on-one, despite pressure from their mutual ally, the US. 
  • The standoff in Ladakh has overshadowed the Modi-Xi summit, deepening concerns over India-China relations. Rory Medcalf argues this was a not just a missed opportunity to start afresh, but also to transform a sometimes tricky relationship. 
  • North Korea is currently experiencing a generational change within its cadre of nuclear scientists. This has added to the uncertainty over the future, and safety, of North Korean nuclear technology.
  • Admiral Harry Harris, US Commander of the Pacific Fleet, has been nominated by President Obama to take command of US Pacific Command. The move comes amid renewed speculation over the tenability of the US rebalance to Asia, as focus is again directed towards the Middle East. 

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease -- there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.

That's President Obama at the UN Climate summit earlier today (transcript). Even as the US is dropping bombs on ISIS in Syria, Obama is signaling that terrorism is not at the top of his priority list.

It reinforces a point I made last week about Obama's counter-terrorist policy: he has been firm (and in the case of ISIS, over-zealous) in going after terrorists, but he has not hyped the threat. In fact, he has quite deliberately tried to wind back the threat inflation of the previous administration as part of his effort to redirect US foreign and national security policy away from a focus on terrorism (the best explanation I have seen of Obama's approach is this piece by Peter Beinart).

The other lesson to draw from Obama's prioritisation of global challenges is not to confuse media attention with policy focus.

Yes, military action against ISIS is getting a lot of attention, and in my view, the US-led response to the ISIS threat is an over-reaction. But it's not as if Obama is betting the farm on this mission; he's restricting his commitment mostly to air power. So even if America is making a strategic mistake, it is not a big one. And if it relieves pressure on the Kurds and other minorities being persecuted by ISIS, it will even have some humanitarian upside. It also fulfills US (and Australian) moral obligations to a struggling Iraq. We broke the joint, so we ought to play a part in holding it together.

If we're looking for long-term policy impact, it might be worth turning to where Obama says his priority lies: climate change.

His Administration already has a pretty good story to tell on that front. If Obama can cap off the success he's had on domestic environmental legislation with a climate deal with China at the UNFCC conference in Paris late next year (granted, it looks unlikely, though the signs from New York are positive) it would be a spectacular achievement for his presidency. When you add Obama's other major achievements — health care, economic recovery after the worst recession since the 1930s, an an end to two wars, partial reform of the US finance industry — his record looks pretty substantial, and the carping (mine included) about the intervention in Syria and Iraq amounts to very little.


The Fiji elections have delivered a crushing victory for Rear Admiral (Retd) Bainimarama, author of the 2006 coup.

The victory was crushing not only for FijiFirst, Bainimarama's party, but also for him personally. FijiFirst received 293,714 out of 496,364 votes cast, giving the party 59.20% of the vote, a figure which will only rise as the parties and independents that failed to cross the 5% threshold for parliament are eliminated.

Bainimarama addressing the 64th session of the UN General Assembly, 2009 (Flickr/United Nations Photo).

With Bainimarama now sworn in as prime minister, it's unlikely that a challenge to the election result by a coalition of political parties is going to significantly change the outcome. This means FijiFirst will be governing Fiji for the next four years without the need for a coalition partner. 

It has been apparent for some time that FijiFirst was likely to emerge from the election as the strongest party. But critics of the Bainimarama regime had hoped that the proportional representation elements of the electoral system would mean that FijiFirst would be unable to govern without the backing of another party. Given that every other party in the election campaigned on platforms seeking to undo or alter significant parts of the military regime's policies, this would have forced at least some course changes for Fiji. But given that his party is set to get in excess of 30 of the 50 seats in the new parliament, Bainimarama does not need to worry unduly about the influence of opposition parties.

Bainimarama also does not need to be terribly concerned about dissent in his own ranks.

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Normally, an open-list electoral system such as Fiji's gives MPs a powerful individual mandate, based on the fact that their constituents voted for them personally. This can give members the confidence to go against the party line if they feel sufficient popular support. Melanesia has a long history of intra-party volatility that has brought down more than a few governments in the region.

But Bainimarama's candidates, who have likely been hand-picked, owe their seats to the popularity of their leader. As a party, FijiFirst achieved a majority. But the individual members of FijiFirst actually got far fewer votes than candidates from other political parties, particularly the social-democratic SODELPA. FijiFirst's victory was largely due to the personal vote for Bainimarama. He received a stunning 202,458 votes, more than two-thirds of his party's total. Under Fiji's voting system, these votes flowed on, to the benefit of other party canidates. So, far from having their own individual power bases, FijiFirst MPs stand in the shadow of their leader and owe their seats to him. 

This means there are unlikely to be many changes in the development of Fiji government policy going forward. And as Jenny Hayward-Jones has pointed out, there are significant issues facing Fijian democracy and civil liberties. Addressing these issues is likely to become much harder now that Bainimarama can draw on a strong mandate from the polls, a mandate that he has already interpreted as popular support for his 'vision'.

While there is certainly going to be parliamentary debate, it may be too much to expect it to alter key issues, especially since one of those issues is media freedoms. The restrictions on the press imposed by the Media Industry Development Agency and the media decrees have served Bainimarama well, and he is not going to change them readily.

Bainimarama's dominant position in Fijian domestic politics makes it even more imperative for Australia and other regional players to engage constructively but critically with the new Fijian Government. The international response to Fiji's return to democracy needs to be more than just a rubber stamp. Opposition parties, civil society and the Fijian media will need outside assistance and pressure to develop and diversify to the level required by a healthy democracy.


Our Mandarin Code give-away is well underway. On Monday I asked you to nominate your favourite novels about modern China. This is for a chance to win a copy of the new political thriller The Mandarin Code, by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, a novel set in Canberra but immersed in today's debates about the rise of China.

So, here are your responses, first via Twitter: 

In the comments, Joseph Dunn has suggested Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux, a book which depicts the author's travels through China in the 1980s. The commenter SH recommended all the works of Chinese novelist Lu Xun, and said 'his tone is sharp, sarcastic, yet full of humanity.' Finally, Mitch Clyne suggested Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong: 'This 2000 crime novel pits a Shanghai cop against some shady individuals who are part of the changing Chinese political system of the early 1990s'. 

Via email, Markus writes: 'My favourite novel about modern China is not about modern China at all but about China at the end of the 'feudal' era. (In fact, I must confess I've only ever read two other novels about China, one set in the endless pre-modern dreamtime and the other in the Warlord Era.) It is my sincere belief, however misguided that might be, that this novel is an important key to understanding China today and for all time. It is The Good Earth by Pearl Buck.'

The Interpreter has four copies of The Mandarin Code to give away. For your chance to win, tell us your favourite novels about modern China using the comments section, Twitter, Facebook or blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org. We will post responses on The Interpreter and get in touch with you if you're in our top four.


On Monday the Lowy Institute,  in cooperation with the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University, hosted its regular Indonesia Mini Update, a half-day event bringing together experts to discuss Indonesia's politics, economy, security and foreign policy. 

One of the guests was Sidney Jones from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a respected analyst and commentator on terrorism and violent extremism in Indonesia.

Below you can hear her interview with the Lowy Institute's Anthony Bubalo on the ISIS phenomenon and its implications for Indonesia. It was particularly interesting to hear her talk about the oath of allegiance ceremonies being arranged by local groups allied to ISIS. The 2000-odd people who have taken the oath are pledging their primary loyalty to ISIS rather than to Indonesia, which is making Jakarta nervous.