Lowy Institute

Long resisted by the US for its impracticality and because it was considered too big a concession to Turkish interests, the concept of a 'no-fly zone' in northern Syria now appears to have morphed into a so-called 'safe zone'. The plan, as far as it appears to have been enunciated, involves US and Turkish aircraft (flying from Incirlik in Turkey) and possibly Turkish artillery assisting as yet unknown Syrian opposition forces to clear ISIS from as yet unknown swathes of northern Syria. Once areas are cleared of ISIS, the safe zone(s) will develop naturally, according to the Turkish foreign minister. An interesting concept.

There is often a substantial gap between announcements and execution, but this proposal has the potential to significantly change the dynamic in Syria, and possibly muddy the waters further. Here are some concerns, in the absence of much detail:

Who makes the 'safe zones' safe?

Air power alone can't do it, so there has to be a significant ground component, supported by air strikes, to seize and hold territory. While there has been some commentary that the hitherto ineffectual Free Syrian Army may be strengthened (yet again) in order to do the job, this is unlikely to occur quickly, opening up the distinct possibility that the safe zone could be held and cleared in part by anti-ISIS jihadist groups, of which there is no shortage in northern Syria.

One could even mount an argument that the recent media appearances by jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra on al-Jazeera and in The Washington Post (which I have commented on previously) have been about positioning themselves as 'acceptable' jihadis. When the New York Times describes the plan as involving the use of 'relatively moderate' insurgent groups rather than simply 'moderate' groups, it's time to start worrying.

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Things rarely occur 'naturally'

The 'naturally occurring' safe zones may allow some Syrian refugees to return to Syria, but how would these people survive? What humanitarian assistance would be provided to them and by whom? Who would provide the governance and security functions within these zones? What would be the Syrian Government's approach to them and what would the international community do if the Assad regime sought to reassert its authority over the parts of Syrian territory cleared of ISIS? Nature and politics abhor vacuums, and once safe zone(s) are created, there will always be someone who seeks to take advantage of them. The UN certainly has some concerns about the prospect of a safe zone, particularly given the lack of detail released to date.

Turkey isn't doing this for altruistic purposes

The Turkish Government has long stood accused of not doing enough to combat ISIS because President Erdogan saw Assad as the primary enemy, and because of the Government's Islamist proclivities. But now with the ISIS bombing of the town of Suruc and ISIS attacks against Islamist groups over whom Anakra has more influence, Turkey finally sees a need to join the West's campaign against the group. With the signing of the recent Iranian nuclear agreement as well, Ankara may well have concluded that it is time to accelerate its role in Syria before the easing of sanctions gives Tehran a freer hand to assist Damascus. So while Turkey may not actually occupy these safe zones, the fact that Ankara will control all the entry points means Turkey effectively controls them, and will be able to support those groups who wish to fight Assad rather than ISIS. For Ankara, this is potentially a big win.


To new readers, this is part four in a running debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van (we are friends) originally argued that the group of countries pushing back on China in the South China Sea (SCS) could use South Korea’s extra weight. I responded that South Korea, as a middle power, can bring little to bear on the SCS tussle and that such intervention might heal the emerging rift between North Korea and China.

Van then responded that the current Sino-North Korea split is likely exaggerated, and that too much focus on North Korea blinds South Korea to its other regional interests. In this round, I will argue that North Korea must dominate South Korean foreign policy, on both national security and humanitarian grounds, and that Seoul brings so little to the SCS fight that even the modest glimmers of a Chinese-North Korean split is worth its reticence.

South Korean Grand Strategy

In the end, as Van says, the root of our debate may be disagreements over South Korean grand strategy.

Van seems to fit in what one might call the ‘Global Korea’ school. Global Korea was a notion for South Korean strategy first pushed by former President Lee Myung Bak. Lee sought, with strong support from the US and the Washington DC think-tank scene, to re-imagine South Korea as a ‘responsible middle power’ with global interests. Lee was the first Korean president to draft a ‘national security strategy’ (here is the most recent) based on the American model. He got South Korea involved in the struggle against Somali piracy, and Washington think-tanks wrote the expected salutations of Korea’s expanding horizons, which, not surprisingly, dovetailed with American preferences. Korea, for example, would be a more vocal participant in the war on terror.

None of this is really wrong. But much of it changes the subject from the issue which everyone, not just South Koreans, are burned out with but nonetheless will not go away: North Korea. Call this the ‘North Korea first’ school of Korean strategy. When North Korea is gone, then Global Korea makes sense. Until then, it's important that Seoul stay the course.

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South Korea needs to take serious ownership of the North Korea problem, and I worry that it does not. South Koreans are increasingly wary of unification given the huge costs. North Korean defectors in the South - heroes to my mind - often face social discrimination. South Koreans get far more animated discussing Japan in their foreign policy than North Korea. Missile defense, which seems strikingly obvious to the analyst community, is nonetheless very contentious in Seoul. Civil defense for nuclear scenarios is not taken seriously. The South Korean military has regular problems with abuse, hazing, corruption, and glitzy, prestige-driven procurement choices. It's not properly structured for post-unification stabilisation or ready for a COIN scenario in the North. Nor was it able to takeover its own defence despite years of lead-time. Most Western analysts of Korean security I know worry about ROK Army readiness, and fear that the US defence guarantee has blunted Korean strategic thinking.

In my own experience in Korea, I routinely find my students, colleagues and friends are simply exhausted with North Korea. This is entirely understandable (most analysts are too). South Korea is a modern, globalised place. Like the rest of us, South Koreans want to watch their HDTVs, travel, gab on their cellphones, find a cool job and otherwise live the sorts of modern, fun lifestyles they see in Western television. No one wants to hunker down for a long, grim, expensive head-to-head contest with grey, gloomy, reactionary North Korea. And Global Korea’s appeal is precisely that. It places South Korea in the company of states Koreans want to be peers with – the US, Japan the EU – not bizarre, backward, fatiguing North Korea.

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and their spiraling nuclear program, it's not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

In short, South Korea needs to get out front on North Korea. North Korea should not be pushed onto the US, China, the Six Party Framework, the international community and so on. South Korean politicians need to be upfront on the costs and risks, and argue vigorously that they are worth it. South Koreans need to be reminded that, as seductive as Global Korea is, the Cold War is still on in Korea, and that North Korea is their historic burden. Yes, that really sucks, and yes, the rest of us can help at the margins. But firstly and largely, this is a South Korean problem, which means more leadership, more defense spending, more preparation for North Korean occupation and reorganisation and more honesty with the public to groom support for this historic project. And to her credit, President Park's Administration has moved on some of this. She has reiterated the goal of unification, faced down the North in one of its typical ginned-up faux crises in 2013, and has pushed the Chinese hard on the issue.  

Korea, China and the South China Sea

Van makes a few other points worth debating:

  1. I argued that South Korean reticence on SCS helps the widening rift between China and North Korea. Van may be right that this is not due to South Korean diplomacy, but that does not alter my point that if South Korea does step into the SCS flap, that step will push China back toward Pyongyang. So long as North Korea and China are scrapping, we should not rock the boat, and if Park can keep that ball rolling by schmoozing the Standing Committee, so much the better.
  2. Van argues that North Korea could probably find a way to survive without Chinese aid. I am extremely sceptical of this. North Korea’s economy is such a disaster that it almost certainly requires regular, large subsidies, as it did throughout the Cold War from the USSR, and since then from China among others. The only time North Korea stood on its own, a brutal, self-created famine followed. Van suggests maybe Russia could step into the gap. But Putin’s Russia is dwarfed by China and has little regional presence. China is the irreplaceable lifeline, as Kim Jong-Un’s last-minute decision to skip the Moscow WWII festivities suggests.
  3. Van suggests that China only acts on its national interests defined by cold realpolitik. I agree. But interests come from identity and perception, and there is growing evidence that the Chinese are rethinking the value of the North Korean buffer. Specifically, moderates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese international relations academia have intimated for years now that the North Korean alliance is not balance-positive for Beijing because it fuels the American pivot and pushes Seoul and Tokyo toward the US. Abandonment will not happen soon, but the easiest way to smother this emerging debate is for South Korea to strike an openly anti-Chinese position.
  4. Finally, I still see little evidence that South Korea can make much of a difference in the SCS. It's a medium-sized power and distant from the area. What matters is the response the littorals, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, plus the larger, over-the-horizon states – the US, Japan and India. I see no obvious reason to jeopardise this long-sought, very valuable cooling Sino-North Korean relationship for one more small weight on the regional scale. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Expert Infantry.


It's increasingly clear that China intends to use its artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, delivered this assessment on a panel that I was privileged to be part of at the Aspen Security Forum last week. Harris described the newly-created islands as potential 'forward operating posts' for the Chinese military. Beijing hasn't denied that it will use the outposts for military functions, but it has emphasised plans to provide public goods such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation and meteorological observation. 

What are the potential military uses of China's artificial islands and do they pose a threat?

First, the outposts in the Spratly Island chain will undoubtedly be equipped with radars and electronic listening equipment that will enhance China's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime domain awareness capabilities. The newly built 10,000-foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef will accommodate virtually every aircraft in China's inventory, and hangers are being built that appear designed to host tactical fighter aircraft. As Admiral Harris stated, 'A 10,000-foot runway is large enough to take a B-52, almost large enough for the Space Shuttle, and 3,000 feet longer than you need to take off a 747.'

China will be able to operate surveillance aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, unmanned aircraft, transport planes, tanker aircraft and fighters. Depending on what platforms and systems are deployed on these outposts, China could have the ability to monitor most, if not all, of the South China Sea on a 24/7 basis.

These enhanced capabilities will provide China with advantages over its weaker neighbours and pose challenges to US military activities in the region.

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China may declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over part or all of the area within its nine-dashed line claim. To enforce such a zone would require several airstrips in various locations in the South China Sea. China has been expanding its runway on Woody Island in the Paracel group from approximately 7500 feet to almost 10,000 feet. Recent satellite imagery indicates that China may be preparing to build yet another airstrip on Subi Reef in the Spratly chain. In November 2013, China unilaterally set up an ADIZ in disputed waters in the East China Sea. At the time, a PLA major general confided to me that the Chinese military has long had plans to establish an ADIZ in all of China's near seas, including the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.

China will likely use the Spratly outposts to extend its anti-access/area denial envelope farther southward and eastward into the Philippines Sea and the Sulu Sea. Runways will enable the People's Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force to extend the operational ranges of aircraft based on the mainland and Hainan Island to encompass the entire South China Sea and beyond. Chinese capability to observe and respond to US military operations in the region will be significantly increased. Chinese aircraft will be positioned to intercept US and other foreign aircraft far from the Chinese coastline. The time required for Chinese aircraft and ships to reach the Malacca Straits, in the event of a blockade of this major trade artery, will be significantly reduced.

According to Admiral Harris, the US has not yet seen China place anti-ship cruise missiles or supporting gear on the islands, but such capabilities could be deployed in the near future along with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the harbour at Fiery Cross Reef is better suited to submarine basing than the shallow waters at Hainan Island where the PLAN's fleet is currently based. Within a few kilometres from shore, the waters quickly drop to a depth of 2000 metres.

If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold US forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a US effort to come to Taiwan's defence. A US carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert US assets from performing other missions.

In the event that China decides to dislodge other claimants from their outposts, the PLA will have greater capability to do so. Helicopters, amphibious landing craft and mobile artillery batteries could be used to conduct assaults on nearby land features. Alternatively, China could opt to put pressure on rival claimants to abandon some of their outposts. For example, it could attempt to disrupt resupply operations to isolated features that lack self-defence capability, such as Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of Filipino marines is stationed on a decaying World War II military ship. In early 2014, Chinese coast guard ships twice tried to block civilian Filipino vessels from resupplying the marines deployed on the Shoal. 

Policy Recommendations

Calls for China to halt its artificial island building in the Spratlys have not been heeded. Completing the island projects as quickly as possible is apparently a high priority for Beijing, given the frenetic pace of dredging in the past year and half. However, there is still a possibility to put a cap on militarisation of the islands by China and the other claimants. The deployment of offensive power projection capabilities by any claimant would be dangerous and destabilising. The US should help to facilitate an agreement that restricts deployments by all claimants to strictly defensive capabilities on all outposts in the South China Sea.

The growing uncertainty created by China's artificial island building and the purposes for which the new features will be used should motivate ASEAN, or at least a sub-group of ASEAN members with deep interests in maritime security, to draw up a draft of a Code of Conduct (CoC) that contains risk-reduction measures and a dispute resolution mechanism. China is evidently unwilling to make progress with ASEAN on a CoC in a reasonable time frame and it's time for others to push this forward. If China and ASEAN are unprepared to finalise and sign a CoC, then a coalition of the willing should proceed on its own and try to bring the others along later.

The US and like-minded countries should conduct freedom of navigation patrols around China's artificial islands that were originally submerged reefs. UNCLOS provides that artificial islands do not qualify as 'islands' under the Convention because they are not naturally formed areas of land surrounded by and above water at high tide. Therefore, artificial islands are not entitled to any maritime zones. Since 1979, the US has carried out the freedom of navigation program to protect maritime rights throughout the world. Conducting such patrols in the Spratlys would signal to China and the region that disputes must be managed peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

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I couldn't agree more with Hugh White's commentary on Ken Ward's new book Condemned to Crisis? published by the Lowy Institute and Penguin Australia. White argues that Australia must build its relationship with Indonesia based more on how it perceives its northern neighbor is developing, rather than on historical experiences.

White agrees with Ward that Australia's approach to Indonesia is outmoded and needs rethinking. Ward argues that Canberra must discard the long-held policy mantra, embraced by all prime ministers since Paul Keating, that 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.' 

Both Indonesia and Australia have changed since then, and this hasn't been fully reflected in the way they conduct relations, perhaps more so on the Australian than the Indonesian side (which deserves a separate article). While both White and Ward recognise the changes that have taken place in post-Suharto Indonesia, they fail to grasp the implications for bilateral relations and for the geopolitical environment in Asia.

White rightly postulates that Canberra's approach to Indonesia should take into account two facts. First, that Indonesia's economy is growing so rapidly that it will become bigger than Australia's and hence more powerful, and second, that Indonesia's rise has implications for the geopolitical order in Asia.

But White and Ward have underestimated the internal changes that have occurred within Indonesia which are equally dramatic, and which have inevitably changed the way Indonesia looks at itself and at its place in the region and the world. These changes have implications for Indonesia's foreign policy and for all of its foreign relations, including with neighbours like Australia.

If Ward and White represent the typical Canberra foreign policy community view, then Australia is misreading Indonesia.

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Both assume that cultural sensitivity still matters, with Ward suggesting that Australian politicians had better be careful in what they say, or they risk offending Indonesians. Prime Minister Abbott tried the cultural sensitivity approach in trying to persuade President Jokowi for a stay of execution against two Australian drug traffickers this year. When that failed, he changed tack and became more abrasive. That the executions went ahead suggests that cultural sensitivity made no difference.

Indonesia today is vastly different from Suharto's Indonesia. It's a far more open and democratic society. Everything is discussed and debated in the open, and social media has made the public debate fiercer, if not sometimes unethical. This means that Indonesia has become thoroughly desensitised, and its people and leaders can take all kinds of insults without being in the least offended. Whatever Australian politicians, and the notorious media including talk back radio hosts, say about Indonesia, far worse things have been said by Indonesians about themselves. They'll be sure to respond with equally if not more harsh words. But then that's free speech. 

A more open Indonesia has stopped taking Australian insults seriously. They would surely not affect bilateral relations. Over the years, Indonesia and Australia have moved on from the days when a single issue (East Timor) undermined their entire relationship. Or from being too personalised, as in the way Suharto retaliated to personal insults or Keating 'coddling' with the dictator. Even President Yudhoyono measured his retaliations in 2013 when he learned he and his wife had been targets of Australia's wiretapping operations.

Indonesians have also come to accept that their country becomes a punching bag in every Australian election for Jakarta's 'lack of cooperation' in tackling human smuggling. But as soon as a new prime minister was elected (or re-elected in the case of John Howard), the first thing they'd do was visit Jakarta and pacify its leaders to cooperate on human smuggling. They would blame their own press for exaggerating their criticisms of Indonesia during the election campaign. 

A democratic Indonesia is doing exactly the same. In the 2014 elections, foreign countries became convenient targets for politicians, aware that they could not respond or defend themselves. But as soon as the new government took power, they had to be responsible and tone down their xenophobic rhetoric. You can only hurt your foreign relations so far. Admittedly, Abbott went the furthest of all prime ministers in dealing with Indonesia, but look at where relations are today.

Yes, Indonesia's economy has been growing and that is altering its position in the region and its relations with its neighbours. But a more important change is that Indonesia is a far more open and democratic nation, albeit not a perfect one (but then what country is?) Yes, a re-reading of the report Seeing Indonesia as a normal country by Douglas E Ramage and Andrew MacIntyre, as suggested by another commentator in this debate, Greta Nabbs-Keller, may be warranted.

Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Let's all move on and be more realistic about each other.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


I wrote a piece for The Interpreter last month about Chinese worldviews. I argued that a majority of Chinese people share a powerful belief in several 'truths' about China and its role in the world.

These include that China would in time inevitably resume its natural role as a great country, having been shoved off that path by colonial powers in the century of humiliation starting in the mid-1800s, and that the Chinese people and the Chinese nation-state are part of the same family, rather than existing in opposition, as in the West. 

In the latest edition of the Griffith Review I explore that argument more deeply, examining how the Chinese Party-state deliberately constructs and perpetuates these perspectives, and what that means for our understanding of China's foreign policy behaviour. 

There are a number of ways an individual can be socialised into a particular worldview. Schools and education are a particularly powerful mechanism. My research focused on a particular Chinese university training students to become diplomats and foreign policy actors, as universities teach not only a carefully designed curriculum, but also 'correct' attitudes and behaviours.

The university does this through explicit training, the way it structures students' lives and their use of time and space. Most students live on campus for the duration of their tertiary education, sharing cramped dormitories with around five others. They also share many of the same classes, schedules, meals and extra-curricular activities over the course of several years. Deliberately removed from 'normal life', students are taught to think of themselves primarily as members of the great 'Chinese family', and place their primary loyalty with the Chinese nation-state.

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This is not to say that young educated Chinese are mindless automatons with no will of their own. Debates certainly exist around issues such as corruption and the environment. However, the long tradition of what was officially known as 'thought remolding', up until the 1980s when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced the term would be removed from the official lexicon, remains a powerful force.

After the Tiananmen incident in 1989, the Party renewed its push for educating the minds of the Chinese people. While there seemed to be some increase in openness under former President Hu Jintao, it appears that this is being systematically rescinded under President Xi Jinping. This means that while there are far more areas open for discussion than even 10 years ago, very often the conclusions (among these particular educated elite at least) are to a large degree predetermined.

So the conversation between the students often goes: corruption is bad – but the Party-state is doing something about it. Environmental problems are terrible, but that's because of local businesses and Party members – and again, the Party-state is on to it. The Central Government isn't perfect, but it's synonymous with, and inseparable from, what 'China' is.

Where there is real cynicism and dissatisfaction, the tendency seems to be resigned acceptance or to leave the country. It is very, very rare to find Chinese people in Beijing who think challenging the system as a whole is in any way worthwhile.

For the most part, where young people are socialised to believe that the state is not a power to be resisted and that their own best interests are served by being aligned with the Chinese nation-state, strong incentives exist to consent to and operate within the system, rather than struggle against it. Benefits derive from maintaining, not challenging, the social order. Educated elites are taught to internalise the 'truth' that aligning with whatever the prevailing state stories are is the right thing to do.

CCP dominance, and the strength of these particular worldviews, go hand in hand. Cultural explanations for beliefs and behaviour should not be removed from their political context, but need to be understood as constructed, created and utilised by those in power – this is true around the world, and certainly in China. While the Chinese population is overall growing wealthier, travelling more, being educated overseas and generally more exposed to the world, we must not assume this will bring a change in ideas and worldviews.

Many in the West continue to assume that China needs to become like 'us', as did Nixon when he argued in 1967 that 'taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.' We are then disappointed and frustrated when China does not seem to want to engage with the rest of the world except on its own terms – we want China to be a 'responsible stakeholder' – according to our norms and values.

While we need not accommodate or appease China where these values and norms differ, it is not impossible to influence and dissuade, if we understand the whats, hows and whys of how Chinese policymakers think and act the way they do.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zixi Wu.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

6 of 8

In a new Lowy Institute Paper, former ONA analyst Ken Ward makes the case for 'more realistic' expectations for the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

He writes that despite years of Australian governments prioritising the relationship, it continues to be marked by tensions and crises. The recent execution of Australian citizens for drug crimes in Indonesia, despite our diplomatic protests, is presented as an example of why we should lower our expectations for a close relationship with our nearest Asian neighbour.

The Paper's title poses a question: is the Australia-Indonesia relationship condemned to crisis? In answering this question, Ward explores Australian and Indonesian history, domestic politics and communication and culture in search of triggers for the disputes that continue to erupt between the two nations, and analyses how these disputes are handled. Leaving aside the factors of history and domestic politics, which will surely be highlighted in other reviews of the Paper, I'd like to focus on the aspects of communication and culture, which arguably can have significant impact on the other causes of crisis and how they are handled.

Ward debunks the idea that Australia and Indonesia are too wildly different in terms of culture to ever understand each other.

He highlights Indonesia's capitalist economy, democratic government and social media-obsessed populace as being not so different from our own. Instead of cultural differences, he sees negative stereotypes and prejudices found among the Australian public, and expressed by our media and politicians, as one cause of frequent crises. In the first chapter, Ward points out the often 'clumsy and tactless' handling of clashes by Australia, and 'great sensitivity' on the part of Indonesia.

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This indicates a great deal of unfinished work on Australia's part in establishing a strong relationship with Indonesia. It also gives life to the claims made by successive governments regarding the high priority given to developing the relationship. As Ward explains, Australian politicians can't expect Jakarta to selectively hear the pronouncements made about Indonesia's importance to Australia on the world stage, while ignoring the insensitive comments made back home.

From the Australian side, we can't help Indonesia being 'sensitive', but we can equip ourselves to better approach sensitivities and work to overcome our 'clumsiness and tactlessness'. In the Australian school curriculum, this is part of what's called 'Asia literacy'.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority describes Asia literacy on its website as providing students with the 'skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region'. This includes recognising that Australia is part of the Asian region, and that our histories and futures are closely linked. It also means learning the languages of the region.

A sincere commitment to developing Asia literacy in Australia would transform our modes of communication and culture. In relation to Indonesia specifically, it would help to address the stereotypes and prejudices that cause or inflame clashes in the relationship, and improve the ways in which tensions are handled by those in power. At the very least, it would help to bolster what Ward calls the 'thin cultural underlay' now supporting government-to-government relations.

In rhetoric, commitment to Asia literacy, including the study of Indonesian language and culture, has continued among successive governments in Australia. In reality, it has been inconsistent and even declining.

Despite decades of stated commitment to the goal, this year's Lowy Poll shows that many Australians know very little about Indonesia, including whether or not it's a democracy, or the name of the country's new president. As pointed out by David Hill, a strong supporter of Indonesian studies, Australian universities are now closing their Indonesian programs as enrolments continue to drop.

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

The execution of two Australians in Indonesia this year was a tragedy that a majority of Australians rightly objected to. But rather than seeing this as a reason to give up on strengthening the relationship, we should see it as a greater reason to be more deeply involved in dialogue about our different cultures, with a hope of finding some common ground. If we are to be truly realistic about the relationship, then surely we can admit that our efforts to engage on the level of communication and culture have barely begun.

It's only if we continue to lower our expectations that the relationship will in fact be 'condemned to crisis'.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gabriel Sai.

  • Human Rights Watch slammed the conviction of 11 opposition activists in Cambodia. The activists are from the Cambodian National Rescue Party and have been sentenced to between 7 and 20 years in prison for 'insurrection'.
  • Indonesia has begun repatriating irregular migrants from Bangladesh that are in Aceh. 
  • Meanwhile, a prominent Thai general was included on a list of 72 people indicted for suspected involvement in human trafficking. The move came ahead of the release of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons report.
  • Matthew Smith from Fortify Rights has written on Southeast Asia's boat crisis:
    For now, boat departures have slowed. The region has started to exhale, but it shouldn't. If Burma fails to end its systematic persecution of the Rohingya the 'sailing season' will begin again like clockwork, one way or another. And Rohingya will continue to perish.
  • CSIS's Greg Poling discussed the upcoming elections in the Philippines on the CogitAsia Podcast.
  • Thailand and Vietnam have boosted trade ties with an aim of reaching US$20 billion in bilateral trade by 2020.
  • The latest round of ceasefire talks has ended in Yangon with little result. The toughest issues remain unaddressed. The next round of talks will take place in August.
  • Ken Ward's new Lowy Institute Paper, Condemned to Crisis? (debated on these pages here), argues for a more realistic approach to Indonesia-Australia relations. Ross Tapsell took a critical look at the paper for New Mandala.
  • A raft of new laws in Cambodia, including one that restricts the operations of NGOs, will help Hun Sen hold onto power.
  • Myanmar-China relations, which have been dealt numerous blows in the past 12 months, have been further tested this week with the sentencing – most for a term of life in prison – of 153 Chinese nationals for illegal logging in Myanmar's north.
  • UK Prime Minister David Cameron is beginning his four-country tour of Southeast Asia this week, accompanied by a business delegation expected to sign deals worth US$1.2 billion. Here's why it is important: 


Over the last two months, there has been noticeable progress on three separate fronts in Japan's 30-year process of 'renormalising' its' approach to external defence:

  1. Last week, the Abe cabinet approved the 2015 Japanese Defence White Paper after revisions were made to make it focus more squarely on the growing military threat from China, both to Japan and the region more generally. As Malaysia, the Philippines and the US are doing in the South China Sea, Japan is more frequently providing photographic evidence of Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.
  2. On 15 July, Japan's House of Representatives passed the first of many key legislative changes that will enact last year's constitutional reinterpretation that permits Japan to exercise a limited right of collective self-defence.
  3. Regional support for Japan's more active defence policy has grown and become more tangible. For instance, in early June the Philippines and Japan signed a joint statement on security cooperation with an attached action plan. On 25 May, Japan and Malaysia signed a similar, but less ambitious joint statement. Discussions have started on a possible status of forces agreements between the Philippines and Japan. On 23 June, as part of a Japan-Philippine bilateral exercise, a Japanese P3-C Orion anti-submarine surveillance plane flew over disputed waters in the South China Sea to Beijing's ire. The Philippines could also be the first recipient of Japanese arms exports when it finalises the purchase of a small number of these maritime surveillance aircraft from Tokyo.

However, Japan is still far from a normal external security actor and alarmist talk of Japanese remilitarisation tells you more about the ideological predispositions of the accuser than of present reality. Yet, it's clear that Japan is again becoming a more proactive and independent security actor in East Asia in both words and action. It is also increasingly focused on the threat from China and is finding growing support from regional countries with similar concerns.

The US-China major power relationship is not the only one that is reshaping the regional security order.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.


This trailer for a new documentary about Steve Jobs  (there's also a biopic in the works starring Michael Fassbender) reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to tell you about a thoughtful essay I read recently called Web Design: The First 100 Years.

Over the last few years a backlash has begun against the technological utopianism of the tech industry, and Apple and Google in particular. I suspect the tech sceptic Yevgeny Morozov has had a lot to do with this shift (see particularly To Save Everything, Click Here), and more recently it has become popularised in the TV comedy series Silicon Valley, in which tech industry CEOs with more than a passing resemblance to the Jobs persona are depicted as ruthless capitalists who have the public image of spiritual leaders. The industry's altruistic pretensions are also regularly mocked by way of a running joke on the mantra to 'make the world a better place': 

Maciej Ceglowski, an American programmer who shares this scepticism about Silicon Valley's utopian mission, writes in Web Design: The First 100 Years:


This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley. The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized...This vision holds that the Web is only a necessary first step to a brighter future. In order to fix the world with software, we have to put software hooks into people's lives. Everything must be instrumented, quantified, and networked. All devices, buildings, objects, and even our bodies must become "smart" and net-accessible. Then we can get working on optimizing the hell out of life...

....But what if after software eats the world, it turns the world to shit?  Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt. There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd's Burden.

Technological Utopianism has been tried before and led to some pretty bad results. There's no excuse for not studying the history of positivism, scientific Marxism and other attempts to rationalize the world, before making similar promises about what you will do with software.

Ceglowski endorses a more modest vision for the web, one that has largely been achieved: to erase the barriers of distance between people, and put all of human knowledge at our fingertips.

Do read the whole thing


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

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Ken Ward is to be congratulated for a straight forward and sober analysis of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. In his own matter of fact style, Ken takes us through a complex relationship and provides unique understanding and insight.

His core point is that the Australia-Indonesia relationship has been, and will always be, punctuated by varying degrees of crisis. He argues that is something we just have to get used to and we should reset our expectations accordingly. In Ken's view, the best governments can hope to do is better understand Indonesia's point of view. Policy settings and the political narrative can be managed with those sensitivities in mind, rather than responding to a media and/or opposition driven narrative.

As Hugh White has argued in this debate, this advice is sensible enough, particularly if we are happy with the status quo and simply want to manage the current relationship more effectively. Although Hugh argues policy that is good today might not be fit for the future because the regional strategic environment is changing.

But should we even be happy with how the relationship is today? I would argue we should not. In fact our relationship is a long way short of where it ought to be in today's environment, let alone where we should aspire taking it.

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The Australia-Indonesia relationship has never been more important. Nearly 70 years after Indonesia achieved independence from Dutch rule, we still don't really understand them. This was no more apparent than in the recent Lowy Institute Poll that found a staggering 66% of Australians do not regard Indonesia as a democracy, 15 years on from President Soeharto standing down. And just 42% said they 'know' of President Joko Widodo. With the Lowy thermometer hitting an 8 year low at 46 degrees, Australians put Indonesia in the same basket as Russia and Egypt.

That is not the kind of place you would like to see our closest neighbour occupy in our national psyche.

GDP growth below 3% is the new normal for Australia, yet we have on our doorstep an economy and market of 250 million people. Half of Indonesia's citizens are under 30 years old and the middle class is expected to exceed 140 million inside the next decade. Indonesia, already the 9th largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms, could become the 5th largest in the next 15 years according to PwC modelling. In 2030, the Indonesian economy could be three times bigger than ours.

Of course, implementing structural reforms, fixing infrastructure and combating corruption are very real challenges to Indonesia achieving this potential. Australia should absolutely be Indonesia's preferred partner to help solve these challenges. But we are not. One of the reasons for that is we just don't have the deep commercial ties that build understanding and trust. Our trade and investment relationship is way below par. Indonesia sits outside our top 10 partners in two-way trade and receives less than 2% of our stock of foreign direct investment.

A healthy and vibrant Indonesia is most importantly a thing good for Indonesians. But it's also good for Australia. Good in economic terms and good for our shared security interests.

There is plenty of room for Australia in Indonesia, but we have to be more ambitious in how we think about the relationship. A bipartisan approach and greater respect for the Indonesian view point is needed. Diplomacy behind closed doors and out of the media spotlight is a far more effective way to navigate these issues.

But if we want to be more than just bystanders we will have to seriously rethink our engagement model. Indonesians do not get up in the morning and look south for guidance. They look north, as we do. China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europeans are well ahead of us.

We can choose to continue down a path punctuated by the recurring crises that Ken so compellingly argues are inevitable. The alternative is to double-down on our investment. This will require courage and a healthy measure of leadership if we are to reset the relationship for the next 25 years. We can and must do better – we simply can't afford not to.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Four days ago, French President François Hollande declared his in-principle commitment to the creation of a 'euro government, with the addition of a specific budget and a parliament to ensure democratic control.' 

This is more an opening gambit in a debate about the terms of putative federalisation (a term Hollande was careful to avoid), than a statement of French commitment to it at all costs. 

If some form of federalisation comes about, it will not be because the French especially desire it, but because the logic of the Euro ultimately demands it.

There has been talk of political and fiscal union since the crisis erupted five years ago. It was one of two options for resolving the Euro crisis that the German Government seriously considered, before ultimately rejecting it in favour of the inter-state negotiations that produced the treaties creating the European Fiscal Compact and the Single Supervisory Mechanism, or banking union.

But the Greek debacle has demonstrated the limits of the inter-governmental approach. In the final resort, enforcing Eurozone rules requires a form of political control over member-states.

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Germany is also in a better position to dictate the kind of federalism the Eurozone might adopt. Though German taxpayers have become more exposed to other Eurozone members' debts, Berlin has put that money to good effect, using it to extend its reach over afflicted countries' fiscal affairs. 

In Hollande's formula, the emphasis lies on 'democratic control' of the 'common budget'. For Germany, however, the aim would not be to create a European 'demos', but to gain control of (wayward) members fiscal policies.

Thus, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble – Germany's most popular politician – called a year ago for 'a European budget commissioner with powers to reject national budgets if they do not correspond to the rules … jointly agreed' and 'a 'Eurozone parliament' comprising the MEPs of Eurozone countries to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of decisions affecting the single currency bloc.'

For Berlin, then, the ideal form of European political and fiscal union would offer indirect, but reliable, control over the fiscal policies of other Eurozone members to ensure their 'competitiveness' and the euro's long-term stability, but the retention of national control over those issues that underpin Germany's position as Europe's paramount power. 

Perhaps the jurisdiction of a Eurozone parliament could be limited to questions pertaining to the shared treasury (unless, say, a bill gained a super-majority of votes). 

To make it an instrument for policies hatched in Berlin, Germany could write the rules of the 2012 Fiscal Compact into any potential Eurozone constitution that established the parliament: mandated balanced budgets, the elimination of structural deficits, maximum debt-to-GDP ceilings, etc. The same constitution could also empower a federal finance ministry to rewrite national budgets that fell short. 

In return, a common Eurozone treasury, financed by indirect taxes – a classic compromise for nascent federations (for example, the 19th century US, the German Empire after 1871, and the Australian Commonwealth before 1942) – could issue common Euro bonds to mutualise a portion of member-states' debts.

With direct taxes still collected by national governments, and with Germany remaining the biggest of those, ultimate financial firepower would remain in the hands of the Bundestag, meaning the German chancellor would remain Europe's de facto leader for long as Germany remained Europe's strongest economy. 

For the same reason, the independent European Central Bank would also be beyond the control of the Eurozone parliament, but not much less heedful of the German chancellor than today.

This might sound like an odd form of federalism (and such a Eurozone would still be more a con-federal than fully federal state). 

But Prussia's leading role within the post-1871 German Empire – an 'emphatically devolved' 'confederation of sovereign principalities' that left the sovereignty, parliaments, armies and diplomatic corps of the smaller German kingdoms and duchies intact – offers a historical model. (Since the foundation of Imperial Germany's power was the Prussian army, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was often more powerful as chancellor of Prussia than of Germany.)

The trick would be in getting the rest of the Eurozone to agree to it.

Here, Chancellor Merkel could again take a leaf out of Bismarck's book. Indeed, perhaps she already has. 

19th century Germany and federalism

In 1859, Germany was a collection of some 39 sovereign states, loosely gathered in a 'German Confederation' (like the EU, a customs union but not a state). Helped by an economic boom from 1850, Bismarck united them by demonstrating the indispensability of Prussian leadership of a nascent but disunited German nation in Europe that had never before existed as a political entity. 

In the Danish War (1864), the Austrian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870), Bismarck ensured that each crisis drew the minor German states into closer political and economic dependence on Prussia, until in 1871 a federal German Empire with Prussia as its largest state was at last proclaimed. 

By design or default Germany has followed a similar path today, using its economy – the world's fourth largest – rather than its army. 

Germany represents somewhat less than 25% of the population of the Eurozone and about one third of its economic output, making it less hegemonic than Prussia was in Imperial Germany (62% of the population). 

But it has the support of a larger block of friendly states tied more or less economically to it: the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. And as the German economy has stood firm while other big countries (France, Spain and Italy) have wilted, the 2010-15 European sovereign debt crisis has amplified Germany's political influence disproportionately. 

Indeed, when Paris emerged as Greece's defender in Brussels 10 days ago, it was partly replaying Vienna's (ultimately doomed) attempt to thwart Prussian dominance over the minor German states in the 1860s. What France was really defending was not Greek sovereignty, but its own. 

Perhaps all that stands between Germany and a Eurozone federalised on German terms is a French debt crisis – and Paris hasn't balanced a budget since the 1970s.

Nationalism, the missing ingredient

But no iron law says a federal, or more federalised, Europe must come into being. By comparison with the 19th century, the essential ingredient of nationalism is missing. 

Yet, while anti-EU sentiment has grown, what has been remarkable during the crisis are the sacrifices that European peoples have been prepared to endure in the name of the common currency. 

Greeks (so, at least, it seems for now) preferred capitulation to being cast out of the euro, partly suggesting their hard-won identity as modern 'Europeans' was dearer to them.

A majority of Germans might believe the latest bailout 'bad' or 'very bad' for Germany. But if the government will not fall over it, it's partly because Germans have learned to see their future as bound up, for better or for worse, with Europe's. The only long-term alternative to federalisation, Germany's departure from the euro, attracts little support.

Of course, learning to live in a federal Europe won't be easy for anyone. Though it would now be cloaked in the greater legitimacy of federal structures, southerners would still resent the intrusions of federal supervisors and agents. 

But they would at least feel that northern Europe finally stood behind them, come what might economically in the 21st century. Europe's 'new normal' – a chronic squabble over the redistribution of fiscal revenues that a federal state could effect without so much controversy – would be over. 

And it would be difficult, not least, for Germany. The creation of the German Empire made German, and its Prussian core, one of the world's great powers.

But as Australian historian Christopher Clark writes in his award-winning Iron Kingdom: The rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 , Prussia 'had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany.' He continues that, 'Perhaps the most striking thing about the new political order was the weakness of the central authority.' 

In the long run, even Germany might find such a federal Europe frustratingly limiting. Like every federal venture before it in history, Europe's would doubtless grow more adventurous with time. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user European People's Party.


By the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program Director, Jenny Hayward-Jones and Research Associate Philippa Brant


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

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Maybe it's just the title – Condemned to Crisis? – that gives Ken Ward's book such a downbeat despairing tone, as if the accident of geography has locked us in an unhappy marriage with Indonesia and there is not much we can do about it.

Of course we should be realistic: we won't ever have the sort of familial ties that we have with New Zealand. The intrinsic sensitivities will be more substantial than the petty sibling rivalries we have with our Kiwi brothers. But we don't have to accept serial crises as the norm.

In examining the history, we should separate the problems which were unavoidable from those which were 'unforced errors' or 'own goals'. We can avoid the latter by trying harder.

Ken spends a significant amount of time on the Bali Two. This was an intrinsic conflict-point that was never going to work out well. It was hard for Australia to run an 'in principle' argument against the death penalty, given our stance on the Bali Bombers a few years earlier. But it was an 'unforced error' to link this to the Aceh aid. Even if you knew nothing about how Indonesia might react, the fact that this argument had been put forward by Alan Jones should have been a caution.

The wider lesson here is that our politicians understandably ask themselves what the Australian public are likely to think: our politicians have less concern for the Indonesian public, who don't vote here. With a few notable exceptions, our politicians understand that there is a degree of xenophobia just below the surface in Australia (as everywhere) and the unwritten rule is that this should not be exploited just to win votes.

Is it too much to expect Australian politicians to go a little further, showing international sensitivity?

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Live cattle exports produced another 'unforced error'. The ABC video was horrifying. Why didn't the live cattle industry see this coming? Once the images had been aired, the proper answer was immediate consultations with the Indonesian authorities while putting exports on temporary hold, pending arrangements to ensure that the cattle would be treated humanely, if necessary in abattoirs funded by our exporters.

Eavesdropping on the President's wife demonstrated an abysmal lack of judgment on the part of our intelligence service. Our damage-control added insult to injury. Instead of quickly saying that we wouldn't do this sort of thing again, we used SBY's desire to deal with it quickly as an excuse for changing nothing

The problem in Australian intelligence seems more systemic. It needs a more active watchdog than it has at present, and a thorough analysis of just how much of this 'intelligence' is just juicy gossip and ephemera. Let's shift resources into conventional diplomacy.

Operation Sovereign Borders also needs tougher oversight. If we are concerned about our sovereign borders, why would Indonesians (with a more fraught history) be less sensitive? A simple GPS plotter, as carried by any recreational boat that ventures onto the open sea, shows where the border is and where your boat is. You can check the coordinates yourself. It wasn't just the Indonesian public that were sceptical that a 'modern Western navy had made repeated accidental incursions'.

Thus looking back, there was nothing inevitable about these mistakes. We could have done better. But what about the future?

The first step is sensitivity training all round. Next time a government does a deal to rotate US troops through Darwin, let's chat with Jakarta before we announce it.

This sensitivity-training might involve getting to know Indonesia better. Our media editors are more interested in titillating stories about Schappelle Corby than in helping Australians understand their near neighbor. When the chief editor of the national newspaper suggests that Indonesia is 'probably the most corrupt country on earth', you can see how big the challenge is.

Upgrading understanding is hard work, but we should identify the places where our interests impinge or even coincide, and turn these into opportunities. The Australian Federal Police built a deep relationship with its Indonesian counterpart, but it took substantial resources. Specialised assets such as the ANU Indonesia Project on economics (celebrating its 50th anniversary this week) has been run on a shoe-string budget, without the resources to build more widely on its peerless Indonesian contacts, or take its accumulated knowledge to a global audience.

The obvious potential friction-point is Papua (not much discussed by Ken). There will be well-meaning Australians who are shocked by what happens there, and will want to do something – most likely protest at least. NGOs will likely want to go. For their part, Indonesians have a lot of historical colonial baggage there. Whenever we say we want Papua to remain part of Indonesia, they think 'that's what you said about Timor'. What's our plan for handling this inevitable conflict-point?

The supposed wise heads in Canberra tell us that these little tiffs in the relationship are normal and quickly forgotten. This is wrong. The relationship is like a marriage, with accumulated never-forgotten slights. We did better in the past, retaining working diplomatic relationships during Konfrontasi while simultaneously fighting Indonesia in Borneo. This diplomatic dexterity made it possible to quickly build close relations after 1966. We need to try harder, and the starting point is to recognise that this is worth doing.

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


This week the third in the Lowy Insitute Paper series, published by Penguin, was released. Condemned to Crisis?, by former ONA analyst and Indonesia specialist Ken Ward, examines the Australia-Indonesia relationship and argues that Australian governments need to be more realistic about the  prospects for the relationship with what has long been seen as Australia's most important neighbour. The Interpreter has kicked off a debate on the Paper. Aaron Connelly, the Institute's East Asia Fellow, was the first reviewer:

If Australia and Indonesia are 'condemned to crisis' and cannot reasonably aspire to a strong friendship, should Australia continue to invest time, money, and effort in a better relationship? Should its embassy in Jakarta remain its largest in the world, with a new consulate to be opened soon in Makassar? Should it continue to spend hundreds of millions in aid each year on Indonesia? Should Australians study Indonesian in school and work harder to learn more about their northern neighbour? Should Australian companies, as Julie Bishop has argued, step up investment in Indonesia and trade with Indonesia?

Hugh White also weighed in, saying that considering the changing regional security and economic order, the Indonesia relationship will only grow in importance for Australia:

These thoughts might nudge us towards some conclusions a little different from Ken's. In particular it might lead us to ask whether the relationship with Indonesia will become more important to us in future than it has been in the past, presenting both bigger risks and bigger opportunities.

If so, then perhaps we should not be as content as Ken appears to be with a relationship which is somewhat better managed but not essentially different from the troubled one we know today. In turn, that suggests Australian policymakers should put higher priority on changing the basics of the relationship rather than just managing it.

In her review, Greta Nabbs-Keller pointed to Ward's efforts to combat the 'cultural differences' argument:

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Importantly, Ward dissects the 'cultural differences' argument, long assumed to be at the heart of ongoing tensions between the two countries. By comparing Indonesia's equally thorny relations with neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, two countries which share much closer cultural affinities with Indonesia, Ward demonstrates how Jakarta's acute sensitivity about its sovereignty and territorial integrity are key causal factors behind Indonesia's political differences with its neighbours. 

Robert Kelly continued his assessment of history and political issues in North East Asia:

The Korean, and Chinese, moral positions on the war and Japan's empire are correct. But a great deal of politics has enabled surprising Japanese recalcitrance. While no one expects moderation from the Chinese Communist Party, South Korea might smooth the path by rolling back some of its most maximal positions, such as points 3 and 4 above. None directly impact South Korean security or growth. All would strip the political cover from Japanese conservatives who claim 'Korea fatigue' as cause to reject concessions.

Drawing on a somewhat forgotten episode in economic history, Stephen Grenville reminded us that we can learn lessons about Greece from Indonesian debt restructuring in 1966:

This highlights the big difference between Indonesia in 1966 and Greece in 2015. In Indonesia, there was full agreement and 'buy-in' on what should be done, and the key objective was to get the economy functioning normally. There was also a realistic view of how much 'structural' reform could occur. The answer was 'not much'. Three decades later, when Indonesia got into trouble again during the Asian financial crisis, the IMF identified many still-unfixed structural faults: cronyism, inefficient state-owned enterprises, an ill-supervised banking system and of course the famous clove monopoly. But in 1966, it was enough to get the economy moving forward again at a brisk pace (7% per year for the next three decades).

The US-Australian military exercise Talisman Sabre concluded this week. Euan Graham on the new additions to the exercise this year:

The embedding of Japanese and New Zealand contingents with the US Marines and ADF respectively was the most noteworthy innovation to Talisman Sabre 2015, lending the core bilateral format a loose quadrilateral aspect. It remains to be seen how significant this is as a precursor for wider defence cooperation involving two of Washington's traditionally reticent Pacific allies. But China is likely to have taken note, regardless of whether a strategic signal was intended or not, and despite official assurances that Talisman Sabre is not aimed at third countries. 

An excellent post from Trish Nicholson on the importance of expressing and understanding narrative in aid and development:

Insisting that 'stories matter' is not simply a novelist's whim. A growing body of research shows that stories increase empathy and understanding; they affect our attitudes and judgements. Oliver Sacks' career choice was not influenced by hearing his medico parents discuss case histories at the dinner table, but by listening to them telling the human stories of those patients. His storytelling has enlightened millions of readers on the complexities of brain science. He wrote in his autobiography: 'I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition going along with our powers of language'.

What is the ultimate strategy of ISIS? Hussain Nadim says it may be to turn Western governments against their Muslim populations:

The major purpose of radicalising young Muslims in the West is to inspire attacks on Western soil. But the real target is not Western society or its people. Attacks in Western cities may on the surface appear to be targeted against Western culture and ideology, but in reality these attacks are directed at the Muslim communities living in the Western world. ISIS understands that such attacks will spur a backlash against Muslims, thus alienating and isolating them in Western societies. If Muslims living in the West are alienated by both Western governments and their people, radical anti-Western discourse will start making sense to them.

Also, with what is believed to have been an ISIS suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc last week, Lauren Williams says that Turkey may finally be forced to confront the threat on its borders:

Yet many feel that more could and should have been done to combat the group sooner, and evidence continues to emerge that Ankara has allowed ISIS to entrench itself in Turkish border areas, even given its members safe haven to the Islamists inside Turkish territory. Thousands of foreign fighters have crossed through Turkey to join ISIS over the last few years, fuelling accusations that the government is turning a blind eye. Recent reports have circulated, notably a leaked memo from Turkey's national police, that point to evidence of ISIS 'sleeper cells' at work throughout the country and along Turkey's border with Syria.

Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders changing the political debate in the US? James Bowen:

For all the weight that has been attached to the impressive crowds and polling results Trump and Sanders have attracted so far, the most likely outcome still appears to be for the primaries process to turn out two thoroughly establishment candidates, as it has reliably done in years past. Nonetheless, the concerns brought to the surface by the two outliers could still have a significant impact on the public debate and on the contest between the eventual candidates. So too could the newly empowered black rights movement.

Vanessa Newby takes us through the history of US involvement in Iran, primarily in encouraging its democratisation:

For a long time Iran turned to America to help free it from its imperial overlords, particularly Russia and Britain, until the fateful Mossadeq Affair in 1953, which constituted the initial breach of trust between the two countries. Later events hardened attitudes on both sides; Mohammed Reza Shah tried to play the Americans over oil prices, a tactic which ended in disaster when the US changed tack and began to ally more closely with the Saudis (somethingAndrew Scott Cooper details superbly in The Oil Kings). The final blow was struck during the 444 days of the American hostage crisis. Thereafter, the bitterness set in.

Roman David and Ian Holliday with an analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi's political calculus and choices in the lead up to the election in Burma later this year:

A representative survey we conducted in the final two months of 2014 in Myanmar's two main regions (Yangon and Mandalay) and three of its ethnic states (Kachin, Kayin and Shan) confirmed that her domestic support remains solid. She is trusted by almost two-thirds of respondents, building clear majorities among men and women, urban and rural dwellers, and the well and poorly educated. Across ethnic groups and in distinct parts of the country there is also trust for Suu Kyi. Moreover, the National League for Democracy (NLD; which remains her political vehicle) was selected by 52% of prospective voters, leaving far behind the governing (and military-backed) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) with 19%, as well as ethnic parties grouped together with 23%.

Jokowi may have taken a holiday at an opportune time in order to gain some control of his cabinet reshuffle, writes Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

Megawati Sukarnoputri, Jokowi's party leader, placed a sign outside her residence in Jakarta announcing that she would not host an open day on the first day of Lebaran. Nonetheless, a stream of influential people stopped by her house to pay their respects. One person of influence who was notably absent was President Jokowi, who broke tradition by leaving the capital for the holiday to celebrate in the far western province of Aceh.

Commentators saw the move as an attempt to avoid meeting with Megawati before announcing a cabinet reshuffle. The current cabinet line-up, like the rest of Jokowi's decisions as president, has been criticised as showing too much influence from Megawati. To avoid the label of being Megawati's 'puppet', Jokowi wants to show that the next cabinet will be formed at his discretion alone, observers say.

Elliot Brennan on the rise of piracy in Southeast Asia:

Many worry about an increase in insurance premiums. Lessons from Somalia indicate that we should be worried about far more than just the economics. Wealth gained from such piracy in Somalia supported increased criminality and the terrorist activities of Al Shabaab. If such activities are allowed to continue unchallenged the region may face similar problems.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.


On Tuesday, the US$100 billion BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) was opened in Shanghai by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This follows the institution's entry into force, confirmed two weeks ago at the 2015 BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia. This, along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank's (AIIB) signing ceremony on 29 June, marks a substantial month in the establishment of new additions to the multilateral development banking system.

The vibe at the NDB inauguration here in Shanghai was buoyant and optimistic, with the rhetoric focused on innovation in solving global investment problems and complementing existing institutions. The NDB was lauded as a major step forward for BRICS cooperation and for collaboration among emerging markets more broadly, as well as being seen as a rebuttal to cynics who have questioned the capacity of the BRICS forum to deliver concrete outcomes.

As my colleague Ye Yu recently noted, the NDB aims to finance investment projects and contribute to economic development in emerging market and developing economies, particularly through infrastructure and energy projects. Judging by the rhetoric invoked at the launch, it's likely that 'new' will become the watchword for the institution. Based on the concept that economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern first espoused back in 2012, the Bank will aspire to new mandates, new instruments and new practices.

The NDB's leadership team said the organisation will adhere to four defining principles: it will be professional, efficient, transparent and green. 

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  • 'Professional' is to assure the international community that the NDB will operate to a standard expected from a global institution. This is particularly important given the Bank will aim for 'next practice, not best practice'. This infers that rather than the Bretton Woods 'high standards', where institutions set the minimum social and environmental criterion before they lend (even if those standards are more strenuous than national settings), the NDB's lending will be made on the basis of domestic standards and 'be flexible to local conditions'.
  • 'Efficient' refers to '21st century governance arrangements' such as a non-resident board and a leaner, flatter institutional structure and decision-making process than in the Bretton Woods institutions. On staffing, disgruntled employees at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other regional banks who have been dusting off their CVs may need to look elsewhere. Rather than drawing heavily from the established banks, the NDB will look to recruit and train bright and inexperienced young talent from BRICS countries.
  • The transparency principle will need to be laid out in detail in coming months, but will be a crucial component to operations, particularly if the bank aims for 'reasonable returns' rather than a strict profit-maximising approach. 
  • 'Green' is meant to be more than just a catch phrase. The Bank's vision is to not compromise on environmental standards. Clean energy and new technologies are seen as a key part of the NDB's business model. 

The NDB will need to hit the ground running. Its executive board will be expected to make decisions on its first tranche of loans as soon as April next year. Judging by remarks from the Bank's President, KV Kamath, the first loan could already have been identified. It will be issued under a public-private partnership and is likely to be renminbi-denominated. 

Many questions are unanswered and a lot of crucial specifics around operations need to be put in place in the short period before the first loans are determined. These questions include the acceptable level of public disclosure concerning the decisions made and the information that led to them, environmental and social safeguards policies, and locations and participants in projects.

The initial US$100 billion capital base will likely be gradually phased in over multiple installments. The NDB will need to be innovative in the way it raises and disburses funds and in how it partners with private and public institutions if it is to make a significant contribution to global investment shortfalls.

Yet innovations carry risk, particularly if under pressure of rapid processes. There will be high-profile successes and failures in this experiment. The international community will judge the effectiveness of the NDB based on results, and will compare it to the lessons that have been gleaned in the 70 years of Bretton Woods. Like the AIIB, the Bank is aware that its standards will be under a lot of scrutiny.

Photo courtesy of Official Russian Presidency of BRICS.