Lowy Institute

Malcolm Cook and I have been debating why China has been willing to bless Tony Abbott with an FTA when Mr Abbott has so strongly opposed Beijing's political and strategic interests and aspirations in Asia.

Why has President Xi met Mr Abbott's stick with such a juicy carrot, especially when Beijing has been so quick to use the stick itself on other neighbours? (Sam raised the related and important question of why China uses the stick at all when it has so many carrots to offer, to which I have offered an answer separately.)

Malcolm's explanation is that the economic benefits to China of the FTA simply outweigh the costs to China of Australia's position on strategic questions. He does not dispute that those strategic costs are significant, because he concedes both that China is serious about creating a new order in Asia, and that Australia's attitude to this is important to Beijing. He just thinks the economic advantages to China of a FTA with Australia are big enough to counterbalance them.

I'm not so sure. I think it is more likely that Xi and his colleagues believe that wider economic opportunities and kind words will seduce Australia away from its alignment with China's strategic rivals, and encourage us to be more willing to accommodate China's ambitions for regional leadership.

Of course it may be that we are both right to some degree. But it remains important to judge the relative weight of each factor in China's approach to Australia, because the implications for our position in Asia and our future policy depend a lot on which of them predominates.

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Malcolm's argument that economic factors predominate in Beijing's decision rests on judgments about the scale of the perceived economic benefits of the new FTA to China. That is hard to judge at this stage, of course, but we need to be careful not to take last week's euphoria at face value.

The evidence suggests that FTAs actually make very little difference to trade flows or GDP growth. Our Government's only word on this is a 2005 DFAT-sponsored study, which was the source of the much-cited figure of US$18 billion boost to Australia's GDP from an FTA with China. Here is what that study said about the impact, had there been an FTA between Australia and China over the past decade:  

In terms of average annual growth rates between 2005 and 2015, the FTA is estimated to increase Australia's real-GDP growth by 0.039 percentage points; and increase China's real-GDP growth by 0.042 percentage points.

Yes, that's right – four hundredths of a percentage point. In other words, the impact on GDP for China, as for Australia, was estimated to be utterly negligible, and there is no reason to believe that the deal that has now been done will have a significantly greater effect. Indeed the Productivity Commission's 2010 report on FTAs strongly suggests that it won't. It concludes that FTAs in general do nothing at all to boost trade or growth.  

But are there other economic benefits? One view is that China values an FTA with Australia to drive reform within China, which might indirectly boost growth. One cannot dismiss this out of hand, but it does seem on the face of it very improbable. The CCP seems to have no trouble driving reform on its own, and if it needs help from outside, why Australia? China has already signed FTAs with many advanced and prosperous countries which pose it no strategic problems. How does adding Australia to the list help?

So from the available evidence there doesn't seem much reason to think that economic motives have been uppermost in Beijing's decision to cuddle up to Tony Abbott. The fact is that this FTA, like others, is much more about politics than economics, in Beijing as well as in Canberra.

And one cannot help but notice that Beijing seems to have secured precisely the political outcome I think they were aiming at. Tony Abbott did, at least while Xi was here, show himself much more open to China's vision of Asia's future than he has ever been before, and he did so in direct defiance of Barack Obama's very plain and stern warnings just two days before Xi spoke in Canberra.

Time will tell whether this proves to be anything more than a passing blip. Tony Abbott may well revert to his previous strategic alignment against China at the next opportunity. If so, it will be instructive to see how China responds. That would perhaps tell us more about its motives and purposes.

In the meantime, it is easy to understand the attractions of Malcolm's interpretation of events. It would be nice to think that Australia's economic weight and sophistication is such an irresistible magnet for China that we can dictate the terms of the relationship and compel it to accept without demur whatever strategic positions we choose to adopt.

Be we would be unwise to assume that this is what is happening. It is at least as likely that the boot is on the other foot, and that China's economy is so important to Australia's future that Beijing can set the terms of the relationship — either by carrot or stick or both — and persuade us to look more kindly on China's aspirations for regional leadership.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

  • China to scrap its 2700 year-old state monopoly on the sale of salt.
  • Jin Zhirui of China's Air Force Headquarters explains China’s recent island construction in the South China Sea: 'There is a need for a base to support our radar system and intelligence-gathering activities'. 
  • Meanwhile, Bonnie Glaser says the island construction is in preparation for an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
  • To meet its new commitment to cap carbon emissions by 2030 and turn to renewable sources for 20% of its energy, Bloomberg reports China needs to produce either '67 times more nuclear energy than the country is forecast to have at the end of 2014, 30 times more solar or nine times more wind power' (or, I guess, some combination of these).
  • The State Council unveiled its 2020 energy action plan, which includes raising renewables to 15% of China's total energy mix.
  • China flexes its muscles at APEC with the revival of Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.
  • SCMP reports there is a split within Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
  • Carl Mizner explores what last month's fourth plenum means for the direction of law in China.
  • The inability of local governments to clean up Lake Tai, despite pledging US$14 billion to tackle the problem, highlights the magnitude of China's pollution challenges.
  • This musical ode to Xi Jinping and his wife has gone viral:


In late October, the US and South Korea agreed to delay the issue of who would control the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. In the argot of Korean security, this is known as the reversion of operational control or 'OPCON'. The debate on this issue has raged for a decade. It now appears over; indefinite extensions mean it is probably no longer a meaningful option.

Since the war in the 1950s, the US had maintained control over the entire South Korean military. US Forces Korea (USFK) were integrated with ROK forces into a Combined Forces Command, which was in turned integrated into the United Nations Command. All three commands are headed by the same person – a four-star US general. The current commander is Curtis Scaparotti.

This command structure is unique. Nowhere else does a US commander operate under multiple jurisdictions like this – not in Japan or NATO. (A nice review here.)

Unfortunately, this structure also implicated the US military in Korea's earlier dictatorships. When leftist critics of the US position in Korea argue that the US 'runs' Korean foreign policy or that Washington is responsible for past Korean dictatorial repressions (most notably in Kwangju), this is usually what they mean. US defenders have argued that if dictators like Park Chung-Hee or Chun Doo-Hwan had exercised full control of the South Korean military, the repressions would have been much worse.

Thankfully, as the ROK matured into a democracy, it was increasingly capable of governing its internal affairs without recourse to authoritarianism. In this environment, peacetime OPCON was reverted in 1994. As hostilities with North Korea have not recommenced since then, this means the South Korean civilian government effectively exercises full-time independent control over the military. Coupled with an independent defence budget (that often focuses on flashy weapons systems USFK would not recommend) and the civilian leadership of the Ministry of National Defence, South Korea acts increasingly on its own in defence matters.

At the same time, US military personnel totals in Korea have steadily shrunk from a wartime high of nearly 1 million to the current 28,500. In short, the bulk of the defence burden in South Korea and the policy choices behind it increasingly fall on Seoul. This is progress, insofar as the division of the Korean peninsula is a Korean affair.

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In the early 2000s, the remaining joint structure came under criticism from the Korean left. In 1998, Korea's first liberal president, Kim Dae Jung, took office. Kim is most famous for launching the Sunshine Policy. Although Korean voters eventually turned on it as a failure, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Sunshine Policy was widely seen as a breakthrough. Kim won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize, and his successor, also a liberal, Roh Moo-hyun, continued the policy. He also ran an aggressively anti-American political campaign in 2002. 

In this environment, CFC and US OPCON of the wartime South Korean military was understood as an unnecessary provocation of North Korea and an infringement of South Korean sovereignty. A long-standing goal of North Korea has been the reduction, if not complete withdrawal, of USFK. A staple Northern claim is that USFK divides the peninsula and makes South Korea a 'Yankee Colony.' As I have argued elsewhere, while this may seem propagandistic to Western observers, it is surprisingly resonant in South Korea. Anti-Americanism in South Korea is entrenched, particularly in parties of the left and in the film industry. It tends to come in waves, most recently in the beef protests of 2008, and Korean liberal politicians such as Roh routinely exploit it.

Roh sought a final 'peace regime' with the North (the two Koreas are still legally at war; the current peace is actually a 61-year armistice). One informal concession was to be the elimination of CFC and a scaling back of USFK's role in South Korean security. Military OPCON reversion served a domestic purpose too; it buttressed the claim of Roh, and the left generally, that South Korea was independent of the Americans, and played to traditional Korean prejudices that Korea has been manipulated by covetous foreigners (the Chinese, Mongols, Japanese, Americans). An old Korean aphorism goes that 'Korea is a shrimp among whales.' All Koreans, North and South, could agree that the Yankees were obstructing Korean reconciliation.

At the high point of the Sunshine Policy, when North and South Korea seemed closer than at any time since the war, directing Korean nationalism toward the Americans as blocking better relations was a masterstroke. In 2006, Seoul and Washington agreed to OPCON reversion by 2012.

The history since then is a curious case of unintended consequences that ended in the current arrangement, which delays OPCON until 2020 at the earliest. Almost immediately Seoul had buyer's remorse, while the Americans were increasingly happy to be rid of the burden. Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense at the time, disliked Roh intensely and actually welcomed the greater US flexibility OPCON reversion would permit. In the mid-2000s, the US security establishment was pre-occupied with the War on Terror; officials, including Rumsfeld himself, started speaking of it as a 'long war.' If the US was going to be fighting terrorism for decades in failed states in the greater Middle East, wasn't it time for mature, wealthy democracies like South Korea to carry their own weight?

On the Korea side, the burden of OPCON also hit home. As USFK shrank, CFC came into question, and with the US focused increasingly on Islamic terrorism, South Korea would need to spend more on defence (a lot more actually) and significantly improve the professionalism of both its conscript force and officer corps. For a military long accustomed to (or perhaps coddled by) the US guarantee, this was a major challenge, and OPCON reversion has been repeatedly delayed because the South Koreans simply are not ready.

South Korean conservatives turned against the deal almost immediately, calling for OPCON delays. As the Sunshine Policy ran aground on persistent North Korean intransigence, South Korean voters turned against it by electing the very hawkish, pro-American Lee Myung Bak. Lee, like the electorate, had come by the mid-2000s to the conclusion that North Korea was not actually changing under the Sunshine Policy but was simply milking it as a permanent subsidy. North Korea responded in 2010 by sinking a South Korean destroyer and shelling an island, killing 50 people.

Since then, OPCON reversion has been delayed repeatedly, taking us to the current arrangement. It seems safe to say at this point that the ten-year soap-opera of OPCON reversion is over. A delay to the 2020s is effectively indefinite, which in turn means it almost certainly will not happen. CFC/USFK is pretty much permanent now.

Photo courtesy of Flicker user US Pacific Command.


Tom Allard recently reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia and East Timor are ready to restart talks on the maritime boundary between the two countries, with all its complications of petroleum revenues and history. The tradition is to keep these talks under wraps, but Allard's article puts the topic back on the public stage. 

The Timor Sea and maritime arrangements between Australia and Timor Leste. (DFAT.)

If this issue were to be decided on the basis of 'they are poor and we are rich', then the facts are irrelevant, except perhaps for this fact: thanks to the existing treaty arrangements, Timor has a petroleum fund currently holding US$16.6 billion, unable to be effectively spent as fast as the revenue is flowing in

If poverty is not the criterion, then geography is. The original 1972 maritime boundary with Indonesia (West Timor and the parts of Indonesia to the east of East Timor) was drawn much closer to Indonesia than the mid-point between the two countries (see map above). This might seem unfair until you look at a cross-section map of the seabed or a map showing sea-depth (see map below), on which Australia's continental shelf is clear, as is the Timor Trench dividing the two land-masses.

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The treaty history is summarised here. Portugal was still in control of East Timor at the time of the 1972 treaty, and it didn't want to participate in defining the border, hence the 'Timor Gap'. After Indonesia took over East Timor in 1975, this gap was addressed in a treaty which left the border to be determined later, but created the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA; see first map) so that, in the meantime, the just-discovered petroleum resources could be developed.

After East Timor's independence from Indonesia, these delineations were retained in the new treaties, but a much more favourable division of the petroleum revenues was agreed. The Sunrise gas field (the richest undeveloped field, with estimates putting its gross value at $40 billion) lies mostly outside the JPDA, with about 20% in the Area and 80% in Australia's territory. The initial treaty with Indonesia had split the revenue within the JPDA 50:50, with Indonesia getting no share of gas field revenues outside of it. After the renegotiations, the newly independent East Timor received 90% of the JPDA revenue and 50% of the upstream revenues from the Australian part of Sunrise.

Sunrise gas field (Hydrocarbons Technology Market & Customer Insight)

A key element of all the treaties was to delay any consideration of the final border delineation of the Timor Gap for 50 years. If no development agreement was reached for the JPDA during the six years after the 2006 treaty was signed, either party could terminate it, but so far the treaty remains in force. Terminating it would open up the possibility of looking at the border again. But it would also affect the status of the revenues which both parties get from current production and might halt further investment. 

What would happen in a renegotiation? Allard asserts: 'A boundary equidistant between the two countries — as is the norm under international law — would result in most of the oil and gas reserves, worth more than $40 billion, lying within East Timor's territory.'

Yes, if the border were drawn equidistant, this would put the JPDA resources in Timor's territory, but Dili already gets 90% of these revenues. and it's true that UNCLOS decisions have favoured equidistant borders because continental shelf features are often unclear and subject to huge dispute.But in this case the shelf and the trench are indisputable geographic features. That said, Australia is not ready to have this tested and in 2002 declared that it would not submit itself to international dispute resolution mechanisms relating to 'sea boundary delimitations as well as those involving historic bays or titles.'

Even if East Timor were to succeed in renegotiating the border to mid-way (which, to give some idea how this would look, is the south-eastern edge of the JPDA shown on the first map), this still wouldn't put the rich prize of Sunrise in Timor's territory. Most of Sunrise is clearly to the east of the nearly north-south line demarking the eastern edge of the JPDA. This border is not in dispute and it is drawn in accordance with the conventional rules based on the geography of East Timor and Indonesia.

Going one step further, if East Timor succeeded in getting an equidistant border, Indonesia would surely want to do the same thing and could find an excuse. This would put the largest part of Sunrise in Indonesian territory. East Timor might then see if Indonesia was ready to share the revenues 50:50 with it.

Australia's negotiating history on this subject is not a glorious one. Why, for instance, was it worth the risk of getting caught spying on East Timorese negotiators when, as the Foreign Minister of the time said, 'you didn't have to spy on the East Timorese to find out what their position was'. Defending the current arrangements shouldn't be too hard, either on legal or moral grounds. Let's hope we make a better fist of it this time.


The conduct of the general elections in Solomon Islands on 19 November appears to have been largely successful. An interim report from the Commonwealth Observer Team led by former Prime Minister of PNG Mekere Morauta has praised the conduct of the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), and the public for the conduct of the poll.

Solomon Islands House of Parliament

However, good electoral process will not necessarily equate to the formation of a good government and a functional and stable parliament. Nor will it eliminate violence and civil unrest.

The introduction of a biometric voter registration system for this election has greatly reduced electoral fraud and duplicate enrolments. The electoral roll has been reduced by over 160,000 names since the 2010 election. Although there were some that missed out on enrolment, such as 3000 students studying overseas, the new system should enhance the legitimacy of the results. Despite the logistical hurdles faced by the Electoral Commission, extensive voter education was carried out and 867 polling stations operated across the country.

Preliminary estimates indicate an enviably high voter turnout of around 85%.

The biggest upset occurred when sitting Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo lost his seat to his nephew and former campaign manager Jimson Fiau Tanagada. Despite some controversy over 300 voters being unable to cast their votes due to boat delays, and some calls for a recount from supporters of losing candidates, Lilo has accepted his defeat with good grace.

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Otherwise, the poor representation of women is still an issue. Out of 26 female candidates, only one was elected to the 50-seat parliament; businesswoman Freda Soria Comua unseated Foreign Minister Clay Forau in Temotu Vatud by just 22 votes. The only female MP in the last parliament, Vika Lusibaea, was not re-elected. Unfortunately this low representation is not unusual across the region, but it is far behind Fiji, which elected seven women MPs in its September election.

The poll was carried out without major violence or incident, except for a failed attempt by an electoral official to steal a ballot box in Auki, Malaita. It is worth noting that election days have generally been held without major incident in the Solomon Islands. The more unpredictable period will be the horse-trading over the next few weeks that will determine the appointment of the prime minister and cabinet.

Historically around 50% of Solomon Islands MPs have held on to their seats for one election before being thrown out by voters. This election has bucked the trend, with 35 MPs being re-elected. Solomon Islands expert Dr Tarcisius Tara Kabutalaka attributes this more to the late release of large amounts of discretionary funds to MPs to influence voters rather than satisfaction with their performance. Some of the new MPs should bring some much needed renewal into parliament, such as former University of the South Pacific Lecturer Dr Culwick Togamana. However, the return of so many incumbents will likely entrench dysfunctional government and prevent reform. 

Journalist and candidate Alfred Sasako alleged that 26 MPs were under investigation by police. This could be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that there are major corruption problems within parliament. MPs in Solomon Islands, as in other parts of Melanesia, are elected on their ability to deliver direct benefits to their constituents rather than their ability to govern the country. Included in the new parliament are convicted criminals Jimmy 'Rasta' Lusibaea and Manasseh Maelanga. The number of MPs with questionable pasts does not augur well for parliament tackling corruption and serious reform.

Competition over who is elected prime minister will be hotly contested this year.

Solomon Islands has always had weak political parties but despite the introduction of laws to strengthen them earlier this year, more than half of the parliamentary MPs have been elected as independents. The lack of party affiliation and the presence of a number of high profile individuals who might have a tilt at leadership, including four former prime ministers, makes the outcome of the next few weeks of horse trading difficult to predict.

The elimination of outgoing prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, who was rumoured to be forming a pre-election coalition, introduces another element of uncertainty. Although Steve Abana's Democratic Alliance Party won the highest number of seats with seven MPs, their numbers are no guarantee that they will be able to form a coalition with independents. Changes of leadership in 2006 and 2011 sparked protests when voters suspected pressure and meddling from business. It is not out of the question that dissatisfied voters will take to the streets again to protest against the new leader or take part in opportunistic looting.

This period is a key test for the effectiveness of the RSIPF and the effectiveness of Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands' (RAMSI) efforts to build law and order capacity. This is the first election since the withdrawal of RAMSI's military contingent and the draw-down of the police element.

Australia spent A$2.6 billion between 2003 and 2013 in the Solomon Islands. A$1.8 billion was spent on law and order. The RSIPF and RAMSI are taking no chances. The 150 RAMSI police in the country were boosted by 90 officers for the election period. High visibility operations have been carried out across the country and officers deployed to the provinces for polling day are being returned to Honiara. The business community in Honiara's Chinatown is also hedging its bets after the 2006 riots, when 95% of the shopping district was destroyed, by installing extra security measures and engaging more guards for the election period. 

Solomon Islands needs a solid government to drive reform and economic development, tackle corruption, resolve land disputes and lessen dependence on aid. It is by no means clear that the new parliament will deliver.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Among the worries that keep Chinese leaders awake at night surely is food security. Li Keqiang's first priority upon taking the premiership in 2013 was agricultural modernisation. Civil rebellions and wars throughout China's history were fueled by the Malthusian need to keep people fed. As the nation now urbanises, the demands of keeping Chinese healthily nourished grow more acute. A spat over genetically modified (GM) food encapsulates the dilemma. 

Self-sufficiency has long been totemic and officially China meets an impressive 95% of directly-edible grain demand, almost 600 million tonnes annually. But with Chinese demand for meat already averaging 50kg per capita and approaching European levels for urban residents, China will need to import grains (mainly soybeans and corn) for animal feed, 120 million tonnes by 2020.

Yet with subsidies boosting rural incomes at US$75 billion or 11% of total output, domestic price support has perversely created high consumer prices and, surprisingly, a temporary 'grain glut.'

In seeking self-sufficiency, China has hit an ecological ceiling. Crop yields still lag, and only with unprecedented fertilizer application rates. Now the productivity crunch is being sharpened by shortages in three key areas: land, water, and labour.

Chinese often say that '22% of the world is fed with 7% of its arable land.' Urban sprawl has in a dozen years gobbled 8.3 million arable hectares (twice Japan's total arable land) and threatens China's 'red line' of 120 million hectares. Official statistics deny this threshold has been breached but cities have been ordered to stop paving over surrounding countryside. 40% of China's arable land has already suffered some degree of degradation. Water is becoming a constraint to food supply even as bureaucrats, incredibly, prioritise thirsty coal production. It might also seem odd that China faces a farm labour constraint, but migrants prefer life in the city. Chinese farming is a rotten business.

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The reason is simple: farmers can't own and can't sell their land, so their plots are tiny. The average dairy farm has seven cows. China doesn't do agriculture, as someone has wittily observed, it does 'gardening.' Fragmented farms and supply chains result in pork production costs twice America's. There are huge ideological and social barriers to outright rural land privatisation, but Beijing is gingerly experimenting with industrial farms. Factory farming is contentious, however, and some worry about China following the American model. In China itself, food safety scandals have alarmed the public.

Enter the GM controversy. 'Frankenfood' is furiously debated in many countries, but the squabble in China is unusually heated in a society where the state typically commands the agenda. In fact, in their pro-GM campaign, government scientists are visibly frustrated by the opposition, led by hawkish major-general Peng Guangqian who detects 'a monumental, supremely devious plot to annihilate the Chinese people.' Xenophobic conspiracy themes are perpetuated by nationalistic officials. Chu Xuping, a senior figure in the agency overseeing China's state-owned enterprises, rejects foreign investment in grain, pharmaceutical and water treatment SOEs. The dog-whistle message to the public is unmistakable: no Western fingers contaminating China's supply chain. (Incidentally a Chinese company owns Northumbrian Water in the UK).

China's GM rejection is rippling across world trade, visible recently in an ugly dispute over unapproved US GM corn. Beijing's stance may be geopolitically motivated, to allow a shift to friendlier Latin American sources. But there is also genuine concern about the sanctity of Chinese crop strains as GM seeds overrun the planet.

A close examination of president Xi Jinping's supportive pronouncements on the topic reveals what this is really about: 'We must boldly innovate the heights of GMO techniques, and we cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.' An industry analyst is more blunt: 'The main reason for China's slow adoption of biotech grain crops isn't so much that the government is swayed by public opinion. It's that China doesn't have leading, marketable biotechnologies and is afraid of having the market controlled by foreign companies once commercialization is granted.'

Here is the nexus where land and water scarcity and concerns over food safety, social stability, industrial competitiveness and foreign dependence all meet. GM food is the sum of all China's fears.

Photo by Flickr user lenlners.


US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unexpectedly resigned this morning (AEST), the apparent victim of heavily criticised Obama Administration foreign-policy failures and brooding discontent within the White House.

Hagel, one of just two Republicans in the Obama White House, gave no definitive reason for his sudden decision to leave the Pentagon after less than two years in the job. But there is strong speculation he was fired. He is the first cabinet-level casualty since voters delivered a stinging rebuke to President Obama at the mid-term elections earlier this month.

Hagel had a difficult time politically at the Pentagon almost from the start. After his embarrassingly inept confirmation hearings in January 2013, when he showed he did not even know the US policy on Iran, Hagel was approved by the smallest margin in the history of US defence secretaries. Nearly all his fellow Republican senators voted against him.

The quick succession of crises this year — from the Russian incursion in Ukraine to the march of Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria to the outbreak of the Ebola virus — resulted in Hagel being criticised as a poor leader of the military and President Obama being frequently portrayed as a weak commander in chief.

Hagel's forced departure from the Pentagon is a troubling signal of President Obama's continuing problems in assembling and running an effective Cabinet with which he feels comfortable. During his two terms, Obama will have had at least four defence secretaries. (By contrast, George W Bush and Ronald Reagan had two confirmed secretaries while Bill Clinton had three Pentagon heads.)

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As a senator, Obama admired and benefited from Hagel's stature as a defence thinker, a decorated Vietnam veteran and one of the senior Republican critics of the Iraq war. The re-elected president remembered this when the time came to name his new Pentagon head in the (northern) winter of 2012-13. But it now appears Obama did not really know what he was getting in Hagel. The learning curve was steep for the president, fatal for the defense secretary.

Among other things, Hagel was an indifferent manager and unskilled bureaucratic infighter. Even those of us who welcomed Hagel's appointment were disappointed with his slowness to master the Pentagon bureaucracy and his failure to project a new realist vision for US defence and security policy.

Moreover, although he initially shared the President's instinctive realism and caution about indiscriminately throwing America's weight around in the world, it is widely understood Hagel clashed with the White House over Obama's failure to prosecute the case against Assad's regime in Syria more aggressively. He was seen as outside the President's tight bunker of advisers that has centralised foreign-policy decision-making more than any president since Nixon.

If this is true, then Hagel merely reflected the thinking of his immediate predecessor Leon Panetta as well as the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who aired their criticisms of the President in their memoirs this year.

Hagel's successor will be subjected to grueling confirmation hearings led by veteran hawkish Republican Senator John McCain. (At this stage, the favourites are Ash Carter and Michele Flournoy) He or she will then confront the challenge of adapting an expensive military machine to the needs of a changing post-9/11 world and keeping the confidence of a President still feeling his way on foreign policy.

With two years left in his term, it is clear that whatever Obama's cautious and prudent campaign themes of 2008 may have promised, his foreign policy has taken a decidedly a more interventionist turn. From Ukraine to the Middle East to the so-called pivot in East Asia, the Obama Administration has recently begun to adopt a more assertive leadership role in the world. The extent to which the US continues along this path will have a lot to do with Hagel's successor.


This morning it was announced that the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have been extended for another seven months; or to be specific, another four months to reach a political agreement and another three months beyond that to finalise technical details.

That the talks did not end simply in a comprehensive failure was no great surprise. The stakes are too high. As I explained last week, for the Rouhani Government and the Obama Administration, a nuclear deal holds the key to critical broader objectives: for Rouhani, it can end Iran's political and economic isolation; for Obama, it can recalibrate America's posture and policy in the Middle East.

Moreover, comprehensive failure would have led to an escalatory spiral of increased sanctions and an acceleration of Iran's nuclear program. We could have seen increased tension between the US and Iran in Iraq, undermining the military campaign against Islamic State. The risk of military confrontation in the Middle East would have risen as well.

Within Iran, the Rouhani Government would have paid a steep political price. Having raised and modestly delivered on popular expectation of an improvement in Iran's economy, a comprehensive failure would have fractured economic confidence and undermined political support for Rouhani. Rouhani's hardline internal adversaries would have used the opportunity to step up their attacks on him and his Government.

Of course, all of this may still happen. The critical deadline here is not in seven months' time, it is in four months. As Secretary of State Kerry made clear in his press conference this morning, 'At the end of four months...if we have not agreed on the major elements by that point in time and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed'.

So what should we take away from this non-failure/non-success?

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First, the failure to outline in any detailed way what progress has been made would suggest that what we have here is a 'negative non-failure'. There had been expectations that the two sides might announce a framework agreement and say that more time was required to work out the details. This would have constituted a positive non-success.

While it is possible that the current situation reflects the old negotiating maxim of 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed', it has to be worrying that the two sides still need another four months to even reach a framework deal. This would suggest that either both, or one, of the sides feel that what is currently on the table won't wash with those who will sit in judgement on the deal.

On the Iranian side, Rouhani has to convince a sceptical Supreme Leader who must ultimately sign off on an agreement. Obama meanwhile has to win at least grudging acquiescence from Congress and allies in the Middle East. 

Kerry made a point of saying how tough the talks are and how the US doesn't 'want just any agreement. We want the right agreement.' At the very least, extending the talks has the virtue of underlining to critics on both sides that neither the Rouhani Government nor the Obama Administration are going to sell themselves cheaply for the sake of a deal. And by not giving the impression that an agreement is close – which may in fact be true – it could help to stave off any efforts to torpedo a prospective agreement over coming months.

Of course, those efforts to derail the deal may come anyway, as patience wears thin among hardliners in Iran and a more hostile Congress takes office next year. It is going to be a fraught four months.

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



Sam Roggeveen raises an important question when, apropos my debate with Malcolm Cook about China's use of diplomatic carrots and sticks towards Australia, he asks why China bothers to use sticks at all when it has so many carrots. Like many others, Sam thinks China is making a mistake by acting so threateningly to so many of its nearer neighbours when it could so easily seduce them with economic opportunities.

We explored some aspects of this issue on The Interpreter back in May, specifically in relation to China's conduct in its maritime disputes with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbours. I argued then that China uses these disputes specifically to weaken US regional leadership and strengthen its own by showing that America cannot or will not any longer support its friends and allies in Asia militarily as it used to do.

Sam's post however raises the deeper question of why China should think that this will help build its new model of great power relations in Asia. One simple answer is that everyone else does it. Most models of leadership at all levels of human interaction – even America's — involve a mix of both carrot and stick, and there is no reason to expect China's be to any different.

But I think there may be a more specific answer: the main target of China's sticks in the East and South China Seas is not its neighbours themselves, but Washington. It wants to convince America to step back from leadership in Asia by convincing Washington that it will have to confront China militarily to preserve its regional primacy, and that the costs and risk of doing so would be immense. It is trying to intimidate America, in other words. There is a good chance that it is working.

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Most people are surprised that China would think in these terms. It does not fit our model of how the world works these days. But my whole point is that the world is working differently now from what we have known, because for the first time in decades we are seeing real strategic rivalry between great powers. China is deadly serious about its 'new model', and will run real, if carefully calculated, risks to create it.

Moreover, viewed from Beijing, such measures might seem justified, and indeed required, by America's stubborn refusal so far even to contemplate any accommodation of China's aspirations. That refusal was restated more bluntly than ever by President Obama in Brisbane just last Saturday week. For Beijing, if carrots won't work on America, sticks must be applied, even if indirectly.

Photo courtesy of the White House.


The $254 million in cuts to the ABC budget, outlined today by ABC Chief Executive Mark Scott after Malcolm Turnbull's statement on Wednesday, have been coming for a long time – at least since the Lewis review which proposed efficiencies to reduce the ABC's annual budget requirement.

Since then, there have been numerous rumours of the steps the ABC will take to implement the cuts, including axing or trimming Stateline and Lateline, and closing its international bureaux in New Delhi and Tokyo (with the result that no Australian media outlet would have a correspondent in Tokyo).

The Minister's statements last week yet again emphasised his view that the cuts would not require programming changes, and could be implemented by driving back room and administrative efficiencies. Mark Scott's announcement today to the ABC staff is in stark conflict with the Minister's view. As rumoured, Stateline is gone, Lateline moves to ABC24, and several regional bureaux are cut.

As for the international bureaux, they will undergo a euphemistic 'shape readjustment'. The Auckland bureau will be entirely closed and others thinned down, with 'multi-platform hubs' installed in their place. London, Washington, Beijing and Jakarta reportedly remain, with no mention yet of the fate of the Tokyo bureau. 

This is 'highly contentious', as Crikey points out today, 'as some believe it exposes journalists to greater risks in hostile environments, but is increasingly becoming the global standard as media companies cut costs'.

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According to some in the ABC, budget surgery on the scale required by the Government could not possibly have been achieved only in administrative efficiencies, so programming changes were inevitable. While the Lewis review set out five broad areas in which, in its view, those administrative efficiencies could be achieved, it did not quantify or itemise those efficiencies. Given the heavy blows inflicted on the broadcaster today by its management and board, it's hard to believe that the cuts could have been made solely by reference to the Lewis recommendations.

One available conclusion, then, is that the Minister has relied on something of a fiction to lay the responsibility and the blame squarely on the shoulders of ABC management, rather than accepting some responsibility on behalf of the Government which is mandating the cuts.

Regardless of where responsibility lies though, the reality of $50 million plus cuts per annum for the ABC — coming on top of the axing of the Australia Network and the massive restructuring of ABC International which resulted in swingeing cuts to Radio Australia and a decimation of its programming to the region – is a severe curtailing of the ABC's ability to cover international news. 

Thinner representation of journalists across international bureaux, with leaner resources, will mean more sparse news coverage, more perfunctory reporting and less analysis. This is to Australia's detriment in a century where everything is global, and where we need to be vigilant that our geographic remoteness doesn't render us geopolitically isolated.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman.


Jenny Hayward-Jones is Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program and Philippa Brant is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

Pacific Island leaders have had the rare opportunity to meet the international leader of the moment, Narendra Modi, and the president of the world's economic powerhouse, Xi Jinping, within the same week.

Both leaders had sufficient star power for many Pacific Island leaders to make a special trip to Fiji to meet the visiting leaders.

That Fiji was able to convene meetings for two such important leaders in one week is a diplomatic coup for the newly elected Government, which is seeking to recreate its image on the international stage. Fiji's media is naturally playing up the significance of the leaders of China and India visiting Fiji before the leaders of Australia and New Zealand have. Other international media outlets have played into this by emphasising the strategic calculations behind the two visits.

But to keep things in perspective, both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping (and for that matter French President Francois Hollande, who dropped into New Caledonia last week), were in the region because of the G20 meeting that Australia hosted. It is unlikely either would have made a special trip to Fiji were it not for the location of the G20 this year. The fact that President Xi had very little new to announce to island leaders suggested it was more a visit of convenience than of strategic significance.

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The 'strategic partnership' (featuring mutual respect and common development) that Xi announced with the countries of the region consisted mostly of initiatives already underway. Announcements of 2000 scholarships, zero tariffs for 97% of imports from the least developed countries in the region, and promises of more Chinese tourism and cooperation in areas like trade, agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure construction were all announced by Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang in Guangzhou last year.

Although not new, these initiatives are potentially valuable. Scholarships abroad are highly sought after by Pacific Island students. Pacific Island countries, particularly Fiji, will benefit from Chinese initiatives to increase the number of Chinese tourists traveling to the region and from encouragement of Chinese investment in tourism. Fiji appeared to be the main beneficiary of new announcements from Beijing. A US$11 million grant to Fiji was announced and is expected to be linked to infrastructure development. New visa exemptions for Fiji citizens will be valuable in increasing people-to-people links.

In his keynote speech to Pacific Island leaders, Xi Jinping said China stands ready to enhance communication with the island countries on 'global governance, poverty elimination, disaster reduction, food security, energy security, humanitarian aid and climate change to safeguard the common interests of all developing countries.' While China does not like to be perceived as a 'donor' in the traditional Western sense, Xi Jinping has clearly adopted the language of the international development community and knows how to appeal to his audience. His reference to climate change both in the speech and in bilateral meetings with island leaders will be well received at a time when the commitment of the region's major development partner, Australia, to tackling climate change is in doubt.

Indian Prime Minister Modi's visit to Fiji earlier in the week arguably made a bigger public splash, largely because of his international rockstar reputation and his ability to connect with diaspora communities. Fiji-Indians make up approximately 37% of the Fijian population. 

Unlike Xi, Modi was welcomed by large crowds of enthusiastic supporters in Suva. In remarks to a meeting of Pacific Island leaders, Prime Minister Modi announced a number of new policies for the region, including a US$1 million special climate change adaptation fund, a pan-Pacific Islands project for tele-medicine and tele-health, visas on arrival for all 14 Pacific Island countries, an increase in bilateral aid from US$125,000 to US$200,000 per annum, some trade promotion assistance, training for diplomats and a new regular Forum for India-Pacific Islands cooperation. While these initiatives are potentially constructive and play to some of India's strengths, they are relatively minor contributions to development compared to those made by the region's major donors.

As with the announcements made by Xi, Fiji was the main beneficiary of new Indian largesse. After talks with Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, Modi announced India would provide a US$70 million line of credit to build a co-generation power plant at a sugar mill, a parliamentary library, and US$5 million to strengthen and modernise small and medium size businesses. Modi's speeches and remarks in Fiji suggest India's relationship with the Pacific Islands region will remain largely focused on Fiji, either as the target of India's attentions or as a 'hub' through which India engages with other Pacific Island countries. 

Even if Xi and Modi's visits were more about style than strategic substance, Fiji's government has had a big win in the last week. Fiji has reasserted its claims for regional leadership, potentially at the expense of Papua New Guinea, which has been seeking a similar role for itself in recent years. In acting as the host for two meetings of Pacific Island leaders, the Fiji Government portrayed Fiji as the natural hub for the region. It also benefited more than any other country from the few new aid announcements that were a necessary feature of the visits of both leaders, propelling it into the international spotlight for a few days.

Photo courtesy of Facebook user Fiji Ministry of Information.


Hugh White's willingness to admit his mistakes and revisit his assumptions is admirable. His error in predicting that China would punish Australia by withholding final agreement on the FTA out of displeasure with the Abbott Government's pro-US and pro-Japan tilt is understandable. After all, Beijing has been in a combative mood lately, threatening and coercing its neighbours in a bid to broaden its sphere of influence. In this case, though, as Hugh said, it seems Xi Jinping has sought to charm Canberra out of Washington's orbit rather than bully it out.

But to me, the mystery is not why Beijing opted for carrots in this case rather than sticks. As Malcolm Cook explained, withholding the FTA would have damaged the domestic economic reform agenda which is at the centre of Beijing’s concerns. Rather, the mystery is why Beijing has used sticks against other regional powers lately, and indeed why it bothers with the stick at all.

Let's assume that Hugh's overall assumption about China's ambition — that it seeks to reorder the region with itself in a lead position and the US no longer the strategically dominant force — is correct. It is not clear why China has decided that coercion and punishment are the most expeditious means to that objective.

Take Taiwan, for instance. The trajectory of the Chinese economy has led to a substantial growth in economic ties with Taipei. It has also led to growth in Chinese military capabilities which has seen the cross-Strait balance shift dramatically in Beijing's favour. In turn, this has led to a decline in the credibility of America's security assurances to Taipei – it is getting harder and harder to believe that the US would intervene on Taipei's side in a conflict between China and Taiwan, because the costs would likely be so high for Washington.

From a Chinese perspective, that's a major advance for its Taiwan policy. Yet it is hard to argue that it came about because China either threatened Taiwan or offered it carrots. The economic forces that Beijing unleashed through its reforms have taken care of most of it.

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So when the long-term economic trends are so favourable to China, why does it bother to impose itself in the region? In the case of the Australia FTA, why would it feel the need to cajole Canberra away from Washington? If it waits, and grows, time will surely whittle away at the problem, forcing Canberra to equivocate here and there, slowly loosening Washington's grip. More broadly, if China can maintain its political unity and a decent rate of economic growth, then surely much of the work towards achieving its desired stature in the region will have been done.

I don't mean to suggest that China could feasibly return to its Deng-era 'hiding and biding' strategy. It is asking too much of Beijing to consciously choose to remain a second-rate strategic power as it rises to economic pre-eminence (in any case, as a major actor on the world stage, China has more responsibilities now). So China could continue to increase its military capabilities commensurate with its growing GDP, and it could lay out a strategic and foreign policy vision consistent with its size. But it could do these things without consciously frightening the region's horses. Given the scale of China's economic rise, even such modest steps alone would be earth-shaking enough.

So why does Beijing have to go beyond that? Why press territorial claims in the East and South China Seas? Why unilaterally declare an air defence identification zone and move oil rigs into waters claimed by a neighbour? Why consistently increase defence spending over and above GDP growth?

Perhaps such a policy will get China to the position of regional pre-eminence it seeks a few years earlier, but at what risk?

Photo by Flickr user nist6dh.

  • A proposal to end the exaggeration of what counts as foreign aid.
  • How do countries and other donors compare in their Ebola assistance? The Ebola Response Tracker by ONE is a great interactive.
  • With the Lima Climate COP just around the corner,  how ambitious are China's climate targets? Good fact sheet from The Climate Institute.
  • In Berlin last week countries pledged US$9.3 billion for Green Climate Fund for developing countries to deal with climate change.
  • News that China will build a US$12 billion railway in Nigeria, connecting Lagos to Calabar.
  • 'The less the government controls, the more authoritarian it becomes.' The future looks dismal in war-torn South Sudan.
  • The Djioubti Minister for Foreign Affairs urges a reconfiguration  on the debate  African nations face in forging 'eastern' or 'western' partnerships.
  • Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the world's most widely ratified human rights treaty. See UNICEF's anniversary interactive.

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

This week the Lowy Institute hosted both the Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, and the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Both these visits followed the conclusion of the G20 Brisbane Summit and major speeches in Australia by President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others. It has been busy. Here Lowy Institute Fellow Sam Roggeveen reflected on the 2014 Lowy Lecture by Chancellor Merkel:

I think that what we tend to look for in political leaders is not so much intelligence but wisdom, and Merkel's was on display in the Q&A, where she cautioned patience on Europe's response to the crisis in Ukraine. As someone who saw Germans give up hope of their country ever being reunified, she said we ought not to be too pessimistic about future change in Russia's attitude. But it might take some time for Europe's most powerful tool, its economic might, to take effect. The only danger for Europe is that it becomes divided in the meantime.

Sam also pointed to the global goodwill that Merkel has personally developed, and what this could mean for Germany:

It seems to me that, were Merkel to embrace this opportunity, it could raise her country's standing in world affairs to something unprecedented in the post-war era. For instance, is it really so far-fetched to imagine Merkel taking the leading role in international climate-change negotiations? Her country has diplomatic heft and green-energy credentials. And, if I'm right, Merkel herself has the personal profile to give such an initiative real stature.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech before the Australian parliament on Monday, along with the announcement of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, has provoked considerable debate. Kerry Brown provided a first take on Xi's speech:

But Xi has made it clear that there needs to  be more diversification, and one of the routes to diversification is finance and services. Xi's recognition of Australia as a place where this sort of business can be done for Chinese today is a big deal. Now it is up to us to re-imagine our relationship with China along lines that are broader than just exporting resources and foodstuffs. If we go this way, we are pushing on an open door.

Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Malcolm Cook talked about how the FTA busted several myths about Australia-China relations:

The second strategic myth is that closer relations with the US, to which the Liberals are seen as being more prone than Labor, are detrimental to Australia's key relationships in Asia. Australia's Asian engagement policy would benefit from a more 'autonomous' and 'independent' relationship with the US and its ally Japan, it is argued.

The most sustained and inaccurate criticism of the Abbott Government's foreign policy is that closer relations with Japan and the US will undercut relations with China, with Beijing likely to impose costs on the bilateral economicrelationship. The exact opposite now seems to have occurred, with the signing of the historic Japan-Australia FTA earlier this year clearly an important late-term stimulus to the decade-long China-Australia trade talks.

Hugh White responded:

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As Malcolm Cook says, this week's events show that Tony Abbott's strategic policies in Asia have not got in the way of his economic agenda. Mr Abbott has won his free trade agreement with China despite his enthusiastic alignment with Japan and America to resist China's regional ambitions. So those, like me, who thought it might be otherwise have been proven wrong.

Hugh White layed out three possible explanations for why President Xi Jinping has 'been so warm and generous' to Prime Minister Abbott, when 'Mr Abbott has so deliberately opposed himself to China's interests and ambitions'.  Malcolm Cook provided a fourth option

Rather I think Option 4 — China's primary motivation for signing the trade deal with Australia is its global (not regional) trade diplomacy strategy aimed at domestic structural reform – is the most compelling. In this case, China is telling the truth when it says its foreign policy is primarily driven by the domestic concerns of a developing, previously centrally planned, economy in rapid transition.

Newly appointed Director of the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute, Leon Berkelmans, made a compelling argument for treating the new FTA with some scepticism(part 2 of his post is here):

In any case, suppose we take the report at face value. The modelling suggests the agreement will boost GDP growth by 0.04% per year for 10 years. Trend GDP growth is around 3% per year, so 0.04% really does not look like much. In fact, at trend growth, that is how much the economy grows in 5 days. Let me emphasise this point: it is not that the FTA is worth 5 days' worth of output. It is worth the difference between GDP today and GDP in 5 days' time. We should all just calm down a little bit.

President Obama's speech at the University of Queensland on Saturday covered a wide range of topics, including climate change, human rights, the Asia Pacific rebalance and China's economic development. Rory Medcalf with a first impression on the strategic aspects of the speech:

Which brings us to China. Sensibly, Obama's speech today did not directly challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese political system, in the way that his strong words in Canberra did just three years ago ('prosperity without freedom is just another kind of poverty'). 

Still, he did not resile from upholding values of democracy, freedom and human rights – linking them with themes of opportunity, innovation and youth - and pointedly included a reference to Hong Kong alongside Asia's democracies.

In these times when a rules-based liberal global order is under challenge from forces variously of destabilization, disorder, authoritarianism and sheer barbarism, Obama's Brisbane speech may not prove historic, but it has at least held the line. With clarity and conviction about the staying power of democracies, British Prime Minister David Cameron did at least as much in addressing the Australian Parliament yesterday.

Hugh White argued that the speech was tough on China:

However, that matters much less than how the Administration sees Asia and China. Obama spoke more positively than he has done before about China's economic achievement and its significance for the welfare of the people of China, and of course he referred to the deal with Beijing on carbon emission targets. But he more than matched that with a distinctly adversarial tone in describing America's differences with China.

Obama's remarks on climate change have provoked a rare rebuke from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Historian James Curran wrote an interesting piece on past breakdowns in the alliance:

The last occasion when there was a serious public rupture in the alliance came with Bill Clinton's refusal to provide American ground troops in East Timor in 1999. Notwithstanding the fact that US logistical, intelligence and diplomatic muscle were crucial ingredients in the success of that mission, both John Howard and Alexander Downer made the point to American leaders at the time that, given Australia's support for the US in various wars over the previous half-century, Canberra could have reasonably expected the participation of a few Marines. Downer's remarks at the time on CNN invited a personal phone call of complaint from then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Mike Callaghan has given his 'tick of approval' to the Brisbane G20 Summit, saying that it produced outcomes that were necessary for the event to be called a success. There was just one hiccup:

If Australia had adopted a more positive approach well in advance of the summit, rather than conveying an impression that it was doing everything possible to avoid the mention of climate change in Brisbane, it could have latched onto the US-China deal on emissions and presented the Brisbane G20 Summit as an important step in building momentum for next year's UNFCC negotiations.

So for all the good work Australia did as G20 chair in 2014 and the substantial outcomes from the Summit, it missed an opportunity for Brisbane to be presented as a major success across all fronts, rather than being overshadowed by the US-China agreement.

It's a pity, because in every other way Australia had a successful G20 year.

In a personal reflection on the feeling in Brisbane during the G20, Hugh Jorgensen provided some colour:

Otherwise, the only really noticeable human activity going on within the vicinity of the Summit site are 6000 sweaty police, a handful of Falun Gong protesters, and a lone monk bearing a placard asking G20 leaders to give peace a chance. I have heard there are a few hundred protesters across the river near City Hall, but as today's mercury moves up to a sweltering 35 degrees, I sympathise with anyone who can think of somewhere better to be that is not in Brisbane's willpower-draining sun.

Danielle Rajendram wrote on Prime Minister Modi's important visit to Australia:

Closer relations with Australia also tie into Modi's broader vision for India's role in East and Southeast Asia. The Modi Government has devoted considerable effort to deepening its partnerships in the region as part of its recently enhanced 'Act East Policy'. Focusing on key partners such as ASEAN, Japan, Vietnam and Australia, the Modi Government has signalled its intention to play a greater role in the region, potentially acting as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. If it is able to carefully manage Chinese sensitivities (no mean feat), cautious Indian engagement has the potential to act as a stabilising force in the region.

Vanessa Newby recalls her friendship with Peter Kassig, the humanitarian worker held hostage and recently beheaded on camera by ISIS:

Peter was never idle. Usually when I saw him he was on the run from A to B delivering medical supplies to whoever needed them. He never had any money of his own; he spent all his resources assisting others. On the odd evening when he did take a break he was to be found in deep conversation with someone about his work or an issue he felt strongly about. He lived out his beliefs with an authenticity that is unusual. Peter was charming, eloquent, intelligent and highly passionate. It was the last trait that got him into trouble.

Finally, Anthony Bubalo wrote a two-part post on the Iranian nuclear negotiation, which is set to reach its deadline on 24 November (part 2 here):

But the thing that clouds judgments about what constitutes a good or a bad deal, the thing that makes this complex technical negotiation even more complicated and makes the atmosphere around the negotiation highly charged, is that for each of the protagonists — the Rouhani Government, its domestic opponents, the Obama Administration and key regional players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia — the talks are a proxy for their broader objectives.