Lowy Institute

Brookings senior fellow and and Chinese economy expert David Dollar is in town as the 2016 G20 Studies Centre Visiting Fellow. David was a World Bank country director for China and Mongolia, and the US Treasury Department's economic and financial emissary to China. He's had a busy few days, speaking at the Lowy Institute on China's economic outlook and economic governance, and featuring on RN's Breakfast and  ABC News 24's The Business.

Yesterday afternoon the Lowy Institute's International Economy Program Director Leon Berkelmans sat down with David to discuss the accuracy of Chinese economic data, capital flight and the possibility of a significant yuan devaluation: 

US presidential race 2016

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary Michael Bloomberg has confirmed he is considering a run for the White House this year. The billionaire's interview with the Financial Times verifies a report a few weeks ago in The New York Times. It has also given every other candidate something to think about as last minute campaigning in the granite state reaches its snowy crescendo.

So, what do we need to know about Bloomberg, the businessman, philanthropist and former New York mayor who's decribed by hedge fund manager investor Bill Ackman  as 'the best of Trump without the worst of Trump'? From The New York Daily News comes this handy list of 10 essential factoids. Among other things, it documents Bloomberg's support for same-sex marriage, tighter gun controls, smoking restrictions, and regulations to encourage healthier eating (though he did have to back down on his plan to ban really, really large cups of soft drink after it was found to be unconstitutional). He's also pro-choice, a position he shares with half the country, according to a 2015 Gallup poll.

How would a Bloomberg run affect the race? If you look at the polling available, you'd have to say the results are inconclusive. A Bloomberg Politics Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters a few weeks ago found half of Republican caucus-goers didn't like him, or in pollster speak, had an unfavourable view. That fell to 26% among Democrat caucus goers  but only  17% indicated they liked the man. A nationwide poll conducted by well known pollster Frank Luntz, however, concluded 29% of Americans would support Bloomberg in a theoretical three-way race between the former mayor, Donald Trump, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The consensus view is the person with most to lose from a Bloomberg campaign (aside from the potential candidate himself who figures a campaign would cost a cool $1billion) is Clinton. The original NY Times report that tipped a Bloomberg run suggested he had had some unfavourable things to say about the former secretary of state in relation to her use of a private email server.  Daily Beast special correspondent Michale Tomasky pushed the speculation a bit further.

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'Let’s assume that Bloomberg was aghast at the email situation last year, but that it’s faded, and he’s now decided he’d be fine with a Clinton presidency even as he explores a bid of his own. OK. But even this brings us to another thought—that maybe Bloomberg thinks there’s some chance Clinton might be indicted sometime soon.'

Despite all the pooh-poohing from the Clinton camp, the email saga refuses to die. The latest development is confirmation from the FBI that it is indeed investigating Clinton's private emails.

While the FBI has merely stated what everyone knew, Clinton's many enemies will pounce. Even before the FBI confirmation, conservative voices, like Brian Darling, were hoping the scandal would bring Clinton down.

It will be very interesting to watch as her head to head numbers start to plunge whether Democrats toss Hillary under the political bus and look for a new candidate.

Odds are this will remain wishful thinking. And Bloomberg won't keep us guessing for long. In the FT interview, he confirmed his name would have to be on ballot papers by the beginning of March. Which means just a few more weeks of diverting conjecture about possible ballot sheets that could pit two billionaires against an evangelist and a socialist.

So how would you describe a contest between Sanders (D), Cruz (R), Trump (I) and Bloomberg (I). 'It'd be incredible,' tweeted @Zackbeauchamp, world correspondent at @voxdotcom. At best, it is also a remote possibility. But,  given the form demonstrated in this race to date, it would be foolish to rule it out. 

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images 


In a previous century the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) did not always fly technologically advanced aircraft that gave it uncontested regional air superiority. That's a statement which anybody born since the mid-1970s probably has trouble believing, but not only is it true, these times are now also returning.

First, some history.

By the end of the Vietnam War, the RAAF operated more than 100 Mirage III fighters originally bought as point defence interceptors to counter Soviet-built bombers flying out of Indonesia. The trouble was that times were changing: Sukarno fell, others countries in the region became richer, and better jets were bought. For some time, RAAF pilots thought they still had the edge. But then they realised this was no longer the case, as a RAAF fighter pilot of the time Chris Mills notes: 'My personal experience of loss of air superiority occurred in 1975. I was flying an air combat mission in a Mirage near Butterworth, Malaya at the moment this happened.'

At that time, the Royal Malaysian Air Force had re-equipped with F-5Es that had good manoeuvrability, better missiles and avionics and a low radar cross section. At Mills recounts, their pilots might have had only 50 hours in the aircraft, but they proved superior in mock air combat to RAAF pilots with thousands of flying hours on Mirages.

This situation is now repeating. Other people are getting better jets. This in itself is no cause for concern, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently said most countries in the Asia-Pacific are simply modernising as their military equipment ages. Moreover, most countries near us are democracies and if there is an iron law of international relations it is that democracies don't fight each other. Accordingly, the focus shifts to countries with more authoritarian governments, and in this our principal ally has sharpened our gaze for us. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter sees the return of geo-political competition in the shape of China and Russia driving future American defence planning and budgets.

In terms of thinking about regional air superiority, the rise of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been stunning.

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Over the last 20 years, the PLAAF has been transformed through an extensive but focused re-equipment program. As a result the PLAAF's fighter force has dramatically changed. It has gone from having an obsolete, 1950s technology fighter force to today having a highly capable, very large and up-to-date fighter force equalled only by the US Air Force and the Russians. For Asia-Pacific air forces, large and small, the PLAAF fighter force has become the benchmark.

This modernisation program to make the PLAAF a 'strategic air force' continues at a brisk pace. Indeed in 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that the country must 'accelerate [its] construction of a powerful people's air force… in order to support the realization of the China dream and the dream of a strong military'.

Let's get some perspective.

in 1995, 20 years after Chris Mill's epiphany, the RAAF's F/A-18 'classic' Hornet fighters were clearly technologically superior to the best fighters the PLAAF flew and had been for years. Today the situation is reversed and is worsening. In simple terms — and arguably a bit optimistically for the RAAF — the continuing development of the PLAAF means that by 2020 it will comprise about 1100 modern fighters as follows:

  • 650 4th generation (comparable to the RAAF's upgraded classic Hornets)
  • 450 4.5 generation (comparable to the RAAF's Super Hornets)
  • 24 5th generation (aspiring to match US Air Force's F-22 and beat the F-35)

Meanwhile in 2020, two-thirds of the RAAF's fighters will still be the 1980s classic Hornets. This was not as originally intended. The last of these should have left service last year but with the F-35 delayed, this now looks more like 2022. Well done, then, former Defence Minster Brendan Nelson in disregarding RAAF advice and acquiring 24 Super Hornets when difficulties with the F-35 program first became apparent. This purchase has allowed some semblance of regional technological air superiority capability to be maintained. 

Moreover in December 2020, No. 3 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown with 16 F-35A aircraft should finally achieve initial operational capability presaging the withdrawal of the aging classic Hornet fleet. With Government decisions made to acquire 72 F-35As, the only apparent obstacle to this seems to be if the F-35 slips again. In this regard, the latest DOT&E report highlights several troubling issues, in particular with software development – the bane of modern aircraft designers. 

Some will say I am being too hard on the RAAF's classic Hornet fleet as it is unlikely that the RAAF will ever need to combat fighters comparable to those the PLAAF operates. And even then, fighters operate within a complex air defence system where the RAAF's E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft will give superb situational awareness, allowing even outclassed fighters to win. Maybe. Maybe not. It greatly depends on the circumstances. But if you were flying the fighter, is that a risk you wish to take? Certainly a technologically better fighter force achieves higher kill ratios allowing a small air force much greater relative combat power. Conversely, an air force flying a technologically inferior fighter won't deter most adversaries.

Air superiority in itself will not win a war, but it is essential to not losing one. When Australia first committed to the F-35, the RAAF had some 100 fast jets as good as any in the Asia-Pacific region. In the next few years this looks set to drop to only 36 fast jets, including the Gillard Government's purchase of 12 Growler aircraft derived from the Super Hornet. Australia does not need to keep the aged classic Hornet fleet in service any longer than it must. The Asia-Pacific has moved on, so should the RAAF. The new era of contested air superiority demands it.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


It wasn't so long ago that China was being accused of holding its currency down to boost exports. So it's ironic that the issue likely to dominate the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting in Shanghai on 26-27 February is how to deal with the ongoing depreciation of the Chinese exchange rate.

On 9 November 2015 Donald Trump claimed that the worst of China's sins was 'the manipulation of China's currency, robbing Americans of billions of dollars of capital and millions of jobs'. He said that on day one of a Trump administration, the US Treasury Department would designate China a currency manipulator and impose duties on Chinese goods. Trump was a little out of date. The IMF had indicated in May 2015 that China's currency was no longer undervalued.

More recently there has been a major outflow of capital from China, putting downward pressure on the yuan. This reflects growing concern over China's growth fundamentals, unease over attempts by the authorities to intervene in markets and the increasing realisation that the currency has but one way to go; down.

Rather than intervening to hold the currency down, the People's Bank of China (PBoC) has spent a significant amount of its reserves in an effort to offset the fall in the renminbi. The PBoC spent close to US$500 billion in the past six months supporting the currency. While China continues to have the largest holdings of international reserves of any country at just over US$3 trillion, currency traders believe the intense intervention by the PBoC is unsustainable. There was once a view that China's reserves were so vast that the PBoC could set the value of the yuan wherever it liked. This is no longer the case. China cannot indefinitely burn through reserves at over $US100 billion a month.

So what can China do?

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Another irony is that within weeks of the IMF announcing that the yuan would join the basket of currencies determining the value of the Special Drawing Right, a sign that China's currency was now considered to be freely usable, the Governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, led a series of calls on China to tighten capital controls to stem the outflow of money and reduce the relentless downward pressure on the currency.

Reintroduction of capital controls would have to be carefully handled, particularly given the recent less than successful attempts by the authorities to intervene in markets. Attempts by the authorities to control capital outflow may raise investor concerns over China's broader policy intent and result in even greater pressure for capital outflows.

Moreover, as Eswar Prasad, the former head of the IMF's China division, has noted, capital controls alone will not inspire confidence in the outlook for the economy and the authorities' policy intent. On that front, there is no substitute for policy action.

Another option China could follow is to let the currency go. It will overshoot, but will find its market level and in doing so will break the persistent expectation of a depreciation which is driving capital outflow. In addition, because China has not yet fully opened its capital account, corporate foreign debt is not large and currency mismatch is small. A large depreciation will not cause domestic financial concerns.

But a major depreciation in China's exchange rate would cause significant volatility in world capital markets and lead to accusations that China is pursuing a competitive depreciation at the expense of other countries. China has already been accused of being at the front line of a currency war.

A recent report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch called on the forthcoming G20 Finance Ministers Meeting to endorse a one-off devaluation of the Chinese exchange rate, a ‘commitment for a stable dollar’, new swap lines for emerging markets, and fiscal stimulus by France, Germany and the UK to prop up flagging world growth and avoid financial panic. However the authors are not hopeful of such an outcome, saying ‘our deep concern is that the macro and the markets may first need to worsen to inspire the correct policy response’.

Mike Dolan from Reuters is closer to the money in suggesting that the Shanghai G20 Finance Ministers meeting will likely stick to the well-established script in dealing with global currency tensions. Just like previous meetings, there will likely be commitments to ‘monitor financial market volatility and take necessary actions’, along with ‘carefully calibrated and clearly communicated’ policy settings in order to minimise negative spillovers and resist protectionism.  But notwithstanding the rhetoric, the meeting is unlikely to result in any country doing anything differently.

As chair, it is likely to be a difficult meeting for China. Premier Li Keqiang recently phoned the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, pledging to keep the Chinese currency ‘basically stable’ and improve communication with financial markets. China can certainly improve on how it communicates its policy intent, but regardless, 2016 will likely be a rocky year for the yuan.

Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images


The latest meeting of those charged with steering New Caledonia into its next stage of governance went some small way to resolving sensitive political issues but also demonstrated just how deep divisions run regarding the possibility of independence.

The Committee of Signatories that met in Paris last week is the steering group of the Noumea Accord which, by building on previous Accords, has presided over 28 years of peace in New Caledonia. The Accords ended the 1980s civil war over independence with promises to hand over significant responsibilities to the locally elected government, to re-distribute nickel wealth, and to hold an independence referendum by 2018.

Representation on the Committee now extends beyond the eight remaining signatories to the Accord. All of the major political powers were present in Paris, an achievement in itself after past non-attendance by one major independence group and one pro-France group. Apart from the French State delegation, led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the Committee included representatives of the four major party groups in New Caledonia (the Rassemblement and Calédonie Ensemble, both pro-France groups; and the FLNKS/Palika and Union Calédonienne, on the pro-independence side), along with key elected office-holders in New Caledonia (the President of New Caledonia, the Presidents of the three provinces).

The meeting addressed the five controversial issues at the heart of Kanak independence demands: the future status of New Caledonia, voter eligibility, transfers of responsibilities, opportunities for young Kanaks, and the sharing of nickel revenue. Given the depth of differences, and no doubt with a view to urging focused, concerted action in difficult areas, the French-drafted summary of conclusions makes repeated mention of the 2017 national elections in France that will interrupt the vital last year of the Noumea Accord.

Opinions diverged most sharply over the future of New Caledonia. The pro-France group is clearly opposed to independence demands. One group even floated the idea of a third Accord that would defer an independence vote yet again. This proposal was rejected outright by pro-independence groups. In the end, the meeting simply noted a French commission had visited New Caledonia to clarify the statutory implications of the major options for the future. These are: independence, some form of association with France, and continued integration. The Paris attendees agreed to set up a timetable aiming at significant progress by the next Committee meeting in October this year, well before the 2017 French national elections.
There are also profound differences of opinion over who should be eligible to vote on independence; so much so that Kanak leader Rock Wamytan has raised the issue of voter eligibility with the UN Decolonisation Committee. To preserve the rights of indigenous and long-term white settlers, the Accord restricts voting in provincial elections to those resident before 1988. Similarly, only those resident before 1994 are eligible to vote in the independence referendum. There have been allegations both that some ineligible voters have been incorrectly included on the electoral roll, and other eligible voters not included. In all, about 3000 people were thought to have been affected. The issue has so far prompted an exceptional Committee meeting in July 2015, and a report by a French expert. There was progress at last week's meeting, where agreement on an approach to managing the different views reduced the list of disputed names to 1062. But it is notable that Rock Wamytan has already expressed continuing concerns.

Under the complex schedule by which France will hand over responsibilities to the local government, many transfers have been made, although the timing of the transfer of so-called Article 27, which covers security responsibilities, is still controversial. Those meeting last week agreed to refer the matter to the French State Council for judgment. The French State cautioned that an organic law may be required. This would be complex legislation that would have to be effected before the 2017 elections in France.

Further agreement was made on progressing the many development contracts financed by France that underpin the Noumea Accord process. In this context, greater attention is to be focused on the chronic social problems among youth (implicitly indigenous Kanak youth).

Finally, and unusually, a second day was added to consider the serious issues raised by the global collapse in the price of nickel.

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Together with technical problems, the nickel price has affected production in New Caledonia's two new multi-billion dollar nickel plants and this has had knock on effects on the financing of the economic re-balancing in favour of the Kanak heartland, which is at the core of the Noumea Accord. In a Common Declaration, the Committee last week agreed to 'political dialogue' within the next six months, and called for further 'solidarity' between the three major private company players (French SLN, Brazilian Vale, and Canada's Glencore). It agreed to address urgently the sensitive question of export destinations, given the recent demise of one of the principal export destinations, Australia's QNI. And the French State was urged to take a stronger role, given its role as shareholder in ERAMET/SLN, in addressing technical problems and investment in the one major current producer, SLN at Doniambo.

With so many differences to resolve, and so much work to do, before the all important 2018 referendum, it would be easy to underestimate the achievements of this latest Committee meeting. Bu while it only managed some small steps, they were forward steps; no mean feat in New Caledonia these days.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sekundo


Part 1 of this piece here.

Cubans have a good sense of humour – but I learned to my cost that Fidel is no laughing matter.

I was in Cuba as part of a Latin America trip, meeting with government officials and foreign diplomats, and getting a sense of the place. One day I spoke to the Cuban diplomatic academy about international developments. The academy's premises were ramshackle but the diplomats, almost all female, were razor sharp. Their questions were right on the money and I enjoyed the exchange. My only misstep was at the beginning, when I made a gentle joke about the Commander-in-Chief. 'I have been thinking of giving a four-hour lecture today in homage to Fidel,' I began. 'But then I decided that only Fidel could pull that off.' The gag was meant to be affectionate but it was met by complete silence and much uncomfortable shuffling. Everyone looked at the director of the academy, who looked severely at me.

Driving down Havana's famous Malecón esplanade it seemed to me very likely that President Obama will visit Havana this year. For a president in his final year of office, the lure will surely be irresistible. While full normalisation can only occur once the trade embargo is lifted (an unlikely prospect with the current Congress), Obama's relaxation of rules on remittances and travel have benefited Americans and Cubans – and improved the reputation of the US in Latin America. Obama deserves credit for bringing sanity to an area of policy that has long caused Washington's friends to scratch their heads.

My final glimpses of the island from the airplane window were of a largely agrarian landscape. Cuba is not without its social achievements, including a high literacy rate and free health care. But the country is sclerotic and undeveloped. Havana would blame the US blockade for all this whereas many observers point to the defects of Cuba's political system. Certainly, Cubans only need to look across the water to Mexico – which is, despite the media coverage of El Chapo and narco-states, increasingly prosperous and integrated into north America – to see an alternative future.

Change is coming to Cuba. What we don't know is whether it will be the controlled change imagined by the old revolutionaries or a rush of influence from the north that transforms Havana into a Little Miami. My guess is that in ten years' time, when both Fidel and Raúl have gone to the great revolutionary convention in the sky, Cuba will be unrecognisable.


The Washington Post editorial board, which has long argued for a vocal and uncompromising emphasis on democracy promotion in American foreign policy, has published an editorial criticizing the Obama Administration's decision to host Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in California later this month.

The editorial rightly points out repressive steps recently taken by some Southeast Asian leaders, but in calling for American diplomacy to be more critical and more selective, it also misses two important dynamics in Southeast Asia, one regarding regional diplomacy and the other regarding the character of states in the region.

First, on regional diplomacy. As the editorial acknowledges, most of the heads of state and government coming to California are concerned about rising Chinese influence and power projection capabilities in the region, which they believe could constrain their ability to choose their own course in the world. They have sought to increase their economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the US in order to avoid the loss of autonomy that would otherwise come with Chinese hegemony.

The Post understands this much, but objects to the invitation list. 'While the purposes are worthy,' the editorial reads, 'the result of Mr. Obama's initiative will be an unseemly parade of dictators at the Sunnylands resort, including a few long treated as too toxic to be granted the recognition that comes with an official visit to the United States.' Here, the Post errs.

President Obama is not inviting individual leaders to the summit in California; he is inviting the collective leadership of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has played a singular role in the development of East Asian diplomatic institutions. Its rotating presidency chairs the East Asia Summit, the first institution to include all of the region's leaders, and one which forces China to consult with smaller neighbors it might otherwise ignore in a bilateral setting. Moreover, ASEAN has fought off successive attempts by China (and in a particularly odd and less threatening episode, Kevin Rudd) to share or steal its leadership role. Were it not for ASEAN, regional institutions might already be dominated by China.

The Post's objection to the inclusion of leaders from undemocratic countries in the region overlooks ASEAN's importance, and by extension, the importance of institutions in American diplomacy. Beijing may see the region's future as merely a contest of economic and military power. Washington, for whom the institutions of the liberal international order are of critical importance, should not. It is not enough to trade, invest, and send military assistance to Southeast Asian countries. It is essential that we also support the institutions that bolster their autonomy, and thus the liberal order.

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With regard to the domestic political situation in the region, the Post makes some sound points, particularly with regard to Thailand and Cambodia. But the situation is not as bleak, or as black and white, as the Post would suggest. Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and tiny Brunei are authoritarian countries, and the electoral and judicial systems in Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore remain stacked against the opposition. But each of the latter four has held free elections in the past five years that presented the real possibility of a change in government, a possibility that will become a reality in Myanmar on March 31. (In Malaysia, the government lost the popular vote but won a majority in Parliament due to malapportionment, a problem the Post will be familiar with).

Opposition parties remain strong and competitive in each of these illiberal democracies. Among the four noted above, Malaysia and Cambodia's leaders have become more repressive in the past year; but the military is about to hand over much of its power in Myanmar, and one could hardly call Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong a dictator. Indonesia and the Philippines, as the Post notes, are democracies.

The Post is correct that some of the more autocratic leaders will use the photo opportunities at Sunnylands to bolster their legitimacy back home. That is unfortunate, but it is also an unavoidable consequence of diplomacy.

As part of that diplomacy, the US should address Southeast Asian countries' shortcomings on democracy and human rights in the most effective way possible: privately. Publicly dressing down Southeast Asian leaders who have flown across the Pacific to meet with President Obama, as the Post suggests, would hardly advance the cause. Effectiveness, not volume, is the standard against which the Obama Administration's efforts should be measured.

In inviting the collective leadership of ASEAN to Sunnylands, the US strengthens regional institutions and supports the liberal international order. Quiet but firm conversations at the summit could support liberalisation on the domestic level, too. The Posts' preference for selective engagement and loud criticism would achieve neither.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gemma I Jere


 By Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow and Chloe Hickey-Jones, Intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • The 2016 Australasian Aid Conference is on this week in Canberra. The conference brings together a host of researchers from Asia, Australia and the Pacific who explore aid and development issues in the region. Selected plenary sessions and keynotes will be live streamed. Check out the full program here.
  • Formerly thought of as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has declared a state of emergency due to severe food and water shortages from the ongoing drought caused by El Nino. Critics believe that it is a combination of the severe weather patterns and lasting effects of land reforms introduced by President Mugabe in 2000 that have resulted in food shortages. El Nino is wreaking havoc across Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia.
  • The World Bank turns 70 this year. Michael Clemens reviews two papers,'The New Role of the World Bank' and 'The World Bank: Why it is still Needed and Why it still Disappoints', that consider the changing role of the Bank and its relevance.
  • Related to this, specialists from The World Bank have a crash course for NGOs to measure their impact.
  • The World Bank also has nifty data visuals via Tumblr collecting all of the amazing websites out there using big data to visualise the fight against poverty.
  • The Guardian has released a picture series talking to the women of Somaliland, where an estimated 98% of girls endure Female Genital Mutilation.
  • As concerns over the Zika Virus outbreak mount, experts across the globe urge that this will not be an 'Ebola 2.0'. Why? Two reasons: 1. The virus' mode of transmission and 2. Government response locally, regionally and internationally has been far swifter than during the Ebola outbreak. Continual surveillance and adaptable, multi-level responses will be required in 2016 to contain and manage the Zika Virus.
  • Duncan Green returns from his brief digital hiatus with a whimsical critique of the Beatles' song Revolution written by John Lennon: 


Cuba, I recently discovered, is a highly popular destination. The US and Cuba have restored their diplomatic relations, and in January Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was crammed with European and Canadian tourists. It is just as charming as you would expect from the travel magazines, and just as unreal.

Habano Centro (central Havana) provided a more accurate reflection of the country: magnificent colonial buildings in severe decay, barefoot kids playing football, obvious poverty, the occasional working girl in a doorway, a miserable communist-era supermarket selling one product from each category.

Music was the common theme in both parts of the city. Salsa blares from windows. African beats blast from the ubiquitous vintage cars. Cuban jazz rises up to your hotel room and fends off sleep. Cubans boogie on the street corner. The food is not great, but sometimes the waiters shake their hips as they present you with it.

If Old Havana sometimes feels like a Hollywood set, there are still moments when you realise you are in a communist state. At one point a troop of Cuban soldiers appeared in the street in their distinctive uniforms and caps. My request to take their photograph was denied, but I snatched a sneaky shot from my hotel window.

On another occasion, I asked a senior Cuban diplomat what he thought of North Korea. He replied that the North Koreans are good friends: 'we are both on the road to socialism, even if we are taking different routes'.

I stayed at Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana – Ernest Hemingway's accommodations, where he lived on and off for a number of years, supposedly with a number of different women.

By chance, I was staying in the room next to his. The advantage of this situation was a nice view eastwards towards Plaza de Armas (the best place in town to buy revolutionary kitsch) and Morro Castle, the Spanish-era fort that guards the entrance to Havana harbour. This is the same view Hemingway enjoyed while he wrote several of his novels. The disadvantage was the crowd of foreign tourists always to be found lingering outside my door waiting for a tour of Hemingway's room. They always seemed disappointed when I emerged into the corridor, rather than Papa.

Apart from tourists wanting to visit Hemingway's digs, Hotel Ambos Mundos also attracted groups of people wanting to access the internet.

Public internet access in Cuba is only accessible via WiFi hotspots at big hotels and offices of the national telco. Cubans have to buy a card for one hour's use at a cost of several days' wages. Whether due to malign intent or incompetence, the service is unbelievably bad. I don't think the Cuban government needs to worry about anyone fomenting counter-revolution online: by the time they come up with a good slogan, the WiFi will have dropped out. Personally I gave up trying to access the internet while I was in Cuba.

The regime leans heavily on the iconography of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl (who currently serves as president) and their fellow revolutionary Che Guevara. The Museo de la Revolución (Revolutionary Museum) in Havana is full of relics of the Cuban revolution. These include the Granma, the vessel that took the revolutionary leaders from Tuxpan in southern Mexico to Santiago de Cuba, the country's old historical capital; parts of an American U-2 spy plane and the Soviet anti-aircraft missile-type that brought it down; and old jeeps driven by Fidel.

There are also relics of more dubious provenance, for example a coin that Raúl supposedly left at a farmhouse and boots that various revolutionaries wore in the jungle. The revolutionary forces were remarkably well organised to identify, retrieve and store all these artifacts while they were fighting a guerilla war.

Everywhere in Havana there are holy pictures of Che – handsome, hirsute and Christ-like. I couldn't resist a picture with a mural of Che outside the Terminal Sierra Maestra, the old shipping terminal. The Revolutionary Museum contains the stretcher on which Che's corpse was carried when he was killed in Bolivia. Tourists stood silently before the stretcher like it was the Shroud of Turin.

The Museum also has a picture of Fidel sitting in a tank during the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The caption on the photograph indicates that Fidel personally fired the shell that disabled the US vessel the Houston. What a shot!

Fidel often achieved superhuman performances in fields in which he was not expert. At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, there was a picture of Fidel and Hemingway at a fishing competition, holding several trophies between them. The guide informed us solemnly that Fidel won all the cups but generously gave one to Hemingway (who was no mean fisherman) as a keepsake.


Following the stunning success of Thomas Piketty's door-stop book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Robert Gordon has consolidated his recent writings into a 600-page tome: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, that argues America's 150-year run of rapid economic advance is over. If Piketty worried about the rich getting all the benefits of growth, Gordon argues that the growth we have all become accustomed to will largely disappear. No longer will it be true that each American generation will have double the income of their parents.

This dramatic change reflects an economy facing a number of what Gordon likes to call 'headwinds', of which slower technological progress is the most interesting part of Gordon's story. He argues the application of technology provided dramatic improvements in living standards between 1870 and 1970 but now the low-hanging fruit have all been picked.

The sheer heft of Gordon's book does bring to mind the comment, attributed variously to King George III or Henry, Duke of Gloucester, made upon receiving a volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 'Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?' If 600 pages provide more than you want to know, an 18 minute TED talk gives the essence of Gordon's argument.

The case he makes is a powerful one. It holds the IT revolution has been less important than the five great advances of the pre-1970 century: electricity, the internal combustion engine, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, urban sewerage, and modern communications. He illustrates this by contrasting the WC toilet with the iPhone. If society was forced to choose between these two inventions, which has been more life-changing?

Of course there are counter-arguments: some would make the case the IT revolution is far from over; others might contend medicine is making stunning breakthroughs, with much further potential; and there are plenty who think the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution has a long way to go, for good or evil. Others hope that virtual reality and cars that drive themselves will change our lives. Paul Krugman has a good review of Gordon here

Gordon is not, of course, the first economist to focus on slow growth. Proponents of the dismal science have been worried about the 'stationary state' ever since Malthus. The big difference is that a stationary state in today's America would be more pleasant than Malthus' subsistence-level wage. Nor is Gordon the first to doubt the transformational nature of the IT revolution. In 1987 Robert Solow famously said: 'You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics'. Paul Krugman published The Age of Diminished Expectations more than twenty years ago. 

Let's not be too glum. Maybe it is time for those of us in the mature economies to accept that we are already producing enough things and switch focus onto correcting income distribution (one of Gordon's 'headwinds'), making sure everyone gets a good education (another 'headwind') and putting less strain on nature and the climate. But the adaptation to diminished expectations will not be easy, especially at the political level. There are some big implications for foreign relations as well.

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In any case, this discussion is America-centred, (as Gordon's title makes clear). Rather than be downcast by the prospect of slower growth in the mature economies, we should take Gordon's fascinating account of the power of transformational technology as a reminder of the enormous potential which the poor and emerging economies have to lift their living standards through convergence. This would be accomplished by applying well-tested existing technology which is not yet being used in these poorer countries. We can all agree that piped water, flushing toilets and electricity were fundamental to lifting us out of pre-1900 poverty. But much of the world still doesn't have these. Almost half the Indian population has no toilet at home, and maybe not at school either. In Indonesia, only 20% of the population has piped water (and only the brave would drink it without treatment). Only 1% have sewerage. Indonesia's per capita electricity consumption is just over 5% of America's.

Much of the rest of the world faces a different (and more rewarding) challenge; how to put in place technological advances which have been ubiquitous in industrial countries for a couple of generations. There is a huge literature on why this technological potential has not yet been harnessed. The pessimists on this debate (the nay-sayers of the 'middle-income trap' being the current vogue) ought to read Gordon's book and then tell us what stands in the way of this technology being applied widely over the next decade or two.


The week kicked off with Aaron Connelly writing about the power transition in Myanmar, something last attempted in 1990:  

Few people in Myanmar think that the military will seek to prevent a transfer of power along the lines prescribed in the constitution, a document they wrote to protect their interests even in the event of an NLD landslide like the one that occurred in November. But no one in the NLD wants to say anything that would either give the military cause to reconsider or, perhaps more critically, that would attract the ire of their leader.

Fellow Myanmar expert Andrew Selth outlined the history of the institutional rivalry between the army and police:

Such problems are much less likely in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw is still the country's most powerful institution, it commands the lion's share of the budget and, under the 2008 constitution, the Minister of Home Affairs is always a serving army officer. Also, the expansion of the MPF is being achieved in part through transfers from the armed forces. The chief of police and about 10% of MPF officers are former military personnel.

That said, the MPF is trying to develop its own ethos and esprit de corps. Police officers are being encouraged to see themselves as separate from the armed forces, with different responsibilities requiring different methods. If the force is able to develop independently, and receives reasonable budget allocations, then serious tensions between the Tatmadaw and MPF can be avoided. However, any obvious intrusion into police affairs by members of the armed forces could cause tensions. 

Leon Berkelmans struck the opposite tone from Steven Grenville this week on Japan's negative interest rates:

The biggest problem with negative rates is political. People hate the idea, and they are not shy of coming forward with their views. That was made very clear to me in responses triggered by a piece I wrote over a year ago. Unfortunately the comments section is no longer up, but there were some strongly worded statements. One of my favourites was: 'This is an example of why one shouldn't take drugs before publishing articles.'

Indonesia's de-radicalisation plans need an update, particularly for those in detention, says Cameron Sumpter:

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Yet research has shown processes of radicalisation are wide-ranging and involve social and emotional forces that are often antecedent to the adoption of an ideological framework, which in many cases is only partially understood anyway.

Factors such as the pursuit of status or personal significance, the comraderie of belonging to an underground network, the desire for revenge or adventure, and the adolescent development of identity have all been identified as recurring themes. Ideology may facilitate these processes, but it's not necessarily the source of motivation for initial involvement. 

Peter Cai looked at Asia's oldest political party, the KMT, after its electoral defeat in Taiwan:

In 2014, I interviewed Sean Chen, a senior adviser to outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou and a former premier, who said the Party must localise in Taiwan for its own survival but at the same time, it must also aim for a higher goal such as serving a broader Chinese community. His answer illustrates the KMT's dilemma, caught between its Chinese roots and rising Taiwanese consciousness.

Japan unveiled the prototype of its next-generation stealth fighter, but this is a significant accomplishment, says Richard Bitzinger:

If successful, the ADT-X/F-3 could shift the centre of gravity in the fighter jet industry from the North Atlantic closer to the Asia-Pacific. If Japan decided to market this fighter to overseas customers — increasingly likely, as Tokyo is quietly watering down its near-total arms export ban — then the F-3 could seriously challenge the West's predominance in this highly lucrative business sector. That, however, depends on the cosmic alignment of a great many technological, economic and political factors, a 'harmonic convergence' that is hardly assured. Japan, despite all its advantages, will continue to struggle in building and maintaining a state-of-the-art aerospace industry.

Michael Raska wrote on the recent announcements from Beijing regarding reforms to the PLA:

Ultimately, the key question is this: will the reforms in the PLA's organisational force structure will be reflected in its operational conduct, particularly in the PLA's capabilities to exploit cyber-kinetic strategic interactions in its regional power projection, as well as responses in potential crises and security flashpoints in East Asia?

On one hand, China's political and military elites believe that a new wave of the global Revolution in Military Affairsis gathering pace, led principally by the US, and China must therefore accelerate the pace of its military development. Internally, however, the reforms are designed primarily to close the PLA's inter-service rivalries, interoperability gaps and the dominance of the ground forces.

The Zika Virus won't be the next Ebola crisis, says Allira Attwill. The international community has learned some lessons:

The second failure was unique to the region. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola, and Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, have noted that WHO's Regional Office in Africa (WHO-AFRO), which should be the WHO's strongest regional office, given the breadth and depth of health challenges in the region, suffers from longstanding problems around capacity, and because of its location (Brazzaville), it struggles to attract the quantity and quality of talent and leadership it needs.

The final (and possibly most palpable) failure occurred at the international level.

Nick Bisley thinks Australia should carefully consider whether or not to conduct its own freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea:

Undertaking a FONOP is fraught with risk, both in narrow operational terms as well as in the broader sense that it would increase the strategic temperature in the region. A FONOP informed by ill-thought-out notions of pushing back on China and lacking a larger vision of the complex realities of Asia's changing international environment would only contribute to growing military tension in the region. Alongside careful planning about a possible military exercise, Canberra should also be undertaking extensive diplomatic efforts to work with other non-claimant states, both US allies and non-allies, to lower the temperature in the South China Sea and to begin a conversation about the difficult steps we need to take to ensure Asia enjoys a regional order that is not dominated a militarised Sino-American rivalry.

Also this week Euan Graham talked about Australian defence engagement in the Pacific:

It is in this context that Canberra needs to re-evaluate its defence engagement in the region, not simply as a capacity-building adjunct to development assistance, but in support of strategic Australia's interests. The Pacific Maritime Security Program, incorporating the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) initiative, is the most important engagement instrument of all, currently operating across 12 countries: Papua New Guinea (PNG), Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands. Prospects for Timor Leste joining the program are delicately poised. Right now this appears to be hostage to bilateral frictions in a further reflection of Canberra's wavering influence in the neighbourhood.

Several attempts to indict Malaysia's Prime Minister on corruption have failed, writes James Chin:

According to The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist and the like, Najib is 'disastrous’ for Malaysia. The Western media cannot comprehend how Najib can stay in power when it is ‘clear’ that ‘corruption’ has taken place, with huge and unexplained sums of money ending up in Najib’s personal bank account in Malaysia. The story is even more compelling when you take into account the dramatic sacking of the deputy prime minister, another senior minister from Sabah, and the attorney-general. The first two were known to be critics of Najib’s role in 1MDB. The attorney-general was replaced when he tried to charge Najib for corruption. 

Is there a 'great game' occurring in Southeast Asia over railways? Julian Snelder:

So battalions of bulldozers will cross the Laotian border soon to lay the key link in the Pan-Asia grid. Via Kunming, Beijing is offering its neighbours the gift of connection into its mighty domestic rail system. Francis Fukuyama marvels at this projection of the 'China model', which must necessarily be lubricated with a great deal of concessionary money. To paraphrase Archimedes, give me a financial lever long enough and I can cover the entire world with railways. Friendly ASEAN states are happy to access China's construction excellence and its fantastically cheap money. Spurning such an opportunity would be an act of geopolitical independence, defiance even. In Asia, not all railroads lead to Beijing, but most do.

Crispin Rovere reported on the results from Iowa:

For Republicans, a Cruz win in Iowa was essential for any candidate not named Trump, and Rubio’s impressive showing guarantees a drawn out primary race. But, despite the Rubio surprise, the Iowa result aligns closely with expectations, solidifying Trump’s position as the GOP frontrunner and likely nominee.

On the Democrat side, Clinton’s aura of inevitability was punctured but she held her position. The closeness of the Iowa race suggests it is by no means over for Sanders, and he will enjoy a honeymoon in media coverage. Yet Sanders must now achieve a truly dominating victory in New Hampshire if he’s to be competitive in South Carolina. Clinton is still the frontrunner.

Vanuata may get a new start from its snap election last week, says Anna Naupa:

Only 18 of the 52 MPs elected are incumbents, and the election results attest to an emerging new political profile for MPs, with a number of reform-minded former senior public servants set to take their seats in the new parliament. This presents an opportunity for a more robust national policy debate at the highest level. With several of these ‘new’ politicians elected under an independent or small party banner, the direction of reforms and allegiances will not be known until parliament sits on 11 February. Training of the new MPs will need to be a priority for the Vanuatu's 11th legislature.

Several European countries are proposing different plans to address refugee migration to the continent, something that may lead to more turmoil, writes Daniel Woker:

Sweden, often viewed as a paragon of an open and humanitarian country, has just announced it will transport about half of the 150, 000 refugees it received last year back to where they came from. 'Back to where?' one is tempted to ask, given African countries routinely refuse to issue papers to refugees in Europe, let alone allowing them to return. Sweden will no doubt find that massive financial assistance, with generous sums allocated to grease the acceptation machinery, will be required if such desperate measures to resettle denied migrants and thus prevent xenophobic backlash at home are to succeed.

Secretary of State John Kerry had a largely unsuccessful visit to Beijing last week. Kerry Brown:

Kerry's visit shows that ambiguity about Chinese views of America’s role in the region remains as strong as ever. When it suits China, it continues to want the US. But Beijing also resents Washington, accepts it in some areas, and rejects it in others.

The new model of major-power relations Xi has talked about since 2014 so far remains largely rhetorical, with little new real diplomatic content. On the South China Sea, on North Korea, and on Taiwan and cross-Strait relations, there has been no radical break with the past under Xi. Views of the US remain much as they were under his predecessors: as a power half envied and half disliked. Kerry’s visit did little if anything to shift that ambiguity.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brookes.


One tragic dimension of the conflict spanning Iraq and Syria has been the damage done to some of the world's most precious cultural heritage. However, geospatial mapping and geographic information technologies are  giving cause for hope.

On 20 January, the Associated Press published satellite images showing that ISIS extremists had destroyed Dair Mar Elia, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. Named after Saint Elijah, the monastery overlooked the city of Mosul for over 1400 years. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ's name, were carved near the entrance. The satellite images indicate that the site had been demolished in late 2014, yet another example of the systematic destruction of sites containing spiritual, cultural and religious significance.

Unfortunately, the destruction could not be definitively confirmed until a year later. In future this may not be the case, with significant advancements in the use of satellites and geographic information systems to monitor and measure damage to cultural heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.

In June last year, UNESCO and UNITAR (the UN Institute for Training and Research) signed an agreement to protect cultural and natural heritage sites by using geospatial mapping technologies. The technologies come under the purview of UNITAR's Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. On 19 January, UNOSAT released a damage-assessment LIVE map of Iraq, using information from satellites located over the cities of Ramadi and Sinjar. The map showed damage levels on buildings and industrial facilities, as well as crater impacts.

The strength of these tools is that they can provide accessible and precise resources to countries where ground access is limited or restricted. By analysing these resources, changes to the landscape are immediately detectable and cultural heritage sites located near the conflict can be more thoroughly appraised.

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Public and private sector collaboration

There is growing collaboration between public and private groups involved in geospatial mapping. For example, Oxford archaeologist Robert Bewley has been leading an endangered archaeology documentation project called EAMENA. The project, which has close links to the government of Jordan, already has a large database of archaeological sites spanning from Mauritania to Iran. Another project is Map Action, a UK-based humanitarian organisation that deploys mapping and information-management teams around the world to collect field data during humanitarian emergencies. Map Action recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the UNOSAT program.

Other organisations are supplementing satellite imagery with other new technologies. For example, the Million Image Database uses digital imaging and 3D printing techniques to crowd-source research data on cultural heritage. Coordinated by scientists at Oxford University, Harvard, and Dubai's Museum of the Future, the project also has support from the UAE government. A similar non-profit called CyArk scans heritage objects, from small artifacts to landmarks, with the aim of building an online 3D library of cultural heritage sites and documenting objects before they are lost through natural disaster or conflict, and potentially creating records to facilitate reconstruction.


The ISIS conflict is complex, with discord between Shia and Sunni groups, Arab and Persian groups, paramilitaries, and a variety of other politically motivated rebel groups. Yet there is a diverse collaborative international community focused on monitoring the cultural heritage in the region.  As the pre-eminent international organisation on world heritage, it remains to be seen how easily UNESCO will be able to coordinate a crisis response amid the conflict. UNESCO's collaboration with UNITAR and UNOSAT has the potential to propel it to a more authoritative position in protecting cultural heritage in conflict, but it will be an uphill battle to coordinate and centralise policies.

The use of satellite imagery analysis and geospatial technologies in monitoring cultural heritage within conflict is proving to be an area of progress. The technologies, and the organisations developing them, will hopefully be able to go some way towards preventing another tragedy like that of Dair Mar Elia. It is widely accepted that heritage and culture play a prominent role in national reconciliation. By investing in monitoring solutions now, future peace processes in the region will be made easier.


The recent outbreak of Zika virus and its spread to 23 countries — mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean — has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). On 1 February 2016 Director-General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, called for a coordinated international response to improve Zika surveillance and detection, the control of mosquitoes and to expedite development of diagnostic tools and vaccines to protect people at risk.

WHO estimates there are currently 500,000 to 1.5 million cases of Zika in the Americas. Cases have also been reported in the US, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, each the result of recent travel to Latin America or the Caribbean. However, only one in five patients experience symptoms, and even then, symptoms are relatively mild; characterised by a fever, rash and conjunctivitis lasting for two to seven days.

While it has not been confirmed, experts agree that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly — a condition in which a baby's head is abnormally small, causing incomplete brain development — is very likely. Also of concern is the probable link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disorder which causes muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. 

Zika is predominantly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito in tropical regions, the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. It can also be transmitted via blood transfusions and on 3 February, a case of sexually transmitted Zika was reported in Dallas, Texas. Only one other case of sexually transmitted Zika has ever been recorded.

In the worst affected area, about 1% of newborns have suspected microcephaly. Brazil has reported 4000 cases of microcephaly since October 2015, 400 were confirmed and only 17 were linked to Zika. Despite the small number of confirmed cases, and the even smaller number directly linked to Zika, this still represents a sharp increase since 2014, when only 150 babies were born with microcephaly in the country.

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GBS — the other, less publicised Zika-related concern — is also rare. However, Jimmy Whitworth from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that even if GBS occurs in only 1 per 10,000 or 1 per 100,000 cases of Zika, and if the WHO's prediction of 4 million cases by the end of 2016 is correct, a significant increase in GBS can be expected. 

The facts and figures of Zika, although concerning, show that it will not be 'Ebola 2.0', as it has been labelled. This is partly to do with the virus' mode of transmission. The Aedis mosquito circulates only in tropical and sub-tropical climates, and is therefore unlikely to spread to cooler climates and will likely reduce in incidence in cooler months.

But the reasons why Zika is not Ebola 2.0 are also contextual. During the Ebola outbreak, failures occurred which do not apply to the situation with Zika. These failures came at three levels: national, regional and international.

At a national level, governments failed (or at least, their surveillance mechanisms failed) to sound the alarm in a timely manner. The first Ebola case was a two-year old boy in a remote jungle region of southern Guinea in December 2013. However, due to inadequate health and surveillance systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ebola was not diagnosed until March 2014. Sierra Leone's Government claimed not to need assistance – they could control the spread of the virus with checkpoints and awareness campaigns. 

The second failure was unique to the region. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola, and Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, have noted that WHO's Regional Office in Africa (WHO-AFRO), which should be the WHO's strongest regional office, given the breadth and depth of health challenges in the region, suffers from longstanding problems around capacity, and because of its location (Brazzaville), it struggles to attract the quantity and quality of talent and leadership it needs.

The final (and possibly most palpable) failure occurred at the international level.

This failure did not emerge from a lack of will, rather it was the product of a resource-constrained organisation with its eyes firmly on the non-communicable disease epidemic. In a ten-day period between May-June 2014, Guinea and Sierra Leone recorded 150 new Ebola infections, bringing the cumulative total to 440 cases. This rightly alarmed officials at WHO-AFRO, who contacted the WHO Secretariat in Geneva recommending a PHEIC be declared. The true failure lies in the delayed response. The emergency committee did not meet until 7 August 2014, and on 8 August recommended to the Director General that a declaration of a PHEIC was justified.

Return now to 2016: the world is fixated on Zika, wondering if it will be 'Ebola 2.0'. But it won't be, partly because of its mode of transmission, partly because Zika is unfolding in a post-Ebola world, but mainly because Latin America is not West Africa. Health systems are largely stronger and governments better able to deal with public health emergencies (a particular priority with the 2016 Olympic Games around the corner). Also, PAHO  (WHO's Regional Office for the Americas) is not WHO-AFRO (and in any case, if Zika was unfolding in Africa, WHO-AFRO's response would benefit from the Ebola experience), and the WHO is much better prepared, cautious and eager to show the world that it can be what we need it to be: a true leader in global health. 

The international community's thorough and swift handling of Zika suggests that governments and the WHO learned from the devastation caused by Ebola.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Agência Brasília.


The picture of Sunakim (alias Afif) reloading his gun while manoeuvring with an expression of menacing intent will be an enduring image of the Jakarta attack in mid-January.

Having served five years of a seven-year sentence for attending a jihadi training camp in northern Sumatra in 2010, the West Java native was released from prison less than six months before his involvement in the deadly assault in Central Jakarta.

Remissions for good behaviour are common in the Indonesian justice system, though according to a former prison-mate, Afif had pledged allegiance to ISIS, refused to participate in prison programs (including communal prayer sessions) and was known to have struggled with anger issues.

This failure to recognise warning signs has put a spotlight on Indonesia's efforts to manage convicted extremists, and the Government recently announced that it plans to boost funding for so-called prison-based 'de-radicalisation' programs. But where are existing efforts focused, and how would extra resources best be spent?

The blueprint

Initiatives to engage with incarcerated extremists have been operating ad hoc for over a decade in Indonesia, though the first attempt to institutionalise a project came in 2013, when the national De-radicalisation Blueprint was published by the National Counterterrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penaggulangan Terorisme, BNPT).

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The 122-page booklet outlined the agency's strategy for reforming prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences, and presented the task as an ideological struggle with a strategy incorporating four stages. 

First, the identification phase is meant to involve collecting data and determining each prisoner's level of ideological commitment. This is followed by a process of rehabilitation, which aims to 'develop moderate understandings and attitudes' among prisoners and their families, so they 'become inclusive, peaceful, and tolerant' citizens. 

The somewhat Orwellian sounding re-education stage is next and seeks 'transformations of thought, understanding and attitudes', yet the description of the process is largely identical to that of the rehabilitation stage. 

Finally, re-socialisation aims to reintegrate prisoners with society upon the completion of their sentence, which also comprises lengthy duplications from the previous two stages, but highlights the need to involve communities to 'remove suspicion and fear on one hand and develop empathy and mutual respect on the other hand'.

Arguing away ideology

The Blueprint suggests the inclusion of vocational training and the promotion of personal development, but the priority appears firmly placed on a 'persuasive approach' whereby 'discussion and dialogue' attempt to alter the mind-set of prisoners. 

Yet research has shown processes of radicalisation are wide-ranging and involve social and emotional forces that are often antecedent to the adoption of an ideological framework, which in many cases is only partially understood anyway.

Factors such as the pursuit of status or personal significance, the comraderie of belonging to an underground network, the desire for revenge or adventure, and the adolescent development of identity have all been identified as recurring themes. Ideology may facilitate these processes, but it's not necessarily the source of motivation for initial involvement. 

A problem with targeting ideology during interventions is the likelihood of backlash. Kurt Braddock has drawn upon Psychological Reactance Theory (first developed by Jack Brehm in the 1960s) to describe how persuasion-based de-radicalisation efforts can prove counterproductive, as participants may entrench their positions in the face of a threat to their perceived autonomy. 

Changing behaviour

Instead of challenging ideas, some practitioners endorse approaches centred on behaviour. Such interventions are seen as more likely to bring positive change because they focus on practical issues such as promoting constructive life goals and reducing negative emotions. 

One respondent in a study conducted last year by Zora Sukabdi on rehabilitating extremists in Indonesian prisons appeared to support this theory: 'Changing our heart and love for Allah and jihad is impossible, but changing our behaviour so we stop bombing is possible, in fact we can'.

Personalised projects and effective management

Interventions need to be targeted appropriately to make this approach effective. The 2013 Blueprint stated that its identification phase sought to pinpoint the individual circumstance of each prisoner, yet the little available information about how programs are actually run suggests that broad brush strokes have been applied more often than personalised engagement.

This point was even raised by a participant in Sukabdi's research: '…the brothers cannot be all counselled in the same way. We are all different . . . It is ridiculous that all brothers are ask [sic] to be waiters or cooks, it does not match their talent, it is a waste of money'.

Inmate management is also a crucial issue. Integrating extremists with the general prison population throws them into a pool of potential recruits, while segregating problematic prisoners may result in the closing of ranks and devising of plans. This is clearly a difficult dilemma, but through the creation of detailed case files on each prisoner, workable combinations may be ascertained to mitigate the predicament and to ensure that specific interventions are suitably targeted.

Securing release

Equally important is the establishment of a workable risk assessment tool for evaluating prisoners prior to release. In 2012, the Indonesian Government introduced Regulation 99/2012, which stipulates that prisoners convicted of terrorism must pledge loyalty to the state of Indonesia before securing release. This has created resentment among prisoners, who have reacted by either refusing to partake in programs, or by simply signing it with no intention of remaining loyal, as was most probably the case for Sunakim as he negotiated his way to freedom.

In 2011, a team from Corrective Services New South Wales assisted the Indonesian Corrections Directorate with implementing the promising VERA-2 risk assessment system, which involves a comprehensive set of indicators to measure the likelihood of recidivism. The program appeared to collapse in 2013 and a robust system of prisoner evaluation is yet to be established. 

A viable procedure that assesses risk can inform the extent to which released prisoners need to be monitored, another area that is clearly lacking in Indonesia. Sunakim and his three accomplices reportedly all visited the influential ideologue Aman Abdurrahman at his maximum security prison in December 2015. This meeting may not have happened if an appropriate management plan for released prisoners had been in place. 

Added resources

The BNPT is allegedly in the process of updating its De-radicalisation Blueprint, which could be released in the coming month or so. While it is tempting to target individual ideological fervour and believe that arguing away radical views will stop the violence, prison-based interventions may meet more success if they focus more on constructive post-release aspirations. But these will need to be individually targeted.

Funding does not appear to have been a primary concern for the BNPT, but additional resources would be useful if they ensured detailed prisoner profiles are established, an effective pre-release risk assessment strategy is operationalised and that those who are released are monitored appropriately.

Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images


The Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT suffered a crushing electoral defeat in January, losing both the presidency and its parliamentary majority. Some in the party believe the result is their worst since they lost mainland China to the communists more than six decades ago.

The KMT, the oldest, once most powerful and richest political party in Asia, faces an existential crisis. There is even serious discussion going on inside the party about dropping the prefix 'Chinese' from the party name. Take a deep breath and think about this: it is tantamount to American Republicans discussing the possibility of disowning Lincoln and Australian Liberals ditching Menzies.

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Taipei. (Flickr/Matthew Stinson.)

The KMT is suffering from its historical legacy. It was founded by Dr Sun Yat-sen more than 123 years ago in Hawaii as a revolutionary party with the avowed goal of overthrowing China's last imperial dynasty. Since it lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949, it has regarded itself as the exile government of Free China on Taiwan.

It imposed brutal martial laws on the island in the name of fighting the Communist insurgents and made it a criminal offence to advocate for Taiwanese independence. For years, the party has emphasised traditional Chinese values, and school children have been taught about Chinese history and geography.

But the tide is turning against the KMT's historical Chinese roots. the vast majority of islanders see themselves as Taiwanese now, with only a small and dying cohort of people still believing in eventual reunification with the mainland.

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In 2014, I interviewed Sean Chen, a senior adviser to outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou and a former premier, who said the Party must localise in Taiwan for its own survival but at the same time, it must also aim for a higher goal such as serving a broader Chinese community. His answer illustrates the KMT's dilemma, caught between its Chinese roots and rising Taiwanese consciousness.

The KMT is also losing its once strong grip on the cross-Strait issue, which is the biggest political issue in Taiwan and traditionally one of the KMT's key political strengths. The Democratic Progress Party (DPP) under president-elect Dr Tsai Ying-wen seems more moderate and pragmatic on managing the cross-Strait relationship.

Changing perceptions of the mainland (from business opportunity to economic threat) are also robbing the KMT of its political appeal. More and more Taiwanese people see China as a threat rather an opportunity. For years, the Taiwanese business community has made a fortune on the mainland from selling everything from computer chips to instant noodles. An estimated 1.5 million Taiwanese are working and living in China now. But it is getting harder for people to do business on the mainland as China's economy matures. The young generation of Taiwanese see mainland China not only as a menace to their security but also an economic threat. That is why thousands of young people occupied the parliament in March 2014 to protest against the services agreement with mainland China.

But the KMT still seems wedded to the idea that economic integration with the mainland is good policy. These policies do make economic and business sense, but are not politically feasible. Sean Chen's attitude is typical of KMT's technocratic elites: he said 'many economies in the world are in the process of integrating with mainland China. If it is unavoidable, we must take the challenge head-on'.

The electoral fortunes of the KMT have also been undermined by generational change in Taiwan. The strongest supporters of the party are aged 50 to 70. They experienced Taiwan's high speed growth in the 1970s and 80s, and many still remember former president Chiang Ching Kuo fondly. These generations received a strongly nationalist Chinese education and are more likely to identify themselves as Chinese as well as Taiwanese.

However, the younger generation of voters received a more Taiwan-focused education, and many don't have any romantic or sentimental attachment to mainland China. This is even true for children of KMT officials and soldiers who fled to Taiwan after 1949. The stale KMT compares poorly to the dynamic DPP, which is much better organised in attracting younger voters.

All these trends point to a bleak future for Asia's oldest political party. If it cannot reinvent itself as a conservative pro-business party, it faces political irrelevance. KMT leaders need to think hard about their Chinese roots and legacy, but most importantly they have find a compelling new narrative to win over Taiwan's voters again.