Lowy Institute

Gough Whitlam with Hu Jintao in September 2007. (REUTERS/Will Burgess.)

Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Murray McLean began his association with Asia in the early 1970s when he was a language student in Hong Kong, from where he played a small part in then-Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam's groundbreaking 1971 visit to China. In 1973 he was posted to Beijing with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and he also served in Shanghai as well as heading DFAT's North Asia Division.

So there's no one better qualified to discuss the legacy of former Prime Minister Whitlam, who passed away this morning.

I talked with Murray McLean this morning, and as you will hear, he argues that Whitlam established the basis for a fully independent Australian foreign policy, setting relations with Asia on a truly equal basis while also tenaciously defending the ANZUS alliance. McLean provides some wonderful historical detail from the early 1970s, when not only Australia but the US, Canada and others were re-thinking their relations with China. When we chatted after the interview, he recommended this 2012 essay by Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to Beijing, on Whitlam's historic 1971 visit.

  • The Myanmar Government announced a much needed funding boost of US$5 million  to deal with the country's HIV epidemic. In 2013 there were 190,000 people living with HIV; only a third were receiving treatment. The Ministry of Health  also received US$11.5 million to fight drug-resistant tuberculosis.  Concerns remain for a dramatic rise in  drug-resistant malaria.
  • What will Southeast Asia look like in 2035? Wikistrat, a crowdsourced analytical community, ran a 60-analyst simulation and found these potential futures.
  • Vietnamese and Chinese minsters of defence (and a healthy entourage) meet; Carl Thayer explains its immense significance.
  • The UK summoned  a Thai diplomat this week (see summons here),  but Thai PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha says his diplomat wasn't summoned and that the UK was just  'confused'.
  • Prayuth's approval rating came in this week at an unbelievably high 93%.
  • Myanmar is on a non-proliferation roll, writes David Santoro. And why not, when the rewards are so big: Myanmar will hit its full year FDI target in first six months of 2014-15.
  • A top ten list of must-reads on ‚Ä™Cambodia. (H/t Milton.)
  • Former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia Bill Farmer  writes on bilateral relations under Jokowi.
  • An Indonesian suicide bomber, 26-year-old Ridwan from Solo, was the latest Southeast Asian ISIS fighter killed in Syria. In better news,  Abu Sayyaf released its two German hostages amid claims of a ransom payment.

The hashtag  #presidenjokowi was a worldwide trending topic on social media yesterday as Indonesia welcomed its new president, Joko Widodo, who is better known as Jokowi. Driving this trend were the enthusiastic netizens of Jakarta, one of the world's most active Twitter cities. Crowds filled the main street, Jalan Sudirman, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newly inaugurated president or, even better, a selfie with his motorcade.

Jokowi was sworn in as Indonesia's seventh president at the House of Representatives before midday. After making an inaugural speech that pushed the limits of maritime metaphors, President Jokowi and his Vice President Jusuf Kalla set sail through a sea of supporters crowding Jalan Sudirman, the Presidential Palace and the grounds of the National Monument, where a public concert was scheduled for the evening. The event was billed as a 'people's parade', with catering provided by an association of street food vendors handing out free snacks.

With sizable crowds joining celebrations in the midday heat, it would appear that many Jakartans have forgiven Jokowi for cutting short his term as governor of the city to run for president. Attendees ranged from office workers to bus drivers and street cleaners, as well as volunteers for Jokowi's presidential campaign who had waited more than three months to publicly celebrate the victory. The motorcade travelled past kilometers of construction work, where the city's long-awaited mass transportation system is moving ahead under the new governor, Jokowi's former deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

The peaceful celebrations are a sign of acceptance by supporters of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, and, hopefully, a sign of a peaceful and constructive term ahead for Jokowi as president. However, with only a minority in the House of Representatives against Prabowo's bulky coalition, Jokowi will have to do more than win the hearts of the people to succeed in making significant changes as president.

Below are some shots from the people's parade and celebrations at the National Monument on Monday.

Read More


The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Roberto Azevedo, says the institution has descended into 'paralysis'. 

Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Roberto Azevedo, Bali, 2013.

Following the failure to get India to remove its objection to advancing the deal on trade facilitation that was struck at the Bali WTO meeting in December 2013, Azevedo recently told the WTO membership:

This could be the most serious situation that this organisation has ever faced. I am not warning you today about a potentially dangerous situation – I am saying that we are in it right now.

The Bali agreement, which was the first of its kind achieved by the WTO in its history, was seen as breathing life into the organisation and its ability to advance multilateral trade negotiations. At the heart of the Bali deal was trade facilitation; reducing red tape and streamlining customs procedures. The Bali agreement went down to the wire, with India opposed until its concerns over food stockpiling were resolved. A deal was eventually struck on the basis that India's concerns would be resolved by 2017.

Multilateralism seemed to be alive.

Read More

However, India indicated in July that it would not support the trade facilitation deal because insufficient attention had been given to resolving its concerns over food stockpiling. India now says there has to be a permanent solution to food stockpiling before trade facilitation progresses. The WTO's General Council, its executive branch, meets on 21 October to again consider the issue. One Geneva-based diplomat has said that the WTO will enter into an 'existential crisis' if there is no resolution to this impasse, with the consequences 'too heavy' to contemplate. The EU ambassador to the WTO said:

What is at stake is not only our ability to reach agreements, but also to implement what has been agreed. There should be no mistake, the current stalemate will have consequences on the WTO and the multilateral system.

The deadlock over the trade facilitation package is paralysing the WTO. The Bali agreement included measures to benefit less developed countries, and these are also being held up. Importantly, the future work of the WTO is in limbo. Immediately following the Bali deal, when there was a renewed sense of confidence, WTO trade ministers agreed to develop a work program by the end of 2014 with the aim of concluding the long-stalled Doha Round negotiations. This work program will now most likely not be completed by December.

The failure to advance multilateral trade liberalisation has seen countries increasingly turn to preferential bilateral and regional trade agreements. As noted by the WTO Director-General, however, there are many big trade issues that can only be tackled in an efficient manner in a multilateral context. Trade facilitation is an example. It makes no sense to cut red tape for just one or two countries. Also, financial and telecommunication liberalisation are best negotiated on a multilateral rather than on a bilateral basis. And issues such as farming subsidies cannot be resolved through bilateral arrangements.

Bilateral trade deals are inconsistent with a trading system dominated by global value chains. The growing fragmentation of production across national borders emphasises the importance of open trade and investment regimes. The proliferation of bilateral arrangements has resulted in a noodle bowl of agreements, each with complex country-of-origin provisions. Determining the country of origin is particularly difficult when goods are increasingly made 'in the world', with components sourced from many countries. This accounts for the fact that, according to surveys, few Australian companies take advantage of concessions offered under bilateral agreements because of their complexity.

The world should be concerned that the WTO, and the multilateral trading system, is paralysed. The global economy has prospered through a rules-based global trading system administered by the WTO. However, in the past three years global trade growth has been disappointing, growing less than global GDP. During most of the 1990s and early 2000s, global trade outpaced real GDP growth by a factor of two. If global economic growth is to strengthen, trade needs to make a bigger contribution, and this can come from a new wave of multilateral trade liberalisation.

The WTO needs a major shake-up. But this will only come if the crisis confronting the global trading system is acknowledged. On reflection, it is probably unfortunate that the Bali deal was reached. The WTO trade ministers meeting last December was widely seen as make-or-break for the WTO. If there had been no agreement, there would have been a crisis, and the need for changes to the way the WTO operates would probably have been confronted. Now the WTO is in a crisis, but this is not getting sufficient recognition.

The hope is that this issue will be high on the agenda for the Brisbane G20 Summit. The G20 is a global forum and its focus cannot be on bilateral or regional trade deals that discriminate against other countries; it has to be on the future of the global trading system. Multilateral trade liberalisation and the WTO badly need leadership. Let's hope it comes in Brisbane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Trade Organisation.

  • A new report from UNDP on how cash transfers in developing countries are helping win the fight against HIV.
  • In 2013, international migrants sent US$413 billion home to families and friends — three times more than the global total of foreign aid (about US$135 billion). Watch this recent TED talk with economist Dilip Ratha.
  • How text messaging is being used to combat Ebola.
  • The Guardian explains how infectious diseases and poverty are linked.
  • 'Smart cities' may be the way forward for India's megalopolises.
  • Last Friday was World Food Day. How well do you understand global hunger?  View the top 10 myths about hunger, take The Guardian's hunger test, and see how diets vary around the word. 
  • Around 1.2 billion people across the world have no access to modern energy. The World Bank has a new video on ending energy poverty:


Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

With the G20 focused on increasing economic growth, it's worth remembering where the global action is. The above graph from the IMF Multilateral Policy Issues Report, published in July, shows that the emerging economies have been doing the heavy lifting, at least as measured in purchasing power parity terms. There is a reminder here, as well, of how they carried global growth during the 2008-09 downturn following the financial crisis.

The October IMF World Economic Outlook is forecasting that the emerging economies will grow as fast in 2015 as they did in 2012 and 2013, so the red bars will be a bit bigger (their rapid growth makes them bulk larger in the global growth calculation). And our region ('emerging and developing Asia') is forecast to continue its steady 6 .5% growth.


Joko Widodo's supporters have been waiting a long time to celebrate his victory as the democratically elected president of Indonesia.

On election day in July, Jokowi (as he is more commonly known) asked his supporters to hold off on celebrating until the results were officially confirmed. Weeks later when the results were confirmed, he again asked his supporters to be patient in the face of a challenge by his opponent, Prabowo Subianto. And even when the verdict confirmed Jokowi's victory in August, it was Prabowo's supporters who rallied outside the Constitutional Court while Jokowi's backers stayed at home and waited.

It is likely partly out of security fears that Jokowi has discouraged his supporters from holding public celebrations until now. But today, Jokowi's supporters have finally been invited to take to the streets to celebrate his victory, as he is sworn in as the seventh president of the Republic of Indonesia. Celebrations are expected to take over the capital, Jakarta, where Jokowi stepped down from the role of governor just last Thursday.

A 'people's parade' is planned for the city's main street, where Jokowi and his vice president, Jusuf Kalla, will ride a horse-drawn carriage to the National Monument before taking the stage alongside the country's most popular rock band. The public celebrations will be fueled by free food handed out by an association of street-food sellers who will provide, among other things, steaming bowls of US President Barack Obama's favourite meatball soup, bakso.

Even the prospect of free bakso hasn't convinced Obama to make the trip, though. He will be represented by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will attend the inauguration alongside prime ministers Tony Abbott, Lee Hsien Loong from Singapore and Najib Razak from Malaysia.

Jokowi has also received the blessing of TIME magazine and Facebook ahead of his inuaguration.

Read More

His face appeared on the cover of the latest edition of TIME, with the headline 'A New Hope'. Last week he received a visit from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is on tour to promote an initiative that aims to boost Internet access worldwide. Jokowi caused a media frenzy in the capital by taking Zuckerberg on one of his signature impromptu public visits, to the crowded Tanah Abang market in central Jakarta. Some people in the market reportedly did not recognise Jokowi's American guest.

Not everyone in Jakarta is impressed by Jokowi's foreign supporters, or his planned celebrations in the capital. Smear campaigns against Jokowi during the presidential election accused him of being a foreign 'puppet', and of deceiving Jakartans by not finishing his term as governor before running for president. At the time, posters appeared in the capital urging voters to choose Prabowo for president as a way to keep Jokowi as their governor. This campaign received support in particular from organisations of Jakarta's indigenous Betawi people. In recent weeks, the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has protested Jokowi's resignation because it leaves Jakarta in the hands of his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian.

Jokowi has built an image as a man of the people. But it is also worth remembering that 47% of Indonesians did not vote for him and Kalla, instead choosing Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa. Prabowo's side has sown confusion and instability since voting day by refusing to accept the outcome of the election, lodging a challenge against the official results, and supporting its version of events with biased coverage via its media partners. Jokowi's side has its own biased media support, further confusing matters.

Banners have been displayed in Jakarta in the past week reminding the public that it is Jokowi and Kalla who will take over from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Boediono as president and vice president today. About 25,000 police and military personnel will be deployed to secure the inauguration and its public celebrations.

In an encouraging development for security at today's events, Jokowi on Friday met face-to-face with Prabowo for the first time since election day in July. Since the meeting, Prabowo has asked legislators from his party to attend the inauguration and 'be nice', adding that he himself would also attend, pending the completion of some unspecified important business.

Judging from the Prabowo's coalition's support for the recent passing of a bill that scraps direct regional elections (the route by which Jokowi rose to the presidency), the incoming president will face plenty of challenges his new role. But for today, at least, it seems Jokowi's opponents will let him have his big day.


Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, will be inaugurated today in a ceremony in Jakarta to be attended by Tony Abbott and the leaders of a handful of other neighbours. Abbott's presence is a sign of the importance Australia attaches to the relationship.

But will Jokowi return the favour by attending the G20 in Brisbane in a little less than four weeks' time? The Jakarta Post quoted an unnamed adviser earlier this month suggesting that Jokowi would go to regional summits in Beijing and Naypyidaw in the days prior to the G20 but then return to Jakarta to push his domestic agenda rather than continue on to Brisbane.

Jokowi views himself primarily as a domestic reformer, and has little interest in the jet-setting life of an international statesman. (As if to emphasise this point, in this week's TIME cover story, Hannah Beech finds the president-elect sleeping in the back of an economy class flight to Solo). In an interview with Fairfax's John Garnaut and Michael Bachelard published over the weekend, Jokowi says it all depends upon one of his advisers:

"If he says 'yes you go', I will go," said Mr Joko, gesturing to his foreign policy adviser Rizal Sukma, seated beside him.

Mr Sukma, also laughing, replied: "We have to convince Pak Jokowi that G20 is important, that the agenda is important."

The exchange reveals the extent to which Jokowi will focus on domestic affairs rather than international diplomacy, and to which he will rely upon his advisers in foreign affairs, including Sukma, as I have argued in a new Lowy Institute Analysis on Jokowi's foreign policy that also profiles several of those advisers.

It would be a mistake for Jokowi to skip the G20.

Read More

It is an important opportunity for the new president to engage in debates in Brisbane over proposed measures to boost global economic growth and fund infrastructure projects. Given the the importance of commodity exports to the Indonesian economy and the dire need for improved infrastructure throughout the archipelago, the outcome of those debates could be key to Jokowi's ability to deliver growth and prosperity at home, despite significant macroeconomic and political headwinds.

The G20 is also an opportunity to demonstrate to Australian leaders that, even as he focuses on domestic reforms, Jokowi is interested in building greater trust with Australia, as he said he was during the 22 June presidential debate. Moreover, it makes sense in terms of domestic politics: with critics among the opposition Red-White Coalition (KMP) seeking to exploit even the slightest misstep by Jokowi in their no-holds-barred campaign to weaken and embarrass him, they seem likely to seize upon a no-show to argue that he is unprepared to direct Indonesian diplomacy.

But if Jokowi does decide to skip the summit, it is a mistake we should be willing to overlook, for it comes at a particularly bad time for a new president, whose administration has been born in battle.

His promises of reform are now in danger: over the past four weeks the KMP, led by Jokowi's defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto, has sought to systematically dismantle the institutions that would allow Jokowi to enact his reform agenda. In an interview earlier this month, Prabowo's brother and benefactor, Hashim Djodjohadikusumo, indicated that KMP would seek to take a page from Congressional Republicans in the US by obstructing Jokowi's agenda. Just as legislative obstruction has twice led President Obama to cancel official visits, it would be understandable if Jokowi felt he needed to stay home to push back against KMP attempts to further weaken his position.

If Jokowi skips Brisbane, however, he should also skip Beijing. Attending one and not the other could be interpreted as an indication that Indonesia under Jokowi would lean toward either China (if he only goes to Beijing) or America and its allies (if he only goes to Brisbane). Were he to skip both, he would see almost all of the same leaders at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw on 12 November — including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Obama, and Abbott — as he would at the other two summits.  This would also emphasise the centrality of ASEAN in the regional architecture, which has served Indonesia (and the rest of the region) well by ensuring that regional institutions are open and inclusive.

Reuters/Beawiharta Beawiharta


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

This week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would 'shirtfront' Vladimir Putin over the MH17 tragedy at next months G20 meeting in Brisbane. Matthew Sussex argued that the consequences to the bilateral relationship would be minimal: 

In a sense it is fortunate that Abbott chose to speak bluntly about a low-priority relationship for Australia, one which was on a downward trajectory before the conflict in Ukraine and which has little prospect of turning around any time soon. It is also likely to be a storm in a teacup. The Kremlin is used to being chastised by Western governments, and views Canberra (rightly or wrongly) as little more than a pro-US mouthpiece. So in a bilateral climate in which even mutual respect is hard to achieve, it is unlikely Abbott's comments will do much long-term damage.

Rod Barton, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq and Special Advisor to the Iraq Survey Group, on the recent New York Times investigative report concerning chemical weapon in Iraq:

When UN weapons inspectors eliminated Iraq's chemical weapons program in the 1990s, some chemicals and damaged chemical weapons that were too dangerous to destroy by standard techniques were entombed in bunkers at Al Muthanna. It was decided at the time that these items would be of no practical military use, and that any attempt to recover them would be likely to result in injury or death because of their highly unstable condition. If the UN experts could not safely handle such weapons then, it seems unlikely ISIS would fair better now. In any case, none of the items are in such a state that they could be used as a weapon without considerable modification or development.

There is cause for optimism concerning the G20 and global economic growth targets, says Mike Callaghan:

Read More

The topics being discussed at the many seminars that take place in the margins of the meetings added to the sense of concern, with a common theme being whether there was secular stagnation, with countries growing well below their potential growth rates for an extended period. Adding to the gloom was the sharp fall in global shares as investor fears deepened over prospects for the global economy. Then there was the Ebola crisis.

Against this background, Treasurer Hockey was a rare beacon of optimism.

He chaired the final meeting of G20 finance ministers under the Australian presidency and commented that while there was a lot of talk about economic challenges and renewed weakness, 'we emerged with optimism'. He said the growth strategies members had submitted to date (which will be released at the Brisbane Summit) will if implemented increase global growth by an extra 1.8% over five years. Hockey said that between now and Brisbane, G20 members would continue to work hard to identify new measures which will achieve the 2% target set in February this year.

Ravi Ganesh continued our debate on sea-based weapons and strategic stability:

While the deployment of specific weapons does have a significant impact, there are other factors that contribute to nuclear stability. The most important of these is the stability and maturity of the states concerned in the management of this capability. The India-China situation is not one to cause unease in the sub-continent at the present time. It is the India-Pakistan situation that is cause for concern, primarily because of the overriding influence and control of the Pakistani military in that country's political and security affairs. The egregious stratagem adopted by Pakistan, euphemistically termed 'sub-conventional warfare', promotes terrorist attacks periodically across the border under a virtual nuclear umbrella, and keeps the both countries constantly on the brink. 

Rory Medcalf argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Australia next month will be significant for the bilateral relationship:

It is fitting in every way that Mr Modi should speak to the Australian Parliament. He is, after all, the politician with the biggest democratic mandate in the world, given the scale of his victory in this year's Indian election. His worthwhile agenda to improve Indian governance, economic performance, science, education, development and strategic influence is in step with what Australia wants to offer India as a partner – as Indian public opinion broadly recognises, according to this poll. Hu Jintao, Shinzo Abe, and Indonesia's SBY, not to mention Barack Obama and George W Bush, have all had their moment to speak directly to Australia's elected representatives. In addition to China, Japan, Indonesia and the US, India is Australia's key Indo-Pacific partner.

What is the definition of a 'moderate' rebel, asked Rodger Shanahan?:

But Western politicians of all persuasions would have you believe that a moderate rebel is 'someone that we can do business with', which is a rather vacuous idea, since you can only ever measure how moderate a person is when they are actually in a position to wield power. On the path to success, people and groups (particularly in the Middle East) are likely to say whatever it takes to get external support.

. . . 

Even after the ISIS threat is addressed, there is still the question of what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and myriad other Islamist groups inhabiting the Syrian battlefield. None of them have fixed personnel rosters, and individuals can and do travel between them depending on battlefield success, resource availability, leadership disagreement or doctrinal differences. Some will undoubtedly find their way into the 'moderate' groups currently being 'vetted' for training in 'liberal' regional countries.

Julian Snelder on the smartphone market in China:

The prospect of Apple or Samsung tripping up keeps Chinese companies in the game. The biggest have grown to dominate their home market and have ambitions overseas. Some, like Xiaomi, are genuinely innovative. The Chineserule manufacturing too. Still, despite working so hard, they scrape out only a 2-3% margin, at best. The domestic market is a bloodbath; everyone aspires to the big league and to outlast the others, ensuring a slow, painful shakeout of the 100+ Chinese players. Exports are more profitable, so lesser-known firms are shipping to India and Africa in amazing quantities, tens of millions of units per year.

Milton Osborne took an in-depth look at the Islamic community in Cambodia:

As a long-time observer of Cambodia, I have been struck during recent visits to Phnom Penh by the extent to which, in the eyes of my ethnic Cambodian interlocutors, the Islamic community is seen as firmly apart from the Buddhist majority, however much the Government seeks to present a picture of 'Khmers Islam' as an integral part of the nation. These views come from a limited and admittedly elite sample of local observers. But one theme was pervasive: the belief that the Islamic community in Cambodia is more rather than less integrated into the national community than once was the case.

Why signing the Biological Weapons convention is a critical step for Burma, explains Andrew Selth:

Whether the recent decision in Naypyidaw puts all suspicions to rest remains to be seen. Burma does not have an unblemished record of abiding by its international obligations, and doubtless there will be some who will remain sceptical of the Government's bona fides. Foreign governments and international organisations, however, will welcome this step as another sign of Burma's wish to be accepted as a respectable international citizen.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon.


The Overseas Development Institute has a new report out on rural wages in Asia which is not exactly being overwhelmed with attention but which, as Oxfam's Duncan Green argues, has momentous implications (my emphasis):

Rural wages are rising across much of Asia, and in some cases have accelerated since the mid 2000s...Doubling in China in the last decade, tripling or quadrupling in Vietnam. A bit slower in Bangladesh, but still up by half. This really matters because landless rural people are bottom of the heap (72% of Asia’s extreme poor are rural – some 687m people in 2008), so what they can pick up from their casual labour is a key determinant of poverty, or the lack of it. (Report co-author) Steve (Wiggins) argues that if the trend continues (and it looks like it will) this spells ‘the end of mass (extreme) poverty in Asia.'

Two other nuggets from Duncan Green's summary of the research. First this:

The two main drivers are a slowdown in the growth of the rural labour force, probably mainly from lower fertility rates, and the growth of manufacturing that attracts workers from rural areas....

...The focus on shrinking rural populations is...intriguing – is this the biggest success story yet for women’s education, empowerment and sexual/reproductive rights (at least outside China, whose fertility fall is based more on coercion)?

And finally:

Higher rural wages are driving up the cost of food production, thereby creating opportunities for other countries to export to Asia. Steve (Wiggins) agues that this will undermine Asian countries’ preference for self sufficiency in food (they’ve already come to rely on imports for vegetable oil and animal feed), opening up big new markets for food exporters.

They also contribute to higher wages in manufacturing. As costs rise in China, for example, it is likely that some plants will relocate to low income Asia and to Africa. Former World Bank chief economist Justin Lin has talked about 80 million manufacturing jobs leaving China as wages rise. Many of those could go to Africa, as the last global repository of truly cheap labour.

(H/t Dart-Throwing Chimp.)


While the media focus has been on the possible confrontation between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the upcoming Brisbane G20 Summit, it is the Ebola crisis that may yet take centre stage.

If the virus outbreak continues to confound international efforts over the next four weeks, G20 leaders may find themselves best placed to coordinate the international crisis response. In a worst-case scenario, the G20 is also the appropriate forum to discuss what conditions are severe enough to warrant policy responses (such as the closing of borders) that could impact on global trade and financial flows. 

Just as with the 2009 London G20 summit, where leaders spoke with one voice on the global financial crisis, it would be imperative for G20 leaders to demonstrate that countries are cooperating and taking action in order to restore confidence.

When Australia took on the G20 presidency and began planning for 2014, no thought would have been given to the Brisbane Summit dealing with a potential global health crisis. But this is an emerging issue that the G20 should confront, and in doing so demonstrate the value of the forum in fostering cooperation to deal with pressing global problems.

Besides the compelling humanitarian case, there is also an economic one. Most visibly this is seen in the devastating human cost of the thousands of lives lost and the detrimental impacts that the World Bank has estimated on the economies and budgets of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In today's interconnected world it has also proven impossible to prevent Ebola from spreading to some advanced G20 economies.

Read More

Concerns over widespread infection have triggered debates about what preventative measures are needed, and at what cost. It has also led to some troubling recommendations in the name of containment, such as calls in several countries to unilaterally close borders.

If earlier public health scares such as from swine flu, bird flu and SARS are anything to go by, the largest economic impact of the epidemic will come from people changing their behaviour to reduce their risk of exposure, such as by not traveling (even to Ebola-free countries) or paring back spending to just essential goods to minimise their contact with others. People will take these precautions even if not directly affected by the risks, so it can become a global issue.

Last week my colleague Annmaree O'Keeffe discussed the lessons from these earlier pandemic scares and concluded that international collaboration is critical for an effective response. She argued that it is vital developed nations lend support to developing ones.

The coordinated international emergency response to date has been substantial, headlined by more than US$1.4 billion pledged by the US, China, the UK and EU alone and more than US$700 million committed by the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank.  As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has noted, we're still playing catch up, and there are challenges in containing the outbreak, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) now expects the Ebola epidemic to peak by early December.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan recently stated that the world is ill-prepared to respond to any severe, global, sustained and threatening public health emergency, and has called for an extensive global public health reserve workforce, contingency funds for public health emergencies, and agreements on the sharing of viruses and vaccines. Coming from the head of an organisation that the world looks to as the front line in addressing health emergencies, this is a disturbing admission. 

In Brisbane, leaders could also ask international organisations, particularly the World Bank and WHO, to identify the gaps in the international institutional structure to manage global public health emergencies and suggest actions G20 members can take to resolve these gaps.  Such a move would be yet another extension of the G20's remit, but a targeted effort could keep the focus on the G20's strength: the international response to cross-border issues. It would also represent the clearest example of mainstreaming a development issue.


A leading article in the New York Times on 14 October (The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons, by CJ Chivers) details how, on numerous occasions during the US occupation of Iraq between 2004 and 2011, American soldiers encountered Iraqi chemical weapons. The article claims that, according to secret intelligence documents obtained by the Times under Freedom of Information requests, 5000 such weapons were uncovered.

At least 17 US servicemen were injured by these weapons, but because of apparent denial or disbelief by authorities, their injuries were not properly treated and in many cases there was not even official recognition that they had occurred.

A Danish soldier inspecting a mortar shell containing blister gas, Basra, Iraq, 2004.

The reason for this secrecy is not clear, although there are several possible explanations.

Perhaps the US Government feared that publicity would encourage insurgents to seek out stockpiles to use against American forces. Indeed, a chemical artillery shell was incorporated into an improvised explosive device and detonated against US forces in Iraq in 2004. However, it seems likely that in this case the perpetrators had not in fact recognised that the shell contained chemicals rather than high explosives.

It is also possible that after the CIA published its report in September 2004 concluding that there were no weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 Iraq War, the US Administration was embarrassed that chemical weapons were turning up. Suppressing reporting on findings, albeit of small chemical stockpiles or injuries to US soldiers and in one case Iraqi policemen, was therefore expedient. But of course this provides no consolation to the injured soldiers or adequate recognition of their sacrifice.

The question the New York Times article does not adequately address is why such weapons were uncovered during the US occupation of Iraq. Had Saddam been hiding stockpiles of chemical weapons from UN weapons inspectors? No doubt some will see these discoveries as justification for the Bush Administration, and its allies, including Australia, in initiating the 2003 Iraq War.

Read More

But a close examination of the evidence does not support this view. The chemical weapons found after the invasion of Iraq were old and highly degraded. They had in fact been made for use in the Iran-Iraq War, and had been lost or misplaced during that conflict. 

To understand how 5000 or more chemical weapons could be so 'misplaced', it is necessary to understand the nature of the Iran-Iraq War and the role chemical weapons played in it. Iraq had initiated that conflict as a quick grab of territory, but the war soon turned against Iraq and evolved into a type of trench warfare. It was punctuated by human wave attacks by Iranian soldiers that threatened to overwhelm Iraqi defences. In response, and in great secrecy, Iraq initiated a chemical weapons program centred on a complex at Al Muthanna, about 100km north west of Baghdad.

At Muthanna beginning in 1983, tens of thousands of chemical rockets, bombs and artillery shells were made each year. Over 100,000 were eventually used against Iran. The practice was to deploy these weapons to the front before each offensive, and then afterwards any unused chemical munitions were to be returned to Al Muthanna. In effect, there were thousands of chemical weapons moved each way every month. But for a variety of reasons, and in the chaos of war, not all these weapons were returned to the depot. Small caches were dumped or left behind. 

Adding to the chaos, Iraqi chemical weapons often became confused with conventional ones. Externally these weapons look little different from high-explosive bombs and rockets, and were only distinguished by markings stamped on the casing. Because of the secret nature of the chemical program, the markings were quite cryptic and the average Iraqi soldier did not understand their significance. In some cases the markings were poorly stamped and over the years they became unreadable.

A complication of the misplaced chemical weapons in Iraq is that large parts of the country, including the former chemical weapons plant at Al Muthanna, have now been overrun by the terrorist group ISIS. There are concerns that this group could lay its hands on some of these old munitions and use them in the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

However, the utility of whatever was left behind at Al Muthanna is questionable.

When UN weapons inspectors eliminated Iraq's chemical weapons program in the 1990s, some chemicals and damaged chemical weapons that were too dangerous to destroy by standard techniques were entombed in bunkers at Al Muthanna. It was decided at the time that these items would be of no practical military use, and that any attempt to recover them would be likely to result in injury or death because of their highly unstable condition. If the UN experts could not safely handle such weapons then, it seems unlikely ISIS would fair better now. In any case, none of the items are in such a state that they could be used as a weapon without considerable modification or development. 

It therefore seems unlikely that ISIS will gain any advantage from chemical weapons they may find. On the other hand, it is probable that buried and forgotten chemical weapons will turn up in Iraq over many years to come, and will continue to cause casualties among the Iraqi people. It is they who will pay for the tragic chemical legacy of the Saddam regime.



In August, I wrote a couplet on the US military commitment to South Korea, trying to illustrate arguments for both a US retrenchment and for staying. I am happy to say that these posts swung me an invite to a roundtable discussion at US Forces Korea (USFK) to present my arguments. I also got some feedback from my friend, veteran Korea-watcher Dave Maxwell. Some of this sheds extra light and deserves a response.

At USFK, unsurprisingly, most of the listeners strongly supported the retention of the US military in Korea. There seemed to be two main sets of concerns, one specific to Korea and the other about the US position in Asia and the world.

First, there is definitely a concern that South Korea is not ready to defend itself without US assistance (a concern I think Dave Maxwell and many others share). This is why the proposed 'OPCON' transfer (transferring wartime control of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul) is now tied to South Korean capabilities, rather than to an arbitrary date.

Whenever I talk to US military personnel in Korea at conferences and such, I always come away nervous that the ROK is more vulnerable than a lot of us think. Particularly on things like missile defence and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), there seems to be a strong consensus in the US professional military community that the ROK cannot do this alone, and may never be able to. Specifically, a lot of the C4ISR assets the US shares would be exorbitantly expensive, if not impossible, for Seoul to try to recreate on its own, thereby heavily impinging on readiness. So there is a strong efficiency argument for simply continuing the current relationship in which US 'networked battlefield' technologies are a powerful force multiplier, in particular for the South Korean Army.

Read More

I can buy some of this. I do see the obvious efficient/multiplier arguments. South Korea is never going to have the intelligence or satellite apparatus the US does, so 'lending' it is a fairly inexpensive way to boost Korean defence.

But the more general concern that South Korea is not 'ready' does not persuade me, because this is almost certainly a product of leaning too much on the US. In other words, claiming South Korean unreadiness as a reason not to retrench puts the cart before the horse, because it is probably the US presence that allows South Korea to continue to be unready. As I have said before, it is really important to get America's Asian allies to start taking their own defence way more seriously, even if the US still provides some C4ISR services.

Second, there was a general concern about the signals (of weakness) a US retrenchment would send to allies and opponents, especially in the region (ie. to Japan and China). These sorts of arguments about credibility and signaling are endemic to the US national security establishment, and I find them unpersuasive. You often here the argument that we must adhere to 'red lines' at all cost, that US 'credibility' is constantly at stake in every commitment around the world, any retrenchment signals weakness which in turn invites aggression and so on (basically everything Panetta said in his painfully unimaginative interviews last week). I find the academic work against this logic — helpfully summarized by Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart — convincing.

Pivoting to Dave Maxwell, he argues that I am not really laying out a realist argument based on core US national interests in Korea. Instead, I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neoconservatives over US hegemony and interventionism (probably true). He also says I come down on the side of retrenchment.

In response, I guess I would say that I am still not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against a tyrannical government. But that's a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is a horrible, worse-than-Nineteen Eighty-Four state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that's also a liberal/humanitarian argument. Neither are about US interests.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we're doing with) China. But that's more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest.

American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that North Korea's destruction of the South would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere and would give new life to a horrible regime. But those reasons are so big and 'metaphysical' that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible and immediate. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive that is, it is a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of President Bush's soaring second inaugural, which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are America's national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea does not export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil, which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out.

There is also no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

I do not say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut feeling, per my USFK experiences above, is for the US to stay in Korea. This is probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that's not a replacement for clear, obvious need for the US to be here.

As I said in part one of this debate, this is the big hole in the conversation. The US is in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. It is in the Caribbean littoral states because they are our neighbours and their problems become our problems. The US is in Japan because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I am not so sure. Even the reasons I gave in part 2 in favour of retaining USFK are somewhat vague, with nothing as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they do not penetrate the US. 

So give me your best shot. I'm open to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Don McCullough.


Over the last two months, the Modi government has repeatedly outlined a much more unambiguous and firm approach towards foreign policy issues than its dithering predecessor. This is welcome. But such pronouncements can be dangerous if they are not matched by actual capabilities. 


Was it really necessary for Tony Abbott to promise to 'shirt-front' Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane? Seasoned public servants often blanch when their political masters make populist remarks about other nations or their leaders. An intemperate comment from a politician can ruin a bilateral relationship, or at least jeopardise many years of patient diplomacy.

Except, in the case of Australia-Russia ties, there isn't much of a bilateral relationship to speak of. Aside from the 2007 Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, achieved at a high point during the Howard years, Australia and Russia have little to cooperate on. The two nations are geographically distant, ideologically incompatible, and are competitors in Asia's energy and resource markets, as well as in the global wheat trade. The total two-way trade value of A$1.8 billion in 2013 saw Russia ranked 31st in the list of Australian partners, lower than Belgium (24th) and the Philippines (29th), and comparable to Turkey (33rd). After the tit-for-tat sanctions of 2014 there will be even less trade between the two this year.

In the Antarctic Treaty system Australia and Russia are often at loggerheads: as ASPI's Anthony Bergin has pointed out, Moscow has recently blocked the establishment of marine reserves in Eastern Antarctica due to its desire to expand its commercial fishing operations.

What about public opinion? Even before the downing of MH17, Australians' perceptions of Russia were unenthusiastic. In 2013 the BBC Country Ratings poll indicated that some 53% of Australian respondents perceived Russia's influence in the world as negative, while only 29% felt it had a positive impact.

All told, then, it would seem there is little harm in berating Russia. And after the loss of Australian lives on MH17, an act that Canberra still sees Moscow as bearing some culpability for, Abbott certainly wouldn't be shirt-fronting a friend.

On this occasion, though, Abbott's team has misjudged the tone.

Read More

This is a shame, because recent Australian diplomacy behind the scenes on the issue of Ukraine has been admirable. Building a coalition of supporters for an Australian-sponsored UNSC resolution after MH17 was no mean feat, even if the conditions were largely favourable at the time.

When politicians use colourful language on foreign affairs they are generally trying to engage in two types of signalling: domestic and international. Nikita Krushchev's famous statement that the USSR would outlast (mistranslated as 'bury') the US was designed to motivate Soviet citizens in a post-Stalin era and shore up fears that peaceful coexistence was not appeasement. It was also calculated to convey to the US, which was interested in probing the Soviet leader for weak spots, that he would not be pushed around.

Putin has done the same. After becoming President he famously commented – in Russian street slang – that he would wipe out Chechen terrorists 'in the shithouse'. His public response to Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's suggestion for a bigger Russian military presence near the US was 'we don't f**king need a military base in Cuba'.

Sometimes, though, such tactics can backfire badly. Ronald Reagan won praise at home for his tough talk on the USSR. But on a visit to Moscow he found himself surrounded by children giving him flowers, and an awkward question from a journalist: 'Mr President, do you still think you're in the evil empire?'

Unfortunately for Abbott, his colloquial language fails three tests of such utterances. First, it served no particular domestic agenda, even though the public was the main intended target. Granted, some rhetorical statement was necessary to counterbalance the impression that by allowing Putin to come to Brisbane, Australia was capitulating in the face of perceived Russian bad behaviour. Even so, there was little for the opposition to capitalise upon because the heat had gone out of the issue, so a return to bellicose posturing was unnecessary.

Second, it did little to advance Australia's international interests. Frankly, the promise of physical violence – even metaphorical violence – can only serve to reinforce the worst type of chest-thumping, loutish and parochial stereotypes that many still have about Australians.

Third, it was delivered as the prelude to the wrong forum. Had Brisbane been hosting a meeting on human rights or security issues, Abbott's comments might have been contextually more appropriate. But the G20 is a leaders' summit on economic and trade issues, where much of the real action is bilateral (and unreported, because it happens on the sidelines).

Russian diplomats were quick to react to Abbott's gaffe. The second secretary at the Russian embassy in Canberra, Alexander Odoevskiy, reminded the media that Putin has a black belt in judo. He also pointed out that he was not sure where Abbott would get the chance to shirt-front Putin since a bilateral meeting between the two had not even been arranged.

In a sense it is fortunate that Abbott chose to speak bluntly about a low-priority relationship for Australia, one which was on a downward trajectory before the conflict in Ukraine and which has little prospect of turning around any time soon. It is also likely to be a storm in a teacup. The Kremlin is used to being chastised by Western governments, and views Canberra (rightly or wrongly) as little more than a pro-US mouthpiece. So in a bilateral climate in which even mutual respect is hard to achieve, it is unlikely Abbott's comments will do much long-term damage.

Yet Abbott could simply have said that, despite differences between Moscow and Canberra, he considered it would be churlish not to invite Putin – especially since trade and interdependence is regularly touted as a path to peace. He could also have stressed that he would be taking the matter of a proper independent investigation into MH17 up with Putin as a matter of urgency, and that he would clearly convey to him Australia's frustrations with Russia's intransigence. That would have left him looking statesmanlike, with the moral high ground intact.

Abbott and his team should learn something from this. It is fine to make bold and provocative statements occasionally if doing so is calculated to actually achieve a specific purpose. Yet when there is little obvious to gain, it is probably best for even the most ardent pugilists to resist the temptation to lash out.

Photo by REUTERS.