Lowy Institute

The Lowy Institute has published a major new report on China's behaviour in the South China Sea. 'Shifting Waters: China's New Passive Assertiveness Asian Maritime Security' finds that China has changed its tactics in recent times: there are fewer confrontations at sea with the constabulary and naval forces of other claimants, and more 'passive assertiveness' such as island-building.

Co-author Ashley Townshend says this is partly a good-news story, because it reduces the chances of violent conflict. But in this interview recorded yesterday, Ashley also says that although the tactics have changed, China's strategic goals have not:


A clever YouTube user has mixed audio of a BBC report about a military parade to mark Kim Jong Un's birthday with footage of a military parade in honour of Queen Elizabeth II:

Before you get on your high horse, I don't think the point here is to say that Britain is just like North Korea. Rather, think of this as an illustration of the 'framing effect', defined by Wikipedia as 'Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented'. When the language typically used about North Korea is framed with new images, it reveals some implicit biases we hold about that country.

(H/t Kottke.)


So Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbll has announced that the next generation of Australian submarines will be built by French firm DCNS.

The big political story is that this announcement will help secure the Government a number of South Australian seats in the upcoming election. The big strategic story is not so much who won this bid but who lost it: Japan. The Interpreter has debated exhaustively the strategic implications of this decision: would a sub deal with Mitsubishi Heavy Industry bring us closer to Japan? Would we form a quasi-alliance that might entangle us in Japan’s increasingly fractious relationship with China? What does that mean for our China-exposed trading industry?

Over coming days we may well see stories emerge of Chinese relief at this decision, and maybe even implications that Australia has buckled to Chinese pressure not to choose the Japanese bid. But one thing to keep in mind as you read these stories is that Australia is still doubling the size of its submarine fleet from 6 to 12. Whether the contractor is French, German, Japanese or other, that is still a substantial statement of Australia’s strategic anxieties, which inevitably centre around China’s long-term intentions. 

Granted, it will be decades before we actually field a 12-submarine fleet, and as I have argued previously, it may not make much difference to the larger strategic balance, which is shifting away from Australia. But nevertheless, it is a dramatic gesture which we might find alarming had it been made by any of our close neighbours. 

Perhaps the reason our neighbours have not expressed concern is that they understand perfectly well what this build-up is about. They too are alarmed at the growth of Chinese power and its increasing assertiveness in the region. And they too recognise that submarines are highly effective tools to counter that growing military strength. 

In the end, none of this may matter to China, since its growth trajectory, and its tenacity and resolve, may see it gradually assert its authority over the South China Sea and beyond, whether countries like Australia re-arm or not. As Hugh White has written, the question is ultimately about the balance of wills, rather than the balance of arms. But if the military capabilities of US allies such as Australia do weigh on Chinese decision-makers, then today’s announcement should be cause for reflection in Beijing, not celebration.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

Editor's Note: This article was erroneously posted early today. The content is unchanged.


Today Australians pause to remember those who have served, and fallen, in wartime. Normal service will resume tomorrow on The Interpreter.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Veterans' Affairs.


Yesterday the ABC's Chris Uhlmann delivered the scoop that federal cabinet had all but rejected Japan's bid to build 12 new submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The Australian's Brendan Nicholson reinforced the story today, and last weekend Hamish Mcdonald had a piece along similar lines, though without the cabinet leak to back it up. The Government has not denied the story, and it is set to make an official announcement next week.

It's interesting to see that Nicholson and McDonald emphasise the capability of the proposed Japanese submarine as the decisive consideration, while Uhlmann talks about a lack of 'enthusiasm in the Japanese bureaucracy for the deal'.

If these stories are confirmed, get ready for an extended bout of introspection (here on The Interpreter and elsewhere) about what this all means for Australia's relationship with Japan, and for Japan's place in the world.

On the question of Japan-Australia relations, I noted when I was in Tokyo last month that expectations there were high, and that some officials warned me about the damage to Japan-Australia relations should Japan not win the contract. In part, this is Australia's fault. The Abbott Government encouraged the idea that Japan could supply Australia with submarines, and from Tokyo's perspective it now it looks like the rug has been pulled out from under it.

On the issue of Japan's place in the world, if this decision is confirmed it will clearly have implications for Japan's foreign and security policy. Obviously it would be a significant setback to closer Japan-Australia ties, but more broadly it also affects the Abe Administration's ambitions to make Japan a more 'normal' country with a less restrictive security posture.

Japan's normalisation as a security player has various elements, such as amending the interpretation of the constitution, broadening the terms on which Japan works with allies, and of course weapons sales. On each of those issues, Japan has to overcome its own political culture. This was evident in the way Mitsubishi Heavy Industry approached its bid for the Australian contract. Many analysts have pointed out that Japan's bid for the Australian submarine contract started slowly and that its marketing efforts were decidedly inferior to its French and German competitors in the early months of the competitive evaluation process. Japanese officials I talked to openly acknowledged this point.

Read More

But they also pointed out that Japan had two things going against it. The first was an experience deficit with its competitors (both the French and Germans have long histories as arms merchants). But there was also a cultural barrier to overcome. For instance, the notion that Japan, steeped in its post-World War II tradition of pacifism and minimal defence, would place advertisements in the media and billboards around Canberra Airport boasting about the quality of its armaments was utterly foreign. A contract with a friendly, democratic, stable country like Australia would have been the perfect way for Japan to overcome these cultural barriers. The question now is whether other opportunities will arise which also fit those criteria.

One other angle here is that Japan has now, in short order, failed to win two high profile contracts in this neighbourhood, both of which it had good reason to expect to win. The other, of course, is the deal to build high-speed rail in Indonesia, which China won with a last-minute Lyle Lanley-style pitch to build the train line without an Indonesian government financial guarantee.

Morale in Tokyo must be low. The question is whether it will encourage the foreign policy establishment to redouble its efforts, or push Japan back into its shell.


My colleague Euan Graham snapped these grainy shots of the Japanese Soryu-class submarine SS-503 Hakuryu from the ferry as he made his way to the office earlier today. As Euan points out on Twitter, this is history in the making — the first Japanese submarine to pass through Sydney Heads since the Second World War.

Various functions will be held over coming days to mark the visit of the submarine and other Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, but it is interesting that the Government and the Royal Australian Navy seem to have made little of the arrival today. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the PM is in Beijing?


Fascinating post about the economics of artificial intelligence (AI) from economist Tyler Cowen:

The Artificial in AI can sometimes mislead so let’s start by getting rid of the A and asking instead whether more NI, Natural Intelligence, will decimate the middle class. For example, will increasing education in China decimate the American middle class? I don’t think so...China and India are now coming online and I see the increase in natural intelligence as one of the most hopeful facts for the future. It’s been estimated that a reduction in cancer mortality of just 10 percent would be worth $5 trillion to U.S. citizens (and even more taking into account the rest of the world). A reduction in cancer mortality is more likely to happen with a well-educated China than with a poorly educated China. So we have a huge amount to gain by greater NI...

...Greater foreign intelligence and wealth could be a threat if intelligence turns from production to destruction (this is also a potential problem with AI). We probably can’t keep China poor, even if we tried, and any attempt to try to do so would likely backfire in the worst possible way. Thus, if we want to keep high-skill Chinese workers working on medical rather than military breakthroughs, we must preserve a peaceful world of trade. Indeed, peace and trade become ever more important the richer the world gets.

Now let’s turn from NI to AI. For the foreseeable future I see AI as being very similar to additional NI. Smart people in China aren’t perfect substitutes for smart people in the United States and there are also plenty of opportunities for complementarity. Similarly AI is not a perfect substitute for NI and there are plenty of opportunities for complementarity. An AI that drives your car, for example, complements your NI because it leaves more time for more productive tasks.


In the New York Review of Books, Orville Schell describes a disturbing trend towards tighter suppression of opinion by Chinese authorities, who are not stopping at the border:

...what has been perhaps most unexpected about this trend is the way that Beijing has begun to extend its claim to control people and organizations beyond its borders. Despite its stubborn defense of the sanctity of sovereignty, its agents have begun reaching overseas to manipulate the foreign dialogue by setting up hundreds of Confucius Institutes, newspapers, magazines, and even TV networks that answer to the Central Propaganda Department and the CCP.

 Chinese state influence over foreign media outlets is an under-appreciated topic, one we've tried to shed light on at The Interpreter. Here's Vaughan Winterbottom writing in July 2014:

A geographic sampling of overseas Chinese media outlets to have been either acquired in full or financially supported by mainland media over the past decade includes the UK's Propeller TV, Thailand's Singsian Daily, Arab Asia Business TV, Italy's Europe Times and France's own Europe Times, content from which is circulated in Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Greece and Portugal.

And more recently, Eva O'Dea wrote in January:

Most Australians pay little attention to Chinese language media in Australia. Therefore, they do not recognise the extent to which coverage of issues relating to China differs from that in the mainstream Australian media.

The Australian Government allows the content of the Chinese language media in Australia to be heavily influenced and increasingly controlled by agencies of the People's Republic of China (PRC). In turn this enables a foreign government to shape the outlook of Chinese language media consumers in Australia on global issues and, particularly, those relating to the PRC...

...The net effect of this increasing control by the PRC over Australia's Chinese language media is that Chinese speakers in Australia — be they Australian citizens or temporary residents such as students — hear few competing perspectives. As I have pointed out in The Sydney Morning Herald, the PRC's influence over Chinese students has additional significance given many students have little engagement with broader Australian society. 

The PRC itself would never contemplate allowing this level of influence in its own media. Australia's Chinese language media needs greater attention from the Australian Government and regulators.

Do read Orville Schell's piece for more on China's crackdown.

Photo by Flickr user James Yeo.

US presidential race 2016

The US president is seemingly everywhere as a fictional character these days, but let's bring together some more recent developments in the sub-genre. First, a trailer for Bryan Cranston's depiction of LBJ in All The Way:

The latest season of House of Cards started screening on Netflix this month:

And here's a NSFW trailer for the new season of Veep (although the central character is no longer vice-president but president): 

Read More

Speaking of veeps, it's also worth mentioning the soon-to-be-released superhero blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Here's a clip from the film in which Batman/Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck, justifies his rage against Superman with a near-word-perfect quotation of Dick Cheney's 'One percent doctrine'. I might add, it's not the first time the Batman character has flirted with neo-conservatism:  


The mood was pretty sombre at last night's annual Lowy Lecture delivered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with events in Brussels on everyone's mind. The presence of Belgium's ambassador to Australia, Jean-Luc Bodson, was acknowledged with a warm round of applause, and the Prime Minister seemed to sum up the feelings of the audience when he promised Belgium Australia's 'love and solidarity'.

Inevitably, then, the PM's speech began on the issue of terrorism, and he continued his reasonably tough rhetoric from earlier in the day with regard to Europe's security failings, saying that 'violent Islamist extremism appears to have reached a crisis point in Europe'. Turnbull also made the rather bold claim that ISIS's terrorist capabilities would be 'eliminated' when it is defeated in Syria and Iraq ('ISIL’s ability to inspire, let alone direct, terrorism around the world will be largely eliminated if its so called caliphate is decisively defeated in the field.')

In response to terrorist incidents, Turnbull now regularly reassures Australians that our surveillance and border controls put us in a stronger position against the terrorist threat than many other countries. 'We have confidence that we know who is coming' into the country, Turnbull said, which does rather imply that the threat is from terrorists arriving from outside Australia, rather than those radicalised at home.

Turnbull's emphasis on resilience as an important facet of our response to terrorism is welcome and overdue. He praised President Jokowi for returning Jakarta's streets to normal within hours of its recent terrorist atrocity. This reflects a view that terrorism experts have been putting for years but which has only recently entered the rhetoric of leaders like Turnbull and Obama, and it sends an important message: though we cannot prevent every attack, through our actions to quickly restore normalcy after a strike, terrorists will know that we will endure and overcome, and that their actions cannot do sustained harm to our societies and economies.

Turnbull soon turned to Asia, where his tone was mostly optimistic. He admitted that the blush had gone off China's boom, but said that the rest of Asia, including India and Southeast Asia, was just getting started. That set Turnbull off on a longer reflection on the special place of India in the region, which got me wondering if his speechwriters had read Melissa Conley-Tyler's post of last week, which pointed out that India had been somewhat overlooked in the PM's rhetoric thus far. Turnbull also spoke at length about Indonesia, saying that strengthening Jakarta relations was a personal foreign policy priority of his. He spoke warmly of his relationship with Jokowi, and I'm sure Indonesia watchers wondered if Turnbull was placing too much hope on an imperfect vessel.

Read More

The Prime Minister also looked at the geopolitical dangers of the Asian century, and in a speech that contained few surprises, here he said something that piqued my interest. Speaking of the US-led order that had helped maintain stability and drive economic growth, Turnbull admitted that the shift of economic power to countries such as China was a challenge to that order. A bit later on, Turnbull seemed to go further than merely acknowledging the rise of China when he said Australia had 'embraced the multipolar reality', a sentiment he said was embedded in the recent Defence White Paper.

At face value that is rather startling, because it suggests that Australia is ready to accept China as one pole in a regional system with several great powers (the others presumably being the US, India, Russia and perhaps Japan), all of them of roughly equal standing, which maintain peace and stability in the region through a balance of power. Yet to my mind it is far from clear that the White Paper really does say that. In fact, as others have pointed out, the repeated references to the 'rules-based order' suggest the opposite conclusion. Far from accepting a multipolar order, it implies that Australia is dedicated to defending the existing US-led order.

This continues to be a point of ambiguity and tension in Australian foreign policy, one that is apparent in the speeches of several recent prime ministers and no doubt a few more in future.


This, from pilot and respected American aviation blogger Patrick Smith, is both sensible and inspirational:

There’s talk from supposed security experts asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved literally onto the sidewalk...As, if by moving the fences, they can’t get us. The only thing moving security curbside would actually do, of course, is shift the perimeter — and the busy choke point of passengers — to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose so-called “soft target” has simply been relocated from one spot to another, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else.

Thus, it’s precisely the wrong line of thinking. It’s reactionary in the purest sense, and it plays directly into the terrorist’s strategy — a strategy that encourages a response that is based on fear instead of reason, and that is ultimately self-defeating.

The reality is, we can never make our airports, or any other crowded places, impervious to attack. And while maybe you wouldn’t mind living in a society in which every terminal, shopping mall, sports venue and subway station has been militarized and strung with surveillance equipment, count me among those who would.

Me too.

Remember that bikie-gang brawl at Sydney airport in 2009? There were Chicken Littles at the time who warned that it could have been a terrorist attack, and that we would have been powerless to stop it. But as I pointed out then, terrorists have an almost endless list of crowded, high-profile targets to choose from. Granted, terrorists seem to disproportionately target aviation, but that's hardly an exclusive thing. As the Brussels, Madrid and London attacks amply demonstrate, other forms of mass transport are on the target list too, as are all sorts of other iconic buildings and venues.

The proper response here is not to amplify the threat through our rhetoric and our security measures, but to adopt a low-key stoicism that says we won't be cowed into eroding our own freedoms. And in our security measures at airports and other important venues, let's focus a little less on security theatre and strike a balance between prevention and resilience. We cannot protect every target and prevent every attack, but we can make sure that, if an attack does happen, we show the terrorists through words and actions that we will bounce back.

Prime Minister Turnbull's National Security Statement in November 2015 suggested he is broadly sympathetic to this approach. No doubt he will address the terrorist threat again in his Lowy Lecture tonight; we will see if he maintains that tone.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user danjo paluska


Last week while I was in Japan I shared a few thoughts about what I heard locally regarding the submarine project ('What the Submarine Contract Means to Japan'). This contract obviously means a great deal to the Japanese Government, and that judgment goes well beyond its economic value. As I said last week, the Japanese side sees this as an opportunity to strengthen ties with a major US ally in an era in which its interests are being threatened by a rising China.

This strategic subtext to the submarine deal was underlined again yesterday when Germany's ambassador to Australia said in a speech that choosing the German design would allow Australia to avoid inflaming tensions with Beijing, which would be the natural outcome if Canberra chose the Japanese design.

As I said last week, the Japanese defence and foreign policy officials I spoke with did not seem to see this strategic dimension as a weakness in their bid, but as a strength. They think Australia shares Japan's anxieties about China (and judging by the Defence White Paper, they are right), and they are betting that Canberra will be prepared to wear some blowback from Beijing in exchange for getting its submarines from Japan, and along with it a much closer, even ally-like, relationship.

Australian observers will be aware that Professor Hugh White has been among the most prominent voices warning against the Japan option, arguing that 'Tokyo expects that in return for its help to build our submarines, it would receive not just many of billions of dollars, but clear understandings that Australia will support Japan politically, strategically and even militarily against China.' White says Australia would be foolish to make such commitments because we are unlikely to honour them, for good national-interest reasons.

Read More

White's take on the submarines is tied to a much broader argument about the future strategic order in Asia. He says that a US-led alliance to contain China's rise is not likely to work and that the region needs to create some strategic space for Beijing. Instead of the major powers combining to resist China's rise, all the big Asian states ought to come together as independent powers (Japan included) in a 19th century Europe-style concert of powers, to manage their relations and avoid war among them. It's important to emphasise that, in this schema, Japan would be a much more 'normal' great power, with larger defence forces and more independence from the US. In fact, on The Interpreter Hugh White has argued that Japan may need an independent nuclear deterrent.

So, to be clear, White does not make an argument for pre-emptively caving in to China's demands for more say in the regional order*, but he also argues strongly against the idea of openly resisting China's rise by forming a closer countervailing alliance. White offers a third option.

Why do I explain all this? Because I was told in Tokyo that there is no such 'third option' in the Japanese security debate. Yes, Japan has its old-school multilateralists, generally found on the left and loyal to Japan's post-war peace principles, who would like to strengthen regional institutions, increase cooperation and institute confidence-building measures as ways to defuse tensions between the major powers. Then there is the school which wants to make Japan more muscular, more activist and more assertive on the regional stage. But they don't want to make Japan more independent. In fact, as illustrated by Japan's thinking on the submarine deal, this school is intent on embedding itself more closely with friendly states, most importantly the US but also Australia, India, the Philippines and others. According to my interlocutors, there is no prominent advocacy in Japan for a stronger and more independent national security posture.

That may be because, for reasons laid out by CSIS's Brad Glosserman on this site in 2014, that third option is simply not realistic for Japan:

My study of Japan after the triple disaster of 11 March 2011 reveals a country fatigued by such ambitions. Japanese are tired of competing, and see little reward from the struggle to catch up or keep up. Japanese are comfortable with their place in the world and profoundly sceptical about the changes required for them to re-energise their economy, the essential first step in the process of (re)assuming a higher international profile.

These attitudinal constraints to a renewed and re-vitalised Japan are the most compelling and least understood, but they are only part of the problem Abe and fellow internationalists face. Japan's demographic profile and its growing debt also profoundly constrict Japanese choices. Most acutely, an aging population is unlikely to choose to devote increasingly scarce resources to the military, a prerequisite to the claim of 'great power status.'

* His critics would argue with that summation, but keep in mind, White recommends not only an independent nuclear-armed Japan, but also a substantially beefed up Australian Defence Force.


There would be few observers of the Pacific Islands region who do not respect and admire the work of the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones. Actually, she may have a few detractors among those whose noses she has put out of joint with her commentary, but that’s to Jenny’s credit too.

Unfortunately, after eight years at the Lowy Institute, Jenny is moving on. In this interview we talk about her final research paper about Papua New Guinea’s next generation of leaders, released today, and we reflect on the last eight years in the region: what has changed in the Pacific Islands since Jenny joined the Lowy Institute? 


There is a lot of fascinating reading in Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic, which is centred on a long interview with President Obama about his foreign policy. After you've finished it, be sure to also read this companion piece by NY Times commentator David Brooks. 

In particular, I think Obama's comments on China are worth noting. The President says 'In terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical', which will encourage those who believe the 'pivot' has lost momentum. In fact, according to Goldberg:

For years, the “pivot to Asia” has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention. From his earliest days in office, Obama has been focused on rebuilding the sometimes-threadbare ties between the U.S. and its Asian treaty partners...

But there is room to quibble with Goldberg's interpretation that Obama thinks 'the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention'. After all, elsewhere in the article, Obama seems to say that his main concern is not China's rise but its potential failure: 'we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China'. Moreover:

Read More

If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.

It's possible Obama is eliding his true feelings here. Obama may not actually believe that 'we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China', but he may calculate that it would be impolite to say otherwise. An admission that China's rise, which has lifted so many millions out of poverty and is a boon to US exporters, has a strategic downside would be like saying that it is in America's interest for China to remain poor and therefore weak.

If he does believe it, then perhaps Obama is not the master strategist I took him for. Yes, a flailing, weakened China could lash out and destabilise the region in a desperate resort to aggressive nationalism. But is that really a greater concern to America than a country which challenges long-held US dominance and is potentially seeking to redraw the strategic geography of the Asia Pacific with Beijing at its centre?


Today, the Lowy Institute is releasing its Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive map that plots and ranks the diplomatic network of all 42 G20 and OECD nations. For the first time, the diplomatic posts of the most significant nations — their embassies, consulates, multilateral missions and other representations — have been put on a world map, displaying and comparing their extent and global reach.

The Index is the result of a major research project led by Alex Oliver over the past year, building on earlier studies in 2009 and 2011, to identify and map the diplomatic networks of the 42 OECD and G20 nations. 

In all, the Index maps around 6000 diplomatic posts in almost 700 cities. It incorporates and summarises data gathered from ministry directories, official reports and secondary sources, combined with direct communications with ministries, their embassies and consulates-general in Australia.

The Index finds that the top five global diplomatic networks are those of the Security Council Permanent Five: the US, France, China, Russia and the UK (just ahead of Brazil). In the Lowy Institute's earlier studies, France ranked ahead of the US, but this year it has dropped into second place. Propelled by booming economic growth in the last decade, China’s network has grown, and it now outranks Russia and the UK.

Some of the Index's other results confirm the surprising scale of investment in diplomatic infrastructure by some smaller, mainly European, nations.

Read More

The diplomatic networks of small nations such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Greece are more extensive than those of Australia, despite having far smaller economies and populations. Canada has more than twice the population and GDP of the Netherlands, but the two countries have the same sized diplomatic networks. Spain has 40 more diplomatic missions than India, despite an economy two-thirds the size and a fraction of the population. Belgium, a tiny nation that can rely on its membership of NATO and the EU for security as well as diplomatic and economic ballast, has a larger network than Australia, which has no such backing.

The Index also reflects the rise of the BRICS and other emerging powers: as well as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Korea, Mexico, Argentina and Indonesia are in the top 20 networks. South Africa comes in 23rd.  

The challenges of the 21st century are no doubt producing significant changes in the way nations practice diplomacy. The increasing influence and importance of non-state actors, the transformations in technology and communications, the 24/7 news media phenomenon, and the escalation of terrorism and security threats mean that traditional forms of diplomacy, and the roles of embassies and other diplomatic missions, are changing. Some have gone so far as to suggest that diplomacy is 'dead,' or that there is no longer any useful role played by embassies. Alex puts the question herself in a Foreign Affairs piece today

That's a longstanding debate, and one we should continue to test. But the 5900 or so posts identified in the Index indicate that nations are continuing to make substantial investments in maintaining worldwide diplomatic networks. They are evidence that most of the world's global powers still think their networks of embassies, consulates and other missions play an important role in their nations' diplomacy.