Lowy Institute

Greg Sheridan writes today that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about US Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...US Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

Sheridan criticises Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, 'There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.'

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The US-Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various US spy agencies. And while the US Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the US military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host US strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

Photo by Flickr user US Air Force.


The US has taken its concerns with China's island reclamation efforts public by giving a CNN crew access to one of its brand-new P-8 surveillance aircraft as it monitors the South China Sea. You really do get a sense of how delicate the situation is, and how easily things could escalate from a misunderstanding or an accident.


Last Friday we got a sense of how fraught Australia's foreign-policy position is becoming between its major strategic partner (the US) and its major economic partner (China), when a senior Penatgon official declared that the US was going to put B-1 bombers on Australian soil. The official 'misspoke', it turns out, though the sensitivity of the issue was revealed by the fact that none less than the Prime Minister hosed the matter down publicly within hours.

Part of what made the issue so sensitive is that, according to the media, at least, the Pentagon's B-1 gambit was linked explicitly to Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea. Yesterday the Lowy Institute hosted an in-depth discussion on that fraught territorial dispute with two of its non-resident fellows, Linda Jakobson and Bonnie Glaser, as well as the director of the Institute's East Asia Program, Merriden Varrall. You can listen to the 60-minute podcast here, or click below to listen to a short interview I did with Bonnie Glaser yesterday on this topic.

(NB: A couple of issues referenced in the interview which are worth linking to: first, the Wall St Journal article from 12 May regarding possible US military deployments to the South China Sea, and second, quotes from China's navy chief inviting the US to use the facilities China is now building in the South China Sea.)


There are a few tables left for The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge at the National Press Club in Canberra on 28 May. You can book individually or for a group of up to 10 on the Lowy Institute website. It's only $15, which includes not only plenty of nibbles but also the services of our quiz-master for the night, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann. Drinks will be available for purchase.

Want to mentally limber up for the event? Then try our online quiz, which even challenged some noted policy experts and newshounds (see below). The questions we are writing for the 28 May trivia night will be be a mix of history, pop culture, current events, and even some sport. We'll throw in a few audio-visual questions and some that will require insider knowledge of Canberra.

Look forward to seeing you there.


The Government has posted short videos on its Budget Highlights web-pages to explain the key points of this year's budget. But judging by the video for the national security page, there presumably wasn't a lot of money available for the production, and there certainly wasn't much inspiration:

You really have to wonder what the point is here. The visuals add zero information to the voice-over, and the symbolism is either insultingly laboured or bafflingly inappropriate.

Let's start with the padlock, which we see when the voice-over refers to 'a safe and secure' Australia. Geddit? Then, for some reason, the declaration that the Government is 'determined to fight the threat on multiple fronts' is accompanied by a visual of an exclamation mark inside a triangle, which is usually recognised as the symbol for Work in Progress.

A little further on, things get even more weird: the voice-over refers to stopping terrorism, but that's accompanied by a visual of a newspaper with the headline 'Terrorism' at the top, soon overlaid by a big orange stamp marked 'STOP'. Is this a subtle reference to the Government's metadata laws, which media organisations oppose because they threaten journalists' use of confidential sources?

No time to answer that, as after a few more strained visual metaphors, the video reaches its unintentionally hilarious climax. As the voice-over refers to 'keeping everyone safe and our country secure', the accompanying map of Australia literally falls off the bottom of the screen, like Wile E Coyote plunging into a gorge. All that's missing is a whistling sound followed by a dull thud.

So there you have it: Australia has gone over the cliff, and ISIS didn't have to lift a finger.


Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary about Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist purge, The Act of Killing (see Catriona Croft-Cusworth's excellent piece on the controversy the film created), now has a companion piece:

The synopsis:

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful companion piece to the Oscar®-nominated The Act Of Killing. Through Oppenheimer’s footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This unprecedented film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


So, prominent business figure Maurice Newman says in today's Australian that climate change is a hoax and that 'It’s about a new world order under the control of the UN. It is opposed to capitalism and freedom and has made environmental catastrophism a household topic to achieve its objective.'

As the bio at the bottom of the piece reminds us, Newman is chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council. And he's not the only one with such views who has the ear of the PM. Here is what Senator Nick Minchin, who masterminded the toppling of former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull because of Turnbull's support for emissions trading, said about climate change in 2009: 'For the extreme left it provides the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and the, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.' The PM himself, of course, also has somewhat amorphous views on this topic.

The Climate Council's Amanda McKenzie is understandably exasperated:

I'm not sure that's the right question. By now it ought to be pretty clear that climate sceptics are unlikely to be swayed by evidence. In fact, it may be that presenting strong evidence of climate change merely entrenches their views. There may also be strong peer-group reasons why climate sceptics hold the views they do — it would be socially risky to sway too far from their peers, with uncertain benefits. (It's worth remembering, of course, that climate sceptics could apply the same arguments to explain why we are not swayed by their views.)

Also, it's not as if bipartisanship is a necessary precondition for action on climate change. Plenty of major reforms have been enacted throughout Australian history without bipartisan consensus. Nor is the public hostile to the idea of doing something. Annual Lowy polling  since 2006 shows a consistent 40-odd percent rump of Australians agreeing with the proposition that 'global warming is a serious and pressing problem' and that 'we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant cost.' Major political decisions have been made with less public support than that.

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I think a more productive approach is to basically give up trying to change minds and just appeal to people's interests, be they economic or political. On the latter point, events such as last year's US-China agreement and the upcoming Paris Conference may be enough to sway the Government that it must take more serious action on climate change or risk damage to our foreign relations. After all, President Obama says 'there is no greater threat to our planet than climate change'. If Obama makes good on that rhetoric by securing a substantive deal in Paris, then it would be in keeping with the traditions of the US-Australia relationship for Canberra to follow along. Indeed, it would be historically unusual for an Australian government (particularly a Coalition government) to be out of step with Washington on such a major international initiative.

As for economic interests, earlier this week we saw the launch of electric car company Tesla's move into home battery storage systems, a move seen by some as a game-changer for the economics of the energy industry. The jury is out on that claim (read this for the pro case, and read the comments section here for the anti), but it is clear that things are moving rapidly in the right direction, whether it is in battery storage or in the price and efficiency of solar panels. So in time, the financial attractiveness of renewable energy will erode the lobbying power of the economic and political interests arrayed against it. The only question is how quickly this will happen.


Great segment from Charlie Pickering's new show The Weekly:


The Interpreter is joining the real world! We're hosting a live event that we hope will bring together our large and loyal Canberra audience in a fun and informal setting.

We're taking the pub trivia formula and giving it a spit-shine with The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge, to be held at 6.30pm on 28 May at the National Press Club and hosted by the ABC's political editor Chris Uhlmann.

There will be questions on all aspects of global affairs and current events (and I mean all aspects; there will be plenty of pop culture and sport, all with a world-politics theme). Entry is $15, and you can organise a table of up to 10 people via our events page. Food will be provided and drinks will be available for purchase.

If you want to limber up for the event, why not try the Lowy Institute's first-ever online trivia quiz? It's 15 questions and will take you around five minutes. Let us know your score via the comments section, on Facebook or Twitter.


To end what has been a tragic week in Nepal, a touching video portrait of its people (nb. this was filmed and posted well before the earthquake):

If you would like to help the people of Nepal, there are any number of aid organisations that have launched appeals. But here's aid blogger Chris Blattman's advice on the most effective way to donate.


Earlier this week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a speech at the Sydney Institute in which she made the rather startling claim that terrorism represents 'what I see as the most significant threat to the global rules based order to emerge in the past 70 years - and included in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.' In fact, she seemed to go further by applying this description specifically to ISIS rather than to terrorism more broadly, though the speech is not completely clear on that point.

Others have already made the case that this is a somewhat ahistorical judgment on Bishop's part. It is also the wrong strategy. In the past I have criticised politicians for inflating the threat of extremist terrorism. It's not only factually incorrect to argue that the threat to Australia is 'existential', it is also counter-productive, because it elevates in status a cause which ought to be treated as much as possible as a criminal threat, not a political one. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak designed to provoke over-reaction from the strong, and rising to  such provocation, even if only rhetorically, just helps the terrorists. After all, the primary cost of terrorism is not in the damage done by the terrorists, but by what we do to ourselves in response. ISIS, for instance, has so far done less damage to Western values than we have done by restricting our own liberties in the name of security. And the cost of al Qaeda's attacks on the US on 9/11 pales in comparison the cost of the wars launched in retaliation to that strike.

I think all of those arguments remain valid. Yet Bishop's references to the Cold War also prompt a different thought about historical perspective.

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When we view the Cold War in its entirety, Bishop's claim that the war against ISIS is the most significant in 70 years is easy to counter because we know so much about how the Cold War developed. As Paul Dibb points out in today's Australian, The Cold War nearly resulted in a nuclear holocaust that might have led to human extinction. It was also marked by proxy wars all over the globe which killed hundreds of thousands. ISIS is a vastly smaller threat than the Soviet empire became.

However, we are only two years into the struggle against ISIS. So if Bishop (and her critics) are going to draw historical analogies with the Cold War, the proper point of comparison is not the 'mature' Cold War of the 1950s through to the 80s, but the early post-World War II stage. Bishop should have made her claim not from the position of historical hindsight, but in comparison to what we knew about the Soviet threat in the early years of the Cold War.

Based on those grounds, her claim might have looked slightly more credible. In 1946, for example, the Soviet Union didn't look all that mighty. It had lost 20 million people in defeating the Nazis, the Soviet economy was on its knees, and it did not yet have the A-bomb. Yet 1946 is the year Winston Churchill delivered a speech which, for many historians, marks the beginning of the Cold War. He warned that 'an iron curtain has descended across the Continent'. Eastern European capitals, he said, lay within a sphere 'subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.'

I am not ready to credit Bishop with Churchillian prescience. I think she's wrong about the scale of the ISIS threat. But if she turns out to be right about ISIS in the way Churchill was right about the Soviet Union, it's worth pointing out that Churchill's speech called on the world to act through the United Nations, including by giving it armed forces, initially in the form of air squadrons from each of its member states ('They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation').

That's a bold proposal, to say the least, and what's notable about Bishop's speech is that she proposed nothing remotely as radical to meet this allegedly world-historical threat. Australia has sent a handful of fighter aircraft and a few hundred soldiers to Iraq to fight ISIS, a response Bishop calls 'proportionate and appropriate'. That tells a rather different story about how seriously Bishop takes the ISIS threat.

Photo by Flickr user Morgan Davis.


A weird and wonderful short documentary here from the New York Times, on the practice by Chinese real estate agents of hiring foreigners to attend launch events for new building developments, thus lending them an 'international' glamour.

(H/t Sinocism.)


In August, Papua New Guinea's Peter O'Neill will mark three years in office as prime minister. The Australian's Rowan Callick recently described him as 'a remarkable figure' and 'the most powerful politician PNG has produced since Michael Somare'.

Yesterday I had the chance to talk with the editor of Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper, Alex Rheeney, about the O'Neill Government's performance. We also talked about economic and social conditions in PNG, and the state of media freedom in the country.


Last week, in an op-ed for Nikkei Asia Review, I made the argument that the US and China ought to settle for a military balance in the Asia Pacific. Such a balance will be difficult to manage and will probably not satisfy the ambitions of either country, but would be less dangerous than the alternative, in which both strive for superiority over the other.

Now I see that Michael Swaine has made a similar argument for Foreign Affairs, though with far greater sophistication (h/t Sinocism). The premise of Swaine's argument is that in the face of China's rise, America cannot take the risk of trying to maintain its regional military primacy: 

It is inconceivable that Beijing will accept U.S. predominance in perpetuity and that it will grant the United States complete freedom of action in the Pacific and recognize its ability to prevail militarily in a potential conflict. Trying to sustain such predominance, therefore, is actually the quickest route to instability, practically guaranteeing an arms race, increased regional polarization, and reduced cooperation between Washington and Beijing on common global challenges. And even if some Chinese leaders were tempted to accept continued U.S. predominance, they would almost certainly end up meeting fierce and sustained domestic criticism for doing so as China’s power grows and would likely end 
up reversing course to ensure their political survival.

So what should be the ultimate aim?

...the primary future strategic challenge is finding a way to develop a mutually beneficial means of transitioning from U.S. predominance toward a stable, more equitable balance of power in the western Pacific—one in which neither nation has the clear capacity to prevail in an armed conflict, but in which both countries believe that their vital interests can nonetheless remain secure.

Read on for Swaine's specific proposals about what a negotiated military balance would look like in the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


With Japan now inching closer to agreement on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, some strong stuff from Timothy Lee in Vox:

Trade deals like the TPP have grown so complex because the global trade community has figured out how to solve a problem that has bedeviled philosophers and political leaders for centuries: how to craft international agreements with teeth. The WTO's dispute-settlement process, which serves as a model for the TPP, puts pressure on countries to actually keep the promises they make in trade deals. That's why everyone with an agenda — wealthy investors, drug companies, labor unions, environmental groups, and so on — is scrambling to get on the bandwagon.

But the complex, secretive, and anti-democratic way the TPP is being crafted rubs a lot of people the wrong way. The agreement will have profound and long-lasting effects on countries that sign on, yet voters in those countries won't even be allowed to see the text until negotiations are over and it's too late to make changes.

 From the conclusion:

We expect the laws that govern our economic lives will be made in a transparent, representative, and accountable fashion. The TPP negotiation process is none of these — it's secretive, it's dominated by powerful insiders, and it provides little opportunity for public input.