Lowy Institute

Tomorrow is Anzac Day, a day of national remembrance in Australia and a public holiday. We will have our usual India links for you tomorrow morning and the Weekend Catch-up on Saturday. Normal blogging resumes next Monday.

Photo by Flickr user Luke Redmond


Yesterday I featured a video clip from the Chinese aircraft-maker AVIC celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Chinese PLA Navy. It features an aircraft carrier and fighter jets, and is suffused with an '80s Top Gun aesthetic, right down to the beefcake shots of muscle-bound pilots (what, no volleyball game?).

The whole thing was overlaid with a stirring anthem, and I asked readers if they could translate. One reader, who prefers not to be identified, offers the following translation, with the caveat that it is approximate and was put together quickly:

Want to fly in the sky like an eagle
The blue sky is the first dream
The river flows further
The ocean is powerful.

(Chorus 1)
The sun gives the moon hope
The dome of heaven is blue
The star light is bright.

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The ocean nurtures deep love
The water is sweet (and with effort) becomes glorious
Embrace a dream to fly
Flying higher towards your dream.

The world applauds
To go through the difficult wind
And embrace the sun.

Chorus (1) (Sung again)

Chorus (2)
We come from everywhere
The hot blood in our hearts
Your dream becomes a light
If you want to become splendid
You have to blossom.

Repeat Chorus (2), further short repeats.


Written at end:

Our country chooses people who are devoted
Our country remembers people who are dedicated.


'Together with the Super Hornet and Growler electronic warfare aircraft, the F-35 aircraft will ensure Australia maintains a regional air combat edge', Prime Minister Abbott said today when he announced Australia would spend A$12 billion on 58 additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (14 are already on order). 

He's right, but then he would also have been right about our regional combat edge if Australia had purchased additional Super Hornets. As Andrew Davies wrote in this excellent ASPI primer on the topic, 'The "further Super Hornets" option is almost certainly less expensive...and would provide adequate capability against the range of credible threats that Australia could face in the foreseeable future.'

So this is a decision that shores up our alliance by providing confidence to the overall JSF program, which is vital to the US military. But it also implicitly signals that Australia's defence planners — and our government — are less worried about Southeast Asia than about the growing capabilities of China.


China's state owned aerospace and defence manufacturer AVIC has just released a music video apparently marking the 65th anniversary of the PLA Navy. It looks like China's new aircraft carrier, though far from operational, is already coming in handy as a PR tool.

Now, I don't want to fall into the CNN trap of mocking foreign ways, so let's just say that, for Western media consumers who grew up with Top Gun and have since seen the visual style copied and endlessly parodied, this clip feels just a tiny bit dated.

If any readers out there can translate the lyrics of the song, please get in touch.


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

Last week Bates Gill and Tom Switzer argued on The Interpreter that reports of the death of  America's Pacific pivot' are being exaggerated. This week, former head of the Office of National Assessments Geoff Miller disputed this, stating that there is indeed reason to doubt the Americans commitment to the pivot, and that 'from an Australian point of view, there may be advantages in a less than whole-hearted or fully effective US pivot to Asia':

We are of course a US ally, but we also have a strategic partnership with China. Only last week, in what seems to have been a successful visit to China, Prime Minister Abbott not only put an enormous amount of national and personal effort into strengthening our trade and investment relationship, but also made important advances in the security field. According to press reports, Mr Abbott said he was 'quite confident' of building on high-level meetings and exchanges with the PLA through 'multilateral exercises in the months and years ahead'. The first such exercise will take place in July, when China for the first time joins more than 20 other nations in aspects of the RIMPAC exercises to be held off Hawaii. In that exercise, at Beijing's request, the PLA Navy will operate under Australian command and control.

Yet at almost the same time, the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris has described China as a 'destabilising influence' and accused Beijing of 'revanchist tendencies'.

The AFR's Brian Toohey, a defence specialist for many years, wrote on 5 April that 'Current US projections for a war with China envisage Australia's key contribution would be naval forces at the southern end of China's trade routes to help block the import of commodities such as Australian iron ore and natural gas'. Wouldn't be easier for us to simply not sell our resources to China, if we decided we didn't want China to have them?

But as the PM's visit showed, we do want China to have them, as we want a peaceful outcome to the re-balancing of forces in the Asia Pacific. In this context, we can welcome a US re-balancing or pivot to Asia even while we may remain somewhat sceptical about it. But we don't want the US re-balance to be over-militarised, involving alarming doctrines which have the potential to involve us through a largely unpublicised process of folding our own defence force into US military plans for the region.

Stephen Grenville this week marked a watershed moment in the global economy. Emerging and developing economies combined are now (in terms of purchasing power parity) larger than the advanced economies:

Emerging and developing economies have accounted for three-quarters of global growth since 2009 and make up two-thirds of forecast global growth.

Since mid-2011, the emerging economies in aggregate have maintained a stable pace of expansion, with minor deviations, of around 5%. The Fund forecasts this to be a touch faster during the next two years (see graph above).

Yet the Fund continues to articulate concerns about the sustainability of emerging-economy growth. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told the G20 meeting in September: 'Just as some advanced economies have begun to gather momentum, many emerging markets are slowing'. The latest WEO notes that 'downside risks to growth in emerging market economies have increased even though earlier risks have partly materialized and have already resulted in downward revisions to the baseline forecasts.'

This disconnect between the Fund's down-beat words and its actual forecast figures may be coloured by its interpretation of emerging economy evolution during the past two decades.

Pakistan has once again delayed granting 'most favoured nation' trade status to India (the latter granted MFN status to Pakistan back in 1996). Reza Khan argued that this results primarily from the influence of the military in Pakistani politics:

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Pakistan's military, which has directly ruled the country for nearly half of its existence and has always dominated (if not dictated) its foreign and security policies, has consistently prevented Pakistan from improving relations with Delhi, including on  trade. Pakistan's intelligentsia cite various reasons, mutually reinforcing, for Pakistani military opposition.

The foremost reason is the over-representation of Punjabis in the military. Punjabis are 57% of Pakistan's population while more than 80% personnel of the military are from the Punjab. The Punjab was one of the two provinces divided at the time of creation of India and Pakistan in 1947. Most of the Muslims killed during the mass migration of that time belonged to the Punjab, creating large-scale ill-will among the Pakistani Punjab against India. So, over-representation of the Punjabis in the military resulted in stringent anti-India policies by the military.

Another reason for the military opposition to free trade with India is its apprehensions that volume of the trade would be directly proportional to good relations between the two countries, which would reduce the importance of the military. Around 0.6 million active service and more than 0.5 million reserve military personnel consume a large portion of the country's budget and a good chunk of its GDP, preventing resources from being allocated to health, education and development. As the military has historically justified its huge size due to the security threat from India, Islamabad's good relations with India, the military leadership think, would raise demands for reducing the size of the military.

An allied reason for Pakistani military opposition to freer trade with India is that good relations would shift power over policy-making from the military to the democratic leadership and civil society.

Here's Tess Newton Cain on the role of the private sector in aid and development in the Pacific islands:

Is it good practice for private sector organisations to be given money from the aid budget in order to pursue 'for profit' activities in the hope that they will also deliver development outcomes?

Many Pacific island business already 'do' development. The terminology they use may differ from mainstream 'development speak', and the drivers of business may be different, but development objectives are most certainly achieved. Providing regular employment over a long period of time leads to improved livelihood for workers and their families, including increased access to education, health services and more.

However, it is hard to assess this impact either in any one country or across the Pacific island region. This is partly because the private sector is exactly that, private. In addition, the costs associated with collecting this information are high compared to the amount of data collected, owing to the small size of the formal business sector in each country.

Want to know why the G20 and IMF rebuffed the US last week? Mike Callaghan, the Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre, breaks it down:

The IMF/G20 meetings in Washington last week were not good for the US. And things may get worse.

Instead of focusing on the possibility of additional economic sanctions on Russia, which no doubt would have been the desire of the US, the headlines were 'G20 gives US ultimatum over IMF reforms'

The G20's frustration centres on US failure to ratify the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed by the G20 in 2010. While countries representing nearly 80% of IMF votes have approved the reforms, the required threshold is 85%. The US has a veto with its 16.75% shareholding and the US Congress continues to block the reforms. 

At their recent meeting, G20 finance ministers said that 'if the 2010 reforms are not ratified by year-end, we will call on the IMF to build on its existing work and develop options for next steps'. This has been interpreted as the G20 threatening to move to 'Plan B' which will by-pass the US, an approach strongly advocated by Russia

How significant are the reforms and is there a realistic 'Plan B'? Moreover, what would be the broader consequences of such a move? Or is it all a bluff?

Joe Hockey said the 2010 IMF reforms are a top priority because they would 'double the IMF's permanent resources and lead to a major realignment of voting shares'.

Our regular space analyst, Morris Jones, looks at what tensions over Ukraine mean for US-Russia space cooperation:

The Russian annexation of Crimea has brought a sharp focus on America's dependence on Russia as its only supplier of astronaut launches. Having retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA must pay hefty sums to buy seats on board Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which uses a design little changed from the 1960s.

Simply deciding not to launch astronauts is not an option, as NASA is the 'anchor tenant' in the International Space Station. For the moment, both nations seem to be working normally aboard the station, but other space projects are apparently being scaled back.

This over-dependence on Russia has highlighted another festering problem for American space flight. Nobody knows when the US will deploy another crew-carrying spacecraft, or who will do it. Rivalries between traditional US military-industrial monoliths and a new generation of start-up aerospace companies have been with us for years, but are now being elevated by geopolitical problems. The US Government has been funding the development of private cargo vehicles for the International Space Station (such as the Dragon capsule built by SpaceX, pictured above) and also hopes that private enterprise will eventually build private vehicles for astronauts. Dragon itself can be modified for this purpose (the latest launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which carries the Dragon capsule to orbit, wascancelled just hours agoand is now scheduled for 18 April).

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks look set to collapse. The mood in the West Bank city of Jenin, according to Lisa Main, is one of cynicism:

On a recent visit to Jenin Refugee Camp, I met one young man who still had shrapnel lodged in his stomach from the raid. He told me he's frustrated by the corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA), and their coordination with the Israeli army. He wants peace, but doesn't have confidence in the PA to deliver it. That's not an uncommon sentiment in the West Bank.

As we talked, a younger, more sprightly local boy approached me. Probably aged 12, he eagerly declared, 'we throw stones and molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, they are not our partners in peace'. I asked if he wanted peace. He responded quickly and firmly, 'yes'. I then asked if he was afraid of the soldiers? 'No'. Like his friend, he couldn't see past the occupation. Few people I spoken to can. For the young boy, peace talks are an abstract concept that has failed to deliver any meaningful change in his lifetime.

Exasperated by Israel's continued settlement enterprise, President Abbas has activated his plan B. By signing onto aslew of international conventions that seem to signal a new effort to secure statehood recognition at the UN, he's laying the early groundwork for a formal complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But as the Palestinian president looks to the international community, he may struggle with legitimacy back home. A mix of exhaustion and defeat now plague the Palestinians. If, in the next couple of weeks, Abbas succumbs to Israeli pressure and pauses his move at the UN, his leadership will be further doubted.

Claire Stewart, reporting from Iran, profiles the youth of Esfahan:

For many of the younger, educated Iranians, it feels like their government's ability to control Iran's propaganda is slipping as people see first hand what they are missing out on under the Islamic regime. Yet contrary to Western assumptions, it's not access to the 'excesses' of US culture that young Iranians want most. Almost universally, they hold fast to their religion. But they want the option to take a more moderate approach to its practice and implementation.

Crucially, they want an end to the power of the shadow government, run by the mullahs answerable to the Supreme Leader. But few are under any illusion about the prospects of that, particularly after the disastrous and bloody 2009 Green Revolution and the problems arising from the Arab Spring.

Esse is a carpet salesman and works in the popular tourist hub of Esfahan. He trained as an engineer but can't find work. It's a common problem for university graduates. Professional positions are scarce and usually require a friendly word in the ear of a government contact to seal the deal. Esse says most people are hoping that eventually, international sanctions will be lifted so the economy can be given breathing room. As it is, few expect a functioning relationship with the US (laughingly referred to as 'Big Boss'), despite moves by Iran Air to recommence direct flights from Tehran to Los Angeles, and the relative success of nuclear talks in Geneva late last year.

And still on the Middle East: it was reported this week that two Australian citizens were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen last November. Rodger Shanahan argued that this will open up a new debate in Australia:

Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be 'extrajudicial killings' and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post. 

The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.

Gretta Nabbs-Keller, citing recent comments over the Natuna Islands, asked if Indonesia is shifting its South China Sea policy:

In the post-authoritarian era, Indonesian officials, like many of their Southeast Asian counterparts, have tended to self-censor when it comes to China, avoiding public criticism while benefiting from considerable Chinese largesse. This is what makes recent public comments by senior Indonesian military officers about the vulnerability of Indonesia's South China Sea-located Natuna Islands so interesting. 

Following a February 2014 trip to Beijing, for example, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Moeldoko signaled enhanced defence measures for the Natuna Islands. 'Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI', he explained.

Then in March, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, based at Indonesia's Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, publicly stated that 'China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters'. 

In June 2013, Commodore Amarullah Octavian was even more frank. In announcing that Indonesia would host 'Exercise Komodo' he explained that 'the exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area'.

Unsurprisingly, such candid public comments by senior Indonesian military officers did not go unnoticed in the Indonesian press and scholarly community.

Matthew Linley, a professor at Nagoya University, on why Japan's most daunting challenge is population decline:

After acknowledging Japan's aging problem in his Davos speech this year, Shinzo Abe asked rhetorically, 'in such a country, where will you find those innovative and creative human resources?' He mentioned briefly how foreigners could provide 'help with housework' and 'care for the elderly' but his main argument was that more women must participate in the labour force.

But as others have argued, putting faith in a single approach will not be sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem (the report also indicated that the female population decreased by 0.15%). Nor will it address the imbalanced nature of Japan's population decline. While improving childcare and educational facilities may make working in cities more attractive to women (men too), policymakers outside urban areas must not only provide these basic facilities but also revive local economies with fewer workers and consumers.

So, along with economic reforms and dealing with a rising China, this report is a good reminder of perhaps the most daunting set of questions that Japanese policymakers face today: what will the country do to stop its precipitous population decline and how does the rest of the country compete with the bright lights of Tokyo?

Also on Japan, Anthony Fensom looked at the post-ICJ future of Japanese whaling:

In recent years, the nation's 'research' whaling expedition has conducted an annual, ritualistic battle in the Antarctic against environmentalists led by Sea Shepherd, with seemingly little scope for a breakthrough.

All that apparently changed on 31 March, when after nearly four years of deliberations, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) panel voted 12 votes to four in favour of Australia's argument that Japan's JARPA II research whaling program was illegal, as it failed to constitute scientific research. Has Japanese whaling finally broken the 'groundhog day' cycle?

The answer appears to be in the affirmative, despite claims to the contrary from Sea Shepherd and apparent bravado from the whalers.

According to a Fairfax report, Japan's whalers plan on returning to the Antarctic for a renewed 'research program' in 2015-16, and in compliance with the ICJ decision. Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson said the alleged plan by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which contradicted Japan's official statements after the decision, showed the nation's 'history of duplicity with regard to whaling'.

Yet the evidence suggests Japan's whalers have been politically harpooned, at least for the time being.

Elliot Brennan looked at communal violence in Myanmar, which threatens to undo its political progress:

While the Myanmar Government has since re-emphasised its commitment to protecting aid workers, the problem remains that Rakhine Buddhists want Rakhine Muslims to leave. Human rights groups have been murmuring about the threat of ethnic cleansing and a government policy of persecution against the Rakhine Muslims. While this is largely uncorroborated, what is worrying is the Government's unwillingness to engage on the issue. Daw Aung San Sui Kyi has been widely criticised for her silence, but other politicians have been equally mute.

A key reason for this lack of government engagement is that many people in the country support the Rakhine Buddhists. This sentiment is exacerbated by politicians positioning themselves for the 2015 election, and by a young, newly free and inflammatory media. There is also concern that any action against the Rakhine Buddhists could provoke countrywide protests and reprisal attacks against Muslims.

And finally, here's Lowy Institute research associate Brendan Thomas-Noone on why Australia needs a white paper on cyber:

China alone is estimated to have 590 million users and India a further 151 million. These numbers will continue to grow. A 2012 Boston Consultancy Group report estimated that by 2016 China will have 'nearly 800 million internet users' and that the internet economy itself will reach a value of US$4.2 trillion in the G20 nations. The internet economy will also account for a significant part of future economic growth. The same report states that emerging nations will be 'responsible for about 34% of the overall internet economy' and that same industry will be responsible for '48% of their (future) growth.'

This increase in internet users and digital connectivity is helping to drive growth in international trade. A recent report from Brookings argued that, as the internet becomes a more important 'platform for commerce', individual buyers and sellers are using it to interact across borders in ever more sophisticated ways. A study by PayPal tracked this digital commerce and its relation to trade flows, finding that in just six surveyed markets the value of cross-border commerce was estimated at US$105 billion, and by 2018 this will increase nearly '200% to $307 billion.' The internet is also allowing large amounts of data to cross borders nearly instantaneously, which is also 'underpinning global economic integration and international trade.' Trends in the diffusion of manufacturing and the growing importance of open source design will also increase the importance of digital communication in the global economy. 

As well as purely economic considerations, a cyber white paper could address the convergence of Australia's economic and strategic interests in the digital realm. 

It is undoubtedly in Australia's national interest to see economic interdependence, international trade and communication continue to grow throughout the Indo-Pacific region and between its major powers. Open lines of digital communication are essential for financial transactions and global communication.  An unhindered global commons, which includes the sea, air, space and now cyberspace, underpin a stable strategic system, something that needs to be nurtured in a region that is rife with territorial disputes and rising defence budgets.

If open sea lines of communication are critical to Australia's economy and its national security, then we need to start thinking similarly about the internet and digital communications. 

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.


We're about to start our Easter holiday here in Australia, so the The Interpreter will be light-on over the next few days.

We'll post a few pieces over the break, as well as our usual weekend catch-up on Saturday. Regular posting will resume on Tuesday 22 April.

Image by Flickr user Jeni Rodger.


Evgeny Morozov has cornered the market in passionate take-downs of techno-utopian futurism in recent years, but there's always room for more. Here's Bryan Appleyard in the New Statesman:

...futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.

Why? Because there’s money in it; money and faith. I don’t just mean the few millions to be made from book sales; nor do I mean the simple geek belief in gadgetry. And I certainly don’t mean the pallid, undefined, pop-song promises of politicians trying to turn our eyes from the present – Bill Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” and Tony Blair’s “Things can only get better”. No, I mean the billions involved in corporate destinies and the yearning for salvation from our human condition.

Appleyard would probably wince at this breathless piece about what might be the world capital of techno-utopianism, Google's top secret innovation lab, known as Google X:

If there's a master plan behind X, it's that a frictional arrangement of ragtag intellects is the best hope for creating products that can solve the world's most intractable issues. Yet Google X, as Teller describes it, is an experiment in itself--an effort to reconfigure the process by which a corporate lab functions, in this case by taking incredible risks across a wide variety of technological domains, and by not hesitating to stray far from its parent company's business. We don't yet know if this will prove to be genius or folly. There's actually no historical model, no ­precedent, for what these people are doing.


So you thought Buzzfeed was all listicles? Shame on you. They've published a wonderful profile of the great American political satirist Tom Lehrer, 'a sensation in the late 1950s, the era's musical nerd god: a wryly confident Harvard-educated math prodigy who turned his bone-dry wit to satirical musical comedy'.

Lehrer was a man of the left, but...:

...his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”

Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.


The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes for gloomy reading. The world needs 'drastic changes' to reduce carbon emissions and prevent global temperature rises, reports the ABC; investment in renewable energy needs to triple, says the BBC; the emissions problem is outrunning political determination to tackle it, says the NY Times.

True, there is also a hint of optimism in much of the reporting, because the IPCC itself says the cost of tackling climate change need not be crippling. But there are a lot of 'ifs' and 'buts' attached to that optimism, often corralled around the phrase 'political will': if there's enough of it, we can crack the climate change problem. 'Political will' is one of the most beguiling phrases in politics but should always be distrusted. The unstated subtext is that political leaders just need to lay aside their national interest and see the 'bigger picture'. That of course almost never happens, particularly if the threat is as nebulous as climate change.

Still, if you're looking for true starry-eyed optimism, I recommend this piece from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who argues that solar energy is improving so fast that it could overturn the global energy economy in a decade:

For the world it portends a once-in-a-century upset of the geostrategic order. Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, the veteran Saudi oil minister, saw the writing on the wall long ago. "Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil - and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil," he told The Telegraph in 2000.

I'm sceptical. If there's a lot of surplus oil, it will be cheap, and at lower prices it will find a whole new market. It's great that renewables are getting cheaper, but if that only serves to drive down the cost of fossil fuels, it will be wasted effort. As renewables get cheaper, fossil fuels need to get more expensive. If only there were a market-based mechanism to achieve that aim...

Photo by Flickr user Johan Douma.


CNN suffered a lapse in taste and judgment with this 'light' piece about the royal visit to New Zealand:

Reporter Jeanne Moos  has since apologised for the cultural insensitivity of her piece.

The easiest way to illustrate the tone-deafness of this kind of reporting is to mirror-image it, which Slate does superbly with its regular If it Happened There series, which covers American events and personalities using the same tropes and cliches so often used to report on foreign countries. An example:

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States—On Wednesday morning, this normally bustling capital city became a ghost town as most of its residents embarked on the long journey to their home villages for an annual festival of family, food, and questionable historical facts. Experts say the day is vital for understanding American society and economists are increasingly taking note of its impact on the world economy.

The annual holiday, known as Thanksgiving, celebrates a mythologized moment of peace between America’s early foreign settlers and its native groups—a day that by Americans' own admission preceded a near genocide of those groups. Despite its murky origins, the holiday remains a rare institution celebrated almost universally in this ethnically diverse society.

2 of 3 This post is part of a debate on Snowden WikiLeaks and the future of espionage

Allan Behm, one of the participants in Monday's panel session on Snowden, WikiLeaks and the future of espionage, contributed this to the comments thread:

Governments (should) set their own moral compass. It is important that government employees are ethical and moral. But they are not contracted to provide government with ethical or moral advice. While policy advice to government must never be unethical or immoral, the critical determinant is that advice be framed within the construct of the law: governments are required to act legally. So also are government employees. If government employees entertain ethical or moral qualms regarding the actions of government, especially in the contested areas of the military use of lethal force, the law enforcement use of armed force, or the possible intrusion into personal privacy by the intelligence or law enforcement agencies, they have a duty to make their concerns known to those who exercise the principal accountability to government. Institutional leaders have the responsibility to exercise their judgement and advise on these matters. If a government employee remains conflicted, he or she is absolutely entitled to resign. But government employees are not entitled to advertise their dissenting views. Nor is there any self-imposed "duty" to inform the public of perceived government misdemeanors. In a democracy, government employees exercise their rights as citizens to vote governments out of office. Manning and Snowden broke the law. That is why the US court has prosecuted and sentenced Manning. And it is what should happen to Snowden and anyone else who acts outside the requirements of the law.

Dotpols wrote:

This was a fascinating discussion.

However, I must say that I found Allan Behm's assertion that intelligence operatives/defence personnel etc should only concern themselves with the legality of their employer's (in this case the state) actions is naive and flies in the face of post WW2 attitudes.

Effectively what he seemed to be promoting was a silent protest through resignation - an act that is only partially better than 'the Nuremberg defence' for acts of gross immorality. You simply cannot expect people to uniformly accept this.


Morris Jones writes:

High-resolution satellite imagery has been commercially accessible since 1999, when the first commercial 1-meter resolution satellite was launched by a private US company. Suddenly, a technical means that had once been the exclusive domain of intelligence agencies was widely available...It was hoped that the media would eventually make the transition from tasting free samples to becoming paying customers. That didn’t happen. Tasking and interpreting satellite imagery is a highly specialized skill. Journalists and editors aren’t trained for it. Furthermore, ordering satellite images usually costs money. For today’s media, that’s an even bigger problem than the skills barrier...

The result was continued ignorance about satellite capability (abetted by Hollywood). But:

...The media now knows that tasking satellite images takes time, as does the interpretation. They also understand that not even the most talented analysts can be totally sure of what they are seeing. Some of the misconceptions of all-seeing, all-powerful eyes in the sky have been debunked. Hopefully, the media will take the lessons it has learned through covering this tragedy on board, and will be better prepared for the next time satellites are focused on a major story.

1 of 3 This post is part of a debate on Snowden WikiLeaks and the future of espionage

It was a treat for me to host yesterday's panel discussion on Snowden, WikiLeaks and the Future of Espionage. It was a lively panel which engaged in sometimes passionate discussion on the ethics of leaking, the practical and moral limits of intelligence-gathering, and the implications of spying (and getting caught) for Australia's relations with the world, especially Indonesia.

I was joined by former Four Corners reporter and Julian Assange biographer Andrew Fowler, former senior defence official Allan Behm (who also served as chief of staff to Labor's Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet), and Indonesia specialist Greta Nabbs-Keller, who also served in the Australian defence department.

Here on The Interpreter, we're planning to continue the discussion we started yesterday, particularly on the question of oversight of the intelligence agencies. I want to pull out two quotes from Allan Behm to launch that discussion (40:40):

There is an extraordinary complacency in Australia around intelligence collection. We make all sorts of assumptions that it's all done within the boundaries of the law. I suppose it is. The problem I have is that the law is now 13 years out of date. The most recent version of the Intelligence Services Act, it simply didn't envisage what you could do with meta-data. Nobody has asked the question, to my knowledge, and certainly nobody has told the government that there is a question to be asked.

And at 49:10:

We should have a thorough-going review of the ISA. The agencies should make it clear to the parliament what they are capable of doing. They don't have to say what they've collected, but what they're able to do...that should be open to much more extensive discussion in this country.

In coming days we'll have some follow-up posts that look at questions like the following: is public oversight of the intelligence community robust enough? Has it kept up with the rise of meta-data? Should parliament be more active? Should the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security have a wider remit?

Below, some further highlights from yesterday's discussion.

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  • Gretta Nabbs-Keller (7:20): Australia-Indonesia relations are in 'a cyclical downturn, but it's not a crisis in bilateral relations...I've come back from Jakarta much more upbeat about the state of bilateral relations...there are rumblings that things will mend soon and perhaps the Indonesian ambassador to Canberra may be back sooner rather than later.'
  • Allan Behm: Edward Snowden 'has got the same status as the great train robber, in my view.'
  • Andrew Fowler: 'At the back of all this discussion is the fear...of the mass surveillance state...Not because we have anything to hide, but because it is possible to concentrate the power into the hands of a very small group of people to control millions, billions of people.' (38.10)
  • Greta Nabbs-Keller (44.20): 'We don't know what other nasty revelations are ahead of us. So I would hope the (Australian) Government is looking at a risk-management strategy, particularly with a new government in Indonesia, on how to stem the damage from future leaks.'

Finally, as I mentioned above, there were several exchanges about the ethics of leaking, and I wanted to share this one between Andrew Fowler, Allan Behm and myself at 26:50. We return to the topic at 50:20 with a question from journalist Brian Toohey:

AF: (Leaking) is very rare. They only do it when it really matters. And they should do it, and I would encourage them to do it.

SR: But of course, at the point at which they...have a fundamental moral objection, the obvious answer is to resign, right?

AF: No, I don't think so. I think the obvious answer actually is to stay inside and leak to us.

AB: I was never employed as the conscience of a government...I don't know anyone employed in that kind of role.

SR: But nor did you leave your conscience at the door when you clocked in each morning.

AB: That's completely correct. So if the govt is bent upon some action that you have moral disagreement with...then it is absolutely your entitlement to resign...you don't go and stand up on a box and start telling everybody that you have got a better or a higher moral purpose than anybody else has. I think that's the route to anarchy, actually.


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

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to visit Japan, South Korea and China next week. Rory Medcalf laid out some of the challenges Mr Abbott will face:

Much has been made of Mr Abbott's fresh focus on Japan as a security partner, not quite an ally but seemingly not far from it. This at a time when Japan, under Shinzo Abe, is taking steps to 'normalise' its defence policies, including in allowing defence exports, expanding scope for military cooperation with others and slightly increasing defence spending.

Some commentators are warning that Prime Minister Abbott could let his judgment be swayed by sentiment rather than diplomatic reason. After all, he has called Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'. (Mind you, one of those commentators, Hugh White, has previously called Japan something not entirely dissimilar, Australia's 'most successful relationship' in Asia.)

Contrary to some perceptions, Australia has not taken sides on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands maritime dispute between China and Japan.

Australia is right not to recognise one country's territorial claims over another's. But Australia is also right to support the principle that differences should be settled by means other than force. That, in my view, was the underlying reason for the Abbott Government's decisions in late 2013 to state its opposition to coercive efforts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and, in particular, China's new air defence identification zone.

That said, there is no question China has been seriously unhappy with Australia's stance on these issues. So the forthcoming visit to Bejing is a vital opportunity to signal that Australia's foreign and security policies towards the Asian powers are based on principles, interests and mutual respect.

Robert Kelly provided us with three reasons why North Korea continues to provoke. Here's the first:

1. North Korean incidents are often tied to some event they dislike

Missile tests, nuclear tests, Yellow Sea incidents, arrests of tourists and so on often seem to occur as a response to a discrete event. Usually these are related to the Americans. So when President Obama met with President Park last week, missiles were tested. When George Bush placed North Korea on the 'axis of evil', the Northern nuclear program went into overdrive. When the South Korean navy outperformed its northern counterpart in a 2009 Yellow Sea clash, the North struck back the following year by sinking a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. When South Korea and the US conduct annual training exercises, the North almost always pulls some stunt in response to US 'imperialism', and so on.

This is a dangerous way to express geopolitical displeasure, but North Korea is so badly isolated that mini-aggressions like these may serve a curious purpose. North Korea lacks a serious diplomatic corps. It lacks formal diplomatic recognition with many important states, particularly South Korea, the US, and Japan, its major proximate adversaries.

This may then be a way for the North to 'talk' with the outside world. And while this seems quite risky, in the context of the world's most militarised state governed by a cornered, paranoid elite (see the next point), there is a (disturbing) logic to it.

On the Pacific, Bal Karma looked at a milestone in the anti-corruption cause in PNG: the sentencing of a former minister and current parliamentarian to nine years in prison:

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It was the most severe penalty any PNG court has ever given to a convicted corrupt public official since PNG's independence. In his judgment, Deputy Chief Justice Salika was adamant that 'misappropriation of public funds by public officials in positions of trust is a serious crime.'

Tiensten was first elected to parliament in 2002 and up until last week, he had been in political office for over a decade. Tiensten was regarded as one of the most senior ministers in Sir Michael Somare's National Alliance government, successively holding ministries of Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, and National Planning. Tiensten was a member of Somare's infamous 'kitchen cabinet.' 

No stranger to controversy, Tiensten, while serving as the foreign minister, was implicated in the Taiwanese diplomatic scandal, a charge he strongly denied. Tiensten initially fled to Australia to avoid investigation of the current case, accusing Task Force Sweep (TFS) of a political 'witch-hunt.' TFS is a multi-agency anti-corruption task force set up by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

And here's Tess Newton Cain on the recent flurry of electoral activity in Fiji. Tess' conclusion:

Needless to say, all of this activity has generated a great deal of comment both within Fiji and elsewhere. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop welcomed Friday's announcements. She also referenced the significance of two Australian officials operating at very senior levels within the Electoral Commission  as deputy supervisor and director of operations.

The governments of Australia and New Zealand also subsequently lifted their remaining travel bans. This is a continuation of the assertive approach Bishop has followed since taking up her position. While some have warmly welcomed the move, it is not without risk. If the elections do not go ahead or if there are blatant abuses of process, including denial of constitutional and other human rights, Australia may be exposed. Of course, having put the arrow of travel bans back into the sling, it will be available for re-use.

It is useful to take a wider perspective on what is happening in Fiji. It is not the first country to transition from military rule to democratic government. What history tells us is that democracy is a process, not a product. The September elections are part of this transition process but they are only the beginning.

Paul Buchanan has looked at how this process has played out elsewhere. It commences with an election in which a former military leader achieves formal legitimacy by winning a contest which he had very little chance of losing. It is only at the next election, or possibly the one after that, when democracy has become more meaningfully (re)-established and there is a real possibility of power changing hands, that individual and institutional commitments are truly tested.

Peter Layton argued this week that Australia's strategy toward the disputes in the East and South China Seas is clearly not working:

Australia's current strategy includes encouraging the America to pivotbefriend the Japanese, do some hedging anddecry Chinese assertiveness. Our underlying logic, and that of others, seems to be that by reinforcing the balance of power and so demonstrating resolve, China will realise it cannot achieve its objectives by force and thus be deterred. This is all good realist stuff, but it plays to China's strengths: global economic power and, nearer the Chinese mainland, military might.

The problem is that the Chinese are clearly not deterred. The clever use of Coastguard ships has kept the perceived level of violence down. The Chinese have generally kept the disputes bilateral, thus maximising their power against each interlocutor. Moreover, the Chinese Government often simultaneously offers economic carrots, such as free trade agreements, which deters firm responses to Chinese territorial moves.

And really, are these barren islands and coral atolls worth imperiling regional peace and global stability over? The US and its allies do have some war-fighting concepts to use in extremis, but these involve inflicting so much economic and financial pain on ourselves that the plans are effectively self-deterring.

Stephen Grenville with a report card on Abenomics:

Today the Japanese value-added tax (VAT: what Australians call the GST) rises from 5% to 8%. This seemingly mundane event is a key part of the 'Abenomics' program, the effort to shake Japan out of its decades-long economic lethargy. So how does Abenomics look after 15 months?

Exhibit 1 is the sharp rise in GDP growth. Comparing the fourth quarter of 2013 with a year before, GDP is 2.6% higher, a break-neck pace by recent Japanese standards. But was this a temporary boost reflecting a belated recovery from the 9% fall in GDP in the 2008 crisis and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or is it a trend-breaking reflection of a new growth-enhancing policy regime? 

 On Southeast Asia, our most popular post for the week asked why Islamic political parties don't do well in Indonesian elections:

Almost 90% of Indonesians identify as Muslim, with millions not only practicing Islam in their personal lives but joining Muslim mass organisations as well. 'Aspirational pietism' is a growth industry in Indonesia, producing a boom in Muslim fashion, banking and media.

But when it comes to voting, the support for Islam-based parties is surprisingly low.

Candidates from parties that are Islamist in policy or identity do not feature among the frontrunners for president, with Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo from the secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) well in front in most polls, followed by candidates from secular parties such as Gerindra, Golkar and the Democratic Party. However, the absence of Islam-based parties among the top contenders does not mean Islam is absent entirely from Indonesian politics.

In his first week as an official presidential candidate, Jokowi paid his respects to Indonesia's two biggest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. NU, with an estimated membership of around 40 million, is a traditionalist group known to incorporate syncretic Javanese beliefs of the type Jokowi is rumoured to hold. Muhammadiyah, which claims around 30 million members, is a modernist group that discourages syncretism and promotes a more conservative interpretation of Islamic texts.

 On Myanmar, Trevor Wilson looked at the legacy of President Thein Sein:

Thein Sein's performance as president has probably exceeded most expectations.

Thein Sein's inaugural speech on 30 March 2011 was important in setting the aspirational direction for the country, which Myanmar's people and the international community both wanted. From economic policy to political reforms, it set a reformist tone and high goals, transcending short-term political objectives.

Subsequently, Thein Sein has shown firm leadership, and has generally proved a credible and popular leader. He has been decisive at times, and responded to domestic opinion in a manner not previously seen in Myanmar. And he has publicly advocated a strategic national agenda.

Thein Sein was in many respects working from a blank canvas, but has engaged constructively in a contest for authority with the new parliament, including in introducing mechanisms to improve checks and balances in Myanmar's fledgling democracy. He was able to set up effective working relationships with parliamentary members of the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party, which he previously headed, as well as with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Heading west, we also had a few excellent posts on the Middle East this week. Here's Rodger Shanahan on the Pakistanis serving in some of the Persian Gulf militaries:

When I worked as a Defence Attaché in the Gulf, my local military driver was often not who I thought he was. Resplendent in his dishdasha and with excellent Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he was a Pakistani Baluch. When I asked my interlocutors how many Pakistanis there were in Gulf military forces, the stock answer was always that, while this was common in the past, nowadays nearly all personnel were citizens.

Pakistanis have indeed played important roles in Arab states in the past: a former Pakistani president, Zia ul Haq, commanded a Jordanian formation during the fight against Palestinian groups in 1970 that came to be known as Black September; and thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to Saudi Arabia following both the Iranian revolution and the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Far from being a thing of the past, it would appear that Pakistani links to Gulf security forces remain strong. Reports last week indicated that Bahrain employs 10,000 Pakistanis in its security forces, including 20% of its air force. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif denied Pakistan was providing troops, but the article said Pakistan provided security personnel to help quell the 2011 sectarian protests. Not officially, mind you, because they had been recruited through two of Pakistan's military welfare organisations.

Lisa Main looked at Egyptian presidential hopeful (and coup leader) Abdel Fattah al Sisi:

Since that dramatic moment last July, Sisi has been the central figure of Egypt's military-backed interim government. His persona among the masses has reached fever pitch. In that time, at least 2500 Egyptians have been killed in demonstrations and at least 19,000 have been arrested for affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood or for participating in pro-Morsi protests. Last week an Egyptian court shocked the world when it sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death.

This is the new Egypt.

A career soldier, Sisi remains a bit of a mystery. Few know much about him.

The softly spoken Field Marshal is a devout Muslim from a conservative family. His wife wares the niqab, a full-face veil. In 2006 Sisi traveled to the US to study a master's degree at the Army War College. In a research paper on the impact of democratising the Middle East, Sisi discussed the role of Islam, arguing 'the practice of Islam and democracy can coexist'. He addressed the problems of media censorship and those created by a wealthy elite ruling the poor.

But his conciliatory tone in the essay jars with much of his recent track record.

Some in Egypt suspect his religious leanings were the reason President Morsi appointed him commander-in-chief. And at times Sisi has been questioned over his loyalties. In June 2012, talk show host Tawfiq Okasha, described as the Glenn Beck of Egypt, accused Sisi of being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) promptly denied the claim. Yet during Morsi's short rule Sisi let the Brotherhood think he was their man while simultaneously assuring the military he was protecting their interests.

And last but not least, Anthony Bubalo launched a new research paper this week on 'next-gen jihad in the Middle East'. This, on Egypt, is from the accompanying Interpreter post: 

 At the heart of the problem in Egypt is the conflict between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military and the security services – or at least the most hard-line elements in each – seem to genuinely believe they can wipe the Brotherhood out. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is more than happy to play the role of martyr to win back public support after its brief and incompetent rule.

But neither of these things is going to happen any time soon. And until Egypt's most important national institution reaches an accommodation with its largest opposition movement, there will violence, instability and radicalisation.

There are two main dangers. First, that the conflict will radicalise elements of the Brotherhood and other young Egyptians unhappy with the military crackdown. Some in the Brotherhood are already debating the wisdom of sticking to a non-violent approach to politics.

Second, that the turmoil will be exploited by more extreme jihadist groups which are already fighting a serious insurgency in the Sinai and since the coup have been mounting more attacks in the rest of Egypt.

Photo by Flickr user Maddie.


Take a moment to marvel at Bill Clinton's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live yesterday (part 1 of 6 above; the rest here). He's in complete command here, seamlessly combining the showmanship and humour that are the staple of such chat shows with command of policy, politics, constitutional law and even science. I can't think of another politician who can touch him, whether its in settings like this or in set-piece speeches like the one that brought the house down at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

A deeply flawed character, no doubt. But what a talent.