Lowy Institute

Yesterday the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, gave a true big-picture address to the Lowy Institute on Australia's place in a changing global and regional order. To get a sense of Peter's themes, check out his op-ed in yesterday's Australian. The full recording and transcript of the address are available here, and I notice John Garnaut covered the speech for Fairfax.

Below is a short interview I conducted with Peter just before his speech. One of the most interesting parts of the speech is Peter's claim that two factors will determine whether China's rise can be managed peacefully: the first is China's own behaviour, and the second is 'the extent to which the existing international and regional order intelligently finds more space for China.' In the middle of the interview, I ask Peter what that means, in practical terms:  


A strangely beautiful piece of data visualisation from a Canadian 'electronic music and visual trio' called Orbital Mechanics. The red dots denote atmospheric detonations, yellow is for underground and blue is for underwater:

I note in the comments for this video that readers are pointing to a very similar data visualisation which appeared in 2003. Orbital Mechanics replies that they came up with this independently.

(H/t Kottke.)


Herewith a few more data points on the global energy picture.

I post about this topic semi-regularly, and loyal readers might have noted that I swerve wildly from pessimism (we're going to need huge amounts of fossil fuels for a long time) to optimism (the green energy revolution is just around the corner!). I would just caution that none of these missives represent my finished views; in the best traditions of blogging, you are watching me make up my mind as I write.

My latest pessimistic note was on India's energy needs; I said India would be heavily coal-dependent for some time. On Twitter someone kindly pointed me to this Guardian piece putting the contrary view. Interesting piece, particularly the argument that the coal which might be dug up from Queensland will not in fact raise living standards for the poorest Indians, as Prime Minister Abbott argued, but will go to the already energy-rich. I note, though, that the piece ends with the plea that 'What Indians need is affordable, locally-generated renewable energy, not coal.' True, and in fact affordable renewable energy is what the entire world needs. But if wishes were horses....

Anyway, to a couple of other pieces I have stumbled on in recent days. First, Bill Gates on energy innovation:

If we create the right environment for innovation, we can accelerate the pace of progress, develop and deploy new solutions, and eventually provide everyone with reliable, affordable energy that is carbon free. We can avoid the worst climate-change scenarios while also lifting people out of poverty, growing food more efficiently, and saving lives by reducing pollution.  

To create this future we need to take several steps...One step is to lay the foundation for innovation by drastically increasing government funding for research on clean energy solutions. Right now, the world spends only a few billion dollars a year on researching early-stage ideas for zero-carbon energy. It should be investing two or three times that much. Why should governments fund basic research? For the same reason that companies tend not to: because it is a public good.

And here's Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountains Institute, a research institution focused on the efficient use of resources, on the troubled future of the oil industry

Read More

Having advised oil companies for 42 years, I’m worried that many don’t yet grasp how their competitive landscape is being transformed far faster than their cultures can comprehend or cope with.

Most importantly, their demand is going away — not incrementally but fundamentally. Like whale oil in the 1850s, oil is becoming uncompetitive even at low prices before it becomes unavailable even at high prices. U.S. gasoline (and electricity) demand has been falling since 2007 as more people drive thriftier vehicles fewer miles; the same is true in rich countries as a whole. Now major developing countries like China are shifting their energy strategy so quickly toward efficiency and renewables that global “peak oil” — in demand, not supply — could occur in this decade, not many decades in the future as the industry assumes.

Over decades, oil reserves unburnable for climate reasons could well be smaller than reserves unsellable for competitive reasons...

There's a tension in these two articles: if market forces are working so dramatically against fossil fuels, as Lovins argues, is the kind of government investment in renewables that Gates advocates really necessary? We'll have a piece for you next week from one of Bloomberg's top energy analysts which explores that tension.

Photo by Flickr user nate2b.


It's hard to find a dominant topic on The Interpreter this week, although energy — clean and otherwise — was a recurring theme. Let's start with Hannah Wurf on speculation that China will join the International Energy Agency:

...it is not clear if China and other emerging economies are ready to join the IEA. The Chinese Government has not made IEA membership a top priority, although it has strong ties with the organisation. There are some who believe the future of energy governance is in Asian-focused organisations rather than the IEA, with its fixed principles and institutional history. The IEA risks going through a series of complicated reforms only for disgruntled members to be told that big players like China and India are not yet interested in membership.

 Shashank Joshi looks at India's counter-terrorist capability in light of the recent Gurdaspur attack:

KPS Gill, a former director of police in the Punjab, renowned for his central role in curbing the insurgency, wrote a scathing column for the Indian Express pointing to a woeful lack of equipment and training for local police. The same newspaper noted that Punjab police had been trained by Israeli specialists four years ago but that funding dried up, leaving police firing 'a handful of rounds for practice' every year, SWAT teams walking around a live siege without bulletproof vests or helmets, turf wars between local and federal forces, and no back-up for two hours. Seven years after the Mumbai attacks, India's ability to respond quickly and effectively to major attacks remains under serious question.

Stephen Grenville on the 50th anniversary of the ANU Indonesia Project:

There has been plenty of Indonesian recognition of the Project's value as a source of research. One top Indonesian economist said 'It is ironic that the best institution...on the Indonesian economy is not in Indonesia but is to be found in Australia.' 

But evaluating its worth as 'ballast' in the relationship has proven harder and its value has often gone unrecognised. One of the regular reviewers noted that the Project's budget (less than A$1 million a year) 'represents significantly less than 1/10th of one percent of AusAID's country program in Indonesia. Effectively, the Project operates on a slender shoestring, while providing plenty of leverage for AusAID's money'.

It now seems clear that Taliban leader Mullah Omar died in 2013. Will that undermine the early stages of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government? No, says Lowy Institute Thawley scholar Jacob Berah

Read More

If we assume the announcement was correct and that Mullah Omar in fact died years ago, as the Kabul rumour mill has long conjectured, then it was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' his death was revealed. Although the announcement will probably stall talks for now, it was better to have gotten this out of the way early, before talks progressed and the foundation of a negotiated agreement was hammered out. Announcing his death later in the piece would have likely been far more disruptive, potentially calling into question what had already been negotiated and sending the peace process back to square one.

Is Southeast Asia really a piracy hotspot? Statistics can be misleading, says Sam Bateman:

A recent piece by Elliot Brennan (Southeast Asia: Here be Pirates) misrepresents the piracy situation in Southeast Asia. It follows media reports claiming Southeast Asia is now the main global 'hot spot' for global piracy and sea robbery. That may be true in absolute numbers of reported attacks, but before making broad statements about piracy in the region and the counter-measures required, it's necessary to look more closely at the figures.

Turkey and Malaysia are on parallel political-religious trajectories, wrote Daniel Woker:

At opposite ends of the Islamic world, two traditional examples of moderate Islam in a modern state are slipping fast. In their desperate quest for personal power, President Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia appear to be not only destroying their personal reputations but also dragging their countries towards religious extremism and confrontation between national minorities.

Prime Minister Abbott announced a new naval shipbuilding plan this week, which was expertly picked apart by Derek Woolner:

Whatever happens, it seems likely that the Navy's force structure will become more expensive as either the surface fleet is expanded or its vessels' operational lives are reduced in line with a continuous replacement program. Whatever the Government's preferences, it also seems that a considerable part of the future submarine program will need to be undertaken in Australia if a continuous build policy is to be sustained.

More clearly, Australian naval shipbuilding is now centred on Adelaide. Some of the smaller regional yards may be able to survive on fleet maintenance, which will also support the continued viability of the industry in Fremantle. However, should BAe wish to remain in Australian naval shipbuilding, it might be best advised to realise the latent real estate value of its Williamstown facility and purchase ASC. Whether that would ultimately contribute to the Commonwealth Government losing more seats in Victoria than it might hope to save in South Australia remains to be seen.

The Interpreter took a close look at President Obama's big clean-energy announcement, via climate experts Frank Jotzo and Howard Bamsey:

The Clean Power Plan will contribute perhaps a quarter of the reductions needed to reach the US national target, so clearly much more needs to be done. But the Plan is an expression of earnest political will, the fuel of the negotiating process. Sustained US leadership throughout Obama's second term has helped move that process from feeble sputtering to a steady tick.

Obama claims US action is the reason China is moving on climate change. This is a massive overstatement. China acts for its own domestic reasons and objectives. But it is true that without commitments and action in the US, it would be harder for China to take a leadership role on climate change. The converse holds true too: if there was less action in China, it would be more difficult for Obama to run hard on the issue of climate change.

ASEAN is once again being outmanoeuvred by China, says Elliot Brennan:

In recent years, Cambodia has been a thorn in the side of ASEAN unity on this issue. In 2012 it blocked any ASEAN unity, and since then Chinese investment into Cambodia (and Laos) has increased. The relationship remains strong; a day before ASEAN foreign ministers began thrashing out a position on the South China Sea, Hun Sen was (with impeccable timing) opening a new Cambodia-China Friendship Bridge...

...If ASEAN can find unity at this meeting on the South China Sea, it will have a far stronger hand at the East Asia Summit in November. But China has already completed a large amount of construction across the South China Sea, and to much surprise on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said construction in the area has now stopped. That will throw a big spanner in the works of any final ASEAN statement. From a position of greater strength, it could also see China become more receptive to discussions on a Code of Conduct with ASEAN members.

Once again, it appears Beijing has outmanoeuvred a laggardly and divided ASEAN.

'How should Australia treat ISIS returnees?', asks intelligence expert David Wells:

Will the possibility of jail time deter potential travelers from leaving for the Middle East? Given that some are actively seeking martyrdom, and given the current rate of attrition for foreign fighters, I'd suggest not.

But importantly, it will and already is deterring or delaying the return of individuals who claim to be disenchanted with life in the Caliphate but who hope to avoid a lengthy jail sentence back in Australia. A successful prosecution in this case would undoubtedly help drum home the Australian Government's message. Conversely, an unsuccessful prosecution could send a message that new counter-terrorism legislation does not stand up to the challenges of prosecuting foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. It's a high-risk, high-reward approach, with significant implications for the Government's counter-terrorism policy as a whole.

Is Australia's embrace of MIKTA risky? Christian Downie thinks so:

...any intrusion of a power-based grouping limited Australia's capacity to establish issue-based coalitions, one of our principal strategies to influence G20 outcomes. This is the risk with MIKTA. Australia's participation has the potential not only to further legitimate power-based and regional groupings, which are not in Australia's interest, but also to undermine the credibility of Australian calls for other countries to coalesce around issues instead of blocs.

Every time Australian officials at the G20, or some other international forum, chastise the G7 or the BRICS for blocking progress or developing positions across a range of issues rather than addressing each issue on its merits, these countries can point to MIKTA.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth took her weekly look back at events in Jakarta:

In other news, an Indonesian non-government organisation made world headlines this week for honouring North Korea's autocratic leader Kim Jong-un with an award for statesmanship. The award came from the Sukarno Education Foundation, headed by former president Sukarno's daughter, Rachmawati Sukarnoputri. Under the media spotlight, Rachmawati defended the award,  saying that human rights abuse allegations against Kim were only 'Western propaganda', and that there were parallels between him and her father for their 'fight against neo-colonialist imperialism'. She did not reveal how the foundation would deliver the award to the reclusive dictator.

Climate economist Fergus Green began a three-part series on Australia's renewable energy wars:

In terms of absolute renewable energy capacity additions, China reigns supreme, and its additions dwarf what Australia is considering. Whereas Australia would need to build only about 1.4 gigawatts (GW) of large scale renewable capacity per year between 2020 and 2030 to get to 50% renewable electricity (ie. 14GW in ten years), China built more than 20GW of wind capacity last year alone. China is planning to add another 100-200GW of wind power and another 75GW of solar in the next five years, targets that are likely to be increased and exceeded if recent experience is any guide (see p. 38 of our recent Policy Brief). A recent report by Chinese government energy planning agencies contained a 'high-penetration renewable energy scenario' whereby China would build 2400GW of wind and 2700GW of solar by 2050.

Of course, China's electricity sector is vastly bigger than Australia's, but the point is that we needn't think that 14GW of large scale renewables in Australia over ten years is anything radical. It's the very least we should be doing.

Photo by Flickr user t.bone1987.


Prime Minister Abbott can expect to be pilloried by the usual suspects for his comments that the recent court ruling against the  massive Adani coal mine in central Queensland is 'tragic for the wider world'. But take a look at the video accompanying the SMH story on this issue, and you will see that this quote comes right after Abbott's claim that the coal to be dug out at Carmichael will 'power up the lives of 100 million people in India', which is where the coal will be exported.

In that context, Abbott's 'tragedy' statement looks a lot more defensible.

This is not to say Abbott's claim about 100 million Indians should be taken at face value, given that he is evidently playing somewhat loose with the truth when he claims the Adani mine will create 10,000 jobs. But the broader point stands: the electricity generated from cheap coal has been enormously beneficial to the developing world, and has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and misery. Given India's massive energy demand, coal will continue to play that role in the future.

Inevitably, the SMH story also recycles Abbott's October 2014 statement that coal is 'good for humanity'. That statement can also be defended on the grounds that electricity generated from coal has alleviated a lot of poverty. Nevertheless, given the damage coal does to the atmosphere, it's necessary to modify Abbott's claim. It's not coal that is good for humanity, it is cheap energy that is good for humanity. The trick is to generate energy in such a way as to not warm the earth through carbon emissions, and on that front, the Abbott Government can certainly be criticised, as Fergus Green argues in his latest Interpreter piece.

Read More

Abbott's critics also need to grapple with the fact that coal is not on its way out. Despite the impressive growth of renewables, these technologies can't quite compete yet, which is why developing countries such as India are still investing in coal. As the FT's energy correspondent Nick Butler writes:

The coal industry is growing. Demand was up last year despite the slowdown in China, and globally almost 30 per cent higher than a decade ago. Coal will soon (perhaps as soon as next year) overtake oil as the world’s most substantial single source of energy, regaining some of the market share it has lost to oil and gas over the last half century.

The first era of coal began with the industrial revolution and extended through the 19th century, thanks to the development of railways and shipping across the world. The second era has its origins in the economic transformation of China which began in the last two decades of the last century, followed now by that of India. The next 50 years are likely to see more coal burnt than in the whole of the 20th century.

These are not random predictions or assertions put out by the coal industry lobby. They reflect the considered conclusions of all the serious long-term forecasts of the global energy market, including those published by the most reputable and neutral public agencies such as the International Energy Agency.

Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Buckingham.


Andrew Revkin, who writes the New York Times' Dot Earth blog:

This is an important step on two fronts — sustaining domestic momentum away from coal in electricity generation and providing a fresh signal to other countries that the United States is committed to cutting its carbon footprint.

Brad Plumer, Vox:

A bunch of media outlets are referring to this as "Obama's climate plan." But that's not quite right. More precisely, this rule is just one piece of a much broader Obama agenda to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions over the next decade. The Clean Power Plan is certainly a significant component, but it isn't even expected to account for a majority of the cuts Obama's envisioning. So keep an eye on all those other rules and policies, as well.

Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on foreign Relations:

Politics has greatly constrained the realm of the possible for emissions cutting policy. A fundamental shift in U.S. politics could in principle yield something substantially better – but that isn’t the universe we’re living in. For the time being, the principal alternatives to the Clean Power Plan as it stands are inaction; a different set of EPA regulations that’s far less flexible (and hence less economically sound) or far weaker; or, potentially, large subsidies to a range of zero-carbon energy generators. The Clean Power Plan is a vastly superior way forward.

Michael Grunwald, Politico:

Read More

by the end of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years. What, did you think the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change would actually accelerate the nation’s efforts to combat climate change?

The final rule will also delay the first deadline for states to meet interim targets from 2020 to 2022, a significant walkback in a plan that Obama, cueing the Times, called “the biggest, most important step we’ve taken to combat climate change.”

If you’re really ranking them, the Clean Power Plan is at best the fourth-strongest action that Obama has taken to combat climate change, behind his much-maligned 2009 stimulus package, which poured $90 billion into clean energy and jump-started a green revolution; his dramatic increases in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which should reduce our oil consumption by 2 million barrels per day; and his crackdown on mercury and other air pollutants, which has helped inspire utilities to retire 200 coal-fired power plants in just five years. The new carbon regulations should help prevent backsliding, and they should provide a talking point for U.S. negotiators at the global climate talks in Paris, but the 2030 goals would not seem overly ambitious even without new limits on carbon.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones responds:

This is a little unfair in two ways. First, the 15 percent reduction of the past decade was the low-hanging fruit. The initial cuts are always the easiest. The next 15 percent will be harder, and mandating that it happen at about the same rate is more stringent than it sounds.

Second, the decrease over the last decade happened mostly because gas-fired plants became cheaper than coal thanks to the boom in natural gas fracking. That's a one-time deal, and there's no guarantee that something similar will drive further decreases. Having a mandate in place forces it to happen regardless of future events in the energy market.

David Graham, The Atlantic:

In brief, the Clean Power Plan puts limits on carbon pollution from power plants, mandating a 32-percent reduction by 2030, though based on 2005 levels, setting state-by-state standards for reduction. The rule is expected to lead to the closure of many coal-fired plants and prevent new ones from opening. The regulation was first proposed last year, and, after the EPA considered public comments, the final rule was released Monday. Experts described the rule as historic.

“They’re the most important regulations on climate change ever issued by the U.S.,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Gerrard said while the rule’s impact would be important stateside, it was at least as important because of the role it will play in the global negotiations in Paris. Although China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has historically been larger, and American action is seen as essential to urging other countries to move on reductions. Following Obama’s proposal in 2014, China announced new emissions targets. But international progress is fragile, and attempts at marshaling a global response to climate change have repeatedly foundered.

“If these rules were to crash and burn before the Paris conference, that would likely have disastrous effects there,” Gerrard said.

 The Economist's Democracy in America blog:

Even if domestic leadership on the EPA’s proposals remains uncertain, the plan suggests America wishes to occupy a bigger role at the climate negotiations in Paris this December. Ethan Zindler, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says the measures finally “sync up international promises with domestic policies.” America’s emissions-reduction deal with China late last year now has more bite, for example. And any indication that America is more open to multilateral negotiations is welcome news elsewhere in the world, even if many allies had hoped for a more ambitious environmental agenda.


This trailer for a new documentary about Steve Jobs  (there's also a biopic in the works starring Michael Fassbender) reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to tell you about a thoughtful essay I read recently called Web Design: The First 100 Years.

Over the last few years a backlash has begun against the technological utopianism of the tech industry, and Apple and Google in particular. I suspect the tech sceptic Yevgeny Morozov has had a lot to do with this shift (see particularly To Save Everything, Click Here), and more recently it has become popularised in the TV comedy series Silicon Valley, in which tech industry CEOs with more than a passing resemblance to the Jobs persona are depicted as ruthless capitalists who have the public image of spiritual leaders. The industry's altruistic pretensions are also regularly mocked by way of a running joke on the mantra to 'make the world a better place': 

Maciej Ceglowski, an American programmer who shares this scepticism about Silicon Valley's utopian mission, writes in Web Design: The First 100 Years:


This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley. The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized...This vision holds that the Web is only a necessary first step to a brighter future. In order to fix the world with software, we have to put software hooks into people's lives. Everything must be instrumented, quantified, and networked. All devices, buildings, objects, and even our bodies must become "smart" and net-accessible. Then we can get working on optimizing the hell out of life...

....But what if after software eats the world, it turns the world to shit?  Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt. There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd's Burden.

Technological Utopianism has been tried before and led to some pretty bad results. There's no excuse for not studying the history of positivism, scientific Marxism and other attempts to rationalize the world, before making similar promises about what you will do with software.

Ceglowski endorses a more modest vision for the web, one that has largely been achieved: to erase the barriers of distance between people, and put all of human knowledge at our fingertips.

Do read the whole thing


Why do people commit cruelties on their fellow human beings? Because they're politely told to:

For another recent movie trailer in the same genre, see The Stanford Prison Experiment.

NB: I posted this in haste and didn't make it clear why the themes of this movie are of interest here on The Interpreter. The basic answer is that the movie raises interesting questions about the motivations of those involved in atrocities. See the excellent Wikipedia page on Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners for another example of this type of discussion.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


A couple of things jump out at me from President Obama's latest (and last) interview with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. The first is that in interview settings, Obama is not the most compelling advocate for his own policies and record. He's just too incorrigibly wonkish to connect with a broad range of people.

The second thing is Obama's consistent emphasis on the long term and gradual reform. It reinforces the assessment of Obama made by the US political analyst Josh Marshall last week, in which he disputes the emerging conventional wisdom that Obama is in a hurry to set his legacy in place:

When I look at Obama I don't see a President desperately trying to cram legacy achievements into the declining months of his presidency. I see achievements coming to fruition that were usually years in the making but often seemed errant or quixotic and uncertain in their outcome.

Marshall's take is not original. Andrew Sullivan was one of the first to identify that Obama has from the very beginning of his presidency had an eight-year agenda, and that he plays a long game. Further evidence emerges overnight in the form of this report saying that Obama is on the verge of finally fulfilling his 2008 election promise to close Guantanamo Bay. Yes, Obama has had a stellar month, but as his former campaign adviser David Axelrod says (my emphasis):

...he’s had the most productive period he’s enjoyed since the first two years: Cuba, the climate agreement with China, action on immigration, fast track on trade, the SCOTUS decisions on health care and marriage and now this agreement on Iran. These are big, historically significant developments, in most cases the culmination of years of commitment on his part.

Obama has one major international agenda item left, and that is climate change. On this issue, says the Wall St Journal, the President is on a long march to Paris, which will host global climate talks in December. That would certainly fit the pattern.


The ALP is holding its National Conference in Melbourne next week, and in May it released a draft National Platform, which will be debated at the Conference. Media coverage thus far has hinted at the topics most likely to cause friction among party factions and with the Government: emissions trading, asylum seekersmarriage equality and perhaps energy policy.

The foreign policy section of the draft probably won't get much attention, but it is worth highlighting one change to the document compared to Labor's existing National Platform, which was agreed at Labor's last national conference in 2011.

That document refers to Japan as 'Australia’s closest partner in Asia'. But the new draft omits this statement or any similar sentiment. Instead, the new draft groups Japan alongside India, Indonesia and Korea as countries with which a Labor government would seek to build stronger ties. There is one other substantive reference to Japan in the 2015 draft, and it is more pejorative, saying that 'Labor is committed to ensuring that the landmark ruling in the International Court of Justice against Japan’s Antarctic "scientific" whaling program is adhered to by Japan.' While the existing platform also states Labor's opposition to whaling, it does not mention Japan in that context.

Does this signal a change in Labor sentiment on the Japan relationship?

We shouldn't overstate the significance of such changes. A future Labor government is not tied closely to this platform. The document is intended as 'a clear statement of Labor’s beliefs, values and program for government', but it is not specific enough to guide day-to-day foreign policy. Moreover, Labor governments have in the past managed the Japan relationship reasonably effectively and in fact they deepened it in the Rudd-Gillard years, despite tensions over whaling.

Then again, keep in mind that, back in May, Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek gave an interview in which she criticised the Abbott Government for favouring Japan over China:

Read More

“The real issue is a prioritising of the relationship with Japan and the US over the relationship with China,” Ms Plibersek said. “They have seemed to make a choice in favour of Japan over China. And I think our interests are best served by having good and strong relationships with both countries.”

And earlier in the year, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke to workers at submarine builder ASC in Adelaide about the possibility that the next generation of Australian subs might be built in Japan. He used rhetoric on that occasion which raised memories of World War II, a tactic that could not have endeared him to the Japanese.

These are straws in the wind, but we can't rule out the possibility that we are seeing a clear difference emerging in the foreign policy priorities of the two major parties. The Abbott Government, after all, has been very pro-Japan. The Prime Minister's rhetoric towards Japan has been warm from the beginning, and he is thought to enjoy a close relationship with Prime Minister Abe. Australia and Japan have inked a free-trade deal, deepened defence ties (Japanese forces are taking part in Exercise Talisman Sabre as we speak), and there's an excellent chance Australia's next generation of submarines will be Japanese-built or at the very least have a lot of Japanese input.

If there is an emerging difference in the approach of the two big parties to the Japan relationship, Plibersek's statement reveals the reason: it's about China, not Japan. A split on Japan policy would reveal that the two parties have arrived at different conclusions about the best way to manage the rise of China, with one side arguing that the best response is to double down on our traditional alliances, while the other hedges with a more pro-China line.

Photo by Flickr user James Cridland.


Evidently the mood in Germany has turned against the Merkel Government's handling of the Greek crisis.

This video has gone viral in Germany this week. It's a comedy sketch in which two performers playing rich, entitled Germans speak to each other only in quotes from German newspapers and speeches by Angela Merkel. It ends with the statement: 'This summer, we Germans have a historic opportunity - not to behave like assholes for once':

(H/t The Australian.)


We begin this week with Greece, and Matthew Dal Santo's pitiless dissection of German leadership in Europe:

True, whatever happens from here, the economic pain will fall on Greece and its people. But the big loser from last weekend's far-from-pointless referendum will be Germany. Whether a new deal is reached which still contains the element of 'punishment' the German Government considers so important to impose, or Greece defaults and leaves the euro, Germany will have shredded its claim to leadership in Europe. For that leadership will have been shown to rest not on consent or voluntary submission to a strong Germany claiming to act in the interests of all, but on force and the threat of economic Armageddon.

What is the big lesson from the Greek debt crisis? Stephen Grenville:

What are the economic lessons? Countries can run budget deficits, overly-generous pension schemes, and large external deficits for decades if foreigners provide the funding, but there is no free lunch. Unsustainable policies eventually stop and the longer countries have been off-track, the longer it will take to fix. Living standards can't rise if productivity remains low. Incompetent and sometimes corrupt governance might get by when the economic climate is benign, but can't cope when problems arise.

Is arguing about what to call ISIS a waste of time? Rodger Shanahan makes a pretty convincing case:

Read More

Those who advocate using Da'ish instead of Islamic State say the group is neither Islamic nor a state, and they argue that the name perverts the name of Islam. But these arguments open a can of nomenclature worms. If it is perverting religion to refer to Islamic State as Islamic, then what of the myriad other armed Islamist groups who hijack Islam and God to reinforce their religious credentials for power?...

...How should politicians refer to Hizbullah (Party of God), for instance? Isn't it also a perversion of religion to think that God would be happy for an Australian to blow up a tourist bus in Bulgaria in his name? Some Sunni Islamists in the region, including Turkey's justice minister, have demanded that Hizbullah change its name to Hizb al-Shaytan (Party of Satan), but we are yet to see the same demand from those who prefer Dai'sh over Islamic State.

Jenny Hayward-Jones noted PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neil's sustained attempts to wrest leadership of the Pacific Islands region from Fiji:

Most of the credit for Papua New Guinea's new leadership role in the region should go to Prime Minister O'Neill. He has made a number of important speeches and interventions in 2015 both at home and abroad that are clearly focused on building and securing recognition of PNG's reputation as a regional leader and projecting his views on how PNG and its Pacific neighbours should interact on the global stage.

PNG is by far the largest Pacific Island nation in terms of population size, GDP and land size, and arguably more deserving of recognition as a regional leader than Fiji, which has historically played that role. But PNG's national development challenges are so much more significant in scale than those faced by any other island nation in the region. It is far from guaranteed that the Prime Minister can rely on support from his ministers, government agencies and the public, all of whom are necessarily more focused on domestic priorities, to reinforce his regional leadership ambitions.

Alan Keenan from the International Crisis Group on Sri Lanka's crucial upcoming general elections:

The coming campaign is set to be close, and possibly violent. While the UNP is still favoured to win the largest number of seats and to form the next government, many fear that once back in parliament, Rajapaksa and his powerful family will be able to chip away at the UNP's numbers until he is able to form a majority. It remains unclear what, if any, role Sirisena will play in the campaign. But unless there is another surprising reversal, his credibility as the leader of the movement for democratic reforms and reconciliation has been badly damaged.

The Bidun in Kuwait are now being seen as a security threat due to last months suicide bombing at the Imam Al-Sadeq mosque says Anneliese Mcauliffe:

While the suicide bomber was identified as a Saudi national, he worked with accomplices inside Kuwait. Within days, Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior moved swiftly to make the first arrests: 'We have referred five suspects accused of assisting the suicide bomber to the Public Prosecution...They include the driver who took the Saudi bomber to the mosque and the car's owner and his brother, all stateless people or Biduns'...

...This large group of disenfranchised people, who the Gulf states have failed to effectively recognise, is now seen as a potential security threat. The fear is that pent up hostilities, fueled by more than 50 years of statelessness and ongoing oppression, could make those at the margins of society willing or malleable accomplices for groups such as ISIS. A matter long relegated to the status of demographic problem and largely fueled by a need to restrict access to government services has now become a security issue.

Anneliese also wrote on a Saudi comedian who is fighting ISIS and fundamentalist ideology with humour, not violence:

Nothing is sacred in this program, and not everyone is amused.

Al-Qasabi's comedy sketches have targeted 'sex-jihad', ISIS sex slaves, beheadings and the banning of music by religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. In one skit, al-Qasabi plays a Saudi mutawa (conservative preacher) who is outraged by the decadence of music being played during Ramadan. He smashes an oud (a traditional guitar) to the applause of a crowd of men in traditional robes.

Robert Kelly has made a provocative argument as to why South Korea should remain silent over China's island building in the South China Sea:

The end of Chinese support is a necessary (if not sufficient) cause for North Korea's eventual collapse. South Korean President Park's robust efforts to woo Beijing have helped push China and North Korea apart in the last few years. This is a huge achievement – arguably the most important in her otherwise scandal-laden presidency. For South Korea to weigh in on the South China Sea would jeopardise this tenuous breakthrough. Beijing must believe South Korea is at least neutral regarding Chinese power before it will give up Pyongyang. Given that US forces are stationed in South Korea, Park must be flattering Xi Jingping quite a lot, and she has probably bit her tongue on other issues, like the South China Sea. But ultimately who cares? Cutting Pyongyang off from its last sponsor would be a sea-change and is well worth these costs.

This week Rhys Thompson took a detailed look at how the Chinese Communist Party is increasing its links with smaller regional political parties in Myanmar:

China's relationship with groups like the RNP will be particularly useful if (or when) the USDP becomes a much weaker player in Myanmar politics, or if the Union Government devolves more autonomy and power to regional governments. Such a move was proposed recently in a formal submission to change the constitution, but the actual amount of power that would be devolved is open to question.

Elliot Brennan described Malaysian PM Najib Razak's travails:

Malaysian politics is often a tumultuous and headline-grabbing affair. Yet the current crisis is unprecedented. In a Wall Street Journal report last week, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of embezzling almost US$700 million (2.6 billion Ringgit). The days since, which have also seen the release of redacted supporting documents by the WSJ, have only deepened the crisis embroiling the Prime Minister.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund, was set up by Najib in 2009. Even before the current accusations, the fund was entangled in controversy as its debt had ballooned to US$11 billion. 

Much of the controversy over 1MDB has been led by former PM and power-wielder Mahathir Mohamad. His blog offers a long, running commentary on the 1MDB fund and at every turn attempts to throw Najib under the bus. Mahathir has spent much of the past year campaigning for Najib's resignation.

Is China ready for global leadership? Kerry Brown answered:

...there is a good reason why the government in Beijing, despite all the temptations of slotting itself into a more prominent position, might want to maintain this stance. Every time it does try to articulate a bolder vision of its international status, even in relatively benign areas, noisy constituencies in the US and elsewhere immediately shriek that this is a sign the country is positioning itself on some mission of global dominance.

Malcolm Cook responded:

The Chinese state has so far eschewed attempts at global leadership. Rather, Chinese policy-makers are focusing their institution-building efforts at the regional level, as part of what Beijing refers to rather undiplomatically as 'peripheral diplomacy', and among fellow developing-economy states.

Photo by Flickr user afilitos.


This morning, via The Browser, I found a classic 1967 essay by Peter Benchley for the magazine Holiday about shark attacks. Benchley's editor encouraged him to turn his article into a novel, and the result was the bestseller Jaws, which of course was adapted to film by Steven Spielberg and became the prototypical summer blockbuster.

I was struck by the parallels between Benchley's description of how people think about shark attacks and the way we think about terrorism. Both are exceedingly unlikely ways to die, yet they have an enduring grip on our imaginations:

Irrational behavior has always been man’s reaction to the presence of sharks. Ever since man first returned to the sea, sharks have held all the terror and fascination of an ax murder.

And then near the close of the essay:

...despite the fact that a bather is more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by sharks, there will always be something primevally horrid about the sight of the black triangular fin slipping through the waves, and something viscerally terrifying about the choked cry “Shark !”

Malcolm Turnbull's speech to the Sydney Institute last night was an appeal to reason, an attempt to argue that the threat of terrorism should not be overstated. Yet Benchley's essay is a reminder that irrational fears seem to be a permanent feature of our psychological makeup, and very difficult to shift.

Read More

Last month I wrote an op-ed for the Herald Sun on the topic of terrorism which drew on this short essay about risk perception. It argues that 'The patterns of how the human animal perceives and responds to risk have their roots in an ancient past that predates humans, and certainly predates the relatively recent development of our modern thinking brains. This may explain why we respond to risk so much more with fear than with cold factual analysis.'

So we tend to be much more fearful of rare but dramatic forms of death; of new risks that we hear a lot about from friends, colleagues and the media (what the economist Daniel Kahneman calls the 'availability heuristic'); and we tend to give more weight to the risk of catastrophic events (terrorist attacks, plane crashes, shark attacks) than chronic ones such as cancer.

There's little point arguing that the public's fears about catastrophic events are irrational; we're unlikely to be reasoned out of them anyway. But as I argued in the Herald Sun, our political leaders do have a choice to make about whether they exploit those fears or assuage them. As Turnbull argued, talk of 'existential threats' and of ISIS 'coming to get us' may just help the enemy. 'We need to be very careful we don’t...become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.'


Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressed the Sydney Institute on terrorism last night. Judge for yourself the difference in tone and argument with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's speech at the Sydney Institute in late April. First Turnbull:

Just as it is important not to underestimate, or be complacent about, the national security threat from Da’esh, it is equally important not to overestimate that threat. Any threat looms largest when it is close to us in either time or space - or both.

In Menzies’ day our democratic way of life was threatened by two totalitarian ideologies - Soviet Communism and fascism. Each were proselytising ideologies.  One was defeated in battle in 1945, the other expired, largely from its own contradictions, twenty five years ago. China, the last nominally communist superpower, does not seek to export its way of government.

But Da’esh is not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia. Its leaders dream that they, like the Arab armies of the 7th and 8th century, will sweep across the Middle East into Europe itself. They predict that before long they will be stabling their horses in the Vatican.

Well Idi Amin wasn’t the King of Scotland either.

We should be careful not to say or do things which can be seen to add credibility to those delusions.

And here's Julie Bishop:

Tonight I will address 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.

This threat is a form of terrorism - more dangerous, more complex, more global than we have witnessed before - a pernicious force that could, if left unchecked, wield great global power that would threaten the very existence of nation states.