Lowy Institute

The Imitation Game tells the story of mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, who is credited with helping turn the tide of World War II by breaking Germany's Enigma code.

The Imitation Game is due for release on 21 November.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


A delightful profile of US Vice-President Joe Biden by the New Yorker's former China correspondent, Evan Osnos. This quote will get a lot of mileage as the MH17 story develops:

To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: “I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”

“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line. 

“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

But as the Russia scare-mongering ramps up, this Biden judgment should also be remembered: 

Other than being crazy enough to press a button, there is nothing that Putin can do militarily to fundamentally alter American interests.” 

There's also a killer quote early on in the piece illustrating the Obama-Biden relationship:

The trials facing the President and the Vice-President, who are separated by nineteen years and a canyon in style, have brought them closer than many expected—not least of all themselves. John Marttila, one of Biden’s political advisers, told me, “Joe and Barack were having lunch, and Obama said to Biden, ‘You and I are becoming good friends! I find that very surprising.’ And Joe says...

This is a family website, so I will leave you to read the punchline here

  • Prime Minister Abbott announces that former Air Chief Marshal (and now Lowy Institute board member) Angus Houston will go to Ukraine as his personal envoy.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has gone to New York to lead diplomatic efforts for a binding UNSC resolution mandating an independent investigation.
  • Here's The Guardian's latest report on the content of the draft UN resolution.
  • John Garnaut on what China will do in the UN Security Council. Will Xi follow Putin or Abbott.
  • James Fallows in the New York Times: don't blame Malaysian Airlines.
  • Obama calls on Europe to do more; says 'We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing'.
  • Marc Ambinder on how Obama's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, used the KAL007 shootdown in 1983 to pressure the Soviet Union. Here's Reagan's address to the nation:

Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control. Putin’s defiant annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine inflated his popularity at home. Despite a flaccid economy, his approval rating approaches levels rarely seen beyond North Korea. But the tactically clever and deeply cynical maneuvers of propaganda and military improvisation that have taken him this far, one of his former advisers told me in Moscow earlier this month, are bound to risk unanticipated disasters. Western economic and political sanctions may be the least of it.


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

Yesterday, Lowy Institute Research Fellow James Brown provided some quick analysis on the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 tragedy:

The priority for the UN Security Council is to secure international access to the crash site rapidly, before evidence can be destroyed or disturbed. Australia is ideally positioned to lead an international crash investigation team. For a start, we are not the US or Ukraine. Secondly, we have highly skilled air crash investigators, who have recent experience working with Malaysian Airlines on the MH370 crash. The Australian Government should consider volunteering Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston to lead the air crash investigation, given the international trust he has built on the MH370 search and his previous military experience.

Australia should consider the possibility that technical and possibly security support will be needed for the crash investigation and should be prepared to offer both. Given the proximity to the Russian border, NATO and the OSCE will not be ideally positioned to contribute to this effort. Armed police, as opposed to military, may be a less provocative solution to guarantee security for air crash investigators.

Elliot Brennan looked at the tragedy from a Malaysian perspective:

As more information comes to light, Malaysia will move from grief to anger. The Malaysia ‘brand' has been devastated by these two tragedies of its state-controlled airline (which wears the national colours) and this will impact on the national psyche. The public will demand that its government, already reeling from the March MH370 disaster, react strongly and swiftly to the downing of MH17. The muscular Twitter comments by the Minister of Defence has already paved the way for Malaysia to demand the international community act against the perpetrators of the attack. After strong condemnation for its sluggish response to the MH370 disappearance, Prime Minister Najib's government will seek to reassert itself and demand a strong and united response to the tragedy.

Israel has launched a ground offensive in Gaza. Here's a podcast I did with Lowy Institute Middle East expert Anthony Bubalo with his first reactions. Earlier in the week Anthony wrote that despite the 'brutal familiarity' of the current escalation, the status quo changes with every new conflict or crisis:

For one thing, domes, walls and indifference have sucked the vitality out of Israeli politics. There is no need to take risks, to use Israel's strength to take bold positions and ask even bolder questions about what it might mean to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Politics has largely become a race to the right, so much so that even an old hawk like Prime Minister Netanyahu starts to look cautious and statesmanlike relative to some of his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, outside the dome and the wall, Palestinian politics is ossifying and failing. In the current environment the only two viable political positions seem to be apathy (if you have money and a job) or militancy.

Unless something changes it is only a matter of time before older-generation leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and groups like Fatah and even Hamas are replaced by more radical and more nihilistic alternatives. And there are plenty around, given the ferment in the Arab world at the moment. That too is happening gradually although, as with the seemingly rapid advances made by ISIS in Iraq, things can change quickly on the ground once momentum shifts decisively.

So no, things will not be the same after this conflict. Relative calm will return. Israel will put its Iron Dome system back in its silo. Hamas will lick its wounds and begin rebuilding its arsenal, this time aiming for rockets that can reach Haifa. The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.

On Indonesia, Catriona Croft-Cusworth commented on rising tensions following the disputed presidential election, arguing that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs to step in and ensure a peaceful transition:

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Tensions are growing over how each of the two new 'presidents' and their supporters would handle a potential defeat. Prabowo's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mainstream quick count results suggests he is still determined to take the presidency by any means at his disposal. In Jakarta, rumours are spreading about the nervousness of Chinese Indonesians, who remember becoming the targets of unrest in 1998. Last Friday, Prabowo addressed a rally at a 'Pray for Gaza' event, which blocked the central Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Jakarta with crowds including members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group notorious for violence.

On the other hand, a Prabowo win would be hard to swallow for Jokowi's supporters, especially with reports of vote-counting irregularities continuing to emerge. The most important step now is to ensure that any challenges to the results are pursued through the appropriate legal channels. Now would be the time for the actual president, Yudhoyono, to step in and ensure a peaceful transition, no matter what the results announced by the KPU on 22 July.

 The Australian Government repealed the carbon tax on Thursday, and Fergus Green discussed the potential global ramifications:

Symbolically, the scheme's repeal deals a small but largely insignificant blow to global climate efforts. The large global community of policymakers who are serious about tackling climate change has already written off Abbott's Australia (along with Canada) as a climate wrecker. The carbon price repeal simply cements that perception. In the face of numerous recent climate policy developments in China, the US and India, Australia's antics will have little impact.

In sum, it is a small backward shuffle from a country that is already at the back of the pack. The BRICS summit concluded in Brazil this week, with the main announcement being an agreement on the capital base and headquarters for a 'New Development Bank' with a US$100 billion reserve fund. The Lowy Institute's Mike Callaghan wrote on whether this represents a solidification of the BRIC countries as a powerful bloc in global governance:

The motivation to form a new development bank was a political one, and the main significance of Fortaleza is also political. Notwithstanding all their differences, the establishment of the development bank will continue to provide a core for the BRICS to rally around. Furthermore, it could be a grouping that not only unites against what it perceives as Western domination of international institutions, but also a force countering Western sanctions against one of its member, Russia being a case in point.

In short, while the new development bank may at this stage be more symbolic than significant, the BRICS continue to deepen as a political grouping and will be around for some time to come.

Tess Newton-Cain looked at West Papuan efforts to join the Melanesian Spearhead Group:

It hasn't taken long for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and other pro-independence groups to to respond to Melanesian Spearhead Group's (MSG) recent announcement on the WPNCL's membership application, made during the MSG summit in Port Moresby. And the response can be characterised as something of a 'good news, bad news' story.

The good news was that the WPNCL, with strong support from Marcus Haluk (Chairman for the Working Group of the all West Papua pro-independence organisations), announced that a conference of reconciliation would be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu at the end of  August.

The aim of this meeting is to put forward an application for membership of the MSG (here's a primer on the Melanesian Spearhead  Group) by an umbrella group of all West Papuan people, as recommended by the MSG leaders in Port Moresby. The conference organisers have expressed their confidence that this new application will be ready by the end of the year...

...The bad news is that hard on the heels of this announcement came the news that pro-Indonesia West Papua Autonomy campaigners, Franz Albert Joku and Nicholas Simion Messet, would not be invited to said conference.

Hugh White questioned whether Prime Minister Tony Abbott understands the 'China challenge':

If Abbott really understands what's happening in Asia, he would understand how serious China's challenge is, and he would recognise that Abe's policy will only lead to further escalating rivalry and an increased risk of war. Which is why even after last week I still think that Abbott either doesn't understand what is happening in Asia or he does understand and he thinks that escalating rivalry is a good idea.

I prefer to think he still does not understand. Once he does understand he will, one hopes, have enough imagination to see that there are more than two ways to respond to China's ambitions. We do not have to choose supine surrender or inflexible resistance.

Julian Snelder wrote on the state of the US alliance system in Asia:

Here in Asia, there is heated debate about the durability of US alliances. Last week saw the visits by the Japanese prime minister to Australia and Chinese president Xi Jinping to South Korea (accompanied, inevitably, by a planeload of business people). Xi Jinping proposed 'a new Asian security architecture' devoid of US military treaties, which he called a 'Cold War relic.' American newspapers have seized on Beijing's intent to undermine and unravel the alliance system.

Nowhere is China's effort more apparent than in South Korea, which is highly dependent on China economically. The two countries certainly are clear on what they stand against — Japanese revisionism — something I hope Tony Abbott pondered during his feting of Shinzo Abe. But it is less clear whether Beijing and Seoul advocate the same objectives, for example on how to deal with North Korea. While the headlines trumpet Seoul's 'shift to Beijing', amore nuanced view is that Seoul is not yet looking to replace the US as its protector, but is working an 'inside game' to exert pressure on Japan and to shape future Korean reunification outcomes.

And finally, Jasper Wong looked at China-Saudi relations:

Since 2011, however, the courtship has hit a bump in the form of the Syrian uprising. China has marched in tune to Russia's lead, vetoing a number of UN resolutions on Syria. Newspapers closely aligned to the Saudi royal family swiftly castigated China's complicity in keeping Assad in power. Prominent groups and the former chairman of the Supreme Judiciary Council even called for a boycott of Chinese goods. A rare outburst by the normally stoic King Abdullah expressing his exasperation over UN inaction on the crisis underlined the extent to which the fall of the Assad regime has become the overriding goal of the Saudi establishment

That outcome has not materialised. Yet the Saudis seem to blame the Russians and the American more than the Chinese. The only setback to China-Saudi relations has been a two-year suspension of the Gulf Cooperation Council-China strategic dialogue from 2012 to 2013. The Syrian crisis brought some of China's old interests (its close ties with Russia and its strong belief in non-intervention) into conflict with emerging interests. China, however, seems to have placated Saudi anger.

Photo by Flickr user John Tornow.


For some solace on this dreadful day, take in an inspiring short documentary about 'the forest man of India', the story of one individual who has fought erosion and species extinction since 1979 by single-handedly planting a forest now equal in size to New York's Central Park:

(H/t Kottke.)


This morning I recorded this conversation with Lowy Institute Middle East expert Anthony Bubalo about the escalation of Israel's military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As the NY Times reports, after ten days of air operations against Hamas, Israel has overnight launched a ground operation.

Anthony talks about the operational as well as political objectives of the operation, and about how it could ultimately end. He says both sides are aiming towards a cessation of hostilities, and that the military conflict is a struggle to set the terms of that cessation.

If you want more of Anthony's thinking on the crisis, see his post from Tuesday, which argues that 'things will not be the same after this conflict...The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.'

  • Foreign Policy's Passport blog has rolling coverage.
  • The available evidence points to Russian separatist forces being responsible, but it is early days. In 2001 the Ukrainian military accidentally shot down a passenger plane.
  • The Aviationist: given quantity of anti-aircraft equipment in region, it was just a matter of time until a civilian airliner was hit.
  • In June, NATO's Supreme Commander warned that Russia was providing anti-aircraft weapons and know-how to the rebels.
  • The escalatory consequences of the MH17 shootdown, via War is Boring.
  • Popular Mechanics argues that this will be a watershed moment for efforts to curb anti-aircraft missile proliferation.
  • The plane is thought to have been shot down using the 'Gadfly' (NATO designation) air defence system. The Australian Air Power website has detailed technical analysis of that and other Russian air defence systems.
  • Here's a video alleged to be of a 'Gadfly' system being moved around by rebels.
  • A thorough look at Ukraine's surface-to-air missile network (dates from 2010).
  • PM Tony Abbott is quite properly reluctant to discuss what this incident means for Russian attendance at the G20 conference.
  • Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, has tweeted:
  •  And the City of Melbourne tweeted:


Interpreter alumnus Andrew Carr is hardly the first to point this out, but on the day the carbon tax is repealed in the Australian parliament, it is worth repeating this sentiment:

The answer to this anomaly probably lies in this Nicholas Gruen piece on The Interpreter from last May, which was a response to Martin Wolf's argument that action against climate change tends to be opposed by the right because it is anti-market:

As Wolf says, 'To admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified. For many libertarians or classical liberals, the very idea is unsupportable. It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science.'

Well, this rolls off the tongue easily enough, but most right-leaning types (OK, not necessarily extreme libertarians) support defence spending, which involves far more expense than we need here to deal with a market imperfection (the fact that marauders can help themselves to resources of yours if you can't punish them sufficiently for trying to steal them).

So there's something more going on. I'd suggest it isn't quite what Wolf says. Rather, climate change has become a symbolic left-of-centre issue, even if right-leaning Margaret Thatcher was one of the first world leaders to highlight it. And if there's one thing someone on the right knows, including very often even if they're a libertarian, it's that they are against the left. Being a pin-up issue of the left, climate change carries with it all sorts of political baggage that really pisses the right off. Quite a bit of it pisses me off too, but there you go. So it's not that the right really thinks that there's no role for regulation, it's just that they're pissed off with the left. They instinctively fight the left.

For Australia to take a responsible position on climate change (and as Fergus Green points out, the now defunct carbon pricing scheme was hardly that), a future Liberal leader will have to find a political and policy formula that brings their own party along by convincing the party that such action is consistent with its principles rather than a concession to the left. I have argued in the past that Malcolm Turnbull, when he was Liberal leader, never found such a formula. But then again, Turnbull's legacy would be vastly different if he'd had more help from Kevin Rudd.


One of the first posts I ever wrote on The Interpreter in late 2007 was about Dubai's evolution towards becoming 'the centre of the world'. That is, a global aviation hub geographically placed to allow one-stop travel between any two places on the globe. Now Vanity Fair has this vivid portrait of Dubai's breakneck aviation expansion:

In January 2013, Dubai International opened Concourse A—aviation’s first facility dedicated entirely to Airbus A380 superjumbos. Located in Terminal 3, it is a magnificent building. Huge first- and business-class lounges connect directly to the A380 upper decks; economy-class passengers board from the lower level. The new concourse has already increased Dubai’s traffic to 75 million passengers a year, moving it past London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport. By 2018 that number is expected to pass 90 million, overtaking vast domestic hubs such as Atlanta and Beijing.

And yet this is just the beginning. A few miles across the tiny emirate another enormous, five-runway airport is under construction. For now, Dubai World Central serves partly as a cargo airport. But late in the next decade Emirates airline plans to transfer its operations there. The result: by 2025 more than 220 million travelers will be passing through the city’s airports annually. For Dubai, world domination is literally on the horizon.

It's worth reading on for the stuff about the 'four tectonic shifts' in world aviation.

Photo by Flickr user Frans Zwart.


US blockbusters are changing, thanks to the rise developing economies and their growing strategic heft. This is a fascinating review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:

Big American movies at the moment are no longer about American might. They’re more about ambivalence, more about “maybe.”...Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an entire movie about how Americans aren’t the center of the universe.

Earlier this year we had a reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Here's Tyler Cowen on the geopolitical subtext:

The film is really a plea for an extended and revitalized Japanese-American alliance. The real threat to the world are the Mutos, not Godzilla, who ends up defending America, after the lead Japanese character in the movie promises the American military Godzilla will be there as our friend (don’t kill me, that is not a major spoiler as it is telegraphed way in advance).

The Mutos, by the way, are basically Chinese mythological dragons, and an image of two kissing Muto-like beings is shown over the gate of San Francisco’s Chinatown three different times in the movie, each time with greater conspicuousness. The Mutos base themselves in Chinatown in fact.  Note that the Mutos can beat up on Godzilla because of their greater numbers, but as for one-on-one there is no doubt Godzilla is more fierce. And the name of the being — Muto — what does that mean?...General Akira Muto led the worst excesses committed by Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanjing, perhaps the single biggest Chinese grievance against The Land of the Rising Sun, and thus the beings are a sign of the Chinese desire for redress and revenge. Unless of course the right military alliance comes along to contain them and save the world…

The film is really a plea for an extended and revitalized Japanese-American alliance.  The real threat to the world are the Mutos, not Godzilla, who ends up defending America, after the lead Japanese character in the movie promises the American military Godzilla will be there as our friend (don’t kill me, that is not a major spoiler as it is telegraphed way in advance).

The Mutos, by the way, are basically Chinese mythological dragons, and an image of two kissing Muto-like beings is shown over the gate of San Francisco’s Chinatown three different times in the movie, each time with greater conspicuousness.  The Mutos base themselves in Chinatown in fact.  Note that the Mutos can beat up on Godzilla because of their greater numbers, but as for one-on-one there is no doubt Godzilla is more fierce.  And the name of the being — Muto — what does that mean?  I believe loyal MR readers already know, and apologies for reminding you.  General Akira Muto led the worst excesses committed by Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanjing, perhaps the single biggest Chinese grievance against The Land of the Rising Sun, and thus the beings are a sign of the Chinese desire for redress and revenge.  Unless of course the right military alliance comes along to contain them and save the world…

- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/06/the-new-godzilla-movie-godzilla-minor-spoilers-in-post.html#sthash.WJ5pPAYo.dpuf

And then there is director Michael Bay's Transformers 4, which has quickly become notorious for its China pandering:

But the key to the Chinese box office isn't just the Chinese moviegoer. It's also the Chinese government. And so in a movie where the American government is represented by a sniveling White House chief of staff and a rogue CIA, China's leaders receive considerably more gentle treatment. When the fight moves east, the country's fictional defense minister grimly vows to scramble China's fighter jets to protect Hong Kong at all costs. His gaze is level, and his tone is determined: the moment isn't played for laughs.

The specificity of the promise — to protect "Hong Kong," as opposed to, say, all of China, or the world — sounds a bit odd. But that's because Bay went the extra mile on this one. He didn't just make the Chinese government look generically good; he made clear that Hong Kong, a British protectorate until 1997, was better off being part of China because it was under Beijing's protection. Take note, kids: that's how you suck up to China.


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

Two big regional stories this week: Jokowi's probable win of the Indonesian presidential elections and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia.

Throughout the Indonesian election campaign, Aaron Connelly and Catriona Croft-Cusworth have both provided exceptional analysis.

Catriona looked at the effectiveness of grass roots campaigning by Jokowi and his team:

Where Jokowi's campaign has found success, it has been at the level of the grassroots. Volunteers have carried the presidential ticket with self-initiated activities in communities, public spaces and online.

Because Jokowi's supporters are spread among so many small groups, it comes as a surprise to see their numbers when they gather in one place. Prior to Saturday night's debate, a public concert supporting Jokowi was held in Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno, a stadium complex named after the first president, Sukarno. Headlined by Slank, one of Indonesia's most popular rock bands and the producers of a campaign song for Jokowi, the concert filled the stadium to capacity with supporters holding up two fingers to indicate their preference for Jokowi, candidate number two on the ballot. Other artists in the line-up reportedly performed for free in support of Jokowi, while online news reported that concert-goers volunteered to clean up rubbish after the show so that Jokowi would not be blamed for making a mess.

A couple of days before the election Aaron Connelly reported on Jokowi's late rebound in support and the importance of the final presidential debate:

In the final segment, in which one ticket was able to ask the other a question, Kalla noted matter of factly that Prabowo had spoken about thieves the day before. Gesturing toward himself, Kalla said, 'We and the parties that support us are not thieves.' Then, clearly relishing the chance to strike, he ran through a list of the other side's iniquities. 'My question is, because we (on our side) don't have oil thieves, don't have meat thieves, don't have a rice mafia, we don't have a hajj mafia, we don't have forest thieves, who is it that you are referring to?'

Prabowo, struggling to regain his narrative and his cool, admitted there might be thieves in his own party. His running mate, Hatta, stood up to calmly and cynically suggest that if there problems with corruption, then the police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) could take care of it. Kalla, seeing he had landed a blow, shot back with no small amount of scorn that all of these problems were already under consideration or on trial in KPK. Jokowi suggested Prabowo had not yet answered the question and invited him to do so again.

And on the morning after, Aaron outlined Prabowo's options now that it seemed like he'd lost he election:

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Prabowo has every right to await the official count by the KPU and to challenge the result in the Constitutional Court. We should remember that the chair of Jokowi's party, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, did just that in 2009 when her opponent's margin of victory was a much higher 34%. I cannot forsee any scenario in which Prabowo would not exhaust every legal avenue available to challenge the result. He has come too far and invested too much time and money to not do so. Assuming he takes this as far as he can, the KPU and Constitutional Court would not be able to declare Jokowi the winner of the election until late August.

In a speech to supporters on Wednesday night, Prabowo told them to 'have patience, follow the law, and try to be polite.' But Jokowi supporters expressed grave concern that Prabowo might use his muscle to disrupt or taint the vote counting. Prabowo has cultivated ties with underworld figures as well as nationalist and Islamist thugs. He can also call on considerable reserves of cash — he disclosed $140 million in assets to the election commission earlier this month — and neither the KPU nor the Constitutional Court have avoided Indonesia's unfortunate history of graft. In just the past year, the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court was caught selling rulings in electoral cases. The KPU's computer system is also thought to be vulnerable to tampering. These are serious concerns in Indonesia's young democracy.

On Prime Minister Abe's visit to Australia, I added a quick comment immediately after the Japanese leader addressed the Australian Parliament:

Note the three-way link Abe draws between Australia, the US and Japan, which could yet prove consequential. Because as Buruma concludes, Washington's security guarantee to Tokyo is becoming more 'fraught with danger' as Japan's relationship with China erodes, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute being the flashpoint. Why? Because 'it risks dragging the world's largest military power into petty regional conflicts'.

Now more than ever, the risk is that allies of the world's largest military power will get dragged along too.

The next day, Malcolm Cook countered:

Friendships, special relationships and skilful diplomacy are built upon the recognition of convergence of interests and beliefs. This is different to a commonality of interests and beliefs, and such a convergence does not have to imply required future action. I would hazard that the burgeoning of the China-Australia relationship, despite the huge differences between the two states, is testament to this distinction.

If one accepts that Australian officials and politicians can do their job and realise this difference, it is hard to see how the steps taken by Japan and Australia to foster closer security ties is putting Australia or the Australia-China relationship at any greater risk. Forgoing such opportunities with Japan for doubts that deserve to be dispelled would be an opportunity lost and would raise questions in Japan about how good a strategic partner Australia really is.

Sticking with Asia, here's Griffith University's Andrew O'Neil on the limitations of the realist paradigm in understanding the current geo-political climate:

The region is characterised by great-power rivalry between the US and China, to be sure, but there is little evidence non-great-powers feel under pressure to 'choose sides'. And there are few indications this will change in the future. Indeed, small and middle powers are demonstrating a degree of agency in shaping geopolitics that undermines the validity of the realist model for predicting how states in Asia will behave.

Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have resisted bandwagoning with the new rising power in Asia, but nor have they joined the US, Japan, and Australia to balance against China. Far from being pressured into choosing camps, all three have been highly adept at exploiting benefits from close relations with Beijing and Washington.

And Julian Snelder wrote on the recent political protests in Hong Kong:

'We hope young people can raise their understanding of the rule of law, and make themselves the vanguard of preserving Hong Kong's prosperity and stability', thundered Li Yunchao, China's powerful vice president.

China is alarmed by the mobilisation of the Hong Kong public in recent weeks, including a large rally for democracy in 1 July. Beijing's earlier publication of a White Paper had goaded the local democratic Occupy Central movement and surely boosted turnout in its informal online referendum last week: 88% of the 787,767 respondents demanded direct voting in the 2017 chief executive election, citing 'international standards' of democracy.

Visibly irate, Beijing has denounced the referendum as 'illegal', 'ridiculous' and a 'farce…of mincing ludicrousness'. Hardline voices mutter darkly about 'the PLA coming out of their barracks'. A sophisticated hacking campaign took place while banks and accounting firms have strained to distance themselves from the rabble rousers. Hong Kong has even been warned about losing its RMB currency trading business. The city thus faces a barrage of intimidation,which may backfire on Beijing.

We had Vaughan Winterbottom return to The Interpreter this week. He looked at tightening restrictions on freedom of expression in China:

On Tuesday, official news agency Xinhua revealed new guidelines issued by the country's media regulator that prohibit journalists from reporting or blogging on state secrets, commercial secrets, 'or information which has not yet been made public.' It was not immediately clear what the latter phrase meant, though 'revealing state secrets' is acatch-all crime in China that has been used to bring troublemakers to trial before.

The guidelines are the latest move by the Government under President Xi Jinping to tighten restrictions on journalistic freedom, both in traditional media and online. In June the media regulator announced new rules forbidding journalists from publishing reports critical of the Government without employer approval. The rules also ban journalists from setting up their own websites and conducting interviews or writing reports outside their assigned field of coverage.

 Shashank Joshi gave us a rundown of recent opening of debate on India's nuclear doctrine:

This debate has been catalysed by a variety of factors. These include Indian disquiet at Pakistan's development oftactical nuclear weapons, a widespread sense that India's nuclear deterrence has failed in the face of state-sponsored terrorism, concern that India's ability to project deterrence against China remains inadequate, and a general sense that India has been slow to translate its national power into usable capabilities.

Typically, only those at the fringe of this debate – the ultra-hawks – have proposed radical changes in India's nuclear policies, such as the resumption of testing or a shift to nuclear war-fighting doctrines. But a growing number of mainstream Indian voices – including former officials and military officers – are expressing dissatisfaction with India's nuclear doctrine, the first and only public version of which is now over a decade old. See, for example, the former civil servant PR Chari writing for the Carnegie Endowment in June, the April manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before it came to power this year, and articles such as those in The Hindu last week.

But it is fascinating to see an official who until recently was at the heart of Indian nuclear policies, in both military and civilian institutions, make such explicit criticisms of a doctrine with whose classified details he would be intimately familiar.

And on the Middle East, Roger Shanahan expertly examined the 'caliphate' declared by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Iraq-Syria border region:

ISIS has certainly gained kudos and headlines through its military success but its dominance in parts of Iraq is aided by political gridlock in Baghdad and Iraqi military ineffectiveness. Neither of these will last forever and Baghdadi's forces will at some stage be engaged in decisive fighting in Iraq, at which point his tactical alliance with the tribes will come under enormous pressure. He needs to maintain military momentum, and he has been attempting to do this in eastern Syria. How long he can maintain his cross-border empire remains to be seen, but it will in all likelihood remain an ephemeral construct.

Baghdadi's caliphate claim has shown how diffuse, splintered and broadly-based the regional Islamist threat has become and how easily groups can be swayed by martial success. Even though ISIS's success, and its caliphate, will not last forever, in the idealised worldview of radical islamists it will serve as a model of what can be done by committed and observant Muslims.

The Afghan Arabs under bin Laden had to shelter in non-Arab lands and were constantly under threat. Baghdadi by contrast has achieved what nobody among contemporary jihadists has before him: he has carved out a piece of the historical Arab world, defeated the 'kafir', done away with the Western-imposed borders and placed his territory under Islamic rule. Even if few people physically join his caliphate and it lasts only weeks or months, the damage may have been done.

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.


A few weeks ago I featured extended excerpts from a truly eye-opening essay by Swinburne University academic John Fitzgerald on Chinese Government activity among the Chinese diaspora in Australia, which include the orchestration of pro-Chinese demonstrations along the Olympic Torch relay route through Canberra in 2008 (photo above), and the Chinese state's attempts to buy up the Chinese-language community media here.

I'm a couple of days late to this, but I want to flag a blistering op-ed from China watcher Paul Monk which appeared in the Fairfax papers on Wednesday, also on the subject of Australia's Chinese-language media. 'The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda bureau has been buying up radio stations and newspapers across the country and channelling the voice of Beijing into them from editorial offices in China', Monk writes:

What Beijing is doing is of a piece with its more general drive to extend its sway in the region in terms of both hard and soft power. But this particular initiative is blatant interference in Australia’s internal affairs of a kind that would never be tolerated on the receiving end by China and is, in fact, rendered impossible there by the Party’s tight monopoly of news media. It is a strategic move on Beijing’s part to create what can only be described as a fifth column inside our borders. It should be scouted out and the Party sent packing.

Read the whole thing. I assume the Government is receiving regular reports on this topic from ASIO. No wonder it is taking a tougher line on China.

Photo by Flickr user Michael Lieu.


Earlier this week the Lowy Institute hosted former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to discuss his new book Dangerous Allies. Below is the full video of the event.

Yesterday evening Mr Fraser tweeted the video, adding that he was 'debating the established political class!', which brought a wry response from his interlocutor at the event, Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

If you want to know more about Dangerous Allies, note also my interview with Mr Fraser in May.


Earlier this week Hugh White wrote a column for the Fairfax papers about Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia, in which he argued that Prime Minister Abbott was embracing a closer relationship with Japan either without considering the larger strategic consequences or because he wanted to 'spur on' regional rivalries. Japan-China tensions are rising and the US and China are manoeuvring for regional supremacy, Hugh wrote, but:

There is no sign that Mr Abbott has considered any of these questions. One reason might be that he simply does not understand what’s happening in Asia today, and so he doesn’t really understand what Mr Abe is after. This might seem hard to believe, but Mr Abbott often speaks as if he simply does not accept that strategic tensions are growing. For example he told a Washington audience recently that America should not worry about China’s rise because it is not a strategic rival. I doubt Mr Abe would agree.

A second possibility is that Mr Abbott is just pretending not to understand. He does understand what is going on in Asia, and has decided that, as regional strategic rivalries escalate, Australia’s best move is to spur them on – not just by strengthening our alliance with America, but by becoming Japan’s ally against China.

Let's consider both these possibilities in turn.

The first is based on what strikes me as a misreading of Abbott's speech to the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Far from dismissing rivalry, Abbott acknowledges the possibility by saying 'it’s understandable that Americans should be wary of potential rivals.' To me, the tone of the speech is not one of denying or wishing away a rivalry, but of implicitly pleading with Washington and Beijing to please keep their rivalry in check, for the good of us all:

The relationship between America and China is worth all the effort that both countries are putting into it – because no relationship is more vital for the world’s future. I remain fundamentally optimistic because conflict is in no one’s best interest. We will all advance together or none of us will advance at all.

But as of this morning, we probably don't need to parse the PM's words to solve this mystery, because, in an interview with Fairfax, his foreign minister Julie Bishop has...

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...made the clearest public statement yet of how the increasingly militarised disputes on China’s periphery were prompting Australia to deepen and broaden military ties with the United States and other nations, most notably Japan. Those trends have been on display this week with Prime Minister Tony Abbott agreeing to a “strategic” defence relationship and new military technology sharing agreements with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leaves Australia on Wednesday.

“We know that the optimum is deeper engagement [with China],” said Ms Bishop. “But we’re also clear-eyed about what could go wrong. So you have to hope for the best but manage for the worst.”

Bishop also recently made some dark comparisons between Asia today pre-World War I Europe (compare this to her tone during the 2013 election campaign to get a sense of how dramatic this change is). Earlier this week I aired some reservations about the tightening of ties with Tokyo, yet Bishop's statements at least show that the Government is not in denial about the challenge China represents to the Asian strategic order.

So if the Government is not aligning blindly with Tokyo, then what of Hugh's second possibility? I'm thrown by Hugh's claim that Abbott may wish to 'spur on' the rivalry between Japan and China. What possible Australian interest could this serve? Surely the more straightforward interpretation is that the Abbott Government is practicing a form of offensive realism. It recognises the risk of conflict between Asia's great powers, and judges that the best way for Australia to help prevent or deter such a conflict is to signal that Japan is not alone. Hugh may think this will spur on a China-Japan rivalry, but the aim is surely to damp it down by showing resolve and thereby convincing China that it is losing.

Whether one agrees with that policy or not, at least it shows that the fog has lifted. Previously, open acknowledgement of the risks of China's rise was left to ex- political leaders such as Paul Keating, Bob Carr, and Malcolm Turnbull, while sitting governments preferred a more rose tinted view, captured in the Gillard Government's Asian Century White Paper and Bishop's early focus on economic diplomacy (as if Australia faced no greater problem than how much money it could make from the region).

The Abe visit and Bishop's interventions suggest things might be shifting inside Cabinet and that the Government feels the need to talk to Australians about it. And that means the question of how Australia should respond to China's rise can now move to centre-stage in the national debate about Australia's place in Asia.


If you're looking for some context for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia this week, and his speech to parliament earlier today, you could do worse than spend five minutes with Ian Buruma's op-ed.

Abe has recently announced a re-interpretation of Japan's constitution to allow his country's armed forces to take part in operations alongside allies that are not directly related to Japanese security. Some have conflated this move with Abe's nationalism, his determination to restore patriotic pride, and his visit to Yasakuni Shrine (where Japanese war criminals are buried) to imply that we are witnessing the beginnings of some kind of imperial Japanese revanchism. Buruma rightly dismissed that theory:

The contradiction in Abe’s nationalism is this: even as he talks about sovereignty regained and patriotic pride, he has done nothing to distance Japan from the postwar dominance of the US. On the contrary, his reinterpretation of the constitution is meant to help the US in its military policing of East Asia.

In fact, what appears to be driving Abe’s endeavors even more than the desire to revise the postwar order in Japan is a widely shared fear of China’s increasing regional dominance. A cursory glance at the Japanese press, or even the kind of books piled high in Japanese bookstores, shows just how frightened the Japanese are. All of the talk in Tokyo is about Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas.

Abe’s reinterpretation, then, is not really a radical departure from the postwar order at all. China’s growing power has actually reinforced Japanese dependence on the US for its security.

What we heard from Abe in the Australian parliament this morning (full transcript) is that Australia has now been willingly enlisted in this cause (my emphasis):

So far as national security goes, Japan has been self absorbed for a long time. Now, Japan has built a determination. As a nation that longs for permanent peace in the world, and as a country whose economy is among the biggest, Japan is now determined to do more to enhance peace in the region, and peace in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, it is to put that determination into concrete action, that Japan has chosen to strengthen its ties with Australia...

...There are many things Japan and Australia can do together by each of us joining hands with the United States, an ally for both our nations. Japan is now working to change its legal basis for security so that we can act jointly with other countries in as many ways as possible. We want to make Japan a country that will work to build an international order that upholds the rule of law.

Note the three-way link Abe draws between Australia, the US and Japan, which could yet prove consequential. Because as Buruma concludes, Washington's security guarantee to Tokyo is becoming more 'fraught with danger' as Japan's relationship with China erodes, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute being the flashpoint. Why? Because 'it risks dragging the world's largest military power into petty regional conflicts'.

Now more than ever, the risk is that allies of the world's largest military power will get dragged along too.