Lowy Institute

A fascinating column from Paul Kelly over the weekend, which describes how former PM Tony Abbott sees his future role:

The Paris attacks have seen two competing Australian voices in response — Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. The crisis has revealed Abbott’s long-run strategy — positioning himself on the global and domestic stage as a champion of the conservative forces in the current international security crisis.

Abbott believes the threat from Islamist violence is the defining issue of the age. It occupied much of his prime ministership and he intends to become a rallying point in the war of ideas and ideology at its heart. Abbott as a politician can only exist and operate with a mission. It has always been thus — and the deposed prime minister has found his new mission.

While Abbott has taken no decision on his political future, the omens seem clear: he is currently heading towards contesting the next election and carrying a banner for the conservatives, in parliament, the Liberal Party and the public.

Abbott clearly still has allies within the parliamentary Liberal Party,  including former defence minister Kevin Andrews, who has now called for Australia to send ground troops to Syria in the war against ISIS. Andrews was mocked by some in the media for his poor showing in the ballot for the Liberal Party deputy leadership on 14 September, but he got 30 votes to Julie Bishop's 70, which demonstrated that there is a sizeable rump in the Liberal Party with misgivings about the more progressive turn of the Turnbull-Bishop leadership team.

But to see this purely as a right-left ideological debate inside the Liberal Party is incomplete. There is also a fundamental difference in threat perception driving this debate. Kelly is correct to say that Abbott and his allies see Islamist terrorism as 'the defining issue of the day'. To get a sense of how deeply this is felt, check out Greg Sheridan's weekend column, in which he describes a morally corrupt and vulgarised West (apparently Ronda Rousey is to blame somehow for the collapse of our civilisation) which is in danger of being overwhelmed by the ISIS threat. Niall Ferguson made a similar argument in a recent op-ed.

As Sheridan correctly identifies in his column, some people simply judge the threat differently. Sheridan defends the claims made by Julie Bishop and George Brandis (both considered ideological moderates within the Liberal Party) that the ISIS threat is 'existential'. Turnbull, of course, argued directly against Bishop when she claimed ISIS was the biggest threat to world order in 70 years, responding that 'Daesh is not Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan or Stalin's Russia'. Since taking over as PM, Turnbull has resisted calls to increase Australia's military role in Iraq and Syria, and used more inclusive language about Australia's Muslim community, reinforcing the sense that he sees the threat as serious but not as an existential threat to Australia's multicultural compact.

After outrages such as the recent events in Paris, Beirut, Bamako and in the skies over Egypt, it can be hard to sustain this perspective. Yet Turnbull's case doesn't need to be purely defensive. Australians are clearly unnerved by the ISIS threat, so it's not enough to simply say that the threat is less serious than they might believe. In fact, that course would be politically disastrous. But nor does Turnbull need to embrace the right's rhetoric in order to sound like he takes ISIS seriously. There is a third alternative.

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At the heart of the right-wing critique is the sense that Western civilisation is decadent and depraved, and thus vulnerable to a well-disciplined extremist threat. According to Paul Kelly, Abbott's mantra is that 'the West, like Australia, must possess the self-confidence to defend its interests and its universal values.' This fear, that Western civilisation is feeble and on the brink of collapse, has been a right-wing talking point for years now, though the evidence for it is weak.

More to the point, though, this line of argument actually plays right into Turnbull's key message since becoming PM: one of optimism and confidence, a sense that right now is a great time to be alive and be an Australian. Where the hard-right sees only threat and fragility, Turnbull sees a strong country with a hopeful future. Turnbull can play this card against his ideological opponents. Why are they so pessimistic about Western civilisation at a historical moment when it has never been so dominant? Why, when faced only by a small army of poorly equipped extremists, do they have such little faith in a system which has seen off Nazism and communism, and which is a magnet for every persecuted minority in the world, including Muslims?

The right's case is drenched in nostalgia for an Australian society that has disappeared and a distrust of what has replaced it. Starting with his National Security Statement today, Turnbull can counter this with a determined and resolute optimism, one which uses the strengths of modern Australia to fight extremism, and one which refuses to be spooked by a threat that Australia and its allies can contain with sustained, proportional effort.


With Japan falling back into technical recession, the temptation to question Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reform agenda is strong. But here are three counter-intuitive takes on the latest news (with thanks to Malcolm Cook for the links).

First, Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

The Japanese economy is shrinking because Abe already succeeded in fixing Japan's unemployment problem. Japan is simply in an odd situation where low and falling levels of unemployment aren't good enough to ensure economic growth.

The Japan Times:

If Japan’s economy is in trouble, you wouldn’t know it from the stock market.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty forgettable year for global equity investors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan is one of the few places providing double-digit returns that are backed by profit growth. The 12 percent gain for the Nikkei 225 stock average through last week came as its companies post record earnings, and valuations rose just 2.3 percent from the end of last year.

A Bloomberg editorial:

...recessions simply don't mean the same thing in Japan as they do most everywhere else. The country has suffered seven of them in the past 20 years -- two since Abe took office in late 2012. Given Japan's declining population, its trend growth rate is at best 0.5 percent, so even downturns as slight as last quarter's 0.8 percent decline can tip the economy into negative territory...

...Even if China's slump hadn't provided an unexpected headwind, efforts to revive Japan were always going to take longer than many observers acknowledged. Difficult structural reforms are under way -- to crack open the energy, pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors, for instance; to slash tariffs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact; and to unwind the web of cross-shareholdings that's stifled much of Japan Inc. -- but they can't be expected to yield benefits immediately.

Photo by Flickr user Alessandro Grussu.

3 of 6 This post is part of a debate on The future of drone warfare

OK, so that headline is a mildly offensive way to enter the discussion started so respectfully by Jennifer Hunt and James Brown on The Interpreter. I'm sure they both love that puppy, even if they have their doubts about drones. But now that I have your attention, let me try to make a few serious points, including one about puppies.

I'll start not with drones but with 'lethally autonomous robots'. Combat drones such as those the US is using so frequently in its war on terror have a human decision-maker 'in the loop', someone (or frequently more than one person) who makes the final decision to fire on a target. Killer robots would do away with such human intervention, and the video James Brown recommends by sci-fi novelist Daniel Suarez paints a dark picture of where this technology leads, not only for warfare but for democracy.

But I found that video rather overwrought. I'm not convinced that such technology can 'reverse a five-century trend toward democracy'.

Suarez is absolutely right that military technology shapes our political institutions (see Phillip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles on this topic), but don't forget that lethal autonomy is in a sense not new. Suarez himself points out that such weapons are already a feature of the Korean Peninsula standoff, and he doesn't even mention the humble landmine, sea mine or booby trap. And for several decades, navies have fielded fully automated anti-aircraft defence systems because the aerial threats they face just move too fast to allow for human intervention. Read More

Moreover, it's important to recognise that automation will not allow robots to make life and death decisions, because robots can't really make decisions at all. They are merely programmed, by humans, and if we program them to fire a missile at a target at some future time, that simply means we have moved the human decision-point forward. The current generation of drones moves the human decision maker away from the battlefield geographically; the next generation will also take them away from the battlefield chronologically. But either way, it is still a human decision, and if war crimes are committed, those who operate and even those who program these killer robots ought to be liable, because they are the ultimate decision-makers.

Speaking of war and decision-making, Jennifer Hunt writes in her piece that 'An important consideration here is the moral hazard some observers believe armed drones introduce to decision-making...decision-makers can deploy the technology with no risk to pilots' lives or ground troops. The reduced cost in blood and treasure is thought to lower the threshold for the use of force.'

I think that's true, but it is also completely commonplace and unavoidable. In fact, for as long as humans have engaged in conflict with others, we have sought a battlefield advantage through technology by making the enemy more vulnerable to our weapons and us less vulnerable to theirs. It results in an offence-defence cycle, with new technologies constantly being developed to overturn or undermine the advantages wrought by the previous generation of weapons. To put it somewhat crudely, the sword came along to give one side the advantage in hand-to-hand combat, so the spear was invented to overcome the advantages of swords. And so on.

A drone, therefore, is just a tool to reduce to the risk of aerial combat and gain an advantage over an enemy. Asking nations and military commanders to forego that potential battlefield advantage would be like asking them to not buy tanks or frigates. True, the world has managed to largely or wholly ban entire classes of weapons, such as chemical and biological arms, and landmines, but these are rare exceptions. The practical barriers against drone proliferation are therefore extremely high.

Moreover, for drone operators such as the US, drones don't change the risk calculation very much. The last war in which significant numbers of US combat aircraft were shot down was Vietnam. Since then, the US has conducted every one of its many combat operations around the world with overwhelming air superiority. Very few aircrew have been lost to enemy action. So the switch to drones is not a moral leap that suddenly makes aerial warfare low-risk for the US, because that has been the case for some decades.

By this point in the article, you're probably wondering about those puppies. Let me explain. The 'moral hazard' case against drones does not just fall down on the practical grounds sketched above, but on moral grounds too. By arguing that low-risk warfare makes war more likely, you are effectively saying that, in order to reduce the likelihood of war, war ought to be much riskier. But if that's your argument, why stop at drones? Don't soldiers' helmets also make the battlefield less risky for them? Doesn't the availability of advanced field hospitals make it more likely that commanders will risk the lives of their troops, knowing that they have a higher chance of survival?

The 'moral hazard' argument effectively says that nations ought to make themselves as vulnerable as possible because this encourages them to tread so carefully on the world stage that they will not provoke wars. It's the equivalent of asking drivers to strap puppies to their bumper-bars in order to discourage reckless driving.

There. I did it. I found a way to work puppies into an Interpreter debate. May Jessie, my dearly departed old Ridgeback-Red Heeler-cross, forgive me.

Photo by Flickr user philhearing.


Over the next two weeks the Lowy Institute is hosting its 2015 Distinguished International Fellow, Shyam Saran, a former head of India's foerign ministry and prime ministerial envoy for climate change. Saran also played a pivotal role in the landmark US-India civil nuclear agreement, and these days writes regular columns for one of India's most respected newspapers, Business Standard.

Tomorrow Saran delivers the annual Owen Harries Lecture, previously given by US foreign policy luminaries Kurt Campbell and Stephen Hadley. In the speech, Saran takes a big-picture look at India's place in the world, and in the interview we conducted this morning, he talks about some of those themes. We also address the India-China relationship, and the state of New Delhi's relations with Canberra.


China's major aircraft manufacturer COMAC pulled out all the stops yesterday for a ceremony to launch its first ever large jetliner, the C919. When it completes testing and enters service (COMAC says that will be in three years, but these things never run smoothly, especially if you've never done it before), the C919 will compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.

Ever since Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, the manufacture of 100+ seat jetliners has been a duopoly, and the barriers to entering this market are huge. So it says something about China's ambitions to be a global economic and industrial power that it is taking on this duopoly. And it's not just the C919; COMAC is already thinking about an even bigger jet to compete with the Boeing 777.

COMAC has more than 500 orders for the C919, but these are almost all domestic, and the international competitiveness of the aircraft against the Boeing and Airbus offerings is a huge question mark. American aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia is highly sceptical. He notes that COMAC is also responsible for the 'aeronautical atrocity' known as the ARJ21, a regional jet based on decades-old US designs: 

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China’s attention is now turning toward the larger C919, itself delayed until around 2019. Yet the same fundamental problem that hobbled the ARJ21 – a demand for technology transfer from all Western suppliers without any intellectual property protection for these suppliers – is in play for the C919, and will likely ruin the bigger jet too. As for the next step, there’s talk of following the 919 with the 929, a twin aisle model. The plan is for China’s state-owned aircraft industries to build it with help from Russia’s state-owned aircraft industries. The outcome of this fiasco is basically pre-ordained. And don’t forget my favorite theme in aviation: new market entrants have almost no chance...

...There’s worse news. Last year, according to the US International Trade Commission, China provided just $482 million in parts and structures for all US aircraft primes, including Boeing. That’s less than half of Mexico’s role in US aircraft manufacturing ($1.16 billion), and just 10% of Japan’s role ($4.86 billion). Relative to 2013, last year China’s output grew by a mere 5.9%. Mexico’s grew by 37.7%. The average year-over-year increase for the top 15 suppliers was 15.1%. This kind of structures and components work is how you build an aerospace industry, and it’s more profitable and less risky than building home-grown aircraft. In pursuit of its ill-advised jetliner programs, China has neglected huge opportunities in the global aircraft manufacturing supply chain.


In a speech overnight in London that is getting a lot of attention in the media back home in Australia, former prime minister Tony Abbott has told UK Conservative Party luminaries that Europe needs to get much tougher on border protection. 'Misguided altruism' is 'leading much of Europe into catastrophic error', he said. 'No country or continent can open its borders to all comers without fundamentally weakening itself'.

Why is Abbott making an argument about Europe's refugee crisis? Because his experience as PM, and Australia's experience with the refugee problem, is unique: 'while prime minister, I was loath to give public advice to other countries whose situations are different; but...because Australia is the only country that has successfully defeated (people smuggling)...our experience should be studied.'

But how applicable is the Australian example? Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Khlaid Koser addressed this issue in April ('What can Europe Learn From Australia About Stopping the Boats?'):

In at least three ways, the EU can learn from Australia's efforts to stop the boats.

The first lesson is resolve. Australia's asylum policy, in my opinion and that of many others, pushes legal and ethical boundaries. But it is at least (and at last) consistent and predictable. This is an important message to convey to would-be migrants and the smugglers who transport them. At the very least the EU should ensure that its internal regulation on asylum, the Dublin Convention, is implemented properly.

Second, Australia's quota for resettling refugees should be an embarrassment to the EU. Australia resettles more refugees than the entire EU area of over 500 million people. Resettlement may not satisfy the growing demand for entry into the richer countries, and probably would not reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but at least it demonstrates solidarity with some of the poorer countries of the world which continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis.

Third, Australia's policy is based on research, not guesswork. It was striking that one of the 22 recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in Australia was to conduct further research, and the Government has taken this recommendation seriously. This has resulted, for example, in a far more thoughtful and effective approach to combating migrant smuggling than simply apprehending and penalising operatives, as currently proposed by the EU.

Read the whole post here.


This week, in a stunning election result in Canada, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau gained a majority in Canada's parliament, defeating the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Brendan Thomas-Noone said the new Liberal government has a chance to reinvigorate Canada's lagging foreign policy:

The election of Justin Trudeau presents a chance to reinvigorate Canada's traditional stances in foreign policy. There is also a chance to move away from old props that Canada has leaned on, such as peacekeeping. What was once a significant part of Canada's foreign policy and is still held up as a part of Canadian identity is no longer a reality — Canada is now the 66th largest contributor of peacekeeping forces, in between Mali and Paraguay.

But what Canada's role in the history of peacekeeping does reflect is a tradition of proposing innovative ideas in international affairs. There are opportunities in disarmament, the global environment and conflict monitoring and resolution. The tradition of foreign-policy innovation is one Canadians should be proud of, and something the new government could turn its attention to. 

Xi Jinping made a state visit to the UK this week (the US has critised London's courting of Beijing). Kerry Brown said that the most important aspect of China's relationship with the UK is the City of London:

The epicentre for all of this will almost inevitably be the City of London, the great financial district. For the internationalisation of China's currency, for the assistance to Chinese companies going global, and for the creation of a truly international interface outside of China between capital markets and their domestic financial services, London is a core partner. The City is hugely global, but it is not in the US. It also sits in Europe, China's largest market. Its location, its size, and the effort it has already put in to working with China, means the City has great tactical importance for both sides. The only problem is that the fruits of this collaboration are not easy to quantify, which is why, in order to look real, they have to be dressed up in impressive investments and solid projects generating quality jobs for the British and viable international companies for the Chinese.

David Kelly wrote on Chinese investment in the UK, and the different ways the two societies judge risk:

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The deep issue was thus not the competence of China's technical firms and experts, but the linkages between levels of management, the tendency of people to be 'recreant' (ie. to find reasons not to carry out their responsibilities), undisclosed interests, jumbled lines of control, and so on.

So for President Xi's trip and the Hinkley project, the deep issue is not a list of solely Chinese malpractice, incompetence, or the like, but of the potential additive effects of two jurisdictions, each with governance issues. Those interested in such projects are inclined to dismiss such cavils as driven by a sour-grapes mentality or worse, xenophobia. It is worth pointing out as forcefully as possible that there is nothing xenophobic about maintaining high standards.

I reviewed the special episode of Q&A this week which focused on foreign policy:

But too often in the public debate, the risks of China's rise are framed as physical risks to Australian territory. There was an air of this in the tweets that were put on screen during last night's show, and on the odd occasion that this subject comes up in my conversations with non-specialists, I am sometimes asked 'What, so are they going to invade us?'. The question is always put with a tone of disbelief, and I reinforce this by saying that invasion is not the issue. But then I am asked: so what is the issue?

At that point, I give an answer similar to the one Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove gave on Q&A last night, when he said that Australia had an interest in preserving the rules-based order in our region. That's true; the rules-based order is a precious thing, and Australia benefits from its preservation in numerous ways. But given that this order is so difficult to define and that it changes mostly by degree (though sometimes all at once, when wars are won and lost), it can be a difficult principle on which to persuade people.

Continuing his series on internet wars, Fergus Hanson on how the line has been blurred on the use of cyber weapons during war and peace:

Cyber attacks should now be expected during times of war. Of far more concern though is the emerging norm in favour of conducting cyber attacks during peacetime. In 2012, the UK's then-Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey, even made the case to the Shangri-La Dialogue that cyber attacks were 'quite a civilised option.'

Practice would suggest several states agree. In 2012, it was revealed the US had been targeting Iran's nuclear program with cyber attacks. It was the first time a cyber attack had turned hot, doing physical real-world damage. In retaliation, Iran launched a major attack in August 2012 on the world's largest energy company, Saudi Aramco. 

In her latest piece on digital diplomacy, Danielle Cave refuted the arguments made in an op-ed in Fairfax on DFAT's digital strategy:

It is one thing to allow embassies, ambassadors and thematic areas of DFAT to open up Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts and to use these to post announcements and soft power images of Australia. It is an entirely different thing to allow the diplomats using these accounts to project, advocate for and defend Australia's policy positions. The first is public relations and the second is digital diplomacy. Both are very important and Australia is doing only one well.

Euan Graham on the RAN's flagship, HMAS Canberra:

Commissioned only last year, at 27,000 tonnes Canberra is the largest warship the RAN has operated. The LHDs are 'cheap' compared with locally built warships, employing a mix of commercial and naval specifications. The LHDs have their detractors, as made clear in The Shallow Pool of Strategic Expertise in Defence. Arguments proffered against the LHDs include the claim that such large ships needlessly shoe-horn defence assets into protecting vulnerable platforms that can only operate in low-threat environments. Or they draw us into US-led 'expeditionary' roles exceeding Australia's defence requirements. Bah humbug.

Stephen Grenville on Asia's economies and capital flows:

The sequence since the financial crisis of 2008 goes like this: at first, foreign investors fled emerging markets as part of the generalised panic. Then, when they saw most emerging economies had come through the crisis rather well and, encouraged by the large interest differential created by the near-zero rates in the crisis economies, investors shifted more of their funds into emerging markets – the 'search for yield'. Of course not all investors did this. But global investors' portfolios are huge compared with the size of financial markets in emerging economies, so the flows pushed up exchange rates in the recipient economies (which of course reduced the international competitiveness of these economies), thus encouraging current accounts to move into deficit.

With violence flaring in East Jerusalem, Leanne Piggott wrote an update on the Israel-Palestine conflict:

If Israelis and Palestinians are to reach an agreement to end the conflict between the two peoples, the leadership on both sides will need to make compromises that will surely not be accepted by all of their respective constituents. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would lose the support of much of the religious and political right if he was to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces opposition to any kind of end-of-conflict deal with Israel from the Hamas leadership based in Gaza and the more radical elements within his own Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority based in the West Bank.

Will mobile phones be a significant help in responding to PNG's drought? Amanda Watson and Dan Jorgensen:

Data collection is an important part of a concerted approach. Detailed, location-specific data is essential to help identify the places where people are most in need of relief. Typically, much data collection is done in the field by teams travelling around the country. This will remain a valuable way to gather a range of information, including people's perceptions and perhaps water, crop and soil samples.

But some types of data could be collected remotely, which is faster and more efficient than on foot. For example, a series of key questions could be sent out via SMS to village leaders on a daily or weekly basis. This would permit a fine-grained understanding of local situations in real time, especially in remote areas. Where responses are of concern, follow-up phone interviews could elicit more detailed information.

World Polio Day was yesterday, and Sophie Désoulières and Samina Ahmed from International Crisis Group updated us on the situation in Pakistan:

It is clear recent advances made in the battle with polio will remain fragile while the militant networks are intact. If a lower polio infection rate is to be maintained, countering anti-immunisation propaganda will be essential. This requires building on initiatives to engage communities, to win their trust and enable essential services, particularly more pervasive immunisation and significantly improved public health and sanitation.

An interesting post from J Michael Cole on the belief in China that 'peaceful unification' will result through closer economic ties with Taiwan:

In the end, no matter how much money you throw at the problem, identity trumps all other factors. And for better or worse, one's identity isn't a rational choice based on the calculated maximisation of material interests. Shaped over centuries, Taiwan's complex and distinct identity is also inseparable from its recent development as a liberal democracy, which has acted as an antibody against the deepening authoritarianism and nationalist ideology in China (even ardent supporters of the Republic of China who tend to oppose Taiwan's de jure independence have made their democracy a non-negotiable item).

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John McCallum.


China released new GDP figures this week to widespread scepticism. Stephen Grenville's next column will look at the issue of China's GDP, but meanwhile, here's a nicely produced video from economist Tyler Cowen, who we know from the Marginal Revolution blog and his occasional NY Times columns. It's a handy big-picture survey of China's recent economic history and its troubled future: 


When you are used to viewing Iran through the lens of nuclear programs, religious extremism, and sponsorship of terrorist groups, even a two-minute movie trailer can help recalibrate your sense the place. Five years after seeing, the Tehran-based drama A Separation, that film still lingers with me, and although this is a different genre, Tehran Taxi looks equally memorable:

Tehran Taxi won the highest prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, but director Jafar Panahi could not personally receive the award because he is banned from leaving Iran. From the Wikipedia page:

(Tehran Taxi) has been described as "a portrait of the Iranian capital Tehran" and as a "documentary-like film is set in a Tehran taxi that is driven by Panahi"... the passengers include "Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, traditionalists and modernists, pirated video vendors, and advocates of human rights, [who sit] in the passenger seat..." The passengers are played by non-professional actors, whose identities remain anonymous.

Like his previous two films This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, the film was made despite Panahi's 20-year ban from making films. His previous two films had been shot in extreme secrecy in Panahi's apartment and in a private house. In this film Panahi filmed out in the open on the streets of Tehran.

Shortly after the film's premiere at Berlin was announced, Panahi released an official statement in which he promised to continue making films despite the ban and said "Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge."


Foreign policy tragics rejoiced last evening when their pet issues received a detailed hour-long airing on the ABC's flagship political debate program, Q&A. At one point, it got so wonkish that host Tony Jones had to gently remind one of his panelists, former foreign minister Bob Carr, that the audience may not actually know what China's 'nine-dashed line' is.

For policy specialists like me, the program was a reminder of how difficult it is to communicate to a broad audience the significance of the Asian century for Australia's future. Among the foreign policy community, the shift of wealth and power to the Asian region, particularly China, is treated (rightly) as the most important thing to happen to Australia's foreign policy since at least the collapse of Soviet-led communism. The political class has not always followed this lead — for them, Islamic radicalism has, since 9/11, been a more urgent priority.

And the public? Well, Lowy Institute polling suggests the public is well aware of China's growing influence on our economic well-being. In fact, they probably overstate it — in 2013, 76% of those polled said China 'was the most important economy to Australia'. Our polling also suggests that Australians are aware of the risks of China's rise: in the 2015 poll, 39% China 'will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years'.

But too often in the public debate, the risks of China's rise are framed as physical risks to Australian territory. There was an air of this in the tweets that were put on screen during last night's show, and on the odd occasion that this subject comes up in my conversations with non-specialists, I am sometimes asked 'What, so are they going to invade us?'. The question is always put with a tone of disbelief, and I reinforce this by saying that invasion is not the issue. But then I am asked: so what is the issue?

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At that point, I give an answer similar to the one Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove gave on Q&A last night, when he said that Australia had an interest in preserving the rules-based order in our region. That's true; the rules-based order is a precious thing, and Australia benefits from its preservation in numerous ways. But given that this order is so difficult to define and that it changes mostly by degree (though sometimes all at once, when wars are won and lost), it can be a difficult principle on which to persuade people.

I've pointed out before that it can be difficult to connect the once-in-a-century shift of global power to Asia to the way Australians live their daily lives. So it was disappointing that last night's Q&A didn't get to the 'larger Australia' theme in Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures. Because this is the point at which the sometimes esoteric discussion of power balancing, the rules-based order and so on aligns in a very specific way with how Australia is governed and how Australians live their lives.

The polling suggests that Australians do recognise the rewards and risks of Asia's rise, but it's not clear that we as a nation are prepared to do very much about it. Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures call for an expanded sense of Australia's place in the world, a bigger defence force and possibly a much larger population, all so that we can meet the challenge of being in the engine room of world politics rather than on its periphery, as we were in the Cold War. I would dearly love to know if Australians share that sense of ambition.

Photo courtesy of the ABC.


Today the ABC broadcast the last of the four-part Boyer Lecture series by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove on A Larger Australia.

The Boyers are the flagship public lecture series of the ABC, our national broadcaster and one of Australia's most important national institutions. Michael has done the significance of the occasion justice through the ambitiousness of his theme: he calls for an Australia that is larger in all important respects. He wants Australians to think and dream bigger about their politics and place in the world, and for Australia to play a more significant role in world affairs.

Below, I've extracted some highlights from the series (chronologically; skip right to the bottom to read Michael's rousing finish). To hear more on the themes of the lectures, tune in the Q&A tomorrow night and listen to this interview with the ABC's Fran Kelly .

'Present at the Destruction', delivered in Beijing, 27 September

It is a recurring feature of international relations that established and rising powers often collide. But history is not made by vast impersonal forces. It is made by individuals in hugely consequential meetings just like the one taking place in Washington this week between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama.

In future years, will China be constructive or combative? In which position will its strategic metronome come to rest? Will the United States fall victim to Cold War thinking? Or might it instead pull back from Asia, leaving the field open for China to exercise its national power without restrictions? Will these two countries with their intertwined economies allow their present uneasy competition to slide into confrontation, with grim consequences for us all?

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Or will they manage and contain their competition? Can they find a mode of co-existing in which each can achieve its objectives while also allowing other Asian countries to exercise their prerogatives? This last point is critical: the other countries in the region also deserve their own space. None of us wants to live in another’s shadow. We all have the right to make our own way.

Establishing this kind of Asian order will be hard. It will take restraint and wisdom, but also strength and will. There are few precedents on which to rely. It will not be achieved at the treaty table in some kind of seventeenth century grand bargain. It will only be achieved over time, as these two mighty powers test each other under the gaze of their neighbours. And those neighbours – including Australia – also have important parts to play.

'A three-dimensional foreign policy', 4 October

There is an underlying continuity to the way Australians have perceived our national interests and worked to further them. We have always pursued a three-dimensional foreign policy as a means of keeping Australia prosperous and safe.

The three dimensions of which I speak are height, width and depth. Height refers to our practice of working with like-minded great powers – countries that occupy the summit of global politics. Width involves participating in the activities of international institutions. Depth means building strong relations with the countries around us, in Asia.

These three dimensions have remained present over the course of Australian history, although the balance between them has varied with different governments and changing circumstances. This three-dimensional approach is the most distinctive and interesting element of Australian strategy. It is a key source of strength for our country.


'Foreign policy begins at home', 11 October

We need to turn our politics from a dispiriting conflict of personalities into a robust battle of ideas. We need to make our politics larger.

Ultimately this will take politicians who are game – leaders who possess imagination, courage, policy ambition, and the power of persuasion. It will take leaders who are prepared to do the hard things, because those are the things worth fighting for. It will take a government with the wherewithal to marshal its resources and promote a coherent agenda. It will take a prime minister who can carry the country.

But this is not all up to the politicians. It’s also up to the rest of us. We are not innocents in all this: we are accessories. We cannot escape culpability for the condition of our public life. As a people, we seem to have lost the patience required to engage on big topics, for example the fact that our health, education and welfare bills are projected to grow faster than government revenues. Perhaps a quarter-century of unbroken prosperity has distorted our expectations of what the government owes us.

'The birthplace of the fortunate', 18 October

Are we content to be a little nation, anxious about the world and disposed to erect barriers against it, with a negative political system and a meanness of spirit about the place? Do we want to be a nation with a limited diplomatic network, a modest defence force and a cramped vision of our future? Do we wish to be a people with a habit of talking ourselves down – who must look elsewhere for inspiration because we don’t believe we can fill our highest office from within our own ranks?

Or do we want to be larger than this – a big, confident country, open to the world and alive to the attractions of diversity; a nation with a reforming mindset, a generous debate and a serious public life; an ambitious country with the instruments that enable us to influence the balance of power in Asia; a people with enough confidence and self-belief to have our own head of state?


This is a new documentary about the Chinese organ trade and the use of prisoners as a source for organs. The subject was tackled at some length by The Weekly Standard in 2011.

Hard to Believe is being screened for an invited audience at the NSW parliament on 28 October. The distributor is negotiating with Australian broadcasters to get it shown on TV.


More China brilliance from Stephen Colbert:

Hey, it's just my opinion, but Colbert is a flat-out comedy genius. The new show is already excellent (here's a highlight), though surprisingly cerebral and political, given that he's on a big network in a key time-slot. If The Late Show with Stephen Colbert can attract ratings and stay on the air, it is sure to be indispensable during the presidential election year.

You can see most of each episode of The Late Show on its YouTube channel.