Lowy Institute

This VICE News video of the 2014 RIMPAC exercise (the largest international maritime exercise in the world), held in June this year, is worth 14 minutes of your time.

It includes (from 8:24) a tour of the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark, but focuses mainly on the US Marine Corps' attempt to return to amphibious warfare after more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this site we regularly debate the status of the pivot/rebalance. Maybe it has lost momentum at the political level, but it clearly figures prominently in US Marine Corps talking points.


As Catriona Croft-Cusworth’s commentary and photos showed, there is a celebratory mood in Jakarta this week with the inauguration of Jokowi as Indonesia’s new president. In the spirit of reconciliation, Jokowi’s defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto even showed up for the ceremony.

For this week’s Quick Comment, I spoke with the Lowy Institute’s Indonesia expert Aaron Connelly about how long this mood is likely to last in Indonesia’s halls of power. 

Not long, is the answer. As you will hear, Jokowi faces a hostile opposition (Aaron makes comparisons with American politics) that is unlikely to give an inch on Jokowi’s domestic agenda. Listen too for Aaron’s thoughts on Jokowi’s inaugural address, which, as Rory Medcalf noted yesterday, had a strikingly nautical theme.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Steven Fitzgerald Sipahutar.


Gough Whitlam with Hu Jintao in September 2007. (REUTERS/Will Burgess.)

Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Murray McLean began his association with Asia in the early 1970s when he was a language student in Hong Kong, from where he played a small part in then-Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam's groundbreaking 1971 visit to China. In 1973 he was posted to Beijing with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and he also served in Shanghai as well as heading DFAT's North Asia Division.

So there's no one better qualified to discuss the legacy of former Prime Minister Whitlam, who passed away this morning.

I talked with Murray McLean this morning, and as you will hear, he argues that Whitlam established the basis for a fully independent Australian foreign policy, setting relations with Asia on a truly equal basis while also tenaciously defending the ANZUS alliance. McLean provides some wonderful historical detail from the early 1970s, when not only Australia but the US, Canada and others were re-thinking their relations with China. When we chatted after the interview, he recommended this 2012 essay by Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to Beijing, on Whitlam's historic 1971 visit.


The Overseas Development Institute has a new report out on rural wages in Asia which is not exactly being overwhelmed with attention but which, as Oxfam's Duncan Green argues, has momentous implications (my emphasis):

Rural wages are rising across much of Asia, and in some cases have accelerated since the mid 2000s...Doubling in China in the last decade, tripling or quadrupling in Vietnam. A bit slower in Bangladesh, but still up by half. This really matters because landless rural people are bottom of the heap (72% of Asia’s extreme poor are rural – some 687m people in 2008), so what they can pick up from their casual labour is a key determinant of poverty, or the lack of it. (Report co-author) Steve (Wiggins) argues that if the trend continues (and it looks like it will) this spells ‘the end of mass (extreme) poverty in Asia.'

Two other nuggets from Duncan Green's summary of the research. First this:

The two main drivers are a slowdown in the growth of the rural labour force, probably mainly from lower fertility rates, and the growth of manufacturing that attracts workers from rural areas....

...The focus on shrinking rural populations is...intriguing – is this the biggest success story yet for women’s education, empowerment and sexual/reproductive rights (at least outside China, whose fertility fall is based more on coercion)?

And finally:

Higher rural wages are driving up the cost of food production, thereby creating opportunities for other countries to export to Asia. Steve (Wiggins) agues that this will undermine Asian countries’ preference for self sufficiency in food (they’ve already come to rely on imports for vegetable oil and animal feed), opening up big new markets for food exporters.

They also contribute to higher wages in manufacturing. As costs rise in China, for example, it is likely that some plants will relocate to low income Asia and to Africa. Former World Bank chief economist Justin Lin has talked about 80 million manufacturing jobs leaving China as wages rise. Many of those could go to Africa, as the last global repository of truly cheap labour.

(H/t Dart-Throwing Chimp.)


Prime Minister Abbott made headlines this week with his promise to 'shirtfront' Vladimir Putin when he arrives in Brisbane next month for the G20 summit (here's an explanation of that Australianism, and above is a famous example from 1989). Previously, the Government had flirted with the idea of trying to ban Putin from the G20 over Russia's role in the downing of MH17, but that has now been ruled out.

To discuss diplomatic shirtfronting (and BTW, Abbott has recently retreated from his aggressive tone somewhat) and other G20 Summit matters, yesterday I spoke with the Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre, Mike Callaghan. The Lowy Institute recently released Mike's G20 Brisbane Summit Form Guide: What Will Make the Summit a Success?


Could someone please explain to me where Justin Logan's argument is wrong?

The American foreign policy elite is obsessed with the Middle East. Despite President Obama’s rhetoric about a “pivot to Asia,” the United States remains bogged down in the region, now at war in Syria in addition to Iraq. What’s most perverse about all this is that the Middle East doesn’t matter. Washington would do better to leave the region alone...

...three fears have turned this small, poor, weak region into the central focus of U.S. foreign policy: oil, Israel and terrorism. Each of these concerns merits attention, but nowhere near the amount they have received over the last several decades. And certainly, none of them calls for the sort of forward-deployed interventionism both Republicans and Democrats favor.

Logan addresses each of these three fears. He says concerns about the oil supply understate the effect of market forces; moreover, an offshore US presence will deter the worst-case scenario of Iran taking over Saudi supplies. As for Israel, it is militarily secure and doesn't need the US military presence in the region; if anything, America's activism has made Israel less secure. And terrorism?:

The amount we’re paying now to fight terrorism—roughly $100 billion per year—is simply crazy. If someone ran a hedge fund assessing risk the way the U.S. government has responded to terrorism, it would not be long for the world. Indeed, it is difficult to identify how U.S. policy across the region—with the possible exception of some drone strikes and special operations raids—have reduced the extremely low probability of another major terrorist attack. If anything, our policies may have increased them.

A question for Australian policy thinkers: what is our chief obligation to our ally in this regard? Is it to offer support to US military operations in the Middle East as a show of solidarity and form of 'down payment' on help we might need in the future, or is it to persuade the US that it is making a mistake by focusing so much energy on the Middle East at the expense of Asia? If you had to choose between these two as a policy objective, which do you think would be more likely to advance Australia's interests?

Much good sense in this interview with New Statesman:

“The one thing that both the Iraq and Afghan wars should have taught us is that, even with a very heavy input in boots on the ground, and nation-building, and the trillions of resources poured into these countries, our ability to bring about a specific political result like democracy, or even basic stability, is very limited.”

Fukuyama’s criticism of Obama’s policy is also guided by a belief that the president is responding to the wrong threats. China’s rising global influence and Russia’s renewed territorial ambition are far greater dangers to western security, he believes. “The whole west, and especially the United States, has overestimated the impact of terrorism,” he says. “It’s a big problem, it’s not going to go away any time in the future – but it’s not an existential threat.” If the brutality of Isis makes the group seem a danger to the US and Europe, it is also a weakness: “The attraction of this kind of radicalism to most people is zero.”

(H/t Sullivan.)


Fascinating article by Jonathan Powell:

We usually delay talking to armed groups too long, and as a result, a large number of people die unnecessarily. General David Petraeus admitted that, in Iraq, the US left it far too late to talk to those “with American blood on their hands”. We delay because it is argued that talking is too risky – but experience suggests the real risk lies in not talking.

When governments have been wrestling for years with a terrorist group, and it becomes clear that the military option is not working, the tendency is to try it again – what we might call the “one last heave” approach. In Afghanistan, this was the argument for another “surge” of troops, under Petraeus, to put the Taliban on the back foot. Unfortunately, this tactic rarely works. Terrorist groups may not accept that they are being outfought, and generally believe they can wait out the conventional forces arrayed against them.


The latest in a long line of American movies about the experience of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Great trailer. But the focus on the lives of soldiers is pretty safe territory for Hollywood. It would be great to see a feature on the decision-making in Washington after 9/11. Oliver Stone's George W Bush biopic W is about the nearest thing I can think of in that genre.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


An LA Review of Books essay on Dan Washburn's The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream:

...although construction of new golf courses has been banned in China since at least 2004, more than 400 were built between 2005 and 2010, making China the only place in the world experiencing a golf boom. Government officials who enjoy hitting the links register at golf courses under false names, afraid of leaving a paper trail connecting them to a game most often associated with capitalism and corruption. And while massive golf course complexes lined with luxury villas populate large tracts of land outside Chinese cities, their owners attempt to hide the courses in plain sight, giving them convoluted names like the “Anji China Ecotourism and Fitness Center.” Like so much else in contemporary China, golf occupies a gray zone: officially forbidden, yet tolerated — even encouraged — behind the scenes, as local government officials and land developers reap massive profits from the construction of new courses.

Photo by Flickr user g33kgrrl.


The Wilson Center's Peter Gumbel looks at the social media reaction to Germany's 7-1 World Cup defeat of Brazil and concludes that, when it comes to Germany, 'the usual rules of political correctness don’t apply':

For example, Binyamin Applebaum, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, tweeted, “The Germans have stormed into a foreign country and taken charge. How unexpected.” Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, tweeted “Flush with Confidence, Germany Launches Land War in Asia,” while New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones tweeted “The Germans will just deny the match ever happened.” On Facebook, a post by British comedian Ricky Gervais—“This won’t be the first time thousands of Germans will have to lie low in Brazil for a while for their own safety”—drew more than 100,000 likes.

Europe's leaders keep this picture of Germany alive too:

...the key rationale for the creation of what is now the EU was that there should never again be a European conflagration. For young generations today, the idea of a war between France and Germany seems preposterous, but that doesn’t stop the mantra being repeated endlessly by European leaders in an effort to promote pro-European sentiment. It doesn’t work: the record of recent European elections is that the younger the voter, the less likely they are to vote. At the very least, that suggests a more updated and relevant rationale for the EU needs to be developed.


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

Lawyer and former journalist Cynthia Banham cites Northern Ireland as a cautionary tale for Australia's legislative response to terrorism:

Northern Ireland is the paradigm case for how executive overreach in counter-terrorism laws and policy can go wrong. Hundreds of Catholic nationalists, many of them innocent, were interned under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, which permitted detention without charge or trial. They were subject to a range of mistreatment, including what today would be regarded as torture. The internment policies were widely viewed in hindsight as a failure, having led to the alienation of the Catholic population and the escalation of violence.

Julian Snelder on economist Justin Yifu Lin and China's economic growth:

If Justin Lin is right, China will 'rule the world' economically, if not by 2030 then certainly before mid-century. Its domestic economy will far surpass anything on the planet, its companies will tower above all, it will be the prime money-mover globally, it must lead technologically and the West's middle and working classes will be industrially and financially sidelined. If he is wrong, but China's leaders insist on his growth imperative anyway, then China will become highly indebted, parched, polluted and frustrated. That is why I am listening closely to Justin Lin.

Turkey is widely seen as a critical partner in stemming the flow of resources to ISIS. Sarah Graham wrote on why it has been reluctant to date:

Read More

But let's recall that Turkey was unwilling to be part of the coalition during the Iraq War in 2003. It probably has the same concerns now that it had then: too little clarity on the post-war political solution. Turkey has long been critical of the West's handling of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, wanting tougher action against the dictator. Turkey may fear that action against ISIS will strengthen Assad, particularly given that US plans for the endgame in Syria aren't clear. To top it off, the US Senate has only just approved the appointment of a new ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, who will have to manage a delicate and extremely high-stakes negotiation process as he settles in. The Obama Administration will need to appreciate that Turkey is status conscious, focused on what the ultimate political order in its region will look like, and doesn't take a simplistic view about the sources of Islamist radicalism. 

The crisis in West Africa, should not be forgotten, says Tim Mayfield: 

Indeed, the less emotive nature of the Ebola outbreak as compared with ISIS's hardcore ideology and homicidal tactics seems to be a significant factor in the Australian Government's response thus far. Even when taking into account the latest announcement of A$7 million in support of the international response to the Ebola outbreak, this brings Australia's total contribution at this point to just A$8 million. That looks downright miserly when compared with the A$500 million per year that Australia's military mission in Iraq is forecast to cost.

A Chinese submarine visited Colombo earlier this month. James Brown took a look at what it means for the future of the PLA Navy and international submarine rescue cooperation: 

There may still be opportunities for international engagement as China weighs how to provide submarine rescue capabilities further afield. In a 2010 address to the Royal United Services Institute, the PLA-N's then Northern Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Tian Zhong concluded that 'international coordination for submarine rescue may be the best way of saving the submarine and avoiding nuclear leakage', and signaled that China was 'looking forward to more extensive cooperation' in the submarine rescue field. Subsequently, Chinese naval observers attended ISMERLO, NATO, and US submarine rescue exercises. But to date China has neither fully participated in any combined submarine rescue exercises nor concluded any international agreements that establish logistics channels necessary for fly-in submarine rescue.

Nonresident Fellow Stephen Grenville argued that Indonesia's new president should focus on structural reforms of the economy, because: 

If the going does get tougher, Indonesia is poorly placed to handle a more serious crisis, either at the global level or domestically. As a still heartfelt legacy of the 1997-8 crisis, Indonesian policy-makers would be reluctant to seek help from the IMF. The operational effectiveness of the Chiang Mai Multilateral Initiative is extremely doubtful. Domestically, the Financial Sector Safety Net bill was rejected by parliament in 2008 and has little prospect of early revival, leaving policy-makers with few options in the event of financial-sector problems. 

Philippa Brant presented a strong case for Australia to get involved with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: 

Australia could be cautious and wait to see how the AIIB develops. But as we know from the history of the Bretton Woods institutions, it is easier to shape these institutions by getting involved early. They prove challenging to change down the track. It is natural for the country committing the most dollars to want to have the most influence. China's desire in this regard shouldn't be seen as inherently problematic. But by signing up to the AIIB now, Australia has greater opportunity to influence its governance and operation. Those countries that sign the MoU at APEC will get to be part of the governing structure, and thus have voting rights.

I wrote on Obama's speech at the UN Climate summit this week

The other lesson to draw from Obama's prioritisation of global challenges is not to confuse media attention with policy focus.

Yes, military action against ISIS is getting a lot of attention, and in my view, the US-led response to the ISIS threat is an over-reaction. But it's not as if Obama is betting the farm on this mission; he's restricting his commitment mostly to air power. So even if America is making a strategic mistake, it is not a big one. And if it relieves pressure on the Kurds and other minorities being persecuted by ISIS, it will even have some humanitarian upside. It also fulfills US (and Australian) moral obligations to a struggling Iraq. We broke the joint, so we ought to play a part in holding it together.

If we're looking for long-term policy impact, it might be worth turning to where Obama says his priority lies: climate change.

The Lowy Institute's East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall argued that there are complex implications to China's crackdown on corruption

The crackdown on corruption in China does respond to a genuine misuse of power by some government officials. But to understand how far the campaign will go, and what its purpose is, corruption in China also needs to be seen in the context of a long tradition of social relations that are very different from those we are used to in Australia. Seen in this broader context, it would seem that however vigorous the anti-corruption campaign is, it can never truly go all the way; it must necessarily be selective and limited.

Following the elections last week, Alex Stewart warns that the overwhelming personal victory for Frank Bainimarama could lead to a shaky start for democracy in Fiji: 

This means there are unlikely to be many changes in the development of Fiji government policy going forward. And as Jenny Hayward-Jones has pointed out, there are significant issues facing Fijian democracy and civil liberties. Addressing these issues is likely to become much harder now that Bainimarama can draw on a strong mandate from the polls, a mandate that he has already interpreted as popular support for his 'vision'.

While there is certainly going to be parliamentary debate, it may be too much to expect it to alter key issues, especially since one of those issues is media freedoms. The restrictions on the press imposed by the Media Industry Development Agency and the media decrees have served Bainimarama well, and he is not going to change them readily.

And Catriona Croft-Cusworth says West Papua was watching the Scottish referendum: 

In a time when Indonesia is still consolidating its democracy, backtracking on decentralisation reforms would be an unwise move. As the case of Scotland shows, sticking together involves a negotiation of identity, dialogue and power. Despite its flaws, the mechanism of direct regional elections in Indonesia is a platform for that negotiation. With strong institutions, it can also become a self-correcting process, supporting democratic reform from the centre to the regions.

Lastly, Saleem Ali argued that the UN Climate summit held in New York this week was an opportunity for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to conduct 'environmental diplomacy': 

There are opportunities to link Australia's relations with major powers through our environmental technology sector just as much as through our mining industry.

For instance, Australia has excellent technological capabilities in renewable energy research and infrastructure development. The world's largest solar research facility is currently under construction in south-eastern Queensland and there are numerous Australian companies such as Barefoot Power that offer innovative solutions to meeting rural electricity challenges. Then there is the nuclear fuel issue, which has already been a major point of Australia-India diplomacy, and which will have direct carbon reduction implications if properly managed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sander Spolspoel.


Earlier this morning I spoke with the Lowy Institute's 2014 Telstra Distinguished International Fellow Stephen Hadley about the situation in Iraq and Syria. You can listen to the interview below. Hadley, who was President George W Bush's National Security Advisor from 2005 to 2009, will be in Australia in late October as part of his fellowship.

Some highlights from our discussion:

  • US strategy in Iraq and Syria will only work if local ground forces are willing to fight ISIS and other groups.
  • The President's stated goal to 'destroy' ISIS is a high bar. The US will degrade ISIS and defeat it in Iraq by taking back the territory it controls.
  • Obama was wise not to put a time limit on the operation. It sends the message that he is serious and will see it through. The US should see substantial progress in Iraq over the next year, but Syria is a longer term proposition; the President has said it will last beyond his Administration.
  • The strategy in Syria is two-fold: to degrade ISIS and other extremist groups; and buy time for vetted, moderate ground forces to be trained and equipped.
  • Last, I asked Hadley if America's return in force to the Middle East had dealt the final blow to the Asia pivot. His answer from 8:10.

You can listen here.


Yesterday I posted the first responses to our Mandarin Code give-away, asking you to nominate your favourite novels about modern China for a chance to win a copy of the new political thriller by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. Here are some more of your responses on Twitter: 


Two Lowy Institute researchers have also made recommendations. Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton-Cain nominated Mao's Last Dancer which 'was a great book full of insight - it's not a novel but I'm putting it out there anyway.' And China expert and Nonresident Fellow Linda Jakobson said this: 

What's my favourite novel about modern China? My answer is two-fold: My all-time favourite is Ba Jin's The Family. Though published as a book 81 years ago The Family continues to shed light on the intricate relationships within a Chinese family, still very pertinent today. It is an autobiographical novel by Ba Jin, the pen-name of Li Feigan (1904-2005). The novel paints a vivid picture of inter-generational conflict between traditional ways and more progressive aspirations in an upper-class family in the city of Chengdu. I have read the book several times. I have also seen it as a play, most recently in Beijing in 2005 at the classic Capital Theatre on Wangfujing with a stellar cast of famous actors. This year's favourite is Night Heron by Adam Brookes, a former BBC correspondent in Beijing, a compelling spy thriller set in China. Adam has the atmospherics just right, with lots of familiar people, places and situations depicting modern China.


Slashfilm writes:

In Captain Phillips we saw a bit of the story of men caught up in Somali pirate rings, and now Fishing Without Nets offers a much deeper exploration of the lives of men who take up criminal activities on the seas.