Lowy Institute

It was a short week on The Interpreter, thanks to Monday's public holiday, but the other four days were filled with plenty to interest and provoke. For instance, we debated the war against ISIS in Iraq, with retired General Jim Molan arguing that Australia needed to step up its commitment by deploying army advisers alongside the Iraqi army in battle: 

Our experience in Afghanistan shows that accompanying local troops into battle has important benefits: local soldiers are more likely to be paid and receive ammunition, food and fuel; intelligence can be brought into the unit; fire support can be accessed; local commanders will make better tactical decision and won't get their soldiers killed carelessly. Iraqi soldiers are not fools. They know they will not be abandoned, as happened at Mosul, if there are advisers with them. Any veteran of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam will tell you that.

Rodger Shanahan countered:

Defeating ISIS  militarily is necessary but is really just treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The causes of the disease include issues of identity, a poor state education system based on rote learning and not tied to any labour market requirements, feelings of disenfranchisement at several levels, and more. Addressing these causes requires a legislature which thinks in terms of the national interest rather than the individual, sectarian, tribal or party good.

The inability of the Iraqi parliament to vote on the National Guard Bill before it broke for the summer vacation tells you a lot about Iraq's politicians. Stumping up Australian soldiers to risk their lives when the Iraqi political system refuses to reform or look beyond narrow self-interest simply tells the Iraqis that they can continue to ignore fundamental issues of political legitimacy without penalty.

Don't blame Obama for the rise of ISIS, argued Tom Switzer:

Obama's critics are right to say the US troop surge in 2007 managed to slow the pace of Iraq's disintegration by creating a semblance of peace between Sunni tribes and Shiite-led government. It is also true the withdrawal in 2011 removed all that was holding Iraq's rival Sunni and Shiite groups in check. What the President's critics can't acknowledge, however, is the taproot of the crisis: the invasion of Iraq, which unleashed all those age-old sectarian hatreds haunting the region.

Merriden Varrall wrote brilliantly on China's worldview this week, marked by six 'narrative shells':

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I remember being in a takeaway food shop queue in China. The foreign woman in front of me asked for vegetables and rice, in English. The Chinese woman behind the counter didn't understand, so the foreign woman helpfully said the same thing, but louder. Not being deaf, this didn't help the woman behind the counter. So the foreign woman shouted in a slow, loud voice, 'I WAAAAAANT VEEEEGETAAAABLES AAAAND RIIIIIIICE'. It was painfully embarrassing to watch, and fortunately, eventually a bilingual person provided some interpretation, and vegetables and rice ensued.

I tell this story as an illustrative parable. There has been much talk of late about the US (and Australia) pushing back more strongly against China's behaviour in the South China Sea, because what's been done so far hasn't worked. My point is that rather than saying the same thing more loudly and hoping for a different response, deeper cultural understanding is necessary.

Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder continued the debate started earlier this month on the complex identity questions that underlie the fraught relationship between Japan and South Korea:

The power and persistence of national identity is one of the most important obstacles to the forging of a productive partnership between Japan and South Korea. We believe the two countries need to take substantive action to break the cycle of rapprochement and rupture that dominates their relationship and reframe it in positive-sum terms through the establishment of a shared identity narrative.

In our new study of this relationship, we call on the governments in Tokyo and Seoul to take bold steps. For example, Japan should relinquish its claim to the disputed islands of Takeshima/Dokdo and make payments to surviving comfort women in order to take responsibility for injustices during the Pacific War and to signal a desire to truly move on. These steps are intended to 'shock the system' in both countries and begin to rewrite the national identity narratives in both countries. Given the significance Koreans attach to these two issues — in the just-released Genron NPO-East Asia Institute public opinion survey of relations between the two countries, 88.3% of Koreans identify Takeshima/Dokdo as a barrier to improved relations and 63.5% blame the comfort-women issue — such a step could break the deadlock.

Some data from Myanmar's census has been released (the first in three decades), and it reveals a huge urban-rural divide, says Elliot Brennan:

A countrywide average under-5 mortality rate of 72 deaths per 1000 live births leapt dramatically between Yangon (50) and Magway (108) or Ayeyawaddy (105). 

The story was similar for household data on access to services. Some 77.5% of the urban population report electricity as the source of household lighting, as opposed to 15% in rural areas. More specifically, Yangon (69%) has far greater connection to electricity than Rakhine (13%) or Tanintharyi (8%). 69% of households use firewood or charcoal for cooking, with the figure 92% in rural areas and 52% in urban areas. Households reporting sanitary toilet facilities (74% nationwide) varied greatly between Yangon (91%) and Rakhine state (32%). 

Astonishingly, the average household ownership of mobile phones is 33% – sim cards were exorbitantly expensive up until very recently — yet here too there is a divide between rural (21%) and urban (64%) populations. As I've noted previously, mobile phone penetration will be a key part of development and finance in rural communities.

Matthew Sussex wrote on Putin's Asia pivot:

...the Ukraine crisis – and the broader Russia-West tensions that it has stoked – obscures the fact that Moscow has been quietly but rapidly re-orienting its strategic posture. And it is doing so to the east, not the west. For Putin, the logic of an Asian pivot is threefold.

This week Indian special forces staged a dramatic raid into Myanmar. Shashank Joshi explained:

For a year, this Government has portrayed itself as breaking with the timidity of its predecessor: prepared to escalate shelling on the Line of Control with Pakistan, take covert action where necessary, and assert itself on the international stage. In this environment, it's easy to see how a single cross-border assault assisted by a neighbour is being hailed as Entebbe or Abbotabad. In truth, India's special forces capability have a long way to go.

Former UN weapons inspector Rod Barton took a close look at Julie Bishop's recent alarming claims about ISIS's chemical-weapons ambitions:

Julie Bishop's concerns over ISIS are not misplaced but may be somewhat exaggerated. It is unlikely ISIS would be able to obtain either the raw materials or expertise to make advanced chemical agents such as the nerve gas sarin. They may be able to produce or obtain less deadly agents such as the chlorine gas allegedly used by ISIS to date. But to cause significant casualties, the chemicals have to be delivered in quantity using aerial bombs or rockets designed specifically for the purposes. Since ISIS does not have an air force, aerial bombs are not an issue and chemical rockets would take years of development, if ISIS had the expertise.

However, while the use by ISIS of chemicals, or even medical radioactive material in a 'dirty bomb', may not cause many casualties, there is a clear psychological impact. This is possibly what ISIS may be aiming for. Similar use of chlorine, probably by government forces in Syria, has attracted international attention and condemnation. This is likely to have been noted by ISIS. And finally, Bishop's focus on ISIS and possible new threats no doubt help support the Australian Government's policy on Iraq and terrorism.

Last weekend's election has potentially profound implications for Turkey, for Europe, and for the Middle East. Here's Daniel Woker:

According to the Turkish constitution, if no working government can be hammered out within 45 days, the president has to call new elections. However, Erdogan dominates his party to such an extent that his personal choice — accept the election outcome or plow ahead with his dictatorial policy, language and style before the vote — will become obvious soon through the AKP's behaviour in the coalition talks.

If he chooses the latter, all bets are off. In the short term this would obviously spells trouble for the country itself. The democratic opposition, buoyed by the election result, will not take a continuation of the AKP's recent policies and rhetoric lying down. The 'Takim Square riots' against Erdogan of 2011 will look like child's play compared to what we are likely to see in the streets of Istambul. The disastrous consequences for the Turkish economy and currency, already seriously rattled after the election, are also evident. Kurdish terrorism could resume as its past flag bearer, the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, is still very much alive and has only held its peace after overtures towards the Kurds by the Erdogan Government in its early years.

The ultimate nightmare for Turkey would be a scenario in which its president, running out of all other options, is tempted to play the Sunni card at home, with the Middle East's emerging mother of all Islamic wars (Sunna vs Shia) thus casting its devastating shadow over Turkey. 

The consequences would of course be dire.

Here's a wonderful first-person perspective on the battles faced by women on Jakarta's buses, from our Jakarta regular Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

Jakarta is the world's fifth most dangerous city for women on public transport, according to an international survey conducted last year. In a poll of 15 of the world's biggest capital cities plus New York, Jakarta ranked fifth for verbal harassment against women on public transport and sixth for physical harassment. While women in Jakarta were relatively confident that the public would come to their assistance if they were being harassed, they were far less confident that authorities would respond to a formal complaint. If it's any indication of the prevalence of harassment on the busway, the standard signs for 'no eating', 'no drinking' and 'no smoking' are joined by a sign that appears to communicate 'no lifting the skirts of fellow passengers'.

Photo by Flickr user Travel Aficionado.


Take a seat, Hans Rosling. Data visualisation has never been done this well before:

There's also a companion interactive site, where you can sift the data in more detail.

(H/t Kottke.)


Spielberg and Hanks taking on one of the classic stories of the Cold War, the shooting down of Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane — what's not to like? And yet, am I the only one a little underwhelmed by this trailer?

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Sorry folks, but today is a public holiday here in Australia. Normal posting will return tomorrow.


The South China Sea issue dominated The Interpreter this week. Here's Rory Medcalf on the strong but subtle American messaging at last weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore:

...the Shangri La speech was less a ratcheting up of tensions than a narrative that put American expressions of determination on the South China Sea into a context that aligns American involvement with the interests of the wider region in stability and associated prosperity. Thus, in language co-opting China's 'community of common destiny', Secretary Carter emphasised that a stable Asia would need to be one in which 'everyone rises, everyone wins'.

Merriden Varrall was in Singapore too, and wondered if Ashton Carter's speech would be heard in Beijing:

Secretary Carter's speech was widely praised for its balance, including by many Chinese present. Carter noted  that America has been in the region for decades ensuring stability, and will continue to do so. China was portrayed as a bemusing trouble-maker, throwing the stability of the region into question...

...For China at least, US responses to its reclamation activities constitutes 'meddling', as was made clear in China's recent Defence White Paper. As such, these US pronouncements fit neatly into China's powerful 'persecution by the hegemon' discourse, the time-honoured response to which is for Beijing to bristle and disregard. Indeed, Sun mentioned several times in his remarks that China would not subjugate itself to hegemony.

We also looked at how China's media covered the Shangri-La Dialogue, and Euan Graham picked up on the recurring Shangri-La Dialogue theme of 'transparency':

...this focus on transparency needs updating, because China's artificial island building over the past year in the South China Sea — the talking point of the dialogue — has clarified things nicely.

Questions remain about exactly how China will employ its artificial islands for defence purposes. But the intention to establish an air and naval presence at several reclaimed features in the Spratlys is clear and would be difficult to reverse given the resources invested. Yes, Admiral Sun's speech repeated China's claims that the facilities will be used for civilian purposes such as search and rescue, and weather watching. But I doubt if many in the audience took this at face value.

The reason the South China Sea and China's reclamation activities garnered so much attention at SLD14 is not because Beijing's intentions are opaque but because they are dazzlingly clear.

The problem of Muslim radicalisation was another prominent theme this week, with Hussain Nadim writing that Australia's strategy was misdirected (later in the week, he wrote a second piece offering an alternative strategy):

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The fundamental flaw in the Government's counter-radicalisation policy is that it has relied heavily on Muslim community leaders to understand the roots of radicalisation. Not only are the Muslim community leaders no experts on the subject of radicalisation, but they are are also distant from the younger generation of Muslims who undergo an identity crisis triggered internally by Australian society (which functions contrary to their beliefs) and externally by sophisticated propaganda which they digest over social media.

The result is an obviously misdirected counter-radicalisation strategy focusing on sponsoring 'liberal' Islamic education, training for Imams, and the opening up of Islamic institutes at universities to promote research and dialogue.

Opening up new Islamic institutes and publishing liberal Islamic texts has absolutely no measurable impact on radicalism – thick intellectual texts are not read by majority of the Muslim youth. And there is little evidence that Imams have much to do with growing radicalisation, given that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS tend to bypass structures and hierarchy to reach directly to recruits.

Rodger Shanahan put the case in favour of Government plans to revoke citizenship from dual citizens involved in terrorism:

As part of those military operations, individuals of sufficient importance are placed on a High Value Target List (HVTL), and when actionable intelligence becomes available they may be targeted. Australia faces difficulties, however, because of constraints that prohibit the passage of information on Australian citizens to third parties. Given we are in a coalition, any Australian on a HVTL is therefore protected to a degree by their citizenship. It is reasonable to expect that if he has another citizenship available to him, then his Australian citizenship should be stripped so that Australia can provide intelligence on him to the coalition, thus allowing that individual to be targeted.

It is also appropriate, on rare occasions, that this be an executive decision without reference to the judiciary. Intelligence has a limited shelf-life and the coalition of which we are a part should be given the best opportunity use intelligence against the enemy. Fighting a war only after a court's verdict is arrived at just doesn't work.

One of our most popular pieces was Samir Saran's big-picture review of Narendra Modi's foreign policy:

This Asian focus is decidedly different from previous efforts by Indian leaders to integrate with the neighbourhood. Those efforts were driven by the idea of demonstrating Indian leadership in a particular geography, or they were manifestations of south-south solidarity, or they were necessitated by security concerns emanating from across the border. The current effort is something more. It is primarily aimed at completing two specific national projects, while at the same time positioning India at the helm of global affairs.

Anneliese Mcauliffe looked at tighter media restrictions in Malaysia:

Malaysians have grown accustomed to their television and newspaper reports being toothless and devoid of analysis. Newspapers, radio and TV have been largely controlled by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling party, The United Malays National Organisation (UNMO) or those affiliated with it under the Barisan Nasional (BS) coalition, through a combination of political and regulatory controls such as the Printing Presses and Publication Act and the Sedition Act.

Until now, online media has not been subject to such control.

Raoul Heinrichs explains why China's new defence white paper is so historic for Australia:

Last week, China's State Council released a new White Paper on Military Strategy. Although somewhat overshadowed by heightened tensions in the South China, the document has deep long-term implications for Australian defence. For the first time since World War II, a regional state is officially developing the full suite of conventional military capabilities, and now also the doctrine, to pose a direct threat to Australia and its vital interests. This is a big change.

Another popular post this week was Robert Kelly's examination of South Korea's obsession with Japan:

One obvious explanation for the sheer intensity of feeling is that South Korea's disputes with Japan have graduated from politics to identity. As Cha notes, South Korea's nationalism is negative, defined very much against Japan and, importantly, not against North Korea. The reason, I hypothesize, is that North Korea so successfully manipulates Korean nationalist discourse that South Korea cannot define itself against North Korea in the same way West Germany did against East Germany. So South Korea uses a third party against which to prove its nationalist bona fides in its national legitimacy competition with the North.

Photo by Flickr user Ash Carter.


The Lowy Institute has big ambitions when it comes to its digital presence, and to fulfill them we need talented, motivated and innovative people who know international policy and have a flair for presenting it in a highly competitive online environment.

This new full-time position is an opportunity for an experienced editor to make their mark at the Lowy Institute and with a worldwide digital audience. Details are on the website, and note that you have less than two weeks to get your application in.

Photo by Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz.


The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.


An hour ago I spoke with Sydney Morning Herald International Editor Peter Hartcher on where South China Sea tensions are heading.

I was intrigued by a phrase Peter used in his Monday column, where he referred to Beijing's land reclamation in the South China Sea as a 'creeping invasion of the region'.  As you will hear, Peter says Chinese strategists have themselves used similar phrasing. Peter also talks about what the US wants to do next to demonstrate its resolve in this dispute, and we end by discussing Australia's role. If there's a skirmish or an accident between US and Chinese forces, what will Australia do?


Nice video from the NY Times, which paints 1960s population doomsayer Paul Ehrlich as a rather sad and isolated figure:


The Lowy Institute has released new polling data about Australian attitudes to foreign aid. From the media release:

New Lowy Institute polling released today shows  the majority of Australians are in favour of the recent cuts to Australia's overseas aid budget. Although nearly one in five express strong opposition to the budget reductions to overseas aid (19% saying they are 'strongly against' the reductions), only 35% of Australians overall oppose the reductions to the aid budget, and 53% are in favour.

Views on the generosity of Australia's aid program vary considerably across age groups, with younger Australians far more inclined to be critical of the level of the aid budget. 

When asked last weekend about the $1 billion reduction to the aid budget , only 33% of 18-29 year- olds (compared with 58% of those aged 30 and over) support the reduction, while 42%  — though still not a majority — of that age group oppose the cuts. In our annual Poll survey in February/March, 34% of 18-29 year-olds said that the 2014-15 aid budget was 'not enough', compared with only 17% of those aged over 30. 

Australians, it should be remembered, are pretty confused about how much money the Government actually spends on foreign aid, as Charlie Pickering memorably explained on the ABC a few weeks ago.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


An American genius on the edge of madness? A Cold War backdrop? It's A Beautiful Mind, Part II.  Or, to give it it's official title, Pawn Sacrifice, the story of chess master Bobby Fischer:

Looks OK, but the Cold War thriller I'm really looking forward to, long rumoured but seemingly perpetually 'in development', is Reykjavik, about the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at which the two leaders almost agreed to abolish their entire nuclear arsenals. Wikipedia says it will star Michael Douglas as Reagan and Christph Waltz as Gorbachev. C'mon Hollywood, you can do this!

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Given yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister that his Government would legislate within weeks to revoke Australian citizenship from dual-nationality terrorists, it is worth revisiting three Interpreter pieces on whether this is a useful weapon in the fight against terrorism. First, here's a February 2015 piece by former senior Australian immigration official Peter Hughes, now with the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU, who is against the proposal:

To deal with the jihadist problem, the Government already has available to it criminal sanctions as well as the ability to withhold or cancel travel documents. So what difference would it make to the jihadist cause if the Australian Government could revoke Australian citizenship for dual nationals?

In practice, it would likely be a very limited tool. There is little or no public information which tells us whether or not the jihadists about whom our security agencies are concerned are dual nationals. If they are not, the proposed change in the law would be irrelevant...

...Even if the citizenship of some dual nationals of concern in Australia could be revoked, this does not necessarily mean they would leave Australia. One course open to them may be to rid themselves of their second citizenship by renouncing it so that they were no longer dual nationals. In some cases, foreign governments refuse to accept their own nationals back if the person concerned does not want to return voluntarily.

If the person is outside Australia when their citizenship is revoked, return to Australia is prevented, but the Government already has some capacity to prevent this with denial of Australian travel documents. Either way, the individual would be free to pursue extremist causes and political violence elsewhere.

The Lowy Institute's Rodger Shanahan sees one often overlooked reason for this proposed legislation:

The possession of Australian citizenship rightly imposes limitations on how much information Australia's spy agencies can collect, and perhaps more importantly who they can share it with. There have already been legislative amendments to strengthen the intelligence-collection powers of these agencies, but dealing with non-citizens gives them much greater flexibility in sharing information.

So, rather than dual citizens simply becoming someone else's problem or able to undertake violent actions elsewhere, such a move may actually free up Australian authorities to address the problem by sharing information on foreign fighters or terrorists who were formerly Australian citizens.

This may simply mean that the former dual citizen can be arrested and jailed, or deported to their remaining country of nationality. But it may also mean they are killed in a counter-terrorist military operation. In fact, there has been criticism in the UK that people stripped of their citizenship have been killed in drone strikes shortly after, and that the information that enabled their targeting was only released to the US after they were no longer UK citizens. I think this is the more appropriate discussion to be having, rather than a civil libertarian one.

Here's Peter Hughes again in August 2014:

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Some years ago there were calls to revoke the Australian citizenship of suspected World War II war criminals in the hope that this would get them out of the country. We 'knew' they were guilty but couldn't actually prove it through a criminal justice process, so it was argued that an administrative decision under the Australian Citizenship Act would function as a work-around. The idea was never adopted, for good reason: there was no guarantee that anyone who lost their Australian citizenship in that way would actually be allowed to return to another country.

It is not clear what the expected outcome would be of the 'citizenship solution'. Revoking the Australian citizenship of someone engaged in jihadist activity would deny further access to Australia but would not stop the person from engaging in political violence elsewhere. Only prosecution, conviction and incarceration, whether overseas or in Australia, would achieve that.

Citizenship solutions are always harder in practice than they look.


Courtesy of Marginal Revolution, a short video on the results of an experiment in India in which schoolgirls under 14 were given bikes. Did it lead to higher enrollments?

Another big factor in girls' school attendance in India is sanitation. This Mahatma Gandhi Centre booklet claims 24% of girls drop out of school each year due to lack of toilets. It's hard to see the data backing up this specific claim, though clearly a lack of school toilets is a big problem in India, and it affects girls disproportionately.


Greg Sheridan writes today that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about US Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...US Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

Sheridan criticises Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, 'There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.'

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The US-Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various US spy agencies. And while the US Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the US military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host US strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

Photo by Flickr user US Air Force.


The US has taken its concerns with China's island reclamation efforts public by giving a CNN crew access to one of its brand-new P-8 surveillance aircraft as it monitors the South China Sea. You really do get a sense of how delicate the situation is, and how easily things could escalate from a misunderstanding or an accident.