Lowy Institute

You're probably reading a lot of headlines today about Greece now being officially in arrears with the IMF. But as Lowy Institute economist Leon Berkelmans explains in this podcast, that's not the most important thing that happened in the Greek crisis over the last few days.

Listen also for Leon's views about the implications of this crisis for Asia. Europe thinks it has this problem contained, but the fall of Lehman Brothers taught us a few things about unanticipated consequences...


By exploiting the lonely, that's how. The video below is from the New York Times, with accompanying story here.


Lord Michael Williams is the Lowy Institute's guest today as part of the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue. He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and a former senior British diplomat with vast experience in Asia.

We talked this morning about China's land reclamation and its ultimate intentions in the South China Sea, and about whether Beijing is really in control of all this activity (that got an emphatic 'yes' from Lord Williams). At the end of the interview we shifted to Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi's little noticed recent visit to Beijing. 'This visit is one of the most important things that's happened in the region in 2015' says Lord Williams matter-of-factly.


It's been all over the news this morning that during Tony Abbott's photo op/briefing at ASIO's new headquarters ('Lubjanka by the Lake', as Canberrans call it), the cameras picked up details of documents they should not have seen.

ASIO (which is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute) has quickly denied there was any security breach, and terrorism expert Andrew Zammit has pointed out on Twitter that the information revealed in the glimpsed documents — which show the Melbourne and Sydney suburbs from where most Australian fighters in Iraq and Syria had emanated from — has been publicly reported anyway.

But even if this was a minor breach, can we agree that playing Gotcha! in such situations serves no one's longer-term interests and in fact impoverishes the national debate on terrorism and security?

Yes, such incidents provide a nice sugar hit for the opposition and the media, but in fact they ought to be the ones encouraging greater scrutiny and transparency when it comes to national security, even when it happens by accident. When you jump all over trivial incidents like this, you just encourage the extreme risk aversion that causes our bureaucracy to adopt a defensive crouch any time it needs to deal with the public and media.

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It would also serve the Government's interest to be more open with the activities of its security agencies. In 2013 and 2014, Edward Snowden leaked some of those agencies' biggest secrets. And the result? Lowy polling in 2014 found that 70% of Australians considered it 'acceptable' that its government spies on countries with which Australia does not have good relations. The figure is 50% even when it concerns a government with which Canberra does have good relations.

So Australians support our spy agencies, even after they learn more about the activities of those agencies than they strictly ought to. That support is a source of democratic legitimacy which should be nurtured by governments, and they can do that in part by letting in a bit more sunlight. As I've argued before, a certain level of secrecy is essential for maintaining security and conducting Australia's international affairs. But we shouldn't just assume we have the balance between secrecy and transparency right. It's something that needs constant adjustment, and when governments fail to take the lead on that process of adjustment by improving transparency in a responsible way where they can, they increase the risk that such transparency will happen irresponsibly by the likes of Edward Snowden.


American presidential politics really is one of the greatest shows on earth, isn't it?


Oh, sign me up for this one:

Here's the synopsis, from the official website:

Best of Enemies is a behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God and sex.

(H/t Fallows.)


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: