Lowy Institute

This week the Lowy Institute (in conjunction with the United States Studies Centre) hosted an address from Joe Biden, US Vice President. Biden spoke on US-Australia ties, and on US engagement with the Asia Pacific more generally (for video of the event, click here; for audio, click here).

The address did not introduce new policy or even new rhetoric, but that Biden felt the need to repeat a message of reassurance was in and of itself meaningful, wrote Sam Roggeveen:

It was a tone of reassurance and comfort which matched the rest of the speech. But to bring comfort is also an acknowledgment that comfort is required. Evidently the Vice President and his advisers judged that allies and friends in the region needed to be reminded that America's economic and military strength is enduring, and need to be assured that, in its presidential politics, the US is not lurching towards demagoguery. That in itself is a worrying sign.

Biden’s address, argued Richard Woolcott, lacked an understanding of how the Asia Pacific had so radically changed, and how the US-Australia relationship may need to change as a result:

Our relations with the US are of great importance, but we should tell our larger ally when we consider that a conflict is not in our interests, as Prime Minister Whitlam did in 1973 in respect to the Vietnam conflict.

Last Friday segments of the Turkish army attempted a coup against President Erdogan, which ultimately failed. Erdogan’s response was swift, wrote Rodger Shanahan

To many leaders, an attempted coup would give one pause for thought as to the direction they had taken a society. But Erdogan cares little for introspection and is driven to a large extent by ideology. He has made his way in the hard scrabble of Turkish politics with a firm belief in using power to shape society, and the fewer constraints on that power the better.

The coup attempt has likely brought an end to Kemalist Turkey, according to Wayne McLean:

Erdogan’s triumph will likely bring a natural end to Kemalist project, given its decreasing usefulness in managing Turkey’s exceptional geopolitical and ideational position in the current international environment. What replaces it is critical, because it's not only likely to shape Turkey’s future, but the wider region's political future as well.

The ramifications of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration decision on the South China Sea continued this week. Bonnie Glaser argued that the US should make signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea a priority:

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Centering US policy toward the South China Sea on a rules-based order has proved correct. The contradiction, if not hypocrisy, of the US insistence that China abide by the Convention while the US refuses to accede to it is evident, and undermines US moral authority.

Crispin Rovere recommended that the US build its own islands in the South China Sea:

This has multiple advantages over alternative courses of action, and is the only option likely to be effective long-term. Indeed, it is probably the only response that China will understand.

In the wake of the PCA ruling, now is the perfect time. Washington should undertake land reclamation on behalf of the Philippines, and do so under the auspices that the matter has been settled under international law.

Michael Leach noted the Court’s decision in the context of the Australia-East Timor maritime border:

Timor-Leste has been quick to note that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s call for China to respect an international rules-based order is at odds with Australia’s persistent refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste. This refusal was made more complete by Australia's withdrawal from the UNCLOS dispute mechanisms shortly before the restoration of Timor-Leste's independence in 2002. This move was clearly an effort to avoid the increasingly strong presumption of a median line boundary in international law.

Allaster Cox from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded to Leach’s article:

Where a country takes Australia to an international court or tribunal, Australia engages in that process. In fact, we are participating in two arbitrations initiated by Timor-Leste and we will abide by the decisions of the arbitrators. We have called on the parties to the South China Sea arbitration to do the same.

We are also participating in a separate conciliation process initiated by Timor-Leste. The conciliation will be heard by a five-member commission appointed by Australia and Timor-Leste. Although a conciliation is not a legally binding process, Australia is engaging in the process in good faith, in accordance with our international legal obligations.

In Indonesia, Sidney Jones wrote on the implications of the death of the nation’s most-wanted terrorist, Santoso:

He was found and shot on 18 July by the elite army unit Kostrad; not by the police who had been searching for him for the last five years. His death has implications for the risk of violence, military-police relations, and the draft anti-terrorism law now being revised in parliament.

British journalist Simon Heffer wrote on the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary:

Boris Johnson is hugely popular with the Conservative party rank and file. Those who work with him (which at the moment include his fellow parliamentarians) tend to have less regard for his abilities. He is seen as unreliable, dishonest, lazy and with a capacity for saying things without weighing up the consequences … Clausewitz he isn't.

While China continues to build huge numbers of coal-fired power stations, coal consumption is on the decline. Fergus Green:

Coal consumption is falling, and that’s good news from a climate-change perspective. But, for a country that aspires to a greener, more services-oriented and people-centred economy, the fact that the country is on track to spend US$160 billion on redundant coal-fired power stations purely to boost short-term GDP growth highlights some deeper problems in the Chinese political economy.

Finally, I wrote on why ease of media access to Nauru is a concern the Australian government should address:

While it’s undeniably true that the Nauruan government decides who comes into their country and the circumstances in which they come, the Australian government also decides whether or not the conditions on Nauru (including media access) are acceptable enough to run a detention centre there, and if not, whether diplomatic resources should be invested in attempting to adjust those conditions.

Photo: Sydney Heads/Peter Morris


Vice President Biden's speech at the Paddington Town Hall on 20 July was very assertive and, in my view, it lacked appreciation for the way the world has changed in the last two decades. Biden said America had 'an unmatched ability to project our power to any corner of the world'. He gave an emphatic description of US power which reflected feelings of exceptionalism.

Biden spoke of maintaining open sea lanes. But while the US itself announced in 1986 that it would not defer to International Court of Justice decisions that were contrary to its interests, and while it has not signed the International Law of the Sea Convention, this has not prevented Washington from suggesting that China should do so. China has in fact signed the International Law of the Sea convention and argues that for more than 100 years many thousands of ships carrying trade have gone through the South China Sea without any interruption.

There was no acceptance in Biden's speech of the way new powers, especially China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are continuing to rise. He said that the US economic and military supremacy would continue indefinitely. He added that the US would maintain a 'rules based international order'. He overlooked the fact that what American and some Australian political leaders refer to as 'a rules based international order' was in fact established by the US and Britain after World War II. Countries which have risen in influence since then naturally want to participate in framing an order more relevant to the first half of this century.

Biden also said that the US presence was 'essential to maintaining peace and stability' regionally and globally. America is the 'lynchpin'. He said he had told the Premier of China, Xi Jinping, that the US intended to play a leading role in shaping the future of the dynamic Asian region.

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Biden praised Australia for joining the US in every conflict since World War II. In so doing he overlooked any judgement as to whether these conflicts — in particular Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq, and Afghanistan — have been in Australia's interests, or predominantly in the interests of the US.

Also, no reference was made to the fact that on the only occasion we sought US support under the ANZUS treaty, when our armed forces were in Sabah and Sarawak in conflict in 1964 with Sukarno's Indonesian forces, opposing the establishment of Malaysia, the Kennedy Administration declined.

Historically, Australian governments seem to have gone readily to war. They do so with a curious lack of feeling for the humanitarian need to do so. For example, Australia lost 600 men in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, a three-year conflict in Africa which really had nothing to do with Australia. Australia also sent forces to New Zealand to join in the suppression of Maori uprisings. Maybe, like the US, we feel the need of a threat to rally the Australian public to support a conflict.

I am certainly not a pacifist but I do believe Australia should only go to war when it is under attack, as it was by Japan in World War II, or under actual, not imagined, threats. Our relations with the US are of great importance, but we should tell our larger ally when we consider that a conflict is not in our interests, as Prime Minister Whitlam did in 1973 in respect to the Vietnam conflict.

In the world of 2016 and beyond, our foreign, security and trade policies should have a more appropriate balance, especially in respect of the US and China. 


China surprised many observers when its coal consumption (which had grown at more than 8% per year on average since the turn of the century) stopped growing in 2014 and declined in 2015. Some thought this was a temporary blip that would be reversed. With the release of China’s 13th Five Year Plan in March this year, and six months of 2016 economic data to analyse, it's clear that the direction of both government policy and actual coal consumption in China continues to be toward further cuts in coal. 

In a chapter contribution to the 2016 China Economic Update volume, launched yesterday at the Australian National University, Professor Nicholas Stern and I explain the energy demand and energy supply factors that have driven this historic turnaround in coal consumption (references below to Figures are to the figures in the chapter).

On the demand side, changes in China’s wider economy have caused a dramatic slowdown in energy demand growth. First, China’s economic growth rate has slowed, for structural reasons, from the double-digit average of the first decade of this century to less than 7% over the last 18 months (Fig. 18.1). 

The slowdown in energy demand growth has been even more pronounced due to shifts in the composition of economic activity away from energy-intensive industries. The higher GDP growth rates of the first decade or so were fuelled by extremely high growth in investment and production in construction, infrastructure and highly energy-intensive basic materials such as steel, cement and aluminium. In China’s old economic growth model, GDP growth went hand in hand with energy-intensity. 

But much of the capital investment in recent years, induced by monetary and fiscal stimulus in response to the global financial crisis, went into unnecessary capacity expansions that have led to large excesses in buildings and industrial capacity, low prices for basic materials, and debt-related financial challenges in these industries. As a result, production in sectors like steel and cement slowed in 2014 and contracted in 2015. Meanwhile, high-tech manufacturing and services sectors (which use much less energy) have grown. In the transition toward China’s new economic growth model, GDP growth is going hand in hand with accelerated reductions in energy intensity (Fig. 18.2).

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The result of these changes in the rate and composition of China’s economic activity, along with steady improvements in energy efficiency within industries, have resulted in a dramatic slowdown in energy demand growth from an average of over 8% per year between 2000 to 2013 to around 1% in 2015 (Fig. 18.3).

The slowdown in energy demand growth occurred at the same time as a longer-running trend, the decarbonisation of China’s energy supply mix, accelerated. Chinese government policy has strongly supported the expansion of non-fossil energy: hydroelectricity, solar, wind and nuclear (Fig. 18.4). More recently, policy has directly restricted coal consumption and production in various ways. These policies have been motivated by a mix of concerns about energy security, local air pollution and climate change, and an industrial strategy that aims to capture global market opportunities in innovative clean-technology industries such as solar photovoltaics and wind power. Figure 18.4 shows how the expansions in non-coal energy sources, amid much slower growth in energy consumption overall, contributed to the absolute decline in coal consumption in 2015.

Because the above factors driving the coal turnaround are predominantly structural, we argue that they are likely to continue in broadly the same direction in the coming years. As a result, coal will likely continue to decline gradually. Recent Chinese economic data and policy announcements lend further support to that prediction.

In the first half of 2016, preliminary Chinese data show a continued decline in thermal power generation (which is predominantly coal-based) and a large reduction in coal production. Thermal power generation declined 3.1% year-on-year over this period and, since gas-fired power generation would have increased, we can infer that coal-fired power generation fell even further (Chinese statistics do not disaggregate the ‘thermal generation’ category). 

Moreover, crude steel production (which drives both coking coal and electricity demand) also continued to fall, by 1.1% year-on-year. A combination of lower demand and government policy to close down coal mines (to reduce the excess capacity that is playing havoc in the Chinese coal industry) caused coal production to plummet nearly 10% during this period. 

In 2014–15, China’s coal imports fell dramatically (around 11% in 2014 and 30% in 2015). This decline was reversed in the first half of 2016, with imports rising 8.2% year-on-year, as large domestic production cuts meant more imported coal was needed. But imports make up a relatively small proportion (around 5%) of Chinese coal supply. In absolute terms, therefore, the increase in imports was dwarfed by the decline in domestic coal production. 

A more concerning trend is the recent expansion in the construction of coal-fired power plants and high-voltage transmission infrastructure intended to carry coal-fired electricity from western provinces to eastern demand centres. Outside observers might be tempted to conclude from this expansion, along with the upswing in coal imports mentioned above, that China is headed for a new surge in coal consumption. But this would be incorrect. 

While coal-fired power stations are still being built at a rapid rate and many more are being planned, they are simply not being used; as generation capacity expands while coal-fired power generation continues to fall, the utilisation rate of China’s coal fleet plummeted to less than 45% by the end of May 2016. China’s already over-capacity coal-fired generation sector is experiencing a bubble in redundant capacity, implying a waste of capital on a large scale. The best explanation for it is that local authorities have been encouraging power station construction to stimulate short-term growth in their regions, with little concern for the weak long-term economic justification for such new plants. 

The central government is aware of this problem and has indicated its plans for a nationwide moratorium on new coal-fired power stations for three years (which may well become permanent). Together with its policies to close inefficient coal mines and redeploy coal workers, its regional restrictions on coal and coal-fired power production to mitigate air pollution, and the strong ‘green’ focus of the 13th Five Year Plan, it’s clear that the direction of government policy is to reduce coal consumption overall.

Nonetheless, the failure to rein in coal-fired power infrastructure is indicative of an inability to redirect investment away from the heavy industries of China’s old economy and into the new sources of Chinese economic growth

Coal consumption is falling, and that’s good news from a climate-change perspective. But, for a country that aspires to a greener, more services-oriented and people-centred economy, the fact that the country is on track to spend US$160 billion on redundant coal-fired power stations purely to boost short-term GDP growth highlights some deeper problems in the Chinese political economy.

Photo: Getty Images/Kevin Frayer


In 1966, Britain's Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, appointed George Brown as foreign secretary. Brown was a problem for Wilson; he was a senior figure in the party and popular with its rank and file, but he was also inept as a minister – he was sent to the Foreign Office to stop him damaging the economy as secretary of state for economic affairs. He was also a serious drunk, which was to prove his undoing.

Theresa May, the new British prime minister, had a Wilsonian difficulty when forming her administration. Boris Johnson is hugely popular with the Conservative party rank and file. Those who work with him (which at the moment include his fellow parliamentarians) tend to have less regard for his abilities. He is seen as unreliable, dishonest, lazy and with a capacity for saying things without weighing up the consequences.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact he has for years moonlighted in his original trade as a newspaper columnist, a calling in which punches are not pulled. Thus, he has described Hillary Clinton (who from next January he may be meeting regularly at international summits if she succeeds in becoming the head of state of Britain's chief ally) as resembling 'a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital', and has written a limerick in which he describes the president of Turkey having carnal knowledge of a goat, and in which 'Ankara' rhymes with 'wankerer'. Clausewitz he isn't.

It is widely assumed among Britain's political class, and the journalists who follow it, that May has executed a stroke of genius by putting Johnson in the Foreign Office. First, not even his most slavish supporter could claim that by giving him so great an office of state has she failed to reward adequately a man with such a huge political following. Second, by doing so she has shown solidarity with scores of MPs who felt Johnson was betrayed by his former lieutenant Michael Gove, who spectacularly withdrew support for Johnson during the recent leadership campaign and decided to stand himself (to be fair to Gove, he realised a few days into the campaign that his own credibility would be wrecked if he backed Johnson, given what he saw at close hand of Johnson's lack of capacity for organisation and reliability). Third, the Foreign Office is used to having products of Eton and Oxford at its helm (think Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Lord Curzon), so Johnson was hardly a shot in the dark in that respect.

But, above all, Johnson has been given enough rope with which to hang himself.

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Most of the important functions of the Foreign Office have been devolved elsewhere. Following Britain's decision to leave the EU, matters concerning that very delicate negotiation have been separated and apportioned to a new Department for Exiting the European Union, or Ministry of Brexit as it is more popularly known. A separate secretary of state, David Davis, is in charge of it, and answers to May, not Johnson. Sorting out the new trading relations that Britain must have with the rest of the world has been made the work of a new Department of International Trade, so that will be nothing to do with Johnson either. And, as has been the case since the Blair years, all the other most significant foreign relationships (with the US, Germany and China) and the management of tense policies (such as those concerning an aggressive, wayward Russia and the conflagration in the Middle East) will be run straight from 10 Downing Street.

'Boris's job,' another minister told me shortly after his appointment was announced, 'will be to fly round the world in a hot air balloon with a vast Union Jack painted on it waving a flag'. In other words, he will be a little like the celebrities sent to great shopping centres during November to turn on the Christmas lights; he is designed to cheer people up on behalf of the country, but not actually to engage in any serious act of foreign policy.

Despite his vast legacy of pronouncements recorded in his newspaper columns, we do not get what might be called a 'world view' from Johnson. The main purpose of foreigners was to provide him with copy, and with jokes such as the ones recorded above. Although he has a long record of being rude about the EU (and has that in common with many other UK columnists), nobody quite knew on which side of the argument he was going to come down in the recent referendum. When he announced himself as a Brexiteer, it was greeted with great cynicism, and with the assumption that he was on that side not out of principle but because on that particular day he thought Brexit was going to prevail.

When it did, he seemed shocked, realising that this might force him to run for the leadership of his party (which, briefly, he did) and then that he might end up in a serious job running a department of state. He had been mayor of London from 2008 until last May, but was legendary there for having had seven or eight deputy mayors to do the work for him.

He is broadly pro-American (he was born there and had an American passport until recently, when he surrendered it largely to avoid being taxed there) but, as we have seen, that does not prevent him being offensive about its possible next president. The problem with Johnson is that he has for years been an act, a species of light entertainment, whose womanising has become a national joke in the way that George Brown's drinking did half a century ago. Many in Britain will continue struggling to take him seriously. So, we must fear, will the rest of the world.

Photo: Flickr/Department of State

US presidential race 2016

There's a good reason that potential US first lady Melania Trump's plagiarism scandal became one of the defining moments of the Republic National Convention now concluding in Cleveland: original thought of any nature has been in critically short supply throughout the four-day event.

Were it not for Ted Cruz's party-crashing turn to exhort Republicans to 'vote your conscience' in November — thus recognising an attribute in others that many accuse him of lacking — Melania's Michelle Obama-cribbing sentiments might have left the only lasting impression from the entire RNC.

Of course, the Republican presidential candidate himself has the chance to change all that when he appears on stage to accept the party's nomination today, in what many members of the GOP establishment might be hoping is a complete departure from rhetoric-heavy but details-light performances to date.

It's far too late in the game to expect Donald Trump to abandon his nativist and Republican sacred cow-slaughtering platform, but it also far beyond time that he started injecting some more policy into his politics to try to convince the doubters that his platform might actually be workable.

Questions such as how exactly Trump intends to  wind back the forces of globalisation at the same time as many American jobs are starting to be lost to technological change sorely need to be answered if he is to have any chance of defeating Hillary Clinton later this year. Despite polls showing relatively equal support for the two candidates, the New York Times this week put Clinton's actual chances of winning the White House — taking into account state voting histories and the vagaries of the electoral college system — at 76%.

Despite those odds and the party divisions wrought by Trump, deepened by Cruz, the RNC has not descended into the chaos predicted by many commentators ahead of the event. There has indeed been a surprising spirit of unity and optimism among many previously opposed to Trump. This was best displayed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, whose impressively enthusiastic presentation called for unity and heralded the power of the Republicans' 'ideas'.

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Yet Ryan was still typical of most speakers at the RNC in failing to properly articulate and promote these ideas. Instead he attacked Barack Obama and Clinton. Indeed, Trump's Democratic opponent has often appeared to be the true centre of attention in Cleveland, whether as the target of speakers such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (widely believed to be making a case for Attorney-General in a Trump administration), or the subject of 'Hillary for prison' chanting among wide sections of the audience. Then there's the overtly misogynistic merchandise being sported everywhere, and a lengthy segment of the convention program being turned over to the long-exhausted Benghazi controversy.

Aside from Clinton, much of the focus has also been on other supposed enemies of the real America, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, which attracted most attention from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and seems to have, at least momentarily, seen African Americans regain their role from Mexicans of favoured bogeyman of the largely white US conservative population.

While ad hominem and 'us vs them' politics have long been par for the course in America and beyond, the negative tone in Cleveland feels more compensatory than it does calculated. It appears a direct result of the schism between Trump and the mainstream Republicans, as well as the distinct lack of aptitude for, and interest in, traditional campaigning and political leadership from the nominee.

Trump has proven himself a highly effective enemy of the GOP establishment, so much so that most of its members have been chastened into falling in behind him. But it is not for the likes of Ryan to unite the party behind ideas, because he represents a line of thinking that has been firmly rejected by the majority of GOP voters.

Regardless of what he says on the Quicken Loans Arena stage today or in the weeks and months ahead, Trump surely has a lock on the white working class Republic voting bloc, while much of the doctrinaire free market, small government crowd seems to have reluctantly signed on out of a sense of loyalty or merely a greater dislike of his opponent. Yet, alongside Cruz are some major holdouts that may significantly affect the enthusiasm of conservatives to turn out for him — multibillionaire financers and major architects of the contemporary GOP Charles and David Koch are notable among them.

This is to say nothing of independents or even Democrats for whom the promise of jobs returning to depressed areas of the country might matter more than any larger ideological or moral concerns. Trump may have previously claimed to have 'the best words', but without any connection to reality, or a still significant segment of his party, they may only carry him so far.

  • Pakistan's Interior Minister is concerned Indian intelligence may be using social media to spread rumours that could bring down the morale of Pakistani forces.
  • Five experts review and respond to Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age, a new book by former British Ambassador Tom Fletcher.
  • There's a new tool to take down terrorism images posted online. Is it a game changer?
  • Israeli diplomat @EladRatson on how Israel became a digital diplomacy powerhouse and (allegedly) the first country to use algorithms and code to revolutionise public diplomacy.
  • The US State Department has changed its approach to countering ISIS messaging abroad.
  • Power has been drastically realigned and this academic argues Canada needs a whole-of-government digital strategy in order to engage with the emerging global digital system.
  • Emoji gender equality is finally here and emoji users now have more diverse female options than salsa dancer, princess and bride. 
  • An Al Jazeera debate on whether the UN's #NextSG process is transparent enough.
  • Turkey's President turned to social media to help foil last weekend's coup; it's not the only way cyberpower shaped Turkey's future this week.
  • As China considers its options on how to manage new forms of media, a boutique agency run by Egyptian Sameh El-Shahat is behind a series of online videos promoting China's global ties. 
  • Bougainville (approx. population: 300,000) must have one of the world's smallest communications budgets, which is why this video is so impressive.
  • NZ's Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief executive on how his diplomats are easing into the world of social media.
  • New app game PokemonGO may be the digital phenomenon of the decade and it's no surprise to see governments (including UK, Canada and Italy) jumping in on the action given the enormous potential:  


In less than 24 hours, Papua New Guineans will know the fate of  Prime Minister Peter O’Neill when the national parliament sits for a vote of no-confidence. There are three possible scenarios: O'Neill may survive the vote; he may opt to relinquish the nation’s highest office to a colleague; or, worse, he will be deposed unexpectedly in the manner of some of his predecessors. It is difficult to predict what outcome will prevail in a country known fittingly as the ‘the land of the unexpected'. 

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last year (Photo: DFAT)

Should O’Neill survive the vote, he will declare his uttermost respect for the constitutional processes. He will claim to have duly followed a court order, to have respected the people’s wish by subjecting himself to the vote, and to have survived with the confidence of MPs who have the best interests of the nation at heart. His victory speech will be aimed at discrediting his critics. He will use the victory as important ammunition to change the narrative against him. A victory for O’Neill may dishearten those who perceive the vote of no-confidence to be the ‘last straw.’

In the second scenario, O’Neill will step aside and allow the government caucus to nominate a new prime minister within the coalition. Writing from Alotau where government MPs are meeting, one of O’Neill’s staunch supporters and leader of Social Democratic Party, Powes Parkop revealed that 'we (MPs) are …putting pressure on him (O’Neill) and trying to advise him to face the allegations and step aside'.

If this is true, one of the MPs closest to O’Neill may be nominated. Opposition Leader Don Polye also hinted that the underlying priority is to replace Peter O’Neill, not the government. A replacement PM from within government ranks is more likely given these sentiments, and the fact that government MPs outnumber the opposition's two to one.

Should O’Neill insist on staying in power he risks an unexpected desertion by his colleagues. This would bring a humiliating end to his controversial reign.

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O’Neill may insist on staying because leaving the prime ministerial position would reduce his grip on the police force and make him more vulnerable to mounting corruption allegations. However, the bloody protests, ongoing workers’ strikes, and worsening economic conditions might prompt MPs to consider that O’Neill’s insistence on staying would be primarily in his own interests, and not for the stability and welfare of the nation.

The defection of Petroleum Minister Ben Micah to the opposition exemplified this possibility. Micah argued that 'as a responsible person who has concerns, I cannot sit in a government that is slowly allowing the country to (fall) into hell'. Many Papua New Guineans would expect the same from their MPs tomorrow — to 'be conscious of the issues out there', and not within.

If tomorrow’s no-confidence vote succeeds, it will be the fourth such vote to unseat a prime minister since PNG gained its Independence in 1975. The merits of the scheme have been debated at length. Former Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan once confessed that the fear of it often meant a prime minister has to spend ‘quite disproportionate amount of his time and energy keeping individual politicians “happy"'.

But the PNG Supreme Court has held that ‘a vote of no confidence is an integral part and a legitimate process of a democratic Parliament’ that ‘should never be curtailed or suppressed.’ The Court rightly ordered a recall of the PNG Parliament after it was abruptly adjourned to diffuse a potential vote of no-confidence on the back of shooting at an unarmed student protest in June. 

For many, the question now is who will be the next prime minister, if not Peter O’Neill? But that misses the point. The most critical issue for the country at this juncture is who is 'fit' to be PM.

Any party leader within the government and the opposition would happily claim the office, but would he or she be a ‘fit and proper’ person? After this relentless and bloody pursuit to remove O’Neill, Papua New Guineans should not be content with achieving a new national leader tomorrow. Rather, they should demand their future prime ministers adhere to a higher moral and ethical standard. 

12 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

Dr Michael Leach makes a number of inaccurate claims in his Interpreter post: 'The PCA ruling, Australia and Timor-Leste'.

Dr Leach asserts Australia is engaged in a ‘two-step’ in its approach to international law with China and Timor-Leste. He also appears to accept a premise of Australia’s ‘persistent refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste’. The facts, however, are quite different.

Australia takes a consistent approach, whether in relation to the Timor Sea or the South China Sea. We believe parties to disputes should resolve them peacefully, in accordance with international law. This is the approach Australia and Timor-Leste have taken in the Timor Sea. 

In previous negotiations, Australia and Timor-Leste were unable to reach agreement on permanent boundaries. As an alternative, both countries agreed to put in place arrangements to enable joint development of the resources. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea actively encourages countries this type of approach. It’s a practical way of working together to overcome disputes. The arrangements between Timor-Leste and Australia have been cited as best practice.

Far from a ‘refusal to negotiate’, Australia in fact has made significant concessions. Under our joint arrangements, Timor-Leste receives the vast bulk of revenues (90% of the Joint Petroleum Development Area). This has allowed it to develop a US$16 billion petroleum fund.

Australia takes its treaty obligations seriously and believes in sticking to the agreements we have made. This is an expression of our respect for international law.

Dr Leach claims that CMATS is ‘inoperative’ but this is not the case.

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CMATS provides for a 50/50 revenue split between Australia and Timor-Leste, despite 80% of Greater Sunrise lying in an area of exclusive Australian seabed jurisdiction. Greater Sunrise will be developed when the Greater Sunrise Joint Venture and both governments agree on a development plan.

Australia’s long-standing preference is to resolve maritime boundary issues through negotiation. This is common practice and international law specifically allows this. Around 30 countries including Canada, Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Mexico and France, take the same approach.

Importantly, where a country takes Australia to an international court or tribunal, Australia engages in that process. In fact, we are participating in two arbitrations initiated by Timor-Leste and we will abide by the decisions of the arbitrators. We have called on the parties to the South China Sea arbitration to do the same.

We are also participating in a separate conciliation process initiated by Timor-Leste. The conciliation will be heard by a five-member commission appointed by Australia and Timor-Leste. Although a conciliation is not a legally binding process, Australia is engaging in the process in good faith, in accordance with our international legal obligations. 

Despite our differences, Australia is, and will remain, committed to our relationship with Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s stability and prosperity are important to Australia and a key focus of our bilateral engagement, including through our $93.7 million aid program.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yeowatzup


'May you live in interesting times' is a modern western saying that is often wrongly described as an ancient Chinese curse. But you get the feeling that those working on the Chinese G20 Presidency would be justified in feeling burdened with the curse of an interesting 2016.

G20 finance ministers and central bank governors are preparing to meet in Chengdu, in the Sichuan Province of southwest China, on Friday and Saturday. It will be their third gathering under the Chinese G20 presidency, and their final opportunity before Leaders gather in Hangzhou in early September.

Once again, near term economic challenges seem likely to dominate discussions. The IMF has downgraded its growth forecasts from what it expected three months ago by 0.1%, to 3.1% in 2016 and 3.4% in 2017. The Fund also warned of significant economic, political and institutional uncertainty, which could lead to future downgrades.

Events in recent months have certainly been as surprising as they are significant. Since the last time finance ministers met, voters in the UK have elected to leave the EU; a decision with enormous economic and geostrategic implications for both the UK and EU in coming decades, and broad implications for the way advanced economies are managing the flows of globalisation. IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld has said that Brexit threw a 'spanner in the works' of their world economic forecasts. It is sure to be a prominent topic of discussion over the weekend.

And something that has not even been included in the IMF's analysis is the recent activity in Turkey, a member of the G20’s three-member governing troika (involving each of the past, present and future hosts), which is managing the fallout of an attempted coup. This event will likely have profound ongoing political ramifications in an already uncertain part of the world.

These add to a long list of prominent challenges facing those around the G20 table. To name just a few, there are the risks associated with China's ongoing economic transition, the spillover effects of potential changes in monetary policy settings, elections in the US, an upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy, and the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

And while policymakers continually state their willingness to use all tools at their disposal (monetary, fiscal and structural), doubts remain over how constrained these tools are in a world of disaffected voters, heightened sovereign debt levels and already-accommodative monetary policy settings.

Against this backdrop, the IMF is urging a familiar prescription: political leadership from finance ministers and central bank governors.  We were in a similar situation earlier this year, and the significant global financial market volatility at the start of 2016 and the panama papers scandal in April were not enough to jolt the G20 from its malaise. There are reasons to be cautious about seeing the necessary political leadership this weekend.

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In classic style, China, as G20 host, is likely to push a technical, bureaucratic, long-term agenda. China’s presidency has long promised a vast array of blueprints, action plans, guiding principles, indices, strategies and cooperation initiatives. Such action has been a hallmark of recent agreements by Energy Ministers and Trade Ministers.

As I pointed out in the latest G20 Monitor, the two most recent meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors have shown encouraging signs of incremental progress in areas as broad as financial safety nets, climate finance, international tax, tax transparency, and financial regulation and investment. This meeting will need to be seen as deliver on the platform established at these meetings, and contribute to the ten major results that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi foreshadowed would be delivered to leaders in Hangzhou.

The contributions are undoubtedly positive. However, a technical agenda of positive incremental change is not enough to convince commentators like former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the G20's relevance. As Mohamed El-Erian noted, strange things happen when advanced economies persist in low, non-inclusive growth. And 2016 is just over half way through; there is plenty of time for it to get more interesting.

So we can only hope that 'this meeting is different' and ministers and governors heed the calls to demonstrate political leadership. There needs to be a much clearer sense on how the G20 is managing risks and getting out of the low, non-inclusive growth path. Martin Wolf has suggested several areas of action, which includes reforming capitalism, greater demand support, prosecuting an enhanced tax agenda, and fighting the quacks. These are all sensible areas for the G20 to be involved in.

On a more basic level, if the finance ministers and central bank governors of the economies with the most stake in the current liberal economic order won’t make the political case for preserving it, then who will?

Photo: Getty Images/VCG

11 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

The Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision places more pressure on the US than China, as Washington must now act to support this emphatic judgement. Failure to do so will further weaken America's credibility, and undermine the rules-based order it seeks to preserve.

In order to determine how the US may effectively respond, China's strategy must be understood.

In recent years a number of high profile strategists have described China's South China Sea (SCS) encroachment as 'salami tactics'. Here on The Interpreter, Derek Lundy eloquently explained what is meant by this (though none will eclipse this gem from Yes Prime Minister). Indeed, the depiction of China's approach in the SCS as 'salami tactics' is now a widely accepted norm.

Nevertheless, this is contestable. In my view China is not employing salami tactics at all, but rather a wholly different strategy. This challenges a consensus, and requires a substantive explanation.

To my mind, there are three pre-conditions that need be met for a salami strategy to be employed: 

  • a strategic interest must be contested by two or more opposing actors
  • the aggressor must deliberately calibrate provocations below the thresholds of opposing actors
  • and effective military options without serious escalation are clearly limited.

On all three counts the SCS fails.

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First, while the SCS is claimed by China as sovereign territory, it is not by the US. In the case of the latter, the concerns are expressed in terms of freedom of navigation and the rule of law. There isn't any slicing – China claims the whole of the SCS and is taking strategic steps to enforce that claim.

Contrast this with say, the Berlin blockade, where the Soviet Union was overtly attempting to 'slice' a piece of influence, and it's immediately apparent the SCS is quite different. A modern comparator is the Senkaku islands. The US has explicitly included these islands in its alliance commitment to Japan, therefore the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute would meet this first criterion. 

With regard to the second requirement, there is remarkably little evidence that China is carefully calibrating. Its island reclamation activities have total disregard for how the US might respond, with Beijing taking as given that Washington will cede the strategic space. This is not salami slicing but expressly challenging; the only constraint is American power, not American wrath.

Again, there are plenty of alternative examples for comparison. North Korea's provocations are innumerate, but they are carefully measured. The regime makes sure that while these actions are sufficient in scope to get the world's attention, they are not severe enough to incur a decisive response.

Finally, unlike many flashpoints, America's military options in the SCS are not especially limited. If, for some reason, America perceived China's reclamation as a direct and immediate threat, the US could render those islands inoperable without difficulty. Moreover, the initial objectives would be achieved without a wider conflict, even though escalation may be China's response.

Contrast this with Ukraine, the best example of salami tactics today. Any attempt by NATO to expel Russia from Ukraine militarily would require a massive escalation of an ongoing conflict, carrying immense risk and with great uncertainty over whether the core objective would be achieved.

These distinctions are important, as framing China's actions in the SCS as 'salami tactics' will lead to ineffective policy responses. Accordingly, our apprehension of China's strategy in Asia needs rethinking.

At risk of oversimplification, the respective grand strategies of the major powers may be summed up as follows: The United States plays poker, the Russians chess, and the Chinese — Go.

Poker is based on ambiguity and incomplete information. To that end the nuclear age was made for the Americans. In Europe, the US convinced the Soviets they held pocket aces and would go all-in to defend Europe. This seemed credible. After all, the loss of Western Europe would pose such an existential threat to America that a nuclear war could be initiated to prevent it. To sell the message, the US barrelled the pot with forward deployed bombers and artillery units. The bet was never called, and the Russians ultimately folded.

But this doesn't work in the Asia Pacific. It's hard to sell the idea that China's expansion in the South China Sea poses an existential threat to the US, and distant offshore deterrents don't look like aces. In other words, if the Americans go all-in against China, they're going to be called.

Meanwhile, chess is for the Russians – and salami tactics is for chess players. That is, to play a closed game, gain space through positional play, and gradually improve your freedom of action at the expense of your opponent.

But the Chinese are not playing chess, they're playing Go. The vast majority of China's land borders have been settled, while Beijing rapidly lays stones in the SCS. Given the asymmetric objectives between China (gaining territory) and the US (preserving the existing order), 'flexible response' approaches will not be effective.

So how should the US respond to China's advances in the South China Sea, preferably without hegemonic war?

The US must adjust its strategy and build its own islands in the South China Sea. This has multiple advantages over alternative courses of action, and is the only option likely to be effective long-term. Indeed, it is probably the only response that China will understand.

In the wake of the PCA ruling, now is the perfect time. Washington should undertake land reclamation on behalf of the Philippines, and do so under the auspices that the matter has been settled under international law.

No doubt many will advocate other approaches being exhausted first but, just as with Go, by the time the danger becomes obvious it may well be too late. At which time, America will be praying that its weak 7♠ , 2♥ holding somehow manages to win.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Goode


It has been written before, quite correctly, that a key strategy in dealing with the terrorist threat is national resilience. And one part of developing such resilience is language. The wrong choice of words can unnecessarily inflame or sensationalise a situation. Conversely, rational and thoughtful language can put contemporary issues into perspective and build resilience.

Earlier this week on the Ten Network current affairs program The Project, host Waleed Aly, addressing the Sonia Kruger 'controversy', described himself as scared, afraid for his country and terrified about what the fear of terrorism was doing to friends and family. But this earnest confession was simply another example of the way our socially-mediated society has made words such as 'scared' and 'terrified' rather meaningless.

I say this based on events both one century ago and half a century ago. One hundred years ago this week the 5th Division of the 1st Australian Imperial Force lost more than 1900 dead and 3500 wounded in one day. I can only imagine what terrifying thoughts were going through their minds as they climbed over the top of the trench and into the withering machine gun fire from German forces. And I can only imagine what Australian society did to cope with this national tragedy.

Fifty years ago next month the late Corporal Philip Dobson was on the battlefield in South Vietnam treating wounded Australian soldiers, the other medics in D Company 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment either dead or wounded. With New Zealand artillery fire crashing around him and incoming fire from the Viet Cong shredding the rubber plants around him, he must have been very, very scared.

Rather than deciding which television personality had a right to be scared and to what degree, The Project could have used the events of a century ago at Fromelles to put the terrorist threat into perspective, and the efforts of Corporal Dobson half a century ago to put the concept of fear into perspective.  Because the program was focused on the concerns of two media personalities, an excellent opportunity was lost to use a high-rating television show to help build societal resilience by referring to times when real fears were overcome and real resilience was required.

I wonder what the men of the 5th Division or the rain-soaked soldiers of D Company would have thought of television personalities describing their fears as a result of a terrorist attack that occurred over 10,000 km away, or how the Australian public was able to cope with the death and wounding of 5500 Australians in 24 hours. The currency of fear has certainly been degraded since that time.


One of the biggest manhunts in post-Suharto Indonesia has found its target, and Santoso, Indonesia's most wanted terrorist, is dead.

He was found and shot on 18 July by the elite army unit Kostrad; not by the police who had been searching for him for the last five years. His death has implications for the risk of violence, military-police relations, and the draft anti-terrorism law now being revised in parliament.

Santoso aka Abu Wardah (in cap on right) with confidant Basri aka Bagong (Photo courtesy of Tinombala Operation Task Force)

Santoso's death may mean the end of his group, the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, even if the remaining stragglers manage to hide out for a few months more. But it does not mean the end of terrorism in Indonesia. In fact, the risk of retaliatory action in the short term is high, although the capacity of would-be terrorists remains low.

The 40-year old Santoso was a not-very-bright commander whose ego vastly exceeded his skills. He stepped into the role of field commander at a critical time, however, after police had broken up a training camp in Aceh in early 2010 and discovered a gold mine of information that led to the arrests or deaths of dozens of senior jihadi figures. The toll on terrorists from post-Aceh operations turned police into their number one enemy and Santoso entered the fray with gusto. By the time he was shot, he was responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen police and had tried to kill many more.

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He may have called himself the Zarqawi of Indonesia, after the late insurgent leader in Iraq, but in fact he could not see very far beyond the town of Poso. Even after he swore allegiance to the new 'caliph' of ISIS in July 2014, his goal was more to attack Detachment 88, the counter-terrorism unit of the police, than to achieve any ideological or religious goal.

But in the course of his five-year campaign in the jungle outside Poso, he and a few more capable adjutants managed to train more than a hundred extremists in basic military tactics and weapons skills, creating an impressive alumni network that today stretches from Sumbawa to Syria. His supporters used social media effectively on his behalf, making him one of the very few Indonesians whose name is recognised by luminaries in the global jihad.

He was also the only jihadi leader who controlled territory, even if only a few square kilometers in the Poso hills, and who thus kept alive the myth that jihadists were using violence in the service of building an Islamic state. The mantra of Indonesian ISIS supporters was that if you couldn't go to Syria, go to Poso. It was to augment Santoso's forces that Indonesians in Syria worked to divert Uighurs fleeing China to go to central Sulawesi rather than Turkey. 

Now that myth is shattered, and there could be a stronger focus on going to Basilan, in the southern Philippines, where Indonesians in Syria have already recognised Aby Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon as amir for Southeast Asia.

There is another implication of Santoso's death. While the Kostrad unit that found him was part of a joint police-military operation, the military is losing no opportunity to trumpet its success. This will undoubtedly work to its advantage in the drafting of the anti-terrorism law, where it has already been lobbying hard for for a greater role in fighting terrorism. If it succeeds in getting several categories of terrorism acknowledged as explicitly the military's domain (dealing with attacks on Indonesian embassies abroad, for example) this could strengthen its hand as other security legislation, such as a revised bill on the TNI itself, comes up for debate. The new national police chief, Tito Karnavian, has unusually good diplomatic skills, but he is going to have to use them to ensure that the police do not see more of their internal security role eroded by a confident and far more popular military establishment.

The military's role in Santoso's 'martyrdom' has not gone unnoticed in extremist social media, with pro-ISIS groups effectively declaring war on members of the Kostrad team that killed him. Attacks on soldiers have been very rare and largely confined to conflict areas in Indonesia, but this development could change the terrorist perception of the enemy.

Overall, the death of Santoso removes an important symbolic figure from the jihadi movement and leaves it temporarily without a local focus. If the Indonesian jihad was centered until Monday on Poso, where is it now and what are its goals? As it struggles to find answers, the incentive for revenge will remain high.

10 of 12 This post is part of a debate on South China Sea ruling

The Hague tribunal decision last week in the South China Sea case will have far reaching implications, finding that any ‘historic rights’ China claimed within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of other states were extinguished by UNCLOS itself, and China's subsequent ratification of the treaty in 1996. 

Despite some claims to the contrary, China’s stated refusal to accept the decision does not signal that the UNCLOS framework is unsuitable to solving complex maritime disputes. On the contrary, as Robert Beckman, head of the Ocean Law & Policy Programme at the NUS Centre for International Law argues, this authoritative decision will likely influence government legal advisers and negotiators for years to come.

While some commentators now urge consideration of ASEAN as the multilateral body to address the dispute via negotiations, Beckman considers the decision to be a ‘game changer’ likely to reinforce the current positions of ASEAN parties to the South China sea dispute, including Indonesia, which can now be expected to assert that the decision applies to their own EEZ claims. As such, evolving international jurisprudence will clearly frame and delimit any future multilateral or bilateral negotiations. This highlights the reality that while negotiations will always be a vehicle for settling boundary disputes, such negotiations should take place within the framework of international law.

While China has said that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction, the process was not entirely one-sided. The Tribunal was at pains throughout to ensure that China was informed via its embassy to The Netherlands. China also made its positions known throughout the proceedings in a variety of ways, and the Tribunal openly stated that it factored China's positions into its deliberations. It is too early to conclude definitively on the impact of this landmark decision, as China needs to be given time to absorb and reflect upon the findings. China will have to decide if it wants to be part of the rules-based order that UNCLOS frames, as its ratification of treaty and its stated positions and actions in international fora have often suggested.

Timor-Leste has been quick to note that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s call for China to respect an international rules-based order is at odds with Australia’s persistent refusal to negotiate maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste. This refusal was made more complete by Australia's withdrawal from the UNCLOS dispute mechanisms shortly before the restoration of Timor-Leste's independence in 2002. This move was clearly an effort to avoid the increasingly strong presumption of a median line boundary in international law. The Australian government is playing a two-step on the issue, urging China to respect international law describing the verdict as 'final and binding' while refusing to abide by an independent umpire in maritime boundary dispute with Timor-Leste. If Australia wants to model good international citizenship to the region, it should reinstate its recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, and the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, for maritime boundary delimitation.

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While Stephen Grenville urges the South China Sea parties along the path of negotiated settlements like CMATS, the 2006 treaty, which seeks to delay a maritime border determination for 50 years, is hardly a model for the rest of the world to follow. CMATS remains inoperative as a resource sharing agreement, some nine years after its signing. Timor-Leste considers CMATS void due to its claims that Australia spied on its negotiation team in 2004, and is therefore tainted by bad faith. 

On 11 April Timor-Leste initiated a compulsory conciliation under UNCLOS that Australia has no choice but to go with, although the determination will be non-binding, and Australia is challenging jurisdiction. For these reasons, CMATS can hardly be held up to China and other claimants in the South China Sea dispute as a model for problem solving. It is not clear why The Philippines would heed Stephen Grenville’s call to follow the CMATS model and jointly develop resources with China, when such resources are within their exclusive economic zone under international law. Closer to home, it is also possible that ASEAN could in future take a position on the Australia-Timor-Leste dispute that will not please Canberra.

Despite the Australian government’s reaffirmation of CMATS in the wake of the UNCLOS decision, the Opposition's recent commitment to revisiting a maritime boundary in line with international law, and submitting to arbitration if it cannot be resolved, demonstrates how fragile this aspect of Australian regional foreign policy now is, lacking bipartisan support. This was probably the only major foreign policy difference between the two major parties. In light of the close election outcome, DFAT and its defenders can no longer pretend this remains a settled position of the Australian state.

As Beckman concludes, states concerned with the importance of a rules-based order for the oceans will emphasise that the award is final and binding, and call on China to act in accordance with it. We have already seen this position reflected in Minister Bishop’s comments. But he also notes that states calling on China to abide by the decision will appear hypocritical if they do not 'first reflect on the implications of the award on their own claims and activities’.

Photo Jefta Images / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

  • Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill will face a vote of no confidence motion in Parliament this Friday. Despite a very healthy majority, lobbying for numbers has been fierce this week in the land of the unpredictable.
  • For a primer on how PNG got to this point, watch ABC’s just released Foreign Correspondent episode, 'A Bloody Boycott', detailing the recent police shooting of students in Port Moresby. You can also read a detailed account from Eric Tlozek here
  • UPNG lecturer Win Nicholas reviews PNG’s recently proposed SME policy, which is extremely protectionist in nature.
  • Jenny Munro writes about the struggle of West Papuan refugees currently residing in PNG trying to gain citizenship.
  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Leaders meeting finally met last week in Honiara, where they confirmed the appointment of the new Director-General, Fiji’s Amena Yauvoli. The Secretariat is said to be in a difficult financial position. The full outcomes of the meeting can be seen here.
  • MSG leaders also delayed a decision on the West Papuan liberation movement's bid for full membership (it currently has observer status), until September, appeasing Indonesia. Vanuatu, which has been lobbying for West Papua has expressed strong dissatisfaction over the delay while the liberation movement remains upbeat about its long-term prospects.
  • Former parliamentary secretary for international development assistance Bob McMullen calls for an Australia and/or New Zealand funded, Pacific-focussed development finance institution to assist private sector investment in the Pacific.
  • The ADB has launched its biannual Pacific Economic Monitor, which discusses how sluggish performance of resource-rich economies have dampened growth in the region.
  • The World Bank this week extended its Pacific Possible series with new research on labour mobility. The research, launched in Suva, advocates for an additional 240,000 more Pacific Islanders to migrate and work abroad by 2040. Such reforms could generate up to $10 billion in additional income relative to the business as usual scenario. Comments on the research are still welcome.
  • Other research papers in the series include Deep Sea Mining, Fisheries, Tourism and Non-Communicable Diseases. The complete report will be launched later in the year.


It was billed as a major foreign policy address. But while US Vice-President Joe Biden's just-completed remarks at the Paddington Town Hall in Sydney didn't quite live up to that billing, it did have its points of interest. Biden's mood was subdued, stoical and above all reassuring: America was in Asia for the long haul. There was lots of standard-issue uplift ('instead of asking "Why?", Australians and Americans ask "Why not?') and even a rhetorical flourish about refusing to 'worship at the shrine of orthodoxy'. And as you would expect, there was plenty of generous praise for the US-Australia alliance.


My first impression is that Biden didn't say anything particularly novel about the regional security situation or America's commitment to the region. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the speech, as regards Asia Pacific security, was just how emphatic Biden was about America's continuing regional commitment. Again, none of this was new, but it was a point of emphasis that was no doubt aimed at Beijing and other regional capitals. Biden began by talking up America's military capabilities: it's unmatched ability to project naval and air power all over the world, and its intention to maintain a qualitative edge for years to come. And America was planning to move more of its most advanced capabilities to the Pacific, he said.

Biden then talked about America's commitment to maintaining the 'rules-based order' in the region, a phrase that is also popular in Australia. It's worth checking out these two pieces about how the Chinese read this phrase.

As for America's commitment to the region, Biden said several times that the US is a Pacific nation; 'we will maintain that posture as long as we exist', he said. Repeating President Obama's phrase from Canberra in 2011, Biden said 'We are all in' and that the US is 'not going anywhere'... because 'our presence essential to maintaining peace and stability...America is the lynchpin.'

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Biden also used a phrase from his grandfather: 'with the Grace of God and goodwill of the neighbours', America's presence in the region would endure. I'm not sure that he intended it, but that oblique reference to the goodwill of the neighbours was as near as Biden got to acknowledging that some countries in the region (OK, just one) might actually object to America's 'lynchpin' status and its promise to stay forever. It would have been fascinating to hear Biden address in detail the tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea and other regional security issues.

A few other stray points of interest: Biden boasted that he had spent more time than any world leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And in describing the US-Australia alliance, he mentioned intelligence sharing and referred to the 'Five eyes' community. That's not a term which used to appear in the public utterances of any leader from those five countries. Thank you Edward Snowden.

Also on the alliance, Biden said it was a measure of the closeness of our two militaries that Australian military commanders had been put directly in charge of US troops. 'We don't let that happen very often', he said to chuckles. He emphasised that there was 'no daylight between our fighting forces', which is exactly what worries some people here in Australia who prefer that Australia is not so closely tied to US military decision-making.

Near the end of the speech, Biden turned to domestic matters: 'Don't worry about our election; the better angels will prevail'.

It was a tone of reassurance and comfort which matched the rest of the speech. But to bring comfort is also an acknowledgment that comfort is required. Evidently the Vice-President and his advisers judged that allies and friends in the region needed to be reminded that America's economic and military strength is enduring, and need to be assured that, in its presidential politics, the US is not lurching towards demagoguery. That in itself is a worrying sign.