Lowy Institute

The view from Jakarta

The role of the Indonesian military under President Jokowi came into focus this week with the release of a report on its encroachment into political and civilian life. Meanwhile, an activist was stabbed in Jakarta, allegedly by a member of the Navy, and the president was asked to respond to concerns over continued limitations on press freedom in Papua.

Jokowi's administration is undoing some of the early work of the reform era by allowing an increased civilian and political role for the military, warned a new report released on Monday. The report was produced by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), directed by Sidney Jones, who spoke at the Lowy Institute earlier this year. A return to the military's entrenched role under Suharto's New Order is not predicted in the report, but concerns are raised over the increasing encroachment of the military into domestic security and civilian affairs.

The report says several of Jokowi's ministries have signed Memoranda of Understanding with the military promoting its involvement in development programs, such as handing out fertiliser to farmers and in providing security for public and private infrastructure. Among other things, this has increased overlap in authority between the military and police, adding to tension between the two forces, already heightened due to the ongoing spat between the police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Meanwhile, little progress has been made on defence policy and reform, as pushed by former president Yudhoyono, or on improving military accountability. It remains to be seen how closely Jokowi will ally himself with the military, and what the implications will be for politics and civil freedoms in Indonesia.

The accountability of the armed forces also came under the spotlight this week when an activist was stabbed to death in Jakarta, allegedly by a member of the Indonesian Navy. Jopi Peranginangin, an activist for several social and environmental causes and one of the ranks of volunteers behind Jokowi's presidential campaign last year, was fatally beaten and stabbed outside a Jakarta nightclub early on Saturday morning. No link has been made between the incident and Jopi's work as an activist, including his involvement in palm oil monitor Sawit Watch.

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Since military personnel in Indonesia are subject only to military courts, investigation of the suspect, a Navy private, has been handed over by Jakarta Police to the Naval Military Police. While there are fears that justice will not be served by an internal trial held within the ranks of the Navy, the case is likely to come under intense scrutiny from the victim's friends in civil society, who have already launched an online petition for the perpetrator to be arrested, fired and imprisoned, and have started a hashtag in solidarity: #Solidaritas4Jopi. With continued public attention, the trial may yet become an open test for justice in cases involving military personnel.

Meanwhile, other elements of civil society are monitoring action on Jokowi's promise to lift restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from the region of Papua. Human Rights Watch this week urged Jokowi to issue a clear directive on the matter, since a number of ministers have expressed their reluctance to give foreign press free access to the region, as ordered by the President.

In addition to the expectation that foreign media report only on 'good news' stories, ministers have said that journalists' movements will be closely monitored, and that they will be expelled for any actions perceived as amounting to sedition. The slow response to implement the President's orders highlights his weak political position, and adds to concerns that despite rhetoric from the central government, the 'security approach' remains firmly in place in Papua and West Papua.

Photo by Flickr user Hendrik Mentarno.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Why are China's largest tech companies investing in America's hottest startups? It's about Smartphones.
  • This article claims Facebook is becoming a hotbed of anti-migrant sentiment in Southeast Asia.
  • China's Ministry of Defence has opened official accounts on Weibo and WeChat. Both accounts are providing live updates on the release of China's defence white paper and have promised to provide detail on ministry polices, military construction and cooperation initiatives.
  • South Korea has been ranked no.1 in global mobile app use (the most widely used being KakaoTalk), with smartphone users spending more than half their time on social media and chat apps.
  • South Korea's love affair with mobile apps may not carry into the next generation, after the Government announced telecom companies must install spying apps on all mobiles used by those under 18 years.
  • Large internet companies in China employ 'porn identification officers'. China's Global Times has a neat infographic explaining what these officers actually do.
  • The era of Internet memes has arrived in Myanmar. (H/t Asia Digital Life project.)
  • A researcher and statistician from the French Government's aid agency has written an interesting blog post looking at whether big data and mobile data can really serve the world's poorest.
  • At the inaugural Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Shanghai this week Asian tech companies have been laying out their vision for the 'internet of things'.
  • Behind the scenes at the CES, there are alleged complaints about Chinese copycat products (spurring the acronym 'C2C' – Copy2China). But do Chinese copycat companies actually succeed?
  • If the global 'selfie' obsession makes you mad, the latest trend in Asia — the Selfie (iced) coffee — might push you over the edge. Using a special printer and edible ink, cafes in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore are offering customers the chance to view themselves in their coffee before drinking themselves up. (h/t Steph.)
  • A student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China has produced a great animated video about the harmful effects of smartphone addiction: 


Visas which give wealthy business people and investors a pathway to permanent residence and Australian citizenship through various forms of investment have been around for many years. The new twist, under the Government's recently announced 'complying investments' for the Significant Investor Visa, is to channel some money out of safe investments and into venture capital and start-ups.

The $5 million worth of investment that a foreign investor must make in Australia to qualify for a visa must now include at least $500,000 in eligible Australian venture capital or private equity funds investing in start-ups and small private companies. The Government expects to increase this to $1 million for new applications within two years. In addition, at least a further $1.5 million of the $5 million total must go into in eligible managed funds or listed companies that invest in emerging firms.

Some commentators, including venture capitalists, have applauded the move. On the other hand, migration agents reportedly have concerns over whether their clients will see this requirement as too risky and turn their attention to other countries. The Government has tried to manage this by only requiring 10% of the total investment to go into the highest risk investments.

One wonders why, if these investments are truly desirable, they cannot stand on their merits and attract sufficient capital without the need to effectively subsidise them by offering visas and a pathway to Australian citizenship as an incentive to foreign investors. Alternatively, why aren't broader-based non-visa options being pursued to attract venture capital, such as a HECS-style loans scheme?

The changes also raise the broader question of the effectiveness of migration schemes to attract wealthy business people and investors.

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Australia has experimented with variations of such schemes over several decades. State and Territory governments are attracted to them in the hope of bringing foreign business talent and money into their economies.

The traditional migrant 'bargain' with the host country is that he or she contributes their skills, resources, physical presence and family to that country's future in return for permanent residence and access to citizenship and its benefits. However, because of their wealth, business and investor migrants have a lot more scope and flexibility to gain benefits without making much contribution.

The Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Migration, in its March 2015 Report of the Inquiry into on the Business Innovation and Investment Programme, struggled to find any substantive benefits, noting in the Foreword that 'the data provided by the Government was limited and furnished little evidence that the programme was actually meeting any of its objectives.'

And yet the risks are substantial. Migration schemes for business people attract a disproportionate number of applicants from a small number of countries, usually countries where it is difficult to verify all aspects of the background of the individuals and the sources of their wealth. China was by far the largest source country for the over 6000 visas granted in the Government's Business Innovation and Investor programs in 2013-14.

There is an ever present risk of attracting people of character concern who will, down the track, be the subject of criminal investigations in the source country and embarrassing extradition proceedings. There is also the risk of attracting 'hot' money, borrowed money and dubious financial arrangements.

Then there is the underlying public suspicion about wealthy people 'buying' their way into Australia. One of the earliest schemes, the 'Business Migration Program', was terminated following a critical report of the Joint Committee of Public accounts in 1991 , including concerns about the role private migration agents had been given in the system.

Despite all these dilemmas, Australia probably has to compete with other countries and have at least a limited facility for interested business people to migrate permanently. It is untenable to say that a genuinely interested wealthy business person cannot settle here in the way that a skilled migrant can.

However, policy and administration in this area need to be tightly controlled and the results closely monitored to ensure there is a real benefit for the country. The trick for governments is to find a set of rules that lock in the benefits for Australia without scaring away most of the genuine migrants. Scams that undermine the integrity of this element of the immigration program must be quickly identified and terminated.

Without careful scrutiny, there is a good chance that any new arrangements will end in tears, like some of their predecessors.

Photo by Flickr user Nicki Mannix.


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

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

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Tuesday that the Australian Government will introduce legislation giving the immigration minister the authority to strip Australians of their citizenship if secret evidence showed that they had participated 'in serious terrorist-related activities.' Abbott argued that this 'is a necessary and appropriate response to the terrorist threat.'

Yet the available evidence suggests it will make, at most, a marginal contribution to the struggle against violent extremism, and it is in any event inappropriate in a liberal society which values the rights of citizenship. Indeed, it could alienate the Australian Muslim community, including the small number of youths in that community who are susceptible to radicalisation.

Others have taken on the details of the proposal on The Interpreter already. Former senior immigration official Peter Hughes argues persuasively that it would be 'a very limited tool.' As he notes, Australians fighting overseas can already be prevented from returning to Australia through the cancellation of passports, so this new measure can't be about that.

My colleague Rodger Shanahan argues that this is really about sharing intelligence with allies on Australians suspected of terrorism in third countries, so that those allies can then kill them. While that prospect raises serious questions about due process, perhaps it would make a modest contribution to the fight against ISIS and other groups. But the Prime Minister's focus on Tuesday was on the problem of domestic radicalisation, which is of far greater importance to Australian security than enabling one-off drone strikes abroad. And it is a problem his initiatives are likely to aggravate.

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In announcing the changes, the Prime Minister said that former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock would lead a 'national consultation' on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I would submit that reducing dual nationals to second-class citizens, without the same rights as other citizens, is a poor way to begin that consultation. 

Ruddock's later remarks to the press indicated that he is concerned about 'some people' who 'argue that the law ought to be subservient to what they see as religious obligations. We say we have one set of laws for all Australians.' Yet the Government has just announced that some Australians  can be deprived of their citizenship based on secret evidence, while others cannot. That suggests there are two sets of laws for Australians: one for true blue Aussies and one for those whose national identities are more complex.

Nor can we ignore the distinct impression left by the Prime Minister that his proposed 'conversation about citizenship', which 'will enable us to consider whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are well understood and how we can better promote these, including among young Australians', is really a talking-to directed at Muslim youth. Ruddock has already indicated that he is not interested in taking on complaints of discrimination by Muslim groups in Victoria as part of this conversation.

The risk, as articulated by Waleed Aly in a 2011 lecture at Parliament House, is that the Government is falling into the trap laid by extremists eager to radicalise young Australian Muslims:

...what’s implicit in the global terrorism narrative is that you essentially choose which one identity you want to have. [According to this narrative] You can be Muslim or you can be Dutch, British, Australian or American or whatever it is, but you can’t be both. And the reason you can’t be both is because [Westerners] will never have you.... That means, it seems to me, that the most potent message that could be internalised that would resist that narrative or make it less effective through a series of social experiences and public rhetoric, is one that emphasises the possibility, in fact celebrates the possibility, of what I call dual authenticity.

In elevating citizenship in the national conversation about radicalisation, in depriving dual nationals of rights to due process which other Australians still receive, and in launching a national conversation that seems more likely to alienate than embrace, the Government is making the possibility of 'dual authenticity' less likely. 

I should acknowledge here that I come at this question from a somewhat different background. As an American, I assume that rights are inalienable. It is an assumption at the very core of American jurisprudence. For this reason, the US Supreme Court has made it very difficult for the US Government to deprive Americans of their citizenship, and thus their rights.

In fact, the Prime Minister erred yesterday when he said that these new powers bring Australian laws closer to those of the US. Americans  found to have joined terrorist organisations can only be stripped of their citizenship by a court, and only if the Government is able to meet a higher burden of proof than is normally required in civil proceedings. After all, if one can be stripped of his or her rights by a single minister based on secret evidence, as the Prime Minister proposes, they aren't really rights at all. But I accept that rights are not at the heart of Australia's constitution, as they are in the US constitution.

There is another difference between Australia and the US that is worth pondering. We are two proud multicultural societies, but while the US has at least ten times the Muslim population of Australia, there are more Australians fighting with terrorist organisations in the Middle East than Americans. It seems clear that communal relations in Australia could be improved. The Government's conversation on citizenship, however well intentioned, is unlikely to do so.


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.


In a recent op-ed (India Won't Provide Solutions to our China Questions), Hugh White argues against relying on India as a decisive factor in balancing against China. This is an important question, as China is almost inevitably an important factor in Australia's growing strategic relationship with India.

India's Republic Day 2015. (White House.)

Hugh relies on a few propositions to make his case. He argues that India will never allow itself to be used by the US and its allies as a stooge against China. He questions whether India's interests are aligned with Australia, given that New Delhi does not seek to maintain US strategic dominance in Asia. He also questions whether India and China really have much of a beef with each other in the long term, arguing that the Himalayas will ultimately keep them apart on land. Contrary to claims by Indo-Pacifists that India and China will increasingly come into naval competition as they project maritime power into each other's oceans, in fact each side will have too much to lose by interfering with the other's sea-borne trade. Geography and mutual deterrence, Hugh argues, will moderate any strategic rivalry between them.

As usual, Hugh's arguments seem convincing. But, on reflection, the propositions that he relies upon don't really stack up.

The 'India is no stooge' argument is one we hear from time to time, but it is ultimately a weak one. Anyone with experience of India should be in little doubt that Delhi will not allow itself to be used as a 'stooge' against China. India guards its independence and freedom of action jealously (arguably sometimes too jealously for its own good). Its famed prickliness towards the US may be slowly fading, but is unlikely to go away any time soon.

But the great majority of Indian policy-makers also have a clear understanding that China represents the greatest long-term security threat to India. This is driven by a raft of factors, including Beijing's territorial claims over much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which was repeated during Mr Modi's recent visit to Beijing), its nuclear, military and political support for Pakistan, and its growing interests elsewhere in South Asia. These are regarded as core concerns in Delhi and none of them are likely to go away.

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For its part, Beijing has long been dismissive of India's national power and strategic aspirations. But one thing that really makes Chinese analysts sit up and take notice – and indeed makes them quite incensed – is the possibility of a military partnership between India and the US. Delhi is very much aware of this, and it is why India is doing what it can to leverage its relationship with the US to the absolute hilt. President Obama's presence on the podium at India's Republic Day parade last January was indeed a postcard addressed to Beijing. The US relationship bolsters India's credibility in Beijing, or at the very least significantly complicates China's dealings with India and its neighbours in South Asia. Who exactly is the stooge here?

The argument that Indian and Australian interests are not aligned because Delhi is not seeking to preserve US military primacy in Asia is also ultimately a weak one. India makes no secret of its long term aspirations towards a multipolar region in which it would sit at the top table alongside the US, China and Japan. India also has long-term (if somewhat vague) aspirations to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Delhi has become comfortable with seeing the US spend a lot of money providing public goods in the Indian Ocean, and especially in the Persian Gulf. There is a view that the US military presence in the region should be allowed to gradually wither away in coming decades just as Delhi took a relaxed view of the withering away of Britain's military presence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maybe India's strategic ambitions will come to pass, and maybe they won't. More likely, they will just take a very long time to happen. But these aspirations only increase, not reduce, India's importance to Australia as a strategic partner. Australia may prefer to see the continuation of US military primacy in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean for as long as possible, but we are also realistic that it won't last forever.

In the meantime, India is a useful friend for Australia for many reasons, including in helping to contribute towards a more balanced region. If India ultimately achieves its strategic aspirations it will almost certainly only happen over a period of decades. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Australia's interests: a strong, friendly and democratic India in a multipolar Asia is undoubtedly a lot better than many of the alternative scenarios we could face.


It is hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu when one looks at Indonesia-Australia relations today. Our fundamental strategic interests mostly converge – from regional and maritime stability to managing China's growing power – even if our policy preferences diverge in various issue areas. And each country realises the importance of the other.

But although the Indonesia-Australia relationship looks balanced and sturdy from the outside, it is easily knocked down. 'Exogenous shocks' – from terrorism to asylum seekers, beef exports and executions – regularly test the relationship. 

Yet those shocks also offer some lessons. Even though, under President Jokowi, the relationship is at a low point, we are not entering uncharted waters. We have been here before, which means we can build on a familiar narrative. Analysts did this when they pointed out what both countries could do to repair the diplomatic damage created by the Chan and Sukumaran executions.

But if we want Indonesia-Australia relations to break free from this pattern and enter a new phase, we should start sketching out what a genuinely equal strategic partnership would look like.

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On Canberra's side, one can start by abandoning outdated lenses to make sense of Indonesia. For example, we can debate the extent of a 'cultural gap' between the two societies, but to cast the relationship as one of 'cultural divide' or to argue that it suffers from lack of 'cultural intelligence' is unhelpful. For one thing, cultural variables are often immutable as far as policy is concerned. For another, using cultural lenses to view policy problems might lead to a xenophobic slippery slope. There are certainly differences between our societies, but they are not the 'root' of all the bilateral problems.

Indonesia is a now a democratic state, and it should be understood as such. How often does Australia consider its problems with other democratic countries in the region as one of 'cultural difference'?

Indonesia should be understood on its own terms, rather than defined by preconceived fault lines such as culture. But of course democratic consolidation is a messy process, which makes it difficult to fully understand Indonesia's trajectory. As Richard Woolcott once noted, Australia sometimes overlooks how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy. However, we should be encouraged that, as a recent Lowy poll noted, there is growing pragmatism among the Australian public over better ties with Indonesia, and perhaps a greater appreciation that Indonesia needs time to stabilise its democratic politics.

There will be times when Indonesians and Australians elect leaders with different views, ties and personal stakes in the bilateral relationship. For a stronger partnership to survive, we need to think harder about institutionalising the relationship beyond the personal ties. Efforts to move in that direction have begun in recent years with the establishment of regular 'Strategic Partner' talks between defence ministers. But dialogues shouldn't simply be high-level events where prepared statements are traded. They should be a series of regular, sustained discussions before and after those meetings. Regular consultations breed familiarity and help to avoid surprises (such as when Jakarta felt slighted over the placement of US Marines in Darwin).

On Jakarta's side, an equal strategic partnership means Indonesia needs to start picking up the tab in terms of investing in its own governance institutions – from corruption to education. As long as Jakarta relies heavily on foreign aid, a strategic partnership with Australia will never be equal. Some in Jakarta are realising this imperative. After all, as Hugh White noted almost a decade ago, no one, especially Indonesians, likes to need help, and gratitude is usually tempered by the unease at being placed in the position of supplicant. This is perhaps why Jakarta's reaction to the cut in Australia's aid budget to Indonesia was so subdued. 

Jakarta needs to be more proactive in driving the agenda in the partnership. Indonesia's passive stance stems from another outdated lens; one that has historically seen the country as the 'geopolitical prize'. This is exacerbated by a misguided sense of entitlement, both within the elite and general public, that Indonesia is a rising global power. Jakarta needs to abandon this passive approach. Rising power means a rising responsibility, and the foremost responsibility is to maintain a stable regional environment, for which our relationship with Australia is key. 

Furthermore, a more proactive Jakarta gives Canberra a better sense of Indonesia's priorities, and it signals that we are as invested in understanding and engaging our neighbour as the other way around. In short, if Jakarta wants to be treated as an equal partner, it should start behaving like one.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.


On Sunday 24 March, a global group of female peace activists crossed the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Led by American feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist of some notoriety for alleged excuse-making for Pyongyang, the march stirred up a surprisingly sharp debate among Korea analysts and sparked a backlash rally by South Korean conservatives.

I argued against the march and received hate-mail for it (best put-down: 'your stuff is older than Kim Il Sung's rusty pistol'), while anti-march protesters told the marchers to 'go to hell'. For something so apparently minor and innocuous – I strongly doubt the march will open the North or change the basic confrontationalism of the South – the whole debate got remarkably heated. For a good case in favour of the march, try this; for the case against, go here.

I see four undercurrents that led to this surprising outburst from all sides.

1. Traditional democratic right-left Cold War divisions remain alive and well in the Korea debate

In the West, much of the debate over how to respond to communism has faded into intellectual history. That acrimonious and largely unresolved split between right and left has, thankfully for all, receded.

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But in South Korea, it feels like time stands still: it is still 1982, with an evil empire, replete with gulags and economic collapse, threatening nuclear war, and all the McCarthyite paranoia that breeds in response. Just as in the West a generation ago, conservatives here see the left as appeasers, if not traitors, while left-wing parties think the South Korean right is unhinged and bellicose, driving North Korea into belligerence.

Most notable to me is the replication on the left here of almost exactly the same tortured debate on communism which roiled the Western European left throughout the Cold War: is recognition 'appeasement'?; a persistent admiration of socialism 'in theory' while 'real-existing socialism' is grudgingly rejected; a far-left party that is openly pro-communist; the constant challenge at the ballot box to convince voters they are not tools of Moscow/Pyongyang; and so on. The march has brought these underlying divisions forcefully to light.

2. Moral equivalence is the main challenge to the march

My primary concern throughout the march debate was the appearance of moral equivalence between the two Koreas regarding both culpability for the continuing division, and the moral character of the competing regimes. Ahn has spoken of 'parity' between them. In reality, North Korea is the worse on both counts, and that cannot be re-stated often enough (a point I tried hard to make in my Al Jazeera English interview on this).

Fault for the continuing division today lies almost exclusively with North Korea, or to be more specific, a North Korean elite terrified of post-unification justice and the loss of their privileges, if not lives. During the Cold War, culpability was arguably equal, as each camp sought a different version of Korea that had some ideological defensibility. But today, that is long over. All the other Cold War-divided states (Germany, Yemen, Vietnam) are re-united, and the bankruptcy of the socialist alternative is apparent in all those cases, as it is in Korea. There is really no reason anymore for North Korea to exist. The game is over. The steady hemorrhage of North Koreans out of country against enormous odds, the gulags, and the massive internal military presence all suggest domestic illegitimacy. Given a chance to vote freely, is there any doubt North Koreans would choose other leaders, if not unity with happier, freer, wealthier South?

Similarly, the North and South are not morally analogous competitor regimes which deserve a similar chastising. South Korea is easily the better place on almost every conceivable vector, including importantly, the one privileged by the marchers themselves – the treatment of women. Does it need to be said that South Korea has elections, a free press, due process (nothing like the songbun system or the gulags of the North), a female president, and so on? Given how obvious this is, I found it worrisome that the marchers ducked these obvious distinctions in their various press conferences.

3. The North regularly instrumentalises prestigious foreigners for regime legitimacy

North Korea, like East Germany before it, has long struggled to attain global legitimacy against what came in time to be seen as the 'real' Korea (or Germany). One East German stratagem was the global attention gained from Olympics victories, leading to the world's most notorious doping program in the 1970s and 80s. In a similar vein, North Korea seeks at every turn to accumulate and record prestigious foreign personages and institutions interacting with the regime in such a way that implies its existence is legitimate. The Kumusan 'Palace of the Sun' (the 'sun' being the Kim family) houses a large collection of foreign recognitions, as does the Juche Tower. This is likely the reason why North Kora seeks out high-profile US visits when US citizens are taken hostage (and why such visits are so rare). Even 'useful idiot' Dennis Rodman served this purpose.

In the case of the marchers, critics assumed the North would try to attribute sympathetic comments to them, which it did. This has led to a predictable argument over who said and did what. For example, the North claims the marchers labelled the US 'a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human rights abuses,' which Ahn has had to publicly deny. That a high profile personality like Steinem, with her moral credibility, would flirt with such predictable manipulations is unhelpful.

4. North Korea's terrible record on gender and sexuality heighten the march's contradictions

Not only is North Korea the world's worst human rights violator, a point indisputably established by last year's UN report which likened its internal repression to the Nazis, but it is particularly harsh for women. The general culture is deeply Confucian patriarchic (habits that are slowly [too slowly] eroding in South Korea). Pyongyang elites – party, military, Kimist – are nearly all male, and they enjoy the services of the notorious 'joy brigade' as well.

Far worse, the treatment of women in the gulags is appalling, almost certainly meriting ICC prosecution – rape, sexual abuse, and infanticide are now well established facts. The terrible exploitation of Northern women continues should they escape North Korea. North Korean women are trafficked in China to pay for their and their families' escape.

This raises yet another credibility issue for the marchers, with their pointed focus on the role of women. The most damning criticism I have read of the march came from Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition: 'If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ' (in reference to the trafficking issue).

This march will do little to alter the geopolitics of the peninsula, which has been locked in for decades. But high-powered feminist attention could have done a lot to press China for better treatment of North Korea female escapees. A missed opportunity...



The ethnic Chinese technical research community in the US is worried. American justice authorities are stepping up actions against industrial theft.

Last week alone saw two cases, with a star Chinese professor arrested on arrival in LA (five of his colleagues were also charged but remain at home) and a Philadelphia physics department head arraigned. The circumstances were unrelated but the complaint the same: unauthorised transfer of intellectual property to China for commercial or strategic gain.

Beijing is 'deeply concerned' at what appears to be 'Washington's stiffer stance over an issue that has already frayed ties'. This could become the next geo-economic tussle between the two superpowers.

This issue is not new. Books such as China's Techno-Warriors in 2003 and Chinese Industrial Espionage published a decade later depict a systematic worldwide program of information collection by Chinese actors. It is not clear whether the recent cases were individually motivated by profit, or government-orchestrated (proof of which is needed for an indictment under the Economic Espionage Act). Disclosed email transcripts bluntly joke about 'copy to China' and make offers to 'build world-class labs...for the benefit of Chinese entities.' The fact that in one of these instances labs were indeed funded, built and run by state-run Tianjin University may have emboldened US prosecutors to file for espionage.

Shen Dingli, a foreign relations scholar, downplays the significance of the dispute, saying that while mutual spying is normal and countries tend to hush these embarrassments, 'the US always like to make a fuss, but China's attitude is more mature...China never hyped (the Snowden affair)', for example.

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Other experts, like Huang Jing, see the potential for 'serious damage to the bilateral relationship.' Tianjin University itself responded, 'expressing resentment and strong denial' and issuing a warning that 'the politicization of scientific research, elevating it to the level of economic espionage, would harm normal academic exchanges.'

Sincere or otherwise (a stated goal of Tianjin's lab is 'to smash the monopoly position of foreign companies'), the University's statement does frame a really troubling dimension to this dispute. Expect other criticisms of hardball FBI 'entrapment' tactics. They have botched many such cases in the past, from the stunningly self-defeating persecution of Qian Xuesun, to the still-mysterious puzzle of Wenho Lee, to the woeful recent episode involving a hapless hydrologist. It is hard to avoid the queasy feeling that one particular community is being targeted.

Then again, Beijing's own actions may be fueling Washington's suspicions. Xi Jinping has been amping up the United Front appeals to Chinese technology leaders and overseas communities and students, exhorting them to 'build a pro-socialist coalition outside the country.' Appeals to patriotic scientists to 'contribute to the motherland' or return home grow louder.

China's concern for its diaspora is understandable, but the more Beijing trumpets its involvement in overseas 'bamboo networks', the more nervous other countries will become about 'fifth columns.' Almost half a million Chinese go abroad for study annually, and the conveyor belt of knowledge moves steadily in China's net direction (which may explain Shen's sangfroid and America's 'anxiety'). Cross-border scientific collaboration is a good thing collectively but John Mearsheimer (among others) has long foreseen the day when Washington sees a need to restrict Chinese nationals from studying and working in sensitive strategic fields.

Mearsheimer writes a lot about tragedies, and here is one. By asserting ethnic solidarity with Chinese abroad, Xi calls their loyalty out and may disenfranchise them instead. That will reduce his country's access to foreign technology. Meanwhile America's witch-hunts too undermine the most powerful quality of its science: openness. And overseas Chinese researchers risk becoming isolated, caught in the middle of a fight most of them want no part of.

Photo by Flickr user Novartis AG.


The recent rush by Western countries to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) before the 30 March deadline set by China was widely, and rightly, seen as a policy failure for the US. Earlier, the US had openly opposed the bank.

The US has also resisted reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, reforms which might have deterred the emerging economies from establishing new banks. A moderate reform of IMF quotas approved by the Fund's other members has been stuck in the US Congress for five years, aggravating China and the rest of the world.

In the same vein, but less widely known, a few years ago the US and Japan turned down a proposal by China and other Asian countries for a 'special capital increase' in the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This would have allowed these countries to channel some excess capital into the ADB and increase their voting shares in an institution which has served the West well. From a US perspective this would surely have been preferable to the establishment of a new bank by China.

The US has also been inept at reading its allies' intentions. It assumed that it could convince Australia, South Korea and its European allies to remain outside the AIIB. But once the UK broke ranks on 12 March and decided to join the bank, it became clear that accommodating China was the higher priority for virtually everyone.

But the policy failures do not stop with the US.

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By rushing to apply to the AIIB in the last two and a half weeks of March, European countries displayed a remarkable lack of foresight and coordination in dealing with China, a skillful counter-party. 

Had the European countries been strategic about joining the AIIB, they could already last year have formulated a common position on a raft of issues from the bank's management and governance structure to ensuring its integrity. They could have made these conditions for joining, and maintained a firm common front. By signing up piecemeal at the eleventh hour they have played their trump card and significantly weakened their negotiating stance.

Nor does Japan emerge unscathed. Once it became clear that much of the Western world would join the AIIB, Japan considered its options and announced its continued support for the US. But prioritising its loyalty to Washington over the financing of infrastructure in Asia can hardly have gone down well with its neighbours. 

Within Japan, the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs were rebuked by the major political parties for failing to warn them that Western countries might join the AIIB. Now that Tokyo has helped Washington to save face, it may also reverse course and join the bank.

Amid these missteps, the conventional wisdom is that China has emerged as the winner. However, this is only half true. Admittedly, China's multilateral bank has now become a much larger and more visible initiative than Beijing could have imagined. But the last-minute scramble to join caught Chinese authorities by surprise. China may have got more than it bargained for.

China's initiative started out as an Asian bank, which it could easily have dominated. In early March it had 27 prospective members, a month later it had 57, with more lining up to join. The AIIB now includes all of South and Southeast Asia, most of Central and East Asia and the Caucasus, much of Western Europe, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and its adversaries Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

The diverse membership opens the bank to political and economic pressures that China had not expected to manage. To accommodate its members, there is already talk that the bank may have up to ten vice presidents. This would be a far cry from the lean organisation it was supposed to be.

What then are the key lessons from the AIIB experience? Despite the plethora of policy papers, books and reports on how the West and China ought to manage their relationship, all parties still have a lot to learn. A thorough stock-taking of their recent missteps would be a good place to start.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's Peter Hughes again in August 2014:

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

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

Citizenship solutions are always harder in practice than they look.


By Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Philippa Brant, a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

Japan held its 7th meeting with Pacific Islands Leaders (PALM7) on 22-23 May. All members of the Pacific Islands Forum were represented, including Australia and New Zealand. For the first time since his coup in 2006, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was invited and attended.

There was particular interest in whether Japan would expand its foreign aid to the Pacific Islands region in light of evidence of an increased Chinese presence over the last few years and the possibility that China might soon overtake Japan as the region's third-largest donor.

At the meeting, Japan promised ¥55 billion (approximately US$450 million) to the region over next three years. Prime Minister Abe declared that Japan had fulfilled a pledge to spend more than US$500 million over the last three years (2012-14). Because of the fluctuating exchange rate, the amount of Japanese aid has in reality been fairly constant over the past decade.

The fact that Japan hasn't dramatically increased aid to the region in the face of increased attention from China suggests Japan is not seeking to engage in explicit chequebook diplomacy with China in the Pacific Islands. Instead, Japan is trying to position itself as the partner of choice on issues of key concern to Pacific Islanders grappling with the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Importantly, Japan is focusing on issues which matter to the region and where Japanese assistance can make the most difference.

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Leaders agreed to seven priority areas for cooperation over the next three years: (1) disaster risk reduction; (2) climate change; (3) environment; (4) people-to-people exchanges; (5) sustainable development (including human resource development); (6) oceans, maritime issues and fisheries; and (7) trade, investment and tourism.

Some media sources are reporting that Japan's entire aid pledge will target climate change and disaster risk reduction, although the communiqué doesn't specify this. In his keynote address Prime Minister Abe said that aid support was to help 'foster resilient capabilities that will not be defeated by climate change or disasters'. Japan's assistance to Pacific Islands continues to include support for infrastructure development, such as constructing new port facilities in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and assistance for improving radio broadcasting services in Fiji.

Japan's commitment to assisting the region with adaptation to climate change will be welcomed by Pacific Island states. In addition to bilateral assistance, Japan will also be supporting the development of the Pacific Climate Change Centre and other capacity-building initiatives at a regional level. 

Japan's US$1.5 billion contribution to the international Green Climate Fund last week means the Fund can now be made operational. The Fund needed to raise 50% of pledged funds in order to commence operations. This stands in contrast with Australia's A$200 million commitment to the Fund over four years. Japan's commitment is valuable for the region as the Fund will be an important source of additional funding for Pacific Islands seeking support for adaptation projects. 

Climate change is an issue which unites the region and affects many countries deeply. The priority Japan has placed on it is also symbolic at a time when Australia's approach internationally is ambivalent.

Japan has long been an important partner for Pacific island countries. Development cooperation is a valuable aspect of its engagement but trade and investment is also significant. Japan is also a source of tourists for some countries in the region. Japan is a major client for PNG's LNG and Japanese companies are continuing to invest in Papua New Guinea. Shinzo Abe visited Papua New Guinea last year with a large business delegation.

In another sign that Japan is trying to distinguish its role in the region from that of China, the communique made clear reference to a maritime order that should be 'maintained in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)', and called for countries to exercise self-restraint and peacefully resolve international disputes 'without resorting to the threat or use of force'.

Some Japanese media have connected this language to concerns about Chinese maritime behaviour in the Pacific Islands. However, it should really be read as applying to Japanese concerns about Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas. It is likely that the Japanese focus on a peaceful maritime order and a sustainable Pacific Ocean in this meeting is part of its wider diplomatic strategy to counter rising Chinese influence. 

Japan has signaled that it is in tune with the priorities of Pacific Island states and is hoping this will help position Tokyo favourably in the eyes of Pacific Island leaders, who are courted by an increasing number of international partners.

Photo courtesy of the Facebook user Prime Minister's Office of Japan.


'Do you support ISIS victories in Iraq and Syria?' This is the question being posed by Al Jazeera Arabic news channel in one of its regular Arabic language polls.

So how many Al Jazeera Arabic viewers are willing to give their anonymous vote in favour of an ISIS victory? At time of writing the poll had attracted more than 36,000 votes, with a staggering 81% in support of the ISIS and only 19% rejecting the group.

What, if anything, does this tell us about support for ISIS in the Arab world?

Most of Al Jazeera Arabic's audience comes from the Sunni Muslim world, with high viewerships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera Arabic is owned by the Qatar Government and, despite claims of independence, follows Doha's foreign policy diktats closely.

The Government of Qatar has an ambiguous record when it comes to supporting ISIS. The official line is that Qatar supports the moderate (Sunni) Islamist opposition, and Qatar has joined the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. But concerns have been raised that funding from loosely defined 'private donors' from Qatar (along with UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) has been funnelled to Sunni militants including Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force, as well as ISIS.

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Al Jazeera Arabic has operated as an unofficial mouthpiece for various Sunni opposition voices, much more so than its arch-rival, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya. It is perhaps no coincidence that President Obama earlier this month snubbed Al Jazeera Arabic and instead gave his second interview to Al Arabiya.

So far, more than 30,000 votes have been cast in favour of ISIS. Anonymous online polls can of course be manipulated by motivated groups, but this result does reflect a silent support base that may not voice its thoughts publicly. In his recent book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explain the strange allure of ISIS to many Sunni Muslims.

Those who say they are adherents of ISIS as a strictly political project make up a weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base. For people in this category, ISIS is the only option on offer for Sunni Muslims who have been dealt a dismal hand in the past decade — first losing control of Iraq and now suffering nationwide atrocities, which many equate to genocide, in Syria. They view the struggle in the Middle East as one between Sunnis and an Iranian-led coalition, and they justify ultraviolence as a necessary tool to counterbalance or deter Shia hegemony. This category often includes the highly educated.

So, despite the atrocities, despite the touted international support for crushing ISIS, and despite the efforts policy-makers put into distancing ISIS militants from the religion of Islam, there remains a large body of public opinion in the Arab world which sees ISIS as the warriors of Sunni Islam and the defenders of the Arab world against the scourge of Shi'ism and the interventionist West.

This poll is a small snapshot of dissent, but a potent warning to those who think defeating ISIS on the battlefield will lead to the group's demise.

Photo by Flickr user Day Donaldson.