Lowy Institute

The view from Kuala Lumpur

18 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

As Malaysia prepares to celebrate Hari Raya Adilfitri this weekend (the end of Ramadan), the country remains in mourning. Yet a week on from the MH17 downing, it appears that embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's (pictured) response to the tragedy is proving popular.

This week, Prime Minister Najib urged Malaysians to say al-fatihah (a prayer for God's guidance) as he condemned the downing of MH17, saying it was a test from Allah during Ramadan. The bodies of the 43 Malaysian victims are yet to be returned to Malaysia for the quick burial demanded under Muslim custom. 

Najib, whose step-grandmother was on MH17, has been front and centre on the international stage. At home he was praised for his 'quiet diplomacy' with pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Borodai to secure the plane's black box and for garnering separatist support in returning the victim's bodies. Internationally, this praise was more subdued, with some arguing that this sort of high-level negotiation legitimised the separatist group possibly responsible for the shooting down of MH17, and set a dangerous precedent.

In a special sitting of the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's lower house) on Wednesday, PM Najib reflected on the previous week. His tone was stronger than before as he spoke of 'murderers' and (oddly) 'genocide'.

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On a defensive note, he reiterated that the flight path was deemed safe and defended his 'risky decision' to negotiate directly with the head of the pro-Russian separatist group. In his speech, Najib said he had negotiated with Borodai so he could fulfill a promise to the victims' families to return their relatives' bodies before Raya (he has since conceded that this will not be possible). He noted, quite rightly (and fittingly for the holy month of Ramadan), that 'sometimes we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.'

Among the solemn praise and a palpable feeling of solidarity in Malaysia, there is also anger. On Tuesday, a group of 300 protesters marched to the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Kuala Lumpur under banners that read #Justice4MH17. The group called for stronger action by the Government against the perpetrators of what they called the 'genocide at 33,000 feet'. It was this notion of genocide that was picked up by politicians and later endorsed by Najib, who thanked his opposition colleagues for the comparison.

Najib has repeatedly called for unity and solidarity in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, his prime ministership could do with a dash of both. After narrowly winning a second term last year he is often derided as out of touch with Malaysians. Worse, he has managed to get offside with the still powerful but ageing former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. His predicament is worsened by widespread criticism of his government's handling of MH370, the difficulty of managing growing religious tensions, as well as the recent kidnappings and overall deterioration of the situation in Sabah. 

In times of crisis, divisions are often forgotten and previously unpopular leaders can reshape themselves. News media, and people I've spoken to here in Kuala Lumpur, have parroted international praise of Najib for his 'quite diplomacy'. But this praise may be short lived. Old divisions will quickly reemerge when a week of front pages about the MH17 disaster subside, but pressure will remain on the Government to win justice for the victims.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

17 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Malaysian air crash investigators inspect the MH17 crash site. (REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev.) 

In the days following the shooting down of MH17, the UN and governments around the world have quickly turned to discussing how to bring the perpetrators to justice. While the most likely scenario is that pro-Russian Ukranian rebels shot down the aircraft by mistake, the lack of clarity around the circumstances of the attack continues to complicate any attempts at resolution. Pending a full investigation and more evidence about responsibility, it is difficult to talk of accountability under international law.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the MH17 incident represents a crime under international law. It's likely that the conflict between the state and rebel forces in Ukraine can be characterised as an armed conflict under international law, and that therefore international laws of war relating to internal conflict apply.

The principle of distinction between civilians and combatants is one of the main tenets of international humanitarian law. In armed conflicts of this nature, making civilians the object of attack is directly prohibited under treaty law, and the prohibition against targeting civilian objects has been found to be a customary international legal norm by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

In accordance with state practice and international jurisprudence, the ICRC has confirmed the existence of a customary international norm requiring all feasible precautions to be taken to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. Similarly, parties to a conflict must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.

It is clear that the perpetrators of the MH17 disaster have violated both treaty law and customary international law in attacking civilians and a civilian object, and failed to take all feasible precautions to ensure the military nature of the target. Holding them accountable for these actions will be another story.

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In public debate around the incident, a number of options for legal recourse have been raised.

The first is to prosecute the perpetrators of this crime under the domestic law and courts of one of the injured parties. This was the approach taken for the Lockerbie bombing trial, in which two Libyan nationals were tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands for their involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. Ukraine would certainly have jurisdiction over any crime committed in its airspace, and it is likely that injured nations such as the Netherlands, Malaysia, or even Australia may also have jurisdiction to prosecute this crime.

Another is that the perpetrators of the incident be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is charged with dealing with individuals for the offences of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. As prosecution of crimes against humanity requires acts to be committed as part of a 'widespread and systematic attack,' the most likely avenue for pursuing justice for victims of the MH17 attack in the ICC would be under the Court's jurisdiction over war crimes.

However, assuming that Ukrainian rebels linked to the Donetsk People's Republic were responsible for shooting down MH17, the prospects for having these individuals appear in front of the ICC are limited. To complicate matters further, a number of key figures in the Donetsk People's Republic are known to hold Russian citizenship, and it is alleged that some, including the Donetsk 'prime minister', have connections with Russian intelligence agencies. While both Ukraine and Russia are signatories to the Rome Statute of the ICC, neither has ratified the treaty yet, meaning that although they are required to refrain from  acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, compelling them to submit their nationals to the jurisdiction of the court would be more complicated.

This then raises the issue of state responsibility. If it is found (and this is a very big 'if') that the attack on MH17 was perpetrated by a Russian national acting in (or even beyond) their capacity as an official of the state, this could give rise to Russian state responsibility under international law. Russia could similarly be implicated if the rebels were found to be acting under Moscow's instructions, direction or control. 

Even if it is found that Russia had no involvement in this specific incident, as may well be the case, there is still the question of Russia's broader involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. Here, the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) ruling on Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua may provide some guidance. In 1986, the ICJ presided over a case brought by Nicaragua against the US over America's support for the contras rebel group against the ruling Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas. By financing, organising, training, supplying and equipping the contras, the US was found to be in violation of the customary international legal norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and the prohibition against the use of force. However, the court found that due to a lack of 'effective control' over the rebel contras, the US could not be held accountable for specific breaches of international humanitarian law committed by the group.

Unless Russia is found to have exercised effective control over the Ukrainian rebels, questions would linger over how far Russia could be held accountable. However, depending on the details of Russia's involvement, there may be an international legal case to be made in a forum such as the ICJ about Russia's broader support for Ukranian rebels.

Yet even if Russia was to be implicated, states are not required to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ, and neither Russia nor Ukraine have accepted the permanent jurisdiction of the Court . The likelihood that Russia would accept ICJ jurisdiction in the event of a dispute is almost zero. Similarly, by virtue of its permanent membership, it is safe to expect that any UN Security Council resolution directly implicating Russia in any of these scenarios would be swiftly vetoed. And all this is further complicated by the fact that the extradition of Russian nationals, even those who have committed a crime in the territory of a foreign state, is prohibited by Russia's constitution and criminal code. 

None of this undermines the need for a complete investigation of the circumstances leading up to the incident. Australian diplomacy has already proven invaluable in securing a robust UN Security Council resolution recognising the need for a full, thorough and independent investigation. At this point, continued diplomatic, economic and political pressure in enforcing Resolution 2166 may be the best states can do to ensure justice for the victims of MH17.


A newly released IPSOS Global Trends Survey  shows, according to a Guardian columnist, that Anglophone countries are particularly inclined towards climate denialism:

When you click on the interactive version on the IPSOS website, you see that the bottom red line (for the US) shows 32% disagreeing with the statement that climate change is human-induced, and slightly lower percentages for Britain, Australia and so on.

But let's take a glass-half-full approach. Given everything we hear about the attitude to climate change on the US right, it is somewhat surprising to see that 54% of Americans (the bottom green line) actually agree that climate change is human induced. And take a look at the results for 'We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly'. Even in the US, 57% of those surveyed agree with that statement:

So for those who want political action on climate change, maybe public opinion is not the lever they should be pulling on. In fact, I would wager that in each of these 20 countries, major policy shifts have occurred with far lower levels of public approval. So why haven't these countries taken action on climate change already? Well, that's another discussion, but it seems it's not public opinion holding the world back.

(H/t Sullivan.)


Pacific Island leaders will meet at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting next week in Palau. Prime Minister Abbott has cancelled his travel plans in order to focus on the response to the MH17 disaster and is sending Deputy Prime Minister Truss in his stead.

Pacific leaders will be disappointed but will no doubt understand. What will disappoint them more is a much greater snub for the region: the decision by ABC management to slash Radio Australia's capacity and services. This decision will diminish Australia's leadership and influence and do long term damage to both political and people-to-people relationships.

As a result of the loss of the Australia Network contract and other budget cuts, ABC management is making swingeing cuts to the Asia Pacific News Centre and ABC International. Correspondent positions in Asia, the Pacific and in Parliament House Canberra will be abolished. The Tok Pisin (PNG) language service will be cut to just three staff — this for a country which has just been elevated in the Australian Government's foreign policy priorities, where the economy is growing at record pace, and where radio remains king.

Editorial and technical staff for the popular Pacific Beat program will be reduced. A six-hour per day television service will be syndicated in the region but its primary news program, The World, is due to be broadcast late at night and early in the morning in the Pacific. Given the television audience in the Pacific is already limited to the urban elite, this is of questionable value.

While ABC management stresses that news services will remain, it's hard to see who will produce the stories that feed the news. By retrenching its most experienced Pacific hands as well as abolishing correspondent positions, the ABC will lose much of its capacity to report. The loss of journalistic legend Sean Dorney, who has the deepest understanding of the Pacific of any Australian journalist, will be felt deeply in the region. Presenters will likely need to rely on social media sources and the internet sites of Pacific newspapers to gather news. There are quality and reliability questions around both these sources and to a significant degree they already rely on the ABC for content.

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The impact of the decision will be a terrible blow to Pacific Island populations which rely on Radio Australia to report about not only international news but events in their own country. In an age where domestic news broadcasters across the Pacific are shrinking and in some cases being subjected to increasing political control, Radio Australia provides a vital service. Because Radio Australia provided coverage of criticism of Commodore Bainimarama's interim government in Fiji, he shut down transmission of Radio Australia services in 2009, demonstrating the considerable influence he considered Radio Australia to have. In addition to regular news services, Radio Australia also provides a critical service warning affected populations to prepare for impending cyclones, king tides or tsunamis and advises when help is on the way.

The cuts are a huge diplomatic own goal for Australia. Radio Australia has the single greatest reach of any Australian entity in our neighbourhood. Australia's diplomats are represented in almost every capital in the region but they can only travel out beyond the capital as their limited budgets permit. The approximately $1 billion Australian aid program to PNG and the Pacific has significant reach across the region but is not everywhere and the work of the aid program is often only known to Pacific civil servants. Australian banks ANZ and Westpac have a presence in most countries of the region but their reach is limited to people who bank.

Almost every household in the region, however, either owns a radio or has access to a radio in their village. In many remote parts of the region, where domestic broadcasters cannot be picked up or where shortwave radio is the sole means of access to the world, Radio Australia dominates. Whenever I have traveled to remote villages in the region, I have been struck by how much detailed knowledge the local residents had of Australia. There were hardly any books in the villages and no newspapers, let alone internet. All their knowledge was learned by listening to Radio Australia on shortwave radio. The growing coverage and availability of mobile phones and growth of internet access is changing the media scene but at a much slower rate in the Pacific than elsewhere. Many illiterate Papua New Guinean villagers, for example use their mobile phones to listen to radio rather than sign on to Twitter.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she wants Australia to be recognised as the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries and is frustrated by the recognition China and other countries receive for much smaller aid contributions. A smaller Radio Australia will struggle to enhance the recognition of Australia's contribution to the region; it will barely be able to fulfil its charter. Radio Australia already has a small budget and provides extraordinarily good value for money. But cuts in the range of 60% will threaten not only the quality but the viability of the service. It is worth noting that China is investing in its international television and radio broadcasting, including in shortwave in the Pacific.

As Australia seeks to step up its diplomatic influence globally, it is not the right time for the ABC to be stepping back from its critical soft power role in the Asia Pacific. 

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lu.

16 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia has prepositioned 50 Australian Federal Police officers, presumably from the International Deployment Group, in London. The Foreign Minister is on her way to Kiev to personally negotiate access to the crash site for the AFP and Australia's aviation officials, to be part of an international investigation under the leadership of the Dutch Government.

A police-led, military-enabled force is the right solution for the Australian Government to propose, but several conditions must be set before police and officials can be deployed to the crash site.

The crash site is in an active combat zone, and as the OSCE reminded us only days ago, there are more than 100 separate armed groups surrounding the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic. No intervention will be able to proceed without explicit guarantees from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments that they will exercise their influence to limit the activities of military forces in the vicinity of the crash site. Even then, there would still remain the possibility of rogue actors in the area. For that reason, whatever international force is sent should be armed for their personal safety.

Yet the crash site is located only a short distance from the Russian border, and for that reason it would be far too provocative to deploy international military forces in any strength to secure the international investigation effort. If Putin were to allow the deployment of NATO military assets within 30km of the Russian border, this would open him to severe domestic political criticism. Already there are some suggestions that Putin is under domestic presure for appearing to have bowed to foreign leaders. Too much provocation and Russia will respond with a show of force of some type, perhaps including additional deployments of military units to the border with Ukraine.

So the best solution will be an armed international police force with a limited mandate to secure the crash site and protect investigators.

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

The good news is that this effort is being led by Australia and the Netherlands, who have recent and extensive experience working alongside each other in Afghanistan. Australian military, intelligence, police, and diplomatic officials worked together with their Dutch counterparts for five years while our soldiers served alongside each other in Uruzgan. Those established mechanisms for cooperation will go a long way to offsetting the fact that we are poised to deploy a substantial force to a country in which we haven't had any diplomatic presence for some time.

15 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

With fighting intensifying in the pro-Russian rebel enclave in eastern Ukraine, security of the MH17 investigators and the crash site is imperative. 

A temporary cease-fire proposed after the destruction of MH17 last week never materialised. Ukrainian military forces have launched an offensive in the city of Donetsk, where heavy shelling is being reported. Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down on Wednesday south of the MH17 crash site. There are further reports of investigators on the scene being 'chased away' by separatist rebels.

It is becoming clear that some form of international security force will need to be employed for the investigation to carry on in the long-term.

This force will need to be more substantial than the 40 unarmed military police the Netherlands intends to send and the 50 Australian Federal Police that Prime Minister Tony Abbott says are on standby.

Yesterday morning Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a hint of one of the options under consideration by the OSCE and the Australian, Dutch and Ukrainian governments: peacekeepers. Peacekeepers under a UN mandate may be the best option to provide security for the crash site and are likely to be the most politically expedient. 

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The UN Security Council mandate secured by Australia and the Netherlands earlier this week leaves open the option of using a peacekeeping force to secure the crash site and the safety of international investigators. The language used in the mandate is clear. The Security Council called for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident', demanded that the armed rebel groups in the area 'refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site' and most importantly expressed 'grave concern at reports of insufficient and limited access to the crash site.'

A UN peacekeeping operation could be built off this mandate. Such an operation would need to be authorised by the Security Council and passed by its five permanent members, including Russia. This would be difficult, but Russia passed the resolution authorising the investigation earlier this week on the condition that the resolution did not assign blame. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to show goodwill and further de-escalate the situation, particularly if the peacekeeping forces came from countries outside of NATO.

To a degree, the crisis in Ukraine is driven by what Russia considers the creeping influence of the European Union and NATO along its 'near abroad'. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cited the expansion of NATO membership to former Soviet Republics as a threat and would probably never accept a NATO security mission to eastern Ukraine.

A UN peacekeeping operation could include forces from more politically appealing non-NATO countries. While forces from Australia and the Netherlands would be included (they may even establish a bilateral security force to go in immediately), in the coming months personnel from non-NATO countries could be integrated into the operation. Malaysia and Indonesia, which suffered significant causalities in the incident, may wish to participate. Other major peacekeeping countries like India and Brazil could be asked to contribute.

It is critical to establish security around the site to ensure the investigation into the cause of the MH17 disaster can proceed unhindered. Moreover, the speed with which the investigation can commence in earnest will be crucial in determining the fate of MH17 and ensuring that justice can be delivered for the victims and their families. The investigation is also likely to take some time; the investigation at the crash site of Pam Am flight 103 took months. Ensuring the safety of investigators is also a high priority.

A multinational UN peacekeeping operation is the best way the meet all these objectives.

Photo by Flickr user Jeroen Akkermans.

  • Should Prime Minister Modi's new role be best understood as 'CEO of India'?
  • There are reports of mutiny in the ranks of the Indian National Congress. Is there any hope of a revival for the beleaguered party?
  • Richard Ellings looks at how to strengthen the US-India relationship.
  • New data on India's forest cover points to an upwards trend, but observers suggest the numbers may be too good to be true.
  • Will Modi's coming to power bring about a new phase in China-India relations?
  • John Garnaut reported last week that the Australian Government may be considering attempting to return 157 asylum seekers being held on the high seas to India. After consultations in New Delhi this week, it seems unlikely that India will accept any non-nationals.
  • Some amazing aerial photographs of India taken by drone.
  • The UN has managed to get over a million views of its Bollywood-style campaign for gay rights . Check out the video below:


Recently Sam Roggeveen flagged an op-ed by veteran China watcher Paul Monk on the Chinese Communist Party's meddling in Australia's Chinese-language media. 

The op-ed is a great read. But Monk presents only one part of a wider story. The Chinese Government, through its propaganda bureau, has been buying up Chinese language media everywhere, not just in Australia, in an effort to influence the roughly 35 million 'overseas Chinese' who are citizens of other countries. 

In the US, China's program dates back to the mid-1980s, when a wave of mainland Chinese migration changed the profile of the Chinese-American community. In the 1990s, the Chinese Government came to control either directly or indirectly three of the four major Chinese-language newspapers in the country, and this control has continued. The exception, World Journal, has been accused by the Epoch Times, a pro-Falun Gong paper, of towing the Party line, though World Journal's website is blocked on the mainland. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief in November 2001, Mei Duzhe outlined four main tactics the Chinese Government deployed to influence Chinese-language media in America: 

First is the attempt to directly control newspapers, television stations, and radio stations through complete ownership or owning major shares. Second is the government's use of economic ties to influence independent media who have business relations with China. This leverage has had major effects on the contents of broadcasting and publishing, effectively removing all material deemed 'unfavorable' by the Chinese government. Third is the purchasing of broadcast time and advertising space (or more) from existing independent media. Closely related to this is the government's providing free, ready-to-go programming and contents. Fourth is the deployment of government personnel to work in independent media, achieving influence from within their ranks. 

2001 is a long time ago, but these tactics have changed little. What has changed is the scope of Beijing's 'media outreach.' A geographic sampling of overseas Chinese media outlets to have been either acquired in full or financially supported by mainland media over the past decade includes the UK's Propeller TV, Thailand's Singsian Daily, Arab Asia Business TV, Italy's Europe Times and France's own Europe Times, content from which is circulated in Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Greece and Portugal.

In other words, Beijing's intrusion into Australian Chinese-language community media is part of a broader strategy. 

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It may be unfair to look at acquisitions  or financial support arrangements and assume Chinese government influence. But the evidence is there. In March, People's Daily ran a long piece on the Chinese media's efforts abroad. Alongside presenting the rationale for purchasing overseas Chinese-language media, the author had this to say: 

The core task of going abroad is ... to improve our ability to set the agenda. In setting the agenda at a high level and choosing our angle, we should insert Chinese values into objective reporting to quietly ease the way for the transmission of Chinese values. 

Beijing also actively courts overseas Chinese media that it doesn't control. In an effort to make itself the centre of Chinese-language reporting worldwide, the Government inaugurated the Forum on the Global Chinese Language Media in 2001. 

Last year the forum invited 450 representatives of Chinese language media from 58 countries. Predictably enough, the main talking point for the event was President Xi Jinping's 'China Dream.' Attendees were also given government-friendly tours of mainland trouble spots, including the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, which have been the epicentre of Tibetan self-immolations in recent years. 

Australia had one of the strongest national contingents at the forum, with 43  media professionals representing a broad swathe of the nation's Chinese language radio, television and print media, including the ABC and the SBS. 

Subsequent mainland coverage of the forum quoted Australian representatives' impressions of their state-sponsored tour through Tibetan areas. 'Our Tibetan compatriots were very friendly, Their lives are peaceful. I'll go home and spread news of the real situation (in Tibet),' said Su Zhongchao of Australian Chinese Daily Online News. 

Photo by Flickr user whatleydude.


Keep up with what's been happening in the Pacific island region with this week's links:

  • The incumbent Cook Islands Party, led by Henry Puna, has been returned with a very slim majority. However, the leader of the Democratic Party, Wilkie Rasmussen, is planning to challenge the results.
  • I caught up with Fred Samuel, the Vanuatu Government's chief information officer, to discuss ICT, development, policy, infrastructure & more.
  • After an inordinate and largely inexplicable delay, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has a new commissioner: Frank Prendergast, who has 25 years experience with the Australian Federal Police.
  • A group of voyaging canoes will visit Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu before heading to Sydney to draw attention to the impact of climate change on ocean health.
  • The Parties to the Nauru Agreement countries have increased revenues earned from tuna fishing, but according to Giff Johnson, there is more to be done to conserve the resource.
  • Further to  announcements that Radio Australia capacity is to be gutted, the issue may be raised  by Pacific island leaders at the forthcoming Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Palau.
  • As the Commonwealth Games get underway in Glasgow, this item features Nauru, which is the most successful country taking part in terms of 'people per medal' since 1990. Nauru is hoping for great things from this guy, Itte Detenamo, who is a current Commonwealth record holder: 


Lisa Williams is author of the new Lowy Institute Analysis, China's Climate Change Policies: Actors and Drivers. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Australian Government.

As the world prepares to fight for (or against) a global climate change deal at the 2015 talks in Paris, China is quietly prosecuting its own kind of environmental crusade.

At the infamous Copenhagen climate change meeting in 2009, China was accused of 'wrecking' the talks, humiliating other world leaders and blocking any useful agreement. Contrast this with China's domestic record on greenhouse gas emissions:

If China is so reticent in international negotiations, why is it taking such a proactive attitude domestically? There are three significant domestic motivations for China's actions.

First, energy supply in China has always been a problem, since strong economic growth has fueled increasing energy demand. In an attempt to relax the link between growth and energy demand, the Chinese Government has long had a goal to reduce energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP). To diversify the energy supply base, the Government has supported renewable and nuclear energy development since at least the early 2000s. And since energy makes up about 80% of China's emissions, energy sector reforms have had a significant (but difficult to quantify) impact on China's emissions profile.

Second, China's extreme air pollution problems are adding a sense of urgency to the need to decouple economic growth from dirty sources of energy.

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The majority of the densely populated eastern seaboard regularly experiences dangerous smog, which has a depressing array of public health, social and economic impacts. In the last three years, the public displeasure has been heard by China's leaders, who know the smog problem is one that could eventually destabilise the 'harmony' they have tried so hard to protect.

Third, the smog problem has combined with long term economic concerns to create headaches for the leadership. On the one hand, economic growth has formed the basis of the Party's legitimacy, and China's leaders have recognised the need for economic reforms to rescue a slowing economy. But at the same time, China's leaders know they cannot follow the emission-intensive development path of much of the developed world.

China's policy makers are increasingly merging their economic restructuring goals with environmental and energy issues into a new vision for China's future: the so-called 'ecological civilisation'. Nowhere is the connection more obvious than in the 12th Five Year Plan's 'strategic industries', of which three out of seven are new energies or environmental industries. China aims to increase the strategic industries' share of GDP from about 3% in 2009 to 15% by 2020.

It would be remiss not to mention the challenges the Chinese Government faces in actually implementing its environmental and economic goals: reticence of powerful vested interests, legal and administrative hurdles, and generally low capacity on environmental governance, to name a few. Still, on the whole China's domestic concerns are leading it to a 'green' economy at a much faster rate than international pressure could ever hope to achieve.

Whatever happens in the next round of international climate change talks, China seems to be in the low carbon race for the long haul.

Photo by Flickr user Lei Han.


One of the messages of John Edwards' Beyond the Boom is that Australia sailed through the 2008 crisis unscathed. As a result, Australia's GDP in 2013 was 16% higher than in 2007, while many of the G7 countries had barely regained their pre-crisis GDP level: the strongest rebound, in Canada, was only 8% above its 2007 GDP. These are feeble recoveries. The damage of the 2008 crisis is, however, even more serious and lasting than these figures suggest.

Economic recoveries usually involve a strong 'catch-up' component, when income grows much faster than its underlying trend rate. Workers and enterprises, unemployed during the downturn, are brought back into full production. Business cycles are often described as 'V' shaped. The implication is that that economies get back to their pre-downturn trend line.

There is growing evidence that this catch-up has not occurred during the present global recovery. The recovery is not a 'V'; it is a reversed 'J', never getting back to the old trend line.

One compelling study of the issue is provided by Johns Hopkins economist Larry Ball. Ball took the potential growth rate estimates made by the IMF and OECD in 2007 showing how each of the OECD economies could grow if running at full productive capacity. He then compared these 2007 potential growth trends with the similar potential growth trends shown in the latest OECD and IMF forecasts. The latest estimate is well below the 2007 estimate. He attributes the difference to the damaging effect of the 2008 global financial crisis. Here's how he summarises his results:

I find that the loss in potential output from the Great Recession varies greatly across countries, but is large in most cases. Based on current forecasts for 2015, the loss ranges from almost nothing in Switzerland and Australia to over 30% of potential output in Greece, Hungary, and Ireland. The average loss for the 23 countries, weighted by the sizes of their economies, is 8.4%.

This graph of the US (above), from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), illustrates the point. The sharp downward break in actual GDP growth (the solid line) in 2008 has not been reversed. Eye-balling this as far forward as the actual data take us, it doesn't look like the US is getting back to its old trend line (the darker blue dash line) any time soon, or ever. The lighter blue dashed line shows the best current guess of where the potential growth trend lies.

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Nor are most of the other 22 OECD countries Ball examined doing any better. The current potential growth paths (as calculated by the IMF and the OECD) have fallen about as much as the actual fall in GDP during the recession. These countries are now on a permanently lower growth trajectory. Countries which suffered the biggest recessions (notably, the eurozone peripheral countries like Greece and Spain, but also eastern Europe) have lost the most in terms of potential growth.

Less marked examples of this phenomenon have occurred in the past, where a recession discourages investment and leaves a permanently smaller capital stock. Technological progress and innovation are less dynamic in downturns. Most notably, workers who lose their jobs adapt to worklessness and remain jobless either because they stop looking for work or take early retirement. Sometimes their sojourn in unemployment has diminished their skills. Those in education stay there longer, with little accumulation of work-relevant skills.

Iin the jargon, it's known as 'hysteresis', and as a result output never gets back to the original potential growth path. In the US, the participation rate — the proportion of working-age population either working or looking for work — has fallen from nearly 66% in 2007 to less than 63% now. 

The powerful lesson here is: 'don't have a recession and, if you have one, recover quickly'. If you want to see what lasting damage a serious recession does to potential output, look at Larry Ball's graphs for Ireland, Spain or Greece.

But the CBO graph shows that something else is happening: the new potential output trend is not only lower, it is also flatter than before. This takes us to a broader debate about 'secular stagnation'. For example, the US used to have a potential annual growth rate of around 3%. The CBO now thinks it is just over 2% and some estimates are lower still. Demographics are reducing the relative size of the workforce. Various other factors are adding to the fall in participation in the workforce. Productivity seems to be slower in many countries.

There are plenty of esoteric arguments among the cognoscenti about all of this, and plenty of room for differences of opinion. A sensible concept of GDP is hard enough to measure and predict, and productivity is harder still. Many of the huge benefits we receive from technology (not just new products, but quality improvements in old ones) come to us at little or no extra cost, and probably don't get fully measured in the national accounts. Perhaps some of those who have dropped out of the work force are enjoying their new-found leisure, which is not counted at all in GDP.

There is, however, no doubt that the 2008 crisis was hugely damaging, and the inability of most of the OECD countries to achieve a normal rapid recovery has left a deep and permanent scar on living standards. In Australia we missed this bullet, through a combination of competent policy and good luck. The Hanrahans, with their relentless gloom, should be reminded of this.


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.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.


After a year of political stalemate, the ruling Cambodian People's Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party struck a deal (after a five-hour meeting) to end their political impasse.

Shortly after the announcement yesterday, seven elected CNRP politicians and one activist who had been arrested the previous week following clashes at Freedom Park were released (they still face charges).  The move suggests that their detention may have been politically motivated.

The CNRP, led by the formerly self-exiled Sam Rainsy (pictured; click on the image to see video of his speech to supporters), will now take their 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, which they had boycotted since the July 2013 elections.

The two parties released a joint statement stating that they agreed to 'work together' in parliamentary institutions to arrive at solutions for the country 'based on democratic and rule of law principles'. The statement announced that reforms to the National Election Committee and the leadership of the Senate and the National Assembly will take place. The president of the National Assembly will be from the CPP, the first deputy from the CNRP, and the second deputy from the CPP.  

According to posts on Sam Rainsy's Facebook page, the agreement has also concluded that:

  • The CNRP will  receive the chairmanship of 5 commissions out of 10 in the National Assembly.
  • Establishment of a new constitutionally mandated election commission made up of 9 members: 4 from the CPP, 4 from the CNRP, and 1 by consensus between the two parties.
  • Election dates are yet to be determined (although other reports have indicated these will take place in February 2018).

The breaking of the deadlock should bring an end to repeated protests and violent clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces. But, as Prime Minister Hun Sen stretches into his third decade at the helm, the political tensions between the two parties will likely remain for some time yet. 

14 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night I Skyped with Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows to talk about the MH17 tragedy. James is perfectly qualified, because he is firstly a pilot and aviation enthusiast (here's his NY Times op-ed on why this tragedy was not Malaysia Airlines' fault), and he is an exceptionally smart observer of American politics.

We talked mainly about how this tragedy is playing out in Washington (Are the media and Congress focused on it? [0:00]; Why is Obama getting so much leeway from Republicans? [1:15]; Is Obama leading from behind? [3:47]), but I also asked him what advice the Obama Administration might have for the Abbott Government on the tricky question of Putin's attendance at the G20 (8:09).

Lastly (11:28), I drew on Jim's aviation knowledge and his background living in and studying China (here's an earlier interview with Jim about his book China Airborne) to talk about whether this tragedy resonated for him in the Asia Pacific context. Specifically, does China's November 2013 declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone pose a threat to aviation in the East China Sea?

13 of 18 This post is part of a debate on MH17

A makeshift memorial at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. (Flickr/Roman Boed.)

With 193 Dutch citizens killed in the MH17 tragedy, the Netherlands is in shock. The country is mourning. Everybody seems to know someone who is directly affected by this terrible loss. The mourning is slowly but surely transforming into outrage that will push the Dutch Government into visible response and action. 

We don't know exactly what happened. But is seems plausible that it was an 'unintended' incident in an armed conflict between separatists on the one side and  national Ukrainian forces on the other. Unintended or not, factions and individuals are still accountable for what they have done. The questions 'Who did this?' and 'Who supplied the military support, technology, know-how and weaponry to execute such an attack?' are relevant to the victims and the population at large. Justice needs to have its way. The public is expecting and demanding as much. 

But how on earth is justice going to have its way in this complex situation? There are a number of hindrances.

The first  priority in this crisis is to repatriate the bodies and the belongings of the victims. While in a war the enemy may become dehumanised, we, the Dutch, are in no way part of this conflict. To us this is about people. We see images of insurgents posing for the world press with toys of children who died in the crash. That is disgusting. So people demand respect and dignity. We are humans. You cannot dehumanise us. We are not part of this conflict. 

The humanitarian focus may, at the same time, hinder the search for justice. Justice requires that a suspect is identified. It requires a thorough investigation into the events, which is not going to be easy. Only one of the parties to the conflict (the Ukrainian Government) seems to have an interest in facilitating the inquiry. That in itself is telling. The other party (the separatists) is controlling the space in which the evidence is scattered. This means that the assistance of the separatists, which is required for the humanitarian priority, is conflicting with the search for justice. In this dilemma the approach of the Dutch Government is to focus on indirect diplomacy: trying to convince Russia to push the separatists to assist the international and Dutch efforts on both the humanitarian and investigation fronts. The Dutch Prime Minister has been on the phone with President Putin a number of times and with an increasing sense of urgency in his messaging. The public demands solutions. Quick. Putin needs to be aware of this. 

This leaves us with a number of serious questions. One of them is: to what extent does Putin still have an impact on the ground? The second one is: if he does have impact on the ground, then why would he choose not to assist the international investigation?

The answers to these questions will, at least partly, depend on the pressure he will feel from the international community. Putin's influence on some of the factions within the amalgam of groups that oppose Kiev has reduced because he failed to directly and militarily intervene in the conflict. Some groups will no longer listen to the boss in Moscow. This seems the eternal fate of those who engage in proxy warfare. But even if Moscow can impact some of the groups in eastern Ukraine, political will is still required to assert pressure. Nothing seems to indicate that Putin is impressed or motivated by moral or legal considerations. Instead he calculates risks and potential gains. And that is where international political and economic pressure comes into the equation. 

Putin wants to lead Russia into a new era of relevance; to return to the international platform after a humiliating post-Cold War period in which Russia was relegated to the position of loser. Loser of the Cold War. Loser in the eyes of the West. A relic of the past.

But what Putin is doing regarding the current conflict in Ukraine in general, and the aftermath of the MH17 tragedy in particular, is the very opposite of bringing Russia back to world status. That should be the message we send, and that is what will pressure the Kremlin. It might trigger activities from Moscow to regain lost influence among the players in eastern Ukraine; it may lead to pressure on the groups to cooperate. It is the only carrot that will work. The threat of sticks may need to come simultaneously, and the sticks may need to be sharpened and must be tailor-made. They need to hurt. Sharpened sticks made of targeted sanctions. 

The sticks may hurt us as well, but things have changed. There is already much agony and pain in Dutch society following last week's events. We can take more. There are strong calls for action and justice. The Dutch are not calling for revenge, but for respect for human dignity and moral values. In my opinion, this can only be achieved if we offer the carrot and simultaneously show the sharpened stick, with only one objective: bring the actors of this crime to justice.