Lowy Institute

Aeon Magazine has a new essay written by Ross Andersen about Elon Musk, the well-known tech entrepreneur behind companies like Paypal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX. The essay made news this week because in it Musk says that any future human colony on Mars will 'need a million people' in order to be self-sustaining. As Andersen says, 'Musk is a revivalist, for those of us who still buy into cosmic manifest destiny.' But he does have a history of both making bold claims and backing them up. The essay is worth reading in full but here is an extract on how Musk intends to do it: 

Great migrations are often a matter of timing, of waiting for a strait to freeze, a sea to part, or a planet to draw near. The distance between Earth and Mars fluctuates widely as the two worlds whirl around in their orbits. At its furthest, Mars is a thousand times further than the Moon. But every 26 months they align, when the faster moving Earth swings into position between Mars and the Sun. When this alignment occurs where their orbits are tightest, Mars can come within 36 million miles, only 150 times further than the Moon. The next such window is only four years away, too soon to send a crewed ship. But in the mid-2030s, Mars will once again burn bright and orange in our sky, and by then Musk might be ready to send his first flurry of missions, to seed a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.


Musk told me all this could happen within a century. He is rumoured to have a design in mind for this giant spaceship, a concept vehicle he calls the Mars Colonial Transporter. But designing the ship is the easy part. The real challenge will be driving costs down far enough to launch whole fleets of them. Musk has an answer for that, too. He says he is working on a reusable rocket, one that can descend smoothly back to Earth after launch, and be ready to lift off again in an hour.


The latest news from the ABC bunker is that while Lateline may survive the latest round of cuts, the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi may be shut down.

The ABC Board met yesterday, reportedly to decide on measures to achieve efficiencies of up to $100m following the Budget and the Lewis Review, and in the wake of the Australia Network axing

Many have been shocked by ABC management's post-Budget decisions. The slashing of Asia Pacific News Centre and Radio Australia services, as Jenny Hayward-Jones outlined back in July, has resulted in the decimation of news coverage in and from the region and the exit of veteran international correspondents and journalists such as Sean Dorney, Catherine McGrath and Jim Middleton.

The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, insists that the requisite efficiencies can be met through administrative and back-office cuts. Others are less confident and hugely concerned at ABC management tactics.  

The Minister has a deep and abiding respect for international journalism and an understanding of its importance for Australia. Below are some extracts from his speech here at the Lowy Institute in August, at the Institute's annual media awards for foreign policy journalism (you can read or listen to the full speech here):

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Only the ABC now has a substantial international presence with twenty Australian and 35 locally engaged staff overseas; a good example of what a public broadcaster should do in my view. It is, of course, much cheaper to fly in teams to cover specific stories on an on-needs basis. A study by the Media Standards Trust in the U.K. found this has become much more attractive for news organisations to cover locations when there is a specific event or crisis - such as, say, Ukraine. But this comes at the expense of a deep knowledge of the country and the contacts needed to develop stories in depth.


Media companies on digital platforms tend to chase two things to get clicks: cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets. As I have said before, it often feels like the ‘news cycle’ has been replaced by the ‘outrage cycle’.

But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes -- they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger describes the new media world as enshrining the ‘dumbbell model’ of journalism -- all the weight has now shifted to the two ends of journalism, leaving not much in the middle.

And while management in media corporations might chase audiences through this 'dumbbell model', there is evidence that the audience itself values genuine foreign affairs coverage:

As one very senior journalist in Canberra’s press gallery told me: ‘There has been a huge amount of complacency, a growing lack of media interest in policy, [and] a function of that is a most conspicuous lack of interest in what other countries are doing in a policy sense, and this is reinforced by the problems of the business models of newspapers’. But interestingly, while there may be more of a focus on less weighty issues, consumers nominate foreign affairs as the most important reason for following the news.

The ABC, according to the Minister, has been the 'standout' in coverage of foreign affairs in Australia:

In recent years, The Australian has closed bureaux in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok and New Zealand but still has correspondents in Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Jerusalem and of course a very extensive network of correspondents to draw upon from the wider News Corp stable.

Fairfax has correspondents in Washington, London, Beijing, Delhi, the Middle East and has reinstated Lindsay Murdoch in Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok. Over the years it has pulled out from Wellington, Tokyo and New York.

The Australian Financial Review no longer has anyone in Tokyo, our second largest trading partner. The ABC is the standout in this area. It has bureaux in Washington, London, New Zealand, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Tokyo and stringers in many other locations.

Perhaps no more. If the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi are closed, there go two of the last remaining sources of first-hand news from two of Australia's most important partners and neighbours in the region: Japan, Australia's second largest trading partner and 'best friend' in Asia, and India, a rising power and Australia's 5th largest export destination, not to mention the soon-to-be recipient of Australian uranium following the recent agreement struck by the Government.

Last year Michael Fullilove touched on this issue in arguing the case for Australian eyes on the world, saying:

The rise of Asia means Australia finds itself a lot closer to the centre of geopolitical and economic action than in the past. It is vital to the national interest, therefore, that Australians understand what is happening beyond our shores...But we cannot simply rely on the homogenised worldview of international wire services...

The big international wire services might bring us news from around the world, but they won't necessarily cover the news that's of significance to Australia, because – gasp – Australia often doesn't figure in global news. When an important source of news and information is lost, so is an important input into the foreign policy debate in Australia. And we are the losers. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brian Smith.


Catch up with news, commentary & analysis from and about the Pacific island region:

  • Australia is working hard to normalise relations with Fiji now that the election is over, including the restoration of military ties. But there is still no word as to when the Bainimarama Government will welcome Australia's High Commissioner.
  • The government of Nauru is threatening to shut down services, having run out of cash (this despite the regional processing centre generating a 10% uptick in GDP for 2014). Newly introduced legislation means that non-citizens who work on Nauru or supply services will be required to pay tax within the jurisdiction.
  • The Secretariat of the Pacific Community has worked with the Ministry of Education in Vanuatu to produce the 2013 annual statistical digest [pdf].
  • In the Cook Islands, a High Court decision has resulted in the ruling party losing its one-seat majority.
  • New research adds to what we know (and what we don't know) about the history of the Polynesian colonisation of New Zealand.
  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group is providing assistance to Micronesian states in establishing the Micronesian Trade Center.
  • At the UN, Pacific indigenous peoples called for a moratorium on seabed mining until appropriate national regulatory frameworks are in place. Vanuatu has since released a draft policy on deep sea minerals [pdf].
  • Benny Wenda is the charismatic face of the fight for the independence of West Papua. Learn more about him, his life in exile  and his activism  from this documentary: 


From a strategic perspective, the bottom line attraction for states seeking to acquire nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is survivability. States possessing SSBNs cannot be victims of a disarming first strike.  They will always possess the ability to strike back with submarine launched ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons in order to inflict unacceptable damage on the attacking state. If this logic is correct, bilateral relationships will be stable because neither side will have an incentive to strike first.

Given some of the assertions in this Interpreter exchange on Indo-Pacific regional stability and SSBNs, it is worth revisiting two assumptions necessary to believe in SSBN survivability:

1. That they remain continuously at sea and;

2. They are very difficult to find once deployed.

Both assumptions are largely derived from the way the US and, to a lesser extent, the other powers possessing SSBNs — the British, French and Soviets — theorized about and operated SSBNs during the Cold War.

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Yet for a SSBN force to operate continuously at sea requires at least three, but likely even more, of the platforms (depending on possible attrition during actual war) given deployment patterns. Neither India nor China are likely to possess sufficient numbers of SSBNs in the immediate term to operate continuously; in a simple sense, one vessel prepares to go to sea while another deploys and the third refits after its deployment. And of course, both countries must develop the training, tactics and procedures, not to mention maintenance and personnel policies, that would allow for this cycle over time. 

There are also reasons to doubt the assumption that SSBNs will be largely undetectable by adversaries in context of the Indo-Pacific. Indian and Chinese submarines, at least for the foreseeable future, are likely to be noisier than Russian, British, and French SSBNs, much less their American counterparts. Moreover, operational and doctrinal features of both navies may ease the inherent difficulties of detecting SSBNs. Both countries have a limited and well-known number of bases capable of housing them. Absent a larger number of hulls, both countries are likely to operate SSBNs in ways detectable to intelligence collection at the strategic and tactical levels. 

Indian and Chinese SSBN deployments are likely to spur greater efforts to develop anti-submarine warfare capabilities in many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. With a limited number of platforms, limited ability to spend time at sea, as well as command and control constraints (the importance of which has been raised in Ravi N. Ganesh's post), operational doctrine may derive from a modified version of the bastion concept used by the Soviets in the Cold War. Indian and Chinese SSBNs may remain in port until they 'surge' to pre-designated undersea bastions protected by anti-submarine warfare techniques and surface ships during crises. 

Aggressors may thus have incentives to attack adversary SSBNs in their home ports preemptively, as well as to find and neutralize undersea bastions. Unless China or India invests in large scale hardening — think U-boat pens in World War Two adapted to withstand nuclear and deep-penetrating conventional weapons — SSBNs will be vulnerable in their home ports, when transiting to and from those ports and likely, their bastions. 

Protecting bastions will be costly: China and India will have to improve their own anti-submarine warfare capabilities as well as devote a large percentage of their existing undersea and surface fleets to defensive measures. There are also opportunity costs; those parts of the fleet devoted to protecting SSBNs will not be available for offensive operations during crises. 

Further, if a nuclear state wants to protect against a disarming first strike, there are other potentially less costly ways of doing so. Existing or newly developed missile delivery systems (leaving aside air-launched weapons here) can be either mobile or hardened. Mobility and hardening at the very least introduce uncertainty into an adversary's calculations at, debatably, less cost and while leaving expensive and flexible naval assets available for other missions. 

Which brings me back to my original point about naval arms control. 

For those interested in strategic stability, not to mention peace, arms control remains attractive. In practical terms, there are remote prospects in the Indo-Pacific of achieving broad based disarmament for the three potential possessors of operational SSBNs, or in the case of Pakistan, diesel electric submarines armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles.  Yet even during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union found ways to limit the riskiest forms of military competition. India, China, and Pakistan each possess sophisticated strategic communities well aware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Thinking carefully about arms control measures for SSBNs — one of the most expensive and riskiest forms of proliferation — could begin the path toward to reducing military tensions across the entire region. Third party states like Australia and Japan affected by the nuclear rivalries at sea might provide good offices and perhaps even incentives to initiate arms control negotiations.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.


The ABC's Foreign Correspondent story 'Crackdown', about Beijing's renewed hard-line in Xinjiang and which on Tuesday night, has been the focus of considerable Chinese ire. The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that officials from China's embassy in Canberra pressed the ABC's Managing Director, Mark Scott, not to air the story by the Beijing-based correspondent, Stephen McDonell. As pointed out in the SMH story, such pressure harks back to Chinese efforts in 2009 to have the Melbourne Film Festival pull a biopic of Uyghur exile leader, Rebiya Kadeer.

While the argument implicit in the story, that this latest incident threatens to negatively impact Sino-Australian relations, may be over-stated, this incident demonstrates the extent to which Beijing is committed to managing the narrative vis-à-vis Xinjiang and the Uyghur on the international stage. In this regard, recent developments in Xinjiang itself and in the wider Islamic world suggest that this will be an increasingly difficult task, with many potential pitfalls for Beijing.

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The Xinjiang and Uyghur issues have been in international media headlines recently due to the trial and sentencing of dissident Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. China's rhetoric regarding this is highly symbolic of not only its repressive tendencies in Xinjiang, but also some of the difficulties in attempting to shape international opinion. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on 23 September for using his Uyghur and Chinese language website, Uygurbiz, to 'spread lessons containing separatist thoughts', incite 'ethnic hatred', and 'separate Xinjiang from China'. Observers, such as James Millward, have noted that Beijing's 'fruitless' repression of Tohti not only 'denied itself a critical Uighur viewpoint and an alternative approach to the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang', but also 'subjected itself yet again to international opprobrium' from Western governments and various human rights NGOs.

What has been missing from such reactions to Tohti's sentencing, however, has been comment on the verdict's pointed criticism of the academic for attempting to 'make an international issue' of Xinjiang and the Uyghur, by agreeing to interviews with foreign journalists and media organisations.

The irony here is that it is Beijing that has driven the internationalisation of the issue.

Beginning in the early 1990s Beijing made the issue of Uyghur 'separatism' or 'splittism' a key concern in its bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with the states of Central Asia. Governments in the region committed to a zero-tolerance approach to potential Uyghur 'separatist' activism in their countries as the bedrock of their expanding relationships with Beijing. This approach was also extended to China's relations with Turkey, where a major Uyghur population had migrated after Xinjiang's absorption into the PRC in 1949.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Washington's subsequent commitment to a 'war on terror', provided Beijing with a golden opportunity to convince the international community that its repression of Uyghur dissent was justified, as it too faced Islamist-inspired terrorism in Xinjiang. This initially bore fruit with the US State Department, which listed the 'East Turkestan Islamic Movement' as an 'international terrorist organization' in March 2003. Since that time Beijing has regularly sought to embed the Uyghur issue into the discourse of the 'war on terror', blaming the periodic violence in Xinjiang upon externally-inspired Islamist terrorism.

For evidence that this effort remains an ongoing concern, one should look no further than China's attempts over the past few months to link violence in Xinjiang to the Islamist threat du jour: the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. China's envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike,  stated on 23 July that after consultations with various governments in the region, including Iraq, he estimated that 'up to 100' Chinese nationals, mostly 'East Turkestan elements' were fighting with various Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS.

The Obama Administration's statement on Tohti's sentencing, in which it expressed not only its deep concern over his fate but also portrayed him as 'civil society leader' promoting inter-ethnic dialogue between Uyghur and Han, also drew a particularly strident response from Beijing linking the Uyghur, Xinjiang and the ISIS threat. The state-controlled Xinhua editorialized that such lauding of 'criminals as human rights fighters' demonstrated the West's 'deep-rooted belief that China has colonized Xinjiang' and its desire to 'hype Xinjiang-related incidents with the aim of making domestic issues international'. 'As the warplanes of the United States and its allies bomb the Islamic State', it continued, China's 'painstaking efforts to eradicate the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism in Xinjiang should have been viewed as part of the world's anti-terrorism endeavors. Ilham Tohti should be denounced as a criminal threatening the peace and security of a country'. 

Such posturing demonstrates Beijing's failure to recognise that its strategy of internationalising the Uyghur issue has now become a double-edged sword. Due in large measure to China's own strategy, the Uyghur issue has now undoubtedly become global.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Evgeni Zotov.


By David Schaefer, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security program. 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.

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the US, and the Wall Street Journal reports that part of the agreement he has reached with the Obama Administration includes the creation of a new inter-agency group that will iron out problems arising from the 2005 civil nuclear cooperation deal.
  • While the media is focused on civil unrest in Hong Kong, Olivia Enos points out that long-term trends in demography will soon begin to squeeze China's economy.
  • China has launched another batch of satellites in what military experts believe to be a growing range of ocean surveillance and missile early warning systems.
  • Project 2049 have published a report on Taiwan's defence strategy, which it says is 'constructing what may be the world's most robust air and missile defence network'.
  • US diplomats are visiting Seoul to revive the six-party talks over de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. CSIS has a biographical sketch of Sydney Seiler, the US State Department's special envoy to the talks.
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's latest speech before the Japanese Diet mentioned his desire to 'build up a friendly relationship' with China. The Japan Times parses this remark as a diplomatic gesture to Beijing.
  • With an eye towards the volatile South China Sea, Indonesia's Defence Minister has announced plans to station an F-16 fighter squadron on Indonesia's Riau Islands.
  • For a comprehensive account of Indo-Pacific maritime disputes, Mohan Malik's new book is being released in the coming weeks, and includes a chapter titled 'Mapping the Indo Pacific? China, India, and the United States', authored by Rory Medcalf.

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.


In a previous post, I pointed out how the Australia-India nuclear cooperation agreement departs from Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements. In particular, there is a risk that the follow-on 'administrative arrangement' could deprive Australia of the ability to track and account for Australian uranium supplied to India.

It is not too late to address this problem in a way that ensures the agreement is meaningful and can command bipartisan support in Australia. There will be a crucial role here for the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), which will have the opportunity to scrutinise the agreement and to ask the necessary and difficult questions about the administrative arrangement.

Here there are two practical issues: the administrative arrangement has not yet, as far as we know, been negotiated, so it will not be available when JSCOT commences its review of the agreement; and in any case it is the usual practice to treat administrative arrangements as being confidential.

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The Abbott Government should proceed no further with the agreement unless it can give an assurance that all of Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements will be met. Of course, the Government may try to dismiss any discussion of the administrative arrangement as being merely speculation. The problem is that, in considering the potential impact of such a confidential document, the public and the Parliament may never know the facts. Yet, a way needs to be found to ensure that a confidential document does not negate the effective operation of a treaty-level agreement. 

Therefore, when the agreement is brought to JSCOT for review, the Committee should insist on examining the terms of the proposed administrative arrangement. If necessary, given the sensitivities, this can be done in a closed session. The key question for JSCOT will be whether the terms of the administrative arrangement will enable Australia to confirm that its safeguards conditions are fully met and that Australian uranium and other nuclear material subject to the India agreement is properly accounted for. 

This may take some time. The Committee may need to withhold its final conclusions on the agreement until the text of the administrative arrangement is available. It would help if the Government were to make the text publicly available.

Both major parties in Australian politics now support the principle that Australia should be able to sell uranium to India to help it meet its energy needs, subject to proper safeguards. However, a nuclear agreement with India should be on the same conditions Australia applies to our other partners, not terms dictated by India. 

Even some supporters of closer Australia-India ties have made the point that safeguards should discriminate neither against India nor for it. Australia has demonstrated good faith to India by reversing our longstanding policy with respect to the NPT and signing a civil nuclear agreement. It is up to India to demonstrate good faith by accepting the same safeguards arrangements as all our other nuclear partners.

John Carlson AM is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and its predecessor the Australian Safeguards Office from 1989 to 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user YY


The ongoing student-led demonstrations in Hong Kong, which oppose China's undemocratic framework for the 'selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage', are similar in cause, focus and likely outcome as the 2003 mass demonstrations against the then attempts to implement Article 23 of the Basic law.

The anti-sedition act aimed at fulfilling Article 23, which was withdrawn after the 1 July 2003 marches, states that 'The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government…'.

As in 2003, the present attempt to fulfil the conditions of the Basic Law under the 'one country, two systems' formula has led to hundreds of thousands of supposedly non-political Hong Kongers to protest in the centre of the city. Also similar to 2003, the primary and existential cause was Hong Kongese fears that the Central Government in Beijing was deepening the 'one country' part of this formula and eroding the two systems, by restricting Hong Kong's freedoms and undercutting its liberal tenets. Tenets that find expression in the acceptance of peaceful political protest.

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The 2003 demonstrators focused their political voice against the deeply unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose support for the anti-sedition law was seen as capitulating to, or conniving with, Beijing to make Hong Kong a region more closely administered by authoritarian China. The current Chief Executive, the equally unpopular Leung Chun-ying, is feeling the brunt of the present student-led demonstrations and the earlier 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace'. This is mainly because of Leung's endorsement of China's plans to ensure that the nominating committee for the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage is neither broadly representative nor reflective of democratic principles.

The 2003 demonstrations, the loss of Tung Chee Hwa's legitimacy in Hong Kong and his utility in Beijing were key factors in his resignation in early 2005. The present demonstrations could well see Leung Chun-ying not finish his five-year term that ends in 2017 for similar reasons. However, unlike in 2003 when the anti-sedition law was withdrawn, Beijing is not likely to withdraw its framework for ensuring that Hong Kong's Chief Executive will be chosen from a very short list of Beijing-approved candidates.

The similarities between the present demonstrations and those in 2003 show that the 'two political systems in the one country' formula is unworkable. One is a liberal system seeking true democracy and one is authoritarian where liberal thought and democracy are anathema.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, the system that hundreds of thousands came out to defend in 2003, and today, will likely continue to be eroded. As for China's plans to uphold the one-country two system model for democratic Taiwan, the likely outcome of the ongoing demonstrations are another nail in an already very well sealed coffin.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlos Barria.


A little over a quarter of Myanmar's population has access to electricity. Despite this incredible statistic, the country has tremendous energy potential. Criss-crossed with rivers (not to mention an abundance of hydrocarbons), hydropower could provide for much of Myanmar's energy needs. However, it was attempts to harness this hydropower that led to renewed conflict in Kachin state in 2011. A new proposed dam could provoke a similar fallout.

Myanmar's Ayeyerwaddy River; Photo by Author

In order to support the country's development, Naypyidaw is under pressure to generate more electricity. Low wages and operation costs mean that many foreign manufacturers have flocked to Myanmar since the easing of sanctions. Over the next 20 years, a business as usual estimate by the Asian Development Bank forecasts a 3.1% annual growth in energy demand.

New hydropower projects are one way of boosting power generation. Some sources put the number of proposed dams in the country at as many as 45. Many of these are planned along the mighty Salween River. The 2400km-long river (known as the Nu River in China) runs from Yunnan province in China to Thailand, with 53% of the river basin in China, 42% in Myanmar and 5% in Thailand.

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On 16 September, the Deputy Minister for electric power, Maw Thar Htwe, announced in parliament that a new mega dam on the Salween had been approved, pending further impact assessment (Australia's Snowy River Engineering Corporation will reportedly be conducting the environmental and social assessment).

The proposed dam will be situated in the country's eastern Shan state, close to areas controlled by  Shan State Army-South, an armed ethnic group. As one lower house lawmaker from the region noted: 'Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss this project with the rebels.'

This concern has precedent. In 2011 the fallout and lack of community consultation for a dam project in Kachin state in northern Myanmar led the Kachin Independence Army to abandon a 17-year long ceasefire and re-engage in fighting with the Myanmar military (locally known as the Tatmadaw).

This fighting continues, with tens of thousands displaced.

The Burma Rivers Network, an alliance of several local environmental activist groups, estimate that up to 50 clashes between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups have occurred in relation to ongoing hydropower projects since 2011.

The new dam, known as the Mongton or Upstream Thanlwin hydropower project, would be bigger than the Myitsone dam in Kachin state. It is projected to generate 7000 MW, making it the biggest in Southeast Asia. An earlier Thai-led project, the 7000 MW Tasang dam in the same area, has been stalled since 2007. This recently announced project is in effect its reincarnation.

Displacement of communities will be necessary for the construction of the dam and it will be a hard sell that might require force. Protests will undoubtedly occur against the Government-backed project.

Local protest could also take aim at its international backers. One of the developers of the dam will be China's Three Gorges Corporation. This Chinese corporation was in charge of building the dam that now shares its name. The Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest, displaced over a million people. In recent years anti-Chinese sentiment was sparked over large projects such as the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine. 

Meanwhile, the Burmese partner, IGE, will also be scrutinised. It is owned by the son of a former minister and has plans for eight hydropower projects with Chinese companies.

These disputes aside, the project may generate generating antipathy toward the government from local Shan populations. A nationwide ceasefire agreement between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar Government continues to make headway and, despite delays, is still expected to be signed in the final months of this year. The Mongton dam, and other large scale infrastructure projects, could upset a very delicate balance if proper consultation and compensation is not forthcoming. 

Myanmar's democratic transition and economic development is fraught with problems and must walk a very fine line to avoid backsliding. Large infrastructure projects such as the Mongton dam pose risks to maintaining the fragile and hard-won peace and stability. Community consultation and, insofar as possible, local ownership of these projects is essential. Without it, trust cannot be built between previously warring parties and their constituents. And without their support, the current ceasefires will be short-lived.  

*This article draws on a larger policy brief produced by the author for the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden) in February 2014. That document can be found here


There, a young girl cradled my head and poured water into my eyes. Some others wiped the chemicals off my arms and legs. When they went on to help the next injured person, an old woman kept watch over me, speaking soft Cantonese and plying me with all manner of snacks and drinks.

  • Finally, the protests viewed from a drone:


The signing last month of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between Australia and India has been greeted as an important step towards closer relations between the two countries, as well as bringing India into the global nuclear energy mainstream. These are worthy objectives, but not at any cost. 

Now that the text of the agreement has been quietly made public, some substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions are evident. These suggest, disturbingly, that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India.

In this post I will explain what is wrong with the Australia-India nuclear cooperation agreement and why it appears that the Abbott Government may be abandoning Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements for India. In a subsequent post I will explain what can and should be done about it.

Negotiations for the agreement began under the Gillard Government in 2012, after Labor came around to an in-principle acceptance of uranium exports to India provided they were properly safeguarded. This was always going to be contentious, primarily because of Australia's longstanding policy against supplying uranium to countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

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It is short-sighted and self-defeating to make the agreement even more contentious by compromising Australia's safeguards standards. This will jeopardise bipartisan support for the agreement, raising the prospect of future governments suspending exports under it. It will also expose the agreement to potential legal challenge under the 1987 Safeguards Act, and it risks re-opening the wider uranium debate in Australia. None of this is in the interests of the Australian or Indian governments or of the nuclear industry in either country.

Two documents are critically important here. First, let's look more closely at the agreement itself. It departs in the following ways from Australia's standard requirements on countries receiving our uranium:

Consent to reprocessing – reprocessing, involving separation of plutonium from spent fuel, is the most sensitive stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. To date Australia's consent to reprocessing has been limited to the EU and Japan, and has been given on what is called a programmatic basis, i.e. Australia has approved the specific 'downstream' facilities using separated plutonium and the purposes involved. In this agreement, however, Australia has effectively given consent in advance for India to reprocess in accordance with an 'arrangements and procedures' document India concluded with the US in 2010. This covers safeguards at two reprocessing plants which India plans to build, but includes only a vague reference to management of plutonium, and nothing corresponding to programmatic consent;

Right of return – Australia's standard conditions include a right for Australia to require the return of material and items if there is a breach of an agreement. This agreement contains no such provision;

Fallback safeguards – Australia's standard condition is that, if for any reason IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards cease to apply, the parties are to establish safeguards arrangements that conform with IAEA safeguards principles and procedures and provide equivalent assurance. This agreement requires only that the parties consult and agree on 'appropriate verification measures', a vague term readily open to differing interpretations;

Settlement of disputes – Australia's standard requirement is for negotiation, backed by an arbitration process. This agreement refers only to negotiation, with no mechanism for resolving deadlock.

Even more consequential than the agreement itself may be a second, follow-on text that the public may never get to see, a so-called 'administrative arrangement' which sets out the working procedures for the agreement. Officials are presumably working on this at present. The key question here is, will this administrative arrangement enable Australia to track and account for the nuclear material that is subject to the agreement with India?

The administrative arrangement should set out detailed procedures for identifying and accounting for the specific nuclear material to which the agreement applies. This includes not only the initially-supplied Australian uranium, but all subsequent generations of material derived from it, especially plutonium. If it is not possible to apply the agreement's provisions to specific material, the agreement will be meaningless. 

To be effective, these procedures need to include a requirement for regular reports to Australia showing the flow of material under the agreement through the nuclear fuel cycle in India. Australia needs to be able to track and account for this 'Australian-obligated nuclear material'. This is both a proper public expectation and a legal requirement under section 51 of the Safeguards Act.

Bipartisan support for, and public acceptance of, uranium exports is based on the assurance that Australia is able to track our material and determine that our conditions are being met. Australia's safeguards requirements were developed by the Fraser Government, are in line with international standards, and have been applied under all our safeguards agreements ever since – today we have 22 agreements covering 40 countries. 

Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. The same issue has arisen under India's arrangements with the US and Canada. In response, Washington has held firm: the US-India administrative arrangement has been outstanding for several years; reportedly the US is insisting on receiving tracking information and India is refusing.

In the case of Canada, the Harper Government gave in to India, an outcome described as the 'meltdown of Canadian non-proliferation policy'. The Canadian Government refuses to reveal the details of its arrangement. If Australia follows Canada down this path, it will put the wrong kind of pressure on the US, the EU and Japan in their own dealings with India.

Apparently India considers that its acceptance of IAEA safeguards should be good enough. But India's refusal to provide reports on Australian supplied material calls into question whether India will in fact identify and account for this material, as required by the agreement. If India will account for this material, the additional effort in providing reports to Australia should cause India no problem. However if it will not account for the material, India will be in breach of the agreement.

Why is India being so difficult on this issue? India has an expanding nuclear weapon program. It has not fully separated its military and civilian nuclear programs and some facilities are still dual-purpose. India's safeguards agreement with the IAEA does not impose the same restrictions as bilateral agreements in areas such as reprocessing, higher enrichment, retransfers to third countries, research and development or the production of tritium (which has uses in nuclear weapons). 

If India succeeds in delinking foreign-obligated nuclear material from individual bilateral agreements, making it impossible to identify which batch of material is covered by which agreement, then India could work a 'pea and thimble' trick in which no supplier could tell whether their material was being used contrary to bilateral conditions. The mere possibility of this is sufficient to call into question India's commitment to observing bilateral agreements. 

Without proper reporting, Australia has no way of knowing whether India is in reality meeting its obligations to identify and account for all the material that is subject to the agreement, and to apply Australia's safeguards conditions to this material. It is not good enough to simply say that we trust India because it has an 'impeccable' non-proliferation record (and India's record in any case is not 'impeccable').The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. They have long applied to close and trusted partners such as the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea. There is absolutely no case to waive them for India.

John Carlson AM is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and its predecessor the Australian Safeguards Office from 1989 to 2010.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Adnan Abidi.


In these times of budget austerity, imagine if someone came up with a proposal that could potentially save the Defence budget tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from its bottom line without impacting on overall capability. Indeed, a plan that could actually enhance performance while significantly reducing expenditure.

Far from being a pipedream, this kind of potential exists within the Australian Army Reserve, just waiting to be unlocked by the right combination of reforming zeal and political will.

As Australian Army Major Mark Smith has argued, the Reserve is disproportionately expensive for the capability it provides and the impact it has on advancing Australia's national security interests.

This is not a criticism of the men and women of the Army Reserve, 'chocos' as they are affectionately known, who have proven themselves over many years of continuous deployment both at home and abroad in scenarios as diverse as domestic disaster relief to counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Rather, it reflects the fact that the Reserve is operating in basically the same way that it has done since the Vietnam War.

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Sure, the powers that be can point to Plan Beersheba, the Strategic Reform Program, and other measures as evidence of recent attempts to modernise the part-time force. However, these initiatives dance around the edges of the problem and do nothing to address the structural inadequacies of the current system.

With the Army Reserve no longer deployed in the Solomon Islands or East Timor, now is the time to review our approach to part-time military service with a view to enhancing efficiency and reducing costs.

The core problem is the Army Reserve force structure, which is based on conventional principles of military organisation whereby soldiers are organised into battalions and regiments, which are then grouped into brigades and subsequently divisions. While this structure has worked well for the Reserve and its equivalents around the globe, it is patently unsuitable for a part-time force where units which should consist of 500+ personnel often attract less than a hundred to training. Additionally, individual readiness requirements are met by barely 50% of Army Reserve members.

The end result is an unwieldy system where there are too many officers and not enough soldiers. It is further exacerbated by the fact that the Reserve has to comply with essentially the same corporate governance regime as its full-time counterpart. This means that time and resources that could be spent on training are instead diverted to activities such as assessment reports for soldiers who may have performed as little as 20 days of duty over the course of a year. 

Ask reservists themselves, and most readily accept that the system is in need of an overhaul. Many would even forego the current lucrative (but administratively intensive) retention bonuses if these were replaced by reforms that more clearly defined the role of the Army Reserve and the expectations placed on its members.

So what should a reformed Army Reserve look like?

One option, advocated by Mark Smith, is to consolidate the existing force structure into fully-manned units that incorporate a broader range of capabilities (such as infantry, artillery, signals) but under a single administrative regime.  

This model represents a radical departure from the status quo yet there is sufficient precedent to suggest that the upheaval would be justified. Indeed, modern armies are increasingly organised into multi-faceted 'battlegroups' in which troops with differing specialities (and originating from separate units) are brought together under a unified command based on the specific operational requirements at hand. While such arrangements are almost always temporary, with the detachments returning to their parent unit once a task is complete, it provides a potential basis for the reorganisation of the Army Reserve. 

Permanently maintaining the 'battlegroup' structure for the Reserve would have several advantages, not least of which would be a significant cost reduction associated with administering the many disparate, under-manned units that currently constitute the Army Reserve. Additional benefits would include the pooling of equipment, the rationalisation of scarce resources and enhanced interoperability between the sub-units.   

There is no doubt that the above proposal is a controversial one insofar as it would involve disbanding units that trace their history back as far as World War One and the Boer War. Indeed, a battalion such as 4/3 Royal New South Wales Rifles can trace its lineage to both world wars.

The key point is that the Army Reserve is badly in need of reform and that this proposal has the added attraction of potentially saving the Government significant funds at a time when it is looking for savings across the range of Commonwealth responsibilities.

Photo courtesy of Australian Department of Defence.


An LA Review of Books essay on Dan Washburn's The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream:

...although construction of new golf courses has been banned in China since at least 2004, more than 400 were built between 2005 and 2010, making China the only place in the world experiencing a golf boom. Government officials who enjoy hitting the links register at golf courses under false names, afraid of leaving a paper trail connecting them to a game most often associated with capitalism and corruption. And while massive golf course complexes lined with luxury villas populate large tracts of land outside Chinese cities, their owners attempt to hide the courses in plain sight, giving them convoluted names like the “Anji China Ecotourism and Fitness Center.” Like so much else in contemporary China, golf occupies a gray zone: officially forbidden, yet tolerated — even encouraged — behind the scenes, as local government officials and land developers reap massive profits from the construction of new courses.

Photo by Flickr user g33kgrrl.


Photo: @Charles_Lister