Lowy Institute

Later today, the 69th session of the UN General Assembly commences. One of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's first official duties last year was to address the opening of the 68th session of the General Assembly, nine days after being sworn in as minister.

Bishop had a tough start as minister. First came the Indonesian spying scandal, with angry reactions in Indonesia and pointed criticism from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. A few days later came a dressing down from China after Bishop denounced Beijing's move to unilaterally establish an air defence identification zone in late November. Ms Bishop then had to deal with breaches of Indonesian territorial waters by stray Operation Sovereign Borders vessels. There has also been the painful process of the Peter Greste case.

Then of course, the MH17 catastrophe. Ms Bishop earned the respect of her international and national peers in brokering a Security Council response to MH17.

Our Foreign Minister has been busy.

Yet amid all this noisy foreign policy action, the Minister has been quietly going about her other business. The New Colombo plan is on track. Relations with Indonesia have stabilised, with agreement reached on a code of conduct in late August. Australia is back in China's good books.

And then there is the MIKTA initiative.

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MIKTA, you ask? As I wrote at the end of last year, this is a fledgling grouping which had its modest beginnings on the sidelines of the September 2013 UN General Assembly session. The acronym represents the five nations – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – who are 'members' of this informal group. They seek to 'strengthen the links between their nations, exchange views, consult and promote coordination on issues of common interest.' Early indications are that these are likely to include global governance reform, G20 work and finding solutions to global challenges such as the post-2015 development agenda. They have met twice this year, and in April spent a full day together in Mexico at the first MIKTA dialogue, resulting in a co-authored opinion piece in Huffpo in which the foreign ministers emphasised their similarities: they are all democracies, members of the G20, with open and dynamic economies, strategically located and each playing strong roles in their regions.

The first indications of how these nations will work together surfaced in the early days of the MH17 response, when the ministers of the five nations issued a joint statement condemning the downing and urging the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

In August, Mexico hosted the first MIKTA academic seminar (which I attended) to identify some of the ways in which this diverse group ('a bunch of misfits' was the expression Michael Wesley used in his remarks) might cooperate constructively. While none of these academics spoke for their governments, there was a bundle of ideas, from working collaboratively against protectionist measures to freeing up visa restrictions, creating exchanges of students and journalists, and according each other 'most favoured nation' status.

It's early days, but each of the MIKTA foreign ministers appears enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new grouping. None of the five are part of a natural regional or security bloc, so their thinking is presumably that the grouping can achieve more together than each can achieve alone – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And while the parts are significant, the whole is potentially formidable. MIKTA nations are the world's 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th largest economies. Combined at US$5.8 trillion in GDP, they amount to the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China. Taken together, their populations rank the group as the third-largest in the world after China and India. If they can harness their collective strengths, this could be a useful grouping.

At the opening of the 69th session of the General Assembly, Ms Bishop will again meet with her MIKTA counterparts to progress their agenda. Watch this space. 

Photo courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.


Given that emerging economies continue to grow two or three times faster than advanced economies, the persistent gloom about their prospects is puzzling. The latest example comes from The Economist, which argues that convergence, the process by which poorer countries catch up to rich countries over time, was a temporary phenomenon that has largely run its course. The past 15 years have 'deceived people into thinking that broad convergence is the natural way of things.' 

How did they come to this view? The first decade of this century saw a rapid but unsustainable pace of convergence. China led the way with double-digit growth, and even the traditional laggards (such as India and Brazil) did well. Double-digit growth is not unprecedented (pre-1980 Japan, and a number of Asian economies, have come close) but it was never sustainable in the longer term

But just because convergence has slowed from this rapid pace doesn't mean it has ended. China's 7% growth rate doubles total income every decade. And it is sustainable. After all, even countries once seen as 'basket cases', such as Indonesia, recorded average growth of 7% for the three decades of the Soeharto era.

The other sleight of hand is to focus on the catch-up period associated with the 2008 financial crisis. The emerging economies continued to grow while the advanced economies had falling GDP, which has been followed by feeble recoveries. The fact that this was a 'once-off' conjuncture which is now behind us doesn't signal the end of convergence.

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On top of this, the World Bank data used by The Economist does indeed make this look like a halcyon decade: 'output per person in the emerging world doubled between 2000 and 2009; the average annual rate of growth over that decade was 7.6%'. It was  good decade, but not that good. IMF figures suggest that emerging economy growth in this period was around 2 percentage points slower than The Economist's.

The Economist's rose-tinted version of the past is contrasted with a gloomy outlook. It says that the IMF 'put the difference between the growth in emerging markets other than China and growth in the developed world at just 0.39 percentage points this year'. With this differential, full convergence would take 'more than 300 years'.

But the latest IMF forecasts show advanced economies growing at 1.8% while emerging economies are growing at 4.6%. True, this figure includes China's growth, but even so it is inconsistent with The Economist's numbers. This difference in growth rates shown in current IMF estimates (with the emerging economies growing around 2-3 percentage points faster) might be seen as closer to the overall convergence prospects than The Economist's 'indistinguishable from never' assessment. 

But in any case, the convergence story was never about aggregates, combining the diverse experience of all emerging economies taken together. The convergence story is the counter to the view that poor countries are inexorably stuck in poverty because of geography, lack of savings, or unreformable institutions. This pessimistic generalisation is refuted by the cases of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Then, rebutting the argument that these were special cases, less dynamic economies like Thailand and Indonesia showed that the income gap could be narrowed, even in the face of inefficient and corrupt institutions. The point of the convergence story is that, with competent policies, poor countries can grow quickly by adopting proven technology and techniques.

It was never part of the convergence story that all poor countries would make the journey, or that it would be quick. Even China's three decades of outstanding growth have not made it rich, yet. And in any case, the objective of matching the moving target of rich-country living standards is not an essential part of the narrative. Even to get half way, to the stage where most people have been lifted out of poverty, would be a result to be cheered, not disparaged by glum mutterings about the 'middle-income trap'.

There is a message here with relevance for Australia. Convergence is happening, and it's happening in our region. Despite all the gloom from global commentators, the IMF data shows that 'emerging and developing Asia' has recorded a steady 6.5% growth rate, both in recent years and in the forecast. This is in a world full of talk of 'secular stagnation' in the advanced economies, with Europe still mired in debt and gloom, America's recovery yet to gain momentum and Latin America falling back into its traditional languor. Our part of the globe is doing just fine, thanks to convergence.

Graph courtesy of The Economist


This passage comes from Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman's2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

Did the brutal beheading of two (now three) Westerners by IS touch off an 'availability cascade'? Discuss.

(H/t Dart-Throwing Chimp, @Robert_E_Kelly.)


Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has been internationally praised as Indonesia's first elected president not to come from the political or military elite. But stories like his could be a thing of the past if the country's legislature passes a new bill revision to put an end to direct regional elections.

The push for the House of Representatives (DPR) to pass the bill before the end of this month has come from the 'Red-and-White' coalition that backed the bid of defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Some commentators have labelled the move an act of revenge by Prabowo, who has still refused to publicly acknowledge defeat, even after his election appeal was rejected by Indonesia's Constitutional Court. But beyond being a matter of personal point-scoring, the proposed bill revision could have lasting and damaging effects on Indonesia's democracy, not least by potentially keeping out grassroots candidates like Jokowi.

Jokowi, a former furniture retailer, got his start in politics when he was elected mayor of the small town of Solo in Central Java. Initially a political unknown, his impressive performance in his first term as mayor led him to be re-elected with 90%of the vote. The extraordinary result prompted the party to ask him to run for governorship in Jakarta, and later for the presidency, which he won in July with 53% of the vote.

There are others like him across Indonesia, often referred to in the media as a 'new breed' of politicians, characterised by their non-elite backgrounds, authentic drive for political reform and clean and transparent approach to governance. Often included in this category are Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil, a former architect and social activist promoting sustainable development in the West Java capital, and Tri Rismaharini, the first female mayor of the East Java capital of Surabaya, who is driving revitalisation of the city's green spaces (more controversially, she also shut down its red-light district earlier this year). These 'new breed' leaders have benefited from direct elections in the regions, introduced as part of the push for decentralisation following the fall of authoritarian president Suharto in 1998.

Unfortunately, decentralisation has not always resulted in cleaner governance. In many cases, the expensive business of regional campaigning has further entrenched corruption, with elected leaders finding themselves in debt not to their constituents but to the powerful political and business interests that supported their bid. This is the rationale being given by the 'Red-and-White' coalition (red and white being the colours of the Indonesian flag), which argues that abolishing direct elections will relieve candidates from the burden of funding a campaign, and free up those funds for developing the regions.

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On the surface, it's a sensible argument, particularly given the great disparity in development and access to services between Indonesia's rural and urban areas. Except that it gives absolutely no guarantee that campaign funds will be redirected for the betterment of the people, and not simply constitute savings for the political elite. Furthermore, the proposal to hand authority back to regional legislative councils (DPRDs) to elect leaders, a system tried and tested under Suharto, narrows the opportunity for non-elites to enter the circles of power.

Most importantly, the revised bill would take away the people's right to elect their regional leaders and hold them accountable, which at present is the most potent force consolidating Indonesia's democracy. It is the popular backing of candidates like Jokowi, Ridwan and Risma that forces bigger political players like the PDI-P, or Prabowo's Gerindra party, to include them in political processes, making change possible.

'New breed' politicians, media and civil society groups are speaking out against the proposed revision to the regional elections bill. In a dramatic move, incoming Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama has quit Gerindra in opposition to the party's backing of the revised bill. A handful of regional leaders from coalition parties have promised to do the same if the revised bill is passed.

Aside from Gerindra, the revised legislation is also backed by outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, Suharto's former Golkar party and three Islamic parties, together making up 420 seats in the DPR. In opposition to the bill are PDI-P, the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB), and the People's Conscience Party (Hanura), with 140 seats. Pressure is now on Yudhoyono to sway his party on the issue, especially considering that the party's current stance conflicts with that of the Home Ministry, which initially proposed the bill but has since changed its position. Yudhyono's party holds 150 of the coalition's seats, as well as the right to revoke the proposal.

A plenary meeting in the DPR will make a decision on the bill by the end of the month. No matter the outcome, the message is clear for Jokowi's incoming government: Prabowo's backers are not going to give the new president an easy ride.


Here are three observations on Iraq:

1. Australia does have a core interest in Iraq

One of the arguments already used by opponents of any Australian participation in military action against ISIS is that Australia does not have any core interests in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of whether the strategy for Iraq is the right one, there is no question in my mind that we have a strong interest in what happens in Iraq.

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. These fighters are also developing connections with other extremist groups that will make them a more lethal threat in years to come.

Some will ask: why does Iraq deserve particular attention above other parts of the Middle East that are also helping to incubate a new generation of extremists? It is a good question and we should not lose sight of these other problem areas even as we focus on Iraq and Syria.

But Iraq and Syria do deserve disproportionate attention for two reasons. First, the numbers of foreign fighters is bigger than we have ever seen, even compared with Afghanistan in the period leading up to 9/11. Second, the number of Westerners is also larger, which is bad because their passports and visa-free access to a larger range of countries will make it much easier for them to cross borders.

Some will argue that a military response is not the right one to this threat and that Australia should rely on police and intelligence work and cooperation. They will point to the way this worked in the 2000s, particularly in diminishing the terrorist threat in Indonesia.

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Certainly a military response won't work on its own, but neither will simply waiting for the threat to come to you. One reason the terrorist threat in Indonesia was diminished over time was because it became impossible for extremists to get the training and maintain the connections they had formed in Afghanistan. Those behind the Bali bombings were largely veterans of Afghanistan, and the hardcore part of Jemaah Islamiya behind the targeting of Westerners had intended to keep sending cadres to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, as illustrated by the break-up of the Ghuraba Cell in Pakistan in 2003.

True, the police and intelligence effort in Indonesia was more important. But I don't think it could have been as successful without the military effort in Afghanistan at the same time.

2. The US strategy in Iraq will work, probably

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. In the case of Iraq, those allied forces will be the Kurds, the Iraqi Army and possibly local Sunni militias. In Syria it will be opposition groups opposed to ISIS.

Because it has worked before, it is reasonable to assume that the strategy will probably work again. ISIS is not that big, and is probably not as militarily competent as people think. It is true the Iraqi Army has not covered itself in glory so far, but good units can be found, and with better leadership will probably prove more effective.

But most importantly, once momentum shifts, other local militias will turn on ISIS to make sure they are on the right side when the fighting ends. Here the willingness and ability of the new government in Baghdad to reach out to the Sunnis in northern Iraq will be critical.

Of course, none of this guarantees success and there are risks aplenty. But we should not confuse the way Western countries have mishandled Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown) for what we are about to do in Iraq. We are still pretty good at blowing stuff up. It is the building stuff after that we are not so good at.

3. There will be bleed-out

To say that the US strategy for Iraq will probably work is not the same thing, however, as saying that it is the right strategy. One of the consequences of even a successful campaign will be the bleed-out of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The border with Turkey – the last real route into and out of ISIS-stan – is likely to remain porous, although there will be massive pressure on the Turks to seal it.

Where will these fighters go? They may turn up in other conflicts in the Middle East, or they may head to other countries, but some will go home. In all likelihood this won't be the hard core but rather individuals who received some training, maybe didn't see a lot of combat and are not prepared to stay and die for the cause.

This does raise the question of whether, by targeting ISIS, we are accelerating the problem we are most worried about. In this respect there is a case for a strategy that tries to contain ISIS in Iraq. It would require real pressure on Turkey to seal the border, which may or may not be possible for Ankara to do. It would still require action to erode ISIS on the ground by local forces over a much longer period. And for this to work it would still require some Western support, at a much lower profile than what is being proposed now, to help train and mentor those forces.

But it is a line-ball call. Simply leaving ISIS alone is not the answer. We learned from our experience with Afghanistan that extremists can and do move on to other conflicts. They can and do return home and plot terrorist attacks. Eventually the problem needs to be dealt with.

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted. There needs to some assessment process, therefore, which looks at the legal grounds and prospects for pursuing returnees, but also looks at other factors as well. Hopefully it is something Australian officials are thinking about even as our combat aircraft taxi down the runway.

Photo by Flickr user Andos_pics.

  • With Fiji elections happening tomorrow, be sure to read Jenny Hayward-Jones Policy Brief on the significance of the elections for Australian policy towards Fiji. 
  • Who gives humanitarian aid? To whom? How much? The 2014 Humanitarian Assistance Report was released last week and provides a great overview, as well as country profiles and interesting infographics.
  • Which development books should students read? A list compiled by Guardian readers.
  • Jeff Sachs alleges bias at the Wall Street Journal in its selection of climate change op-eds.
  • The UK has moved closer to enshrining a commitment to aid spending of 0.7% in law.
  • Read the full speech of the new UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, which warns that Australia's policy of off-shore detention for asylum seekers is 'leading to a chain of human rights violations'.
  • Zoom, Zoom! Sierra Leone's motorbike riders engaged by UNDP in campaign against ebola.
  • Has the era of climate change refugees begun? Interesting Washington Post blog post about Tuvalu nationals seeking refugee in New Zealand due to rising sea levels. 

The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

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What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.


Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

The Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones released a Policy Brief this week on the significance of Fiji’s elections, set for 17 September. Her accompanying Interpreter post argues that Australia should be doing more to assist Fiji in its transition back to democracy: 

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

Alex Stewart, also writing on Fiji, pointed out that successful elections involve much more than just ensuring that widespread cheating does not occur:

However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground...

...There have been a variety of issues, from candidates being reportedly barred for traffic offences to the lateintroduction of a residency requirement that has disqualified several respected Fijians, including people seconded to RAMSI. What I would focus on is not the changes themselves but the lateness with which they were made. Both measure came into force in August, mere weeks before the election. Campaigning had been going on for months by this point. For an election to be fair, political parties and voters need to have clarity as to who is running for election. Having candidates knocked out at the eleventh hour should be an exceptional matter for a functioning democracy, not one of deliberate state policy. 

Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton Cain summarised the economic policies of the political parties running in Fiji’s election: 

FijiFirst's manifesto, unsurprisingly, rests its economic policy on the interim government's track record. It highlights four consecutive years of GDP growth and a private sector investment rate of 15% in the current year. The manifesto stresses that job creation, particularly for young people, is a priority and sees maintaining the momentum of the Bainimarama Government as the means of achieving this. While there is reference to a 'comprehensive program' to be implemented after the election to complement existing policies (eg. tax-free zones, free education), there is no detail on what the 'key initiatives' are.

The Fiji Labour Party grounds its economic policy in the belief that 'given a stable  democratic environment and honest and competent leadership with policies that ensure good governance and inspires investor confidence in Fiji's future, the economy will automatically pick up'. In terms of how the party proposes to grow the economy, the manifesto refers to reviving the agriculture sector and sustainable development of forestry and fisheries. It also identifies a number of ways in which the FLP intends to create a favourable industrial and business environment, including by bringing down the cost of doing business, setting up a 'Special Fund' to encourage self-employment, especially among professional graduates, and pursuing investment to boost employment opportunities and enhance incomes.

President Obama gave a prime-time address this week that outlined his strategy for dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Rodger Shanahan's first impressions

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Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military...

...Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

In James Bowen’s analysis of the speech, he argues that we have not seen a President Obama like the one we saw on Thursday in some time: 

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere.

Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In a popular and reflective post, Lowy Institute East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall argues that a tendency to assume Western norms may impede our understanding of China: 

We tend to presume that underneath the surface-level differences, Chinese people are more or less the same as us. The reading of surface-level signs according to our own norms, like the apparently Western toilets at Beijing airport in 1999, also occurs when we try and explain and interpret Chinese politics and behaviour. One example is the way political structures and activities are described. Xi Jinping is described as 'the President', so we ascribe to him the same roles and responsibilities as Barack Obama. Li Keqiang is the 'Prime Minister', the State Council is China's cabinet, and so on. This translation and simplification, a bid to understand how China works, ultimately impairs our ability to see it for how it is, rather than just another version of how we are.

Manjeet Pardesi and Robert Ayson from Victoria University of Wellington said that the results of the Modi-Abe summit last week showed the ‘support for their (India and Japan) respective strategic roles’: 

As China converts its material power into greater regional influence, the common interests between Japan and India in preventing Beijing from holding sway over the region are becoming more pronounced. Both have long-standing rivalries with China: in the case of Japan over history and disputed islands in the East China Sea, and in the case of India over the world's longest unmarked land border and the Tibet issue. Beijing will no doubt also have noticed the commitment of Abe and Modi to 'maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight…and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.'

My assessment of the Abbott Government's foreign policy during its first year in office: 

...the Abbott Government has also rapidly advanced its free-trade talks with Beijing, and so seems wedded to the Howard Government formula that Australia does not have to choose between its main strategic partner and its biggest economic partner. This arrangement also seems amenable to Beijing, for now. But as China grows and Beijing demands a regional security order that matches its status as an economic equal to the US, it becomes less and less clear that this posture is sustainable.

When the Abbott Government is eventually unseated, and peripheral foreign policy interests such as Ukraine and Iraq have long been forgotten, this will be the ground on which we ultimately judge its foreign policy performance.

Also, Abbott’s foreign policy has been lacking in the Pacific, said Nic Maclellan: 

Abbott couldn't even spare a day to attend this year's Pacific Islands Forum (Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss spent just 36 hours in Koror, though you wouldn't know about it  since not one press gallery journalist or TV news crew accompanied him to Palau). Abbott's decision to focus on the MH17 crisis overshadowed a crucial meeting, which included the selection of a new Forum Secretary General, preparations for Fiji's first post-coup elections and the development of regional interventions for a series of global summits on small island states, climate and development.

Natasha Stott Despoja wrote of Australia's role in putting gender on the agenda of the Indian Ocean Rim Association: 

The IORA conference I hosted on behalf of Minister Bishop in Kuala Lumpur was the flagship event to further Australia's aspiration on the economic empowerment of women. The event had a focus on textiles and tourism, two areas in which women are active in every member country. Textiles involve women as artisans, workers, designers, entrepreneurs and traders. Tourism is anticipated to account for one in every ten jobs on the planet by 2022.

Finally, CNAS's Ely Ratner suggested that Abbott may be stretching Australia’s resources with his globalist agenda: 

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Let Ideas Compete.


How will the deployment of ballistic missile submarines by China and India affect the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape? What effect will these deployments have on stability in the region? 

Unsurprisingly, the contributions thus far have shown that the picture is, as Rory Medcalf put it, 'murky.' As Bruno Tertrais pointed out, much of the inmpact on stability from these deployments will depend on the quality of the submarines, the range and reliability of their accompanying missiles, and the skill of their crews, as well as on the anti-submarine warfare efforts of their prospective foes. At the same time, as Tom Mahnken noted, a greater sense of second-strike assurance may embolden rather than relax at least China's ambitions. Meanwhile, Rod Lyon has observed that, even with all the qualifiers, strategic submarines tend to make adversary decision-makers think twice about attempting a first strike.

Thus far, the debate seems to be clustering around a general view that the deployment of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is neither a panacea nor a catastrophe for stability, and that much will turn on how they are operated and on how much they are relied on for strategic advantage. 

One aspect of their deployment that has not been sufficiently remarked upon, however, is how the deployment of systems as strategically significant as ballistic missile submarines may influence regional naval doctrine and operating patterns, and even national strategic objectives more broadly. Lyon touched on this point when he wrote that 'even vulnerable SSBNs might have value if deployed in protected bastions, behind layered defensive screens, exploiting known seabed topographies, confusing the targeteer with diversionary noisemakers, and keeping the warhead loadings low per boat.'

The broader point is that effective deployment of a ballistic missile force is not simply about getting a boat into the water with operational missiles loaded.

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Rather, attaining more than a bare bones second-strike capability at sea means ensuring those submarines are survivable, can communicate reliably with national leadership, and that their missiles can reach their assigned targets. This is by no means an easy task for a country like China when one faces a highly capable potential adversary like the US Navy, not to mention the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the Royal Australian Navy, and others. 

Accordingly, if China is really serious about achieving an assured second strike capability with its ballistic missiles submarines – by no means an unreasonable supposition, given the cost and scale of the effort – it will need to ensure that these submarines can meet the criteria laid out above. This might be done, as Lyon indicated, by developing sufficiently quiet submarines. We can presume the PLA Navy is working at that assiduously. But will they be sufficiently confident that their submarines are quiet enough to survive, and to survive for long enough? If not, the Chinese may look to other means of protecting their submarines, means that could have considerable strategic consequences. 

Let's look backwards to give some context. As Owen Cote has related, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet Union deployed its early cruise missile and ballistic missile submarines forward, into the Atlantic. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, the Soviets, alerted to the vulnerability of their submarines by the Walker spy ring, began shifting to a 'bastion' strategy in waters nearer to the USSR, protecting the valuable missile submarines from the US Navy's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities with layers of defences including air cover, surface ships, and so forth. This entailed a major shift in the doctrine and operating patterns of the Soviet Navy that changed the 'waterprint' of its naval forces. Protecting their boomers, in other words, drove major changes in how the Soviets operated their naval forces, in this case back from forward positions to zones closer to the homeland. 

If China were also concerned about the vulnerability of its missile submarines to the ASW capabilities of the US and its allies, it too might seek 'bastions' and/or other means of protecting these submarines. These efforts at protection could include establishing a higher military presence and even attaining greater control over airspace above the seas in which the PLA Navy would want to operate its submarines. This in turn would mean that Chinese forces might operate and train in seas and airspace that had not traditionally seen much PLA presence and at considerably higher tempos and in a more sophisticated fashion than in the past. China might even seek to obtain formal or informal control or operational dominance over certain seas and airspace – either through gentle means or through coercion – to ensure the security of its missile submarines. 

Such efforts would, of course, have significant political ramifications. But it would hardly be the first time military requirements had helped form political objectives. US requirements for bases during the Cold War drove much of Washington's alliance policy, particularly outside of Europe. And a good bit of Britain's policy in its imperial heyday was motivated by the need for coaling and refitting stations. 

This point should not be carried too far. China is sensitive to political constraints on the exercise of its military power, and we can assume that part of the appeal of SSBNs for Beijing is that they hold out the promise of being able to operate independently and without much fuss. 

Still, in thinking about the implications of China's ballistic missile submarines on stability, we should not ignore that the demands of survivability and operational effectiveness could also entail considerably broader military operational and ultimately political consequences. Much will depend on how much China values these submarines, how quiet it believes them to be, the effectiveness of US and allied ASW efforts, the intensity of rivalry in East Asia, and a range of other factors.

But the point is that the effort to deploy a genuinely survivable and effective ballistic missile submarine force could have consequences well beyond the narrow concerns of submarine quality, crew skill, and missile range.

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia.

Photo by Flickr user UK Ministry of Defence.


A couple of pieces I have stumbled on in the last 24 hours which rearranged my mental furniture a little. First, on China's 'smart' censorship:

...you can say pretty much anything you like on Chinese media, providing that it does not lead to any kind of action. “Chinese people can write the most vitriolic blogposts about even the top Chinese leaders without fear of censorship, but if they write in support of, or [even] in opposition to an ongoing protest – or even about a rally in favour of a popular policy or leader – they will be censored.”

Even more subtly, the volume of protests is used to gauge whether any given leader is sufficiently unpopular that his removal will make things go more smoothly. In this way the information signalling part of a market economy is co-opted to the service of an authoritarian state. It turns out that you can say what you like – and this includes all the kinds of hashtag activism. All you may not do is influence events away from the keyboard, or even refer to them. If there is a news story that suggests there might be a role for protest in the physical world, all comments referring to it are removed, whichever side they take.

 And here's philosopher John Gray tearing strips off Francis Fukuyama's new book about how political development happens. The review never refers to China, but it bears directly on the durability of the authoritarian state China's leaders are trying to build:

...Fukuyama takes for granted that the end point of political development is the system of government he prefers. As he puts it here and in the previous volume, the problem that most of the world faces is 'getting to Denmark' - where 'Denmark' means not the actual country but 'an imagined society that is prosperous, democratic, secure, and well governed, and experiences low levels of corruption'. He sees many of the humanitarian and military interventions of Western governments as bungling attempts to promote this imaginary society: 'The international community would like to turn Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Haiti into idealized places like "Denmark," but it doesn't have the slightest idea of how to bring this about.'...

...But political legitimacy is a slippery business; people want many things apart from prosperity, accountability and low levels of corruption. They also demand expression of their national myths, identities and enmities - and quite often attach more importance to this aspect of government than they do to democracy. Somewhere above the fog that surrounds Francis Fukuyama's convoluted treatise hangs a clear and simple question: what if large sections of humanity don't much care about getting to Denmark?


Two months ago, as Prime Minister Abbott's globalist reflexes were becoming increasingly apparent, I offered a perspective from Washington that the US should welcome a more prominent role for Australia on the world stage.

I argued that America's steadfast ally had unique normative, diplomatic and geopolitical strengths that could advance our common interests, particularly if Australia escaped from the confines of outdated models of 'deputy sheriff' and the 'hub-and-spoke' alliance system.

This was already occurring with Australian leadership over the MH370 search, at the UN in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, and in helping to deepen military-to-military cooperation between the US and China with next month's trilateral 'Exercise Kowari' in northern Australia. I said at the time, with few reservations, that, 'greater Australian involvement in world politics — again, even in pursuit of its own aims — will ultimately advance American interests.'

Having just returned from a week in Australia that overlapped with the Abbott Government's one-year anniversary, I have to admit it was less clear than ever exactly what those aims are.

Traveling to Canberra, Sydney, and places in between, I had the opportunity to discuss Australia's newfound direction with leading foreign policy and defence experts, as well as officials from the Australian Defence Force, Department of Defence, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. On everyone's mind was the question of Australia's appropriate role in the world, reinforced by current events and ongoing debates over what the Abbott Government would and should say in its much anticipated Defence White Paper due next year.

And yet, lurking behind widespread support for Australia to be a more proactive security provider in world affairs, it was easy to detect a budding sense of unease among Australia's strategic community.

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A prevailing critique, coming in different flavours and from different angles, was that Prime Minister Abbott risked spreading Australia too thin. If there's one thing Australian security experts are quick to remind you of, it's that their country has limited resources. As a result, doing things like deploying police officers to Ukraine, special operations units to Afghanistan and fighter jets to Iraq quickly places constraints on Canberra's freedom of action, particularly given the requirements of keeping resources at home for homeland defence and unanticipated local crises.

Similar concerns arose about capacity and prioritisation in defence procurement and military modernisation. Sure, it would be great if Australia could go all in with the US on ballistic missile defence, interoperable amphibious forces and a region-wide maritime domain awareness architecture. This in addition to continuing to invest in fifth-generation aircraft while working with Japan on submarine technology and committing to additional spending on military construction to support a rotational US naval presence in Australia.

But as in any country, Prime Minister Abbott will have to ensure that his strategic ambitions do not outpace Australia's capacity. To put this another way, Australia will have to start thinking seriously about the relative impact of its global activism, including trade-offs between expending pockets of resources on numerous international efforts versus consolidating those resources to pursue areas of core competence and comparative advantage.

This is about how, not if, Australia should be a global player.

Perhaps this is where politics and strategy diverge, but hearing that Prime Minister Abbott was sending another 100 police to support efforts in Ukraine, a country in which Australia didn't even have an embassy prior to September 2014, made me wonder whether Australia might be better served by a leader more akin to candidate Abbott, who committed to 'more Jakarta, less Geneva.'

All things being equal, of course Australian contributions in Europe and the Middle East are welcome. And no doubt the Obama Administration values the ability to cast its initiatives as multilateral.

But all things aren't equal. And Australia's backyard, especially Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, is emerging as a focal point of international politics. Therein, Australia's partnerships with India and Japan harbour critical opportunities for exceptional economic and security cooperation. Moreover, Australia has the essential task of preparing for potential instability in the Pacific Islands. *

This is not to suggest that Australia doesn't have the ability or the right to play on global issues with great powers. Of course it does, and Prime Minister Abbott has made that abundantly clear. But the critical question now is: where can Australia make the greatest relative contributions to both its national interests and the larger common interest of advancing peace and prosperity?

Prime Minister Abbott's answer to this question appears to be that Australia should participate in major crises in which it has national security equities, regardless of distance and relative effect. Both admirers and detractors characterised Abbott to me as taking an ideological approach to these issues, similar to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But it's not yet clear he's convinced the majority of the Australian people or its expert foreign policy community that this is the right path for their country.

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

* Ed note: this sentence added at 12.12pm.


After eight years of Voreqe Bainimarama's military rule in Fiji, there is much excitement about the prospects for Fiji's return to democracy with elections next week. Seven parties and one independent candidate will contest 50 parliamentary seats. 591,095 Fijians have registered to vote; 120,000 of them will vote for the first time. With limited time and despite some constraints applied by the Fiji Government, the Fiji Elections Office has educated Fiji's voters on a new voting system, trained some 14,000 volunteers to staff polling stations and injected a vigour to the process that significantly diminishes the risk of fraudulent behaviour.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed confidence in the preparations underway for the elections. A Multinational Observer Group co-led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and featuring observers from at least ten other countries is already in Fiji monitoring the elections.

It is tempting to see the elections as the culmination of years of international pressure, driven largely by Australia and New Zealand, for Bainimarama to deliver on his promise to restore democracy in Fiji. 

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I argue that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy. Fiji has much more work to do to restore all the elements of a democratic society. And Australia should play a key role in assisting this transition.

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Fiji's democratic institutions have taken a battering since the 2006 coup. Political parties were not permitted to operate as parties until 2014. There was no formal political opposition to Bainimarama's Government. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised. The freedoms of Fiji's media and civil society are constrained.

Elections themselves do not make a democracy. As we have seen in other ostensibly democratic polities, such as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, elections can be used by dominant leaders to both legitimise and entrench authoritarianism. Developments in Turkey in recent years are one such example. Charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved his talent for winning elections, with his Justice and Development Party claiming victory in six consecutive polls (general and nationwide local elections) and most recently winning Turkey's first ever popular election for president.

But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, restricting civil liberties, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning record numbers of journalists. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has argued that Erdogan has created a 'winner-takes-all democracy' where as elected leader, he both defines and dominates the nation to the exclusion of opposing voices.

If Bainimarama's Fiji First party is in a position to form a government either in its own right or in a coalition after the poll next Wednesday and Bainimarama is elected prime minister, there is no guarantee he will be a democratic leader. Indeed, his authoritarian governing style to date, his aversion to criticism and suspicion of media and civil society indicate he is more likely to emulate the leadership example of Erdogan than that of a typical leader of the Westminster style of government prevalent in the Pacific Islands region.

Bainimarama has arguably evolved as a civilian rather than a military leader through the campaign process. If elected, however, he is likely to see victory as a vindication of his leadership approach and agenda for Fiji rather than seize the opportunity to remake himself as the leader of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. After years of ruling by decree and centralising decision-making in his office, Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum will struggle to adjust to facing robust debate in parliament in order to pass legislation. The 2013 constitution does little to promote a more independent judiciary. Some constraints on the freedoms of civil society and media prevail.

Without the moderating influence of an effective parliament, where an opposition holds the government to account, an independent judiciary and (in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister) a 'free and unfettered media to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people', an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will not be able to consolidate the progress established by the election.

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

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 President Obama's speech to the US National Defense University, May 2013:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

Amen, Barack, Amen.


There were relatively few plot twists for a prime time television spectacle but you have to hand it to the leading man: he hasn't put in such a convincing performance in a long time.

The main points of Barack Obama's widely telecast speech to the American public tonight did not depart significantly from those which had already been released to the media and the wider public earlier in the day and week. The President promised a significantly expanded US-led military campaign to target the rising threat of the violent Islamic State (IS) movement, which he identified as not only a danger to the Middle East but also increasingly to US citizens (Obama referenced the murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff).

This plan includes US airstrikes in Syria, following an earlier reluctance to become directly involved in tackling IS there, and the deployment of a further 475 military advisers to Iraq. The President also called on Congress to support further measures including the training and arming (reportedly to the tune of US$500 million) of the Free Syrian Army, set up to oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime, to take up the new challenge of repelling IS.

Again, however, he stopped short of committing US ground troops to another potentially deadly and protracted campaign in a far-flung location.

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere.

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Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In Obama's words themselves, there was even a fairly significant change in the recent rhetoric emanating from the White House, which has implied that the US needed to accept a lesser role in dictating world affairs and embrace a greater degree of multilateralism.

Towards the end of the speech the President tied the current mission against IS into a more familiar trumpeting of American exceptionalism and the nation's stand for 'freedom, for justice, for dignity.' At times it strongly recalled the efforts of his predecessor George W Bush, as with the pronouncement that 'It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilise the world against terrorists' – words that take on more significance in light of Obama's Bush-like willingness to circumvent the established protocols of Congress and other institutions.

These developments understandably have many worried that we will see a return to larger scale war and another of those painful legacies of instability and lawlessness that produced the conditions conducive to the rise of IS in the first place. Obama categorically denies that this is the path down which the US and its allies are traveling, but could the President's sense of returning vitality belie some more worrying truth?

Photo courtesy of @WhiteHouse.