Lowy Institute

On 9 May, Russians celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. The leaders of the Soviet Union's allies in that conflict, Great Britain and the US, will not be present. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend. But of major Western leaders only German Chancellor Angela Merkel will go, not to the parade but to a subsequent wreath-laying ceremony in honour of the Soviet war dead.

This is a far cry from a decade ago. United by the War on Terror, US President George W Bush and other Western leaders stood alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2005 parade in Red Square. 

Since then, much-read works like Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands and Anne Applebaum's Gulag and Iron Curtain have asserted or implied the equivalence of Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany. This revival of a Cold War thesis of interchangeable Nazi/Soviet totalitarianisms makes it an open question whether these Western leaders would have made the journey to Moscow even without the conflict in Ukraine. 

Perhaps no historical event is as familiar as the Second World War. But 'Russia's War', as Richard Overy called it in his landmark 1997 work, reminds us how strange and terrible it really was.

In the first six months of the German invasion (June to December 1941), 2.6 million Soviet soldiers were killed in battle and 3.35 million taken prisoner. Herded into open pens, most of them perished. Some 7 million Soviet citizens were deported to Germany as slaves, the majority from Soviet Ukraine.

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Those left behind endured trials without comparison outside Japanese-occupied China. By January 1942, 4000-5000 besieged Leningraders were dying a day. The toll would reach one million. People ate glue boiled off the wallpaper, and the flesh of corpses. Elsewhere, a 66-hour week with one day off per month earned workers 1300 to 1900 calories a day. Half a million Soviet citizens died as victims of German air raids – ten times more than in the Blitz on British cities and around the same number of German civilians killed in Anglo-American bombing of the Reich. 

Total Soviet military deaths ran to 9 million. War is by nature awful, but the Eastern Front was hellish. The Battles of Moscow and Stalingrad, which each claimed about half a million Soviet soldiers, were fought in temperatures of around minus 30 degrees celsius: Soviet soldiers following retreating Nazis found whole units frozen solid, their legs sawn off by survivors to retrieve their boots. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed 13,500 alleged deserters. When British and American troops landed in Normandy, 58 German divisions were in Western Europe, 15 near the front. In the east in 1944, the Red Army faced 228.

The death of 25 million civilians defies comprehension – and yet was less than the number Hitler had hoped to starve in the first year. By comparison, Allied dead in almost three years of fighting in North Africa amounted to 250,000. In Europe and the Pacific, the British suffered around half a million fatalities, soldiers and civilians; the Americans slightly less. Australia lost 41,200. 

Yet by 1942 Soviet arms production outstripped Germany's, building 1.5 times as many aircraft, 2.5 times as many tanks and over four times as many artillery guns – the output of 2500 factories dismantled in the face of the German invasion, carried east on trains and reassembled in the relative safety of the Urals and Siberia. The workforce sometimes lived in holes dug out of the earth. Lend-Lease contributed army jeeps, telephone wire and food. Soviet soldiers called tins of American Spam 'Second Fronts'. 

At the top stood Stalin, whose mistakes cost the lives of thousands in under-prepared defences and vain offensives. He wrung obedience from his people through a ruthless combination of mass murder and torture, but ultimately proved a far more effective warlord than Hitler and a better politician than Roosevelt, Truman or Churchill. 

In its scale of suffering, the Russians seem often to have been fighting a completely different war from that of the British and the Americans. Yet 'our' war, too, depended on its outcome. Without Russia's war, we not only underestimate the horror of the Nazis; we fail to appreciate the strictly limited nature of Western victory.

Of the 5.2 million German soldiers killed in the war, the Red Army killed 4.7 million. Sir Max Hastings writes in his All Hell Let Loose: 'There is a powerful argument that only a warlord as bereft of scruple or compassion as Stalin, presiding over a society in which ruthlessness was even more institutionalized than in Germany, could have destroyed Nazism.' In his Second World War, Antony Beevor similarly remarks that 'the great hardships of life in the Soviet Union had toughened all those that served in the Red Army. The armies of western democracies could not be expected to withstand the same level of hardship.'

But if the War, as it was fought, was unwinnable by liberal democracies, the unspoken message of Western leaders' decision to absent themselves from next week's Victory Day celebrations is that Russia's war is superfluous to requirements – too hard to reconcile to our narrative of a war for freedom. In Gulag, Applebaum writes:

We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the streets. No one wants to be told that there was another, darker side to Allied victory, or that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy were liberated. 

The combined effect, she writes, is to 'undermine the moral clarity of our memories of that era'. But what is it to seek 'moral clarity' where only the relative immorality of power is to be found? 

British and American governments found a Soviet Eastern Europe preferable in 1945 to a Nazi one in 1939. Once he had the atom bomb, Stalin refrained from using it. Is it possible to imagine Cold War deterrence with the Nazis? That Putin has been compared in the West to both Hitler and Stalin points to the confusion.

In other ways, the Second World War still haunts Eastern Europe. Pro-Russian rebels proclaim 'People's Republics' under the hammer and sickle in the Donbas; Ukrainian paramilitaries brandish insignia reminiscent of the Nazi SS. Asserting the equivalence between Stalin's and Hitler's regimes is forbidden in Russia – and enshrined, since last month, as law in Ukraine.

As Igor Okunev, vice-dean of the Moscow Institute for International Relations, wrote in an essay last year, the conflict in Ukraine is also a war about a contested past: 

Some analysts explain the developments in Ukraine by ethnic hatred: Russians are protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine from Ukrainians. But it is not an ethnic, religious or some social split that is plaguing Ukraine, it is the attitude towards the past which causes the confrontation between the 'Soviets' and the 'Banderovites,' the followers of Ukraine's nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

When I asked Okunev by email what the war means to ordinary Russians, he replied: 

In the history of Russia's very controversial twentieth century, victory in WWII is probably the only event that consolidates the whole society. It is both very patriotic and still very individual day. […] Every Russian family lost someone in this war. In the Western world, the age we live in begins with the fall of the Soviet Union. In Russia, it starts with Victory Day [in 1945]. It is an event that determines our vision of the world. Russia is not a loser in Cold War but a victor in WWII.

I then asked his view on the equivalence between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR. His reply would find few takers in the West today:

Both Hitler and Stalin led totalitarian regimes, but you can't put them on the same level. Hitler's goal was to kill Eastern Europe while Stalin wanted to give it Communism. You can dislike both goals but they are not equal. In this sense, the Soviet Army saved Eastern Europe from death.

This gulf in historical understanding between Russia and the West neatly reflects their political differences and may partly explain them. So long as Russia refuses to repudiate its Stalinist past as Germany repudiated the Nazis, the totalitarian threat to liberal democracy hasn't gone away. To Snyder and other liberals, it has reared its head again in Putin's Russia. On the other hand, if, as the realists have it, the conflict in Ukraine flows from the West's unwarranted dismissal of the realities of power in Eastern Europe, taking at face-value the historiographical sea-change in the meaning of Russia's war should be numbered among the 'liberal delusions' to blame. 

Even if we don't go that far, Russia's Second World War remains an antidote to the cloying sentimentality of our own commemorative rituals that simplistically equate virtue and victory, sacrifice and freedom. 

'No one doubts that victory could have been bought at a lower price', writes Overy, 'with less oppression and more humanity, without the countless dead. But that was the tragedy of the Soviet war. The sacrifices of a tormented people brought victory but not emancipation, a moment of bitter-sweet triumph in a long history of loss.'

Russia's war is troubling, as war should be. 

Some will argue that celebrating the Soviet contribution to victory in 1945 endorses a lamentable tradition of Russian conservatism that from Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great to Putin has sacrificed the individual to the state. That's what makes the flowers that Merkel will lay on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier so poignant. In 2013, Germany's head-in-the-sand diplomacy helped make the present crisis possible. But Berlin has since led efforts to resolve it. This time, I think the German chancellor has got it right.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user russianfront1941.


The recent contributions on the 1951 Refugee Convention from Khalid Koser and Jane McAdam are heartening. It is good to read rational and reasoned discussion by two experts on the international refugee regime and the challenges it faces.

If timing is anything to go by, Khalid Koser has hit the mark in publishing his paper now, when boat arrivals to Australia are largely in abeyance and Europe faces an emerging crisis. Right now, there is an opportunity for policymakers, experts and commentators in Australia to step back, catch their breath and reflect on the implementation of the Refugee Convention and its intersection with people smuggling.

Questioning prevailing assumptions in order to enhance the protection of migrants and manage borders in the interests of both refugees and states remains a global priority. In this vein, it is worth examining asylum-seeker and refugee migration from three particular perspectives: geography, technology and money.


Geography in migration has been a key consideration as far back as the first forays into migration theory. It continues to be central to the movement of people, which is why the majority of irregular migrants and asylum seekers to the US are from the Americas and why those to Europe are predominantly from adjacent regions. Khalid Koser, with an academic background in geography, acknowledges this when he writes on the differences between flows to Europe and Australia: 'there is not a civil war brewing 200km from Australian territory, and neither is the worst refugee crisis in the last half century being unleashed within striking distance'.

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This makes Jane McAdam's point on the low numbers of asylum seekers to Australia compared to Germany and Turkey seem ill-considered. Australia is unlikely to ever see similar numbers to those Turkey is experiencing from Syria because Australia does not share a border with Syria.

Yet Australia did see a substantial increase in asylum seekers by boat in 2012 and 2013. It differed vastly in scale and composition to the past and posed considerable challenges, including for the asylum seekers. The number of migrant deaths as a direct result of smuggling to Australia and elsewhere is tragic and is just the tip of the iceberg. Exploitation, extreme violence and kidnapping by smugglers has been documented in irregular migration routes commonly used by asylum seekers. To gloss over the many downsides of migrant smuggling may be convenient but is not productive when attempting to formulate sustainable solutions. Khalid Koser is clearly conscious of the importance of this aspect and confronts the spectre of smuggling in his analysis.

Figure 1: Irregular maritime arrivals to Australia 1976 to 2013.


Technology, and particularly advances in telecommunications, has seen the feasibility of smuggling increase in the last decade as never before. Potential migrants, asylum seekers, agents, people smugglers and diaspora communities have greater access to technology to facilitate movement as well as stabilise populations (such as through remittances). There is nothing controversial in this – it is a mere fact – but it has to be factored into the development of sustainable responses at every level.

Figure 2: Global internet and mobile phone access.


Money is underpinning movement in ways not seen before. Greater access to income by populations in developing countries has been shown to increase international migration. People with assets in and near war zones are more able to engage smugglers than those without money. Given their relative wealth and the prolonged nature and severity of the conflict, it is not surprising that Syrians now outstrip other groups being smuggled through Mediterranean Sea routes.

Conflict and insecurity, people with profound protection needs, migrants with access to money, disembarkation points that are insecure (such as Libya) and smugglers who are able to exploit the situation for profit: this is a combination resulting in a form of migration that is recklessly indifferent to human life, as the situation on the Mediterranean Sea brings into sharp focus. More than one thousand people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.

Lastly, it is worth reflecting on Jane McAdam's view that the 'large protection gap can be boiled down to one thing: political will – or rather, the lack thereof.' This is a central point in her analysis, and I can't help wondering about its acuity in the context of broader migration dynamics. Would Turkey's geographic limitation to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention — meaning that only those fleeing to Turkey as a consequence of events occurring in Europe can be given refugee status there — be viewed as a lack of political will, or does it merely reflect a more harsh migration reality? What can be made of UNHCR's decision of May 2013 to suspend new registrations and processing of Afghan asylum seeker applications in Turkey? Does it show a lack of political will or resources, or could it also be related to UNHCR's need to be pragmatic in the face of migration dynamics and the scale of movement in the region?

It is unwise to reduce the many reasons for the large protection gap to just 'political will'. Instead, we should acknowledge the weaknesses of the system while also asking why it appears that political will is in fact working – but predominantly to deter unauthorised migration not collectively support asylum seeker flows. The halcyon days of international cooperation in support of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese refugees appear to be long gone but there are likely to be hints as to why this is the case in the different pace, scale, nature, diversity and mixed motivations underpinning current flows. Migration dynamics have changed. Perhaps it is the overall increase in international movement and the potential for much larger migration flows that make policymakers all over the world nervous and force them to contemplate future scenarios as well as immediate matters at hand.

Khalid Koser and Jane McAdam make welcome contributions to a discussion that is sometimes characterised by emotion rather than critical thinking. A more nuanced understanding of international asylum seeker and refugee migration taking into account geography, technology and money can only assist in an ongoing constructive discussion. Let us hope that policymakers in Australia and elsewhere are listening.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lcars.


By Sally Andrews, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program.


The Interpreter is joining the real world! We're hosting a live event that we hope will bring together our large and loyal Canberra audience in a fun and informal setting.

We're taking the pub trivia formula and giving it a spit-shine with The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge, to be held at 6.30pm on 28 May at the National Press Club and hosted by the ABC's political editor Chris Uhlmann.

There will be questions on all aspects of global affairs and current events (and I mean all aspects; there will be plenty of pop culture and sport, all with a world-politics theme). Entry is $15, and you can organise a table of up to 10 people via our events page. Food will be provided and drinks will be available for purchase.

If you want to limber up for the event, why not try the Lowy Institute's first-ever online trivia quiz? It's 15 questions and will take you around five minutes. Let us know your score via the comments section, on Facebook or Twitter.


I've just returned from a two-week trip to the US. In my travels to New York and DC, it was almost impossible to find anybody who thought the US had handled the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank saga well. There was much pontificating on how things had been so badly mishandled. There was a lot of inside-the-beltway finger pointing. But among all of this, I heard what, to me, was a novel reason why we should enthusiastically embrace any Chinese move toward more leadership in economic governance.

We should welcome Chinese initiatives, this argument goes, because the Chinese will soon learn just how hard the caper is. Take the AIIB. Just for a start, what currency and what languages will the new bank use? There are now 57 founding members who will likely have an opinion. Also, how will the Bank handle the clamour of NGOs from developed countries, all with strong opinions and agendas on how the Bank should be doing its work? And we can imagine that the issue of bad loans is going to be fraught. How will renegotiation work? If debt relief is refused, how much will China be blamed?

These are headaches the Chinese, heretofore, have not had to deal with. The view is that the Chinese should deal with them. Why? I'm not sure the proponents of these views necessarily articulated why we would benefit from a Chinese headache, but I can guess. Perhaps, if the Chinese appreciate just how difficult leadership is, they will be more amenable to compromise in the future.

Photo by Flickr user Chris.


After a decade of relative harmony, tensions between Beijing and Taipei are rising again. As Taiwan's leaders and voters face big choices about their future relations with China, America must think carefully about its commitments to Taiwan.

Would America be willing go to war with China to prevent Taiwan being forcibly united with the mainland? J Michael Cole, responding in The National Interest to a recent op-ed of mine in Singapore's Straits Times, expresses a widely held assumption that it would, and should.

To many people it seems self-evident that America would honour the commitments enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act. But the TRA was passed in 1979, when China's GDP was 1/20th the size of America's, its place in the global economy was miniscule, its navy and air force were negligible, and its prospects for progress depended completely on America's goodwill.

So back then a US-China conflict carried much bigger economic and military risks for China than for America. That made the TRA's commitments both highly credible and very unlikely to be tested. Washington could safely assume that Beijing would back off to avoid a conflict in which China had so much more to lose than America.

Things are different today.

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China's economy is now so big and so central to global trade and capital flows that the consequences of any disruption would be just as serious for America as for China. Militarily, America can no longer expect a swift and certain victory in a war over Taiwan. China's anti-access/area-denial capabilities would preclude direct US intervention unless those capabilities had first been degraded by a sustained and wide-ranging strike campaign against Chinese bases and forces.

China would very likely respond to such a campaign with attacks on US and allied bases throughout Asia. The US has no evident means to cap the resulting escalation spiral, and no one could be sure it would stop below the nuclear threshold. The possibility of nuclear attacks on US cities would have to be considered.

These new realities of power mean that today a US-China conflict would impose equal risks and costs on both sides. And where costs and risks are equal, the advantage lies with those who have more at stake, and hence greater resolve. China's leaders today seem to think they hold this advantage, and they are probably right. It is therefore a big mistake to keep assuming, as many people seem to do, that China would be sure to back off before a crisis over Taiwan became a conflict.

US leaders must therefore ask what happens if Beijing does not back down as a crisis escalates. At what point would they back down instead? What would be the damage to US global leadership if Washington brought on a confrontation with China and then blinked first? What could happen if Washington didn't blink first? Is Taiwan's status quo worth a global economic collapse? It is worth a real risk of nuclear war with China?

These are the questions America's leaders would have to confront in considering military action to defend Taiwan, and their answer would very likely be that the status of Taiwan is not worth risking nuclear war or economic collapse over. And that means American leaders and policy analysts must confront these questions now, as they decide whether to maintain the old commitments to defend Taiwan. The promises that America was willing and able to keep in 1979 might not be ones it is willing or able to keep now.

What about America's allies and friends in Asia? Wouldn't they help America defend Taiwan, if only because they are so worried themselves about China? Many Americans seem to assume they would. But even Australia, America's most reliable ally in Asia, is uncertain about this. And if Australia is uncertain, it is pure wishful thinking to expect the likes of India, Singapore, Vietnam or even the Philippines to offer anything more than mild diplomatic support to America over Taiwan.

The exception is Japan, which under Shinzo Abe might be expected to join the fight, especially after last week's visit to Washington. But does Mr Abe really speak for Japan? Will future Japanese leaders take the same view? And even if they did, how exactly would that help America? How would Japan's support change the answers to the hard questions posed above, and increase the chances that America would indeed come to Taiwan's aid?

So no one should lightly assert that America or its allies would help defend Taiwan from China. But should they? This is a big subject. Suffice to say here that the question is not answered simply by using the word 'appeasement' to invoke the memory of Munich.

There are hard questions to be answered about how far we should be willing to go to accommodate (or, if you prefer, to appease) China's ambitions for a bigger regional leadership role as its power grows. Any substantial accommodation would mean a shift away from the US-led order of recent decades, which would be risky and unsettling. It seems much easier to evade these questions by refusing to contemplate any accommodation at all. But that would carry high costs.

Those who assume that those costs must be worth paying might not have thought carefully enough about just how high the price could go. And those who assume that it will be impossible to accommodate China because it proved impossible to appease Hitler perhaps assume that there are no material differences between the situations in Europe in 1938 and in Asia now, or between Nazi Germany and today's China. They perhaps also assume that there are no alternatives to the old US-led order in Asia except Chinese hegemony. The magnitude of the issues at stake – including for the people of Taiwan – suggest that these assumptions need more careful scrutiny.


You might have missed with all the focus on the royal birth, but this is election week in the UK.  Thursday, in fact. And it's good to see the fun being had with YouTube electioneering, some official, some coming from the media and general public. 

Tory leader David Cameron has been feted in a catchy Conservative Friends of India clip.

Labour's Ed Miliband has Bonnie Tyler's 'I Need a Hero' (see above) and Eminem's '8 Mile' appealing to music fans across genres. I really cannot decide which one is more inspirational. '8 Mile' was also used by the video satirist CassetteBoy (caution: NSFW language) last year as the soundtrack to David Cameron's edited 'rap' speech to the Scottish Conservatives, but the Miliband footage has rawer street appeal. 

Disappointingly safe, The Greens official video 'Boy Band' depicts the main party leaders singing 'in political harmony'. It fails to fully capture the intended parody and rapidly becomes forgettable, predictable and dull (unlike the actual Australian-born Greens leader Natalie Bennett, whose entertainment value comes from her fumbling her party's policies not only during a captivatingly disastrous media interview in February, but again last month).

Then there is the Sinn Fein official video. This might have been a good joke in the office, but the Star Wars-themed video is agonisingly amateur in theme, dialogue and execution. A Stormtrooper opens the door of his suburban home to the candidate, Gerry Kelly,  who almost bores the Stormtrooper into agreeing to vote for Sinn Fein. Why a faceless foot soldier from Star Wars? Why not a trusted, recognisably heroic character — if not Luke or Leia or Han, then surely Chewie would have been a better choice?  And why Star Wars? 'May the fourth be with you' says the Stormtrooper as the candidate leaves.  'May the seventh', corrects the candidate. I'm guessing that's meant to be terrifically funny. It's certainly memorable, though not in a good way. 

What the polling and analysis is telling us is that no matter how much effort (or not) goes into appealing to the British electorate, there is unlikely to be a resounding victor by the end of the week. If there is another coalition government, I'll be hoping for a video announcement with a soundtrack.



One aspect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that has come under criticism is the lack of transparency in the negotiating process. Could a more transparent model be used for these kinds of negotiations?

In other areas of official decision-making, recent decades have seen a big shift towards greater transparency. Monetary policy provides an example. The closed-door confidential model of decision-making was universal best-practice until the early 1990s. Policy was set without prior public discussion and then implemented without press release or comment. This was not just for bureaucratic convenience; it was often justified in terms of efficiency.

How things have changed! Now the essence of good policy-making is transparency: an explicit decision model and frequent communication with the public.

In Australia, hardly a week goes by without a senior RBA official discoursing on some aspect of monetary policy. The US Federal Reserve is exerting itself mightily to make sure that everyone understands how it is thinking about the unwinding of quantitative easing. The Bank of England has experimented with 'forward guidance': telling the public its current thinking about its future actions. This flood of information is now regarded as 'best practice' for central bankers everywhere.

How curious, then, that nothing substantive can be said publicly about the TPP until the negotiation is over, when the only choice for the Australian parliament will be to accept or reject the treaty.

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No one is suggesting that the actual negotiations should be open to the public, any more than a RBA policy-setting meeting should take place in public. But what central bankers have attempted to do, with their copious speeches and publications, is to tell the public what their decision-making criteria are. When they decide, they make sure everyone is told at exactly the same time (no one has an information advantage). Shortly afterwards, the minutes of the decision process are released so that the public can confirm that the decision conforms to the framework.

Or take the Productivity Commission. When an inquiry begins, submissions are invited and public hearings are held. In recent months, we've had the Murray inquiry into the financial sector and the Harper review of competition. Both not only had submissions, but also produced a preliminary report indicating what the committee had in mind, open for further public comment.

Contrast this with the TPP. The public framework is bland generalities. If bargaining trade-offs are necessary, we have no sense of the priorities which will guide our negotiators. What horse-trading between the big treaty-partners (say, a special deal between Japan and America to encourage Japan to sign up) would cause our negotiators to get up from the table and leave?

Just as disquieting, we are told that there have been frequent consultations with various domestic interest-groups. This would be like the RBA consulting privately with a few favoured players in financial markets, seeking their input into the decision. 

Does the fact that the TPP is a negotiating process prevent transparency? Transparency has more pluses than minuses: our negotiators would come to the table backed up by public opinion. A vigorous public debate in Australia might remind the major players that rules on intellectual property should foster innovation and competition, not simply benefit yesterday's inventors. Debating the industry-state dispute settlement process might show strong resistance to giving foreigners a special right to override Australia's legislative intent. 

A transparent process might help to ensure that the rules balance the interests of all parties rather than just benefiting America. When President Obama says 'If we don't write the rules, China will', who does the 'we' include? Will the rules favour creditor countries against net borrowers like Australia? Will they favour IP owners against IP users, like Australia?

The TPP process is too far advanced for such changes. If the US Congress allows it to go ahead, we will sign up. But we might hope for a more transparent process next time.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Council of Canadians

Digital Disruption

News last month of the Chinese Government's Great Cannon cyber warfare tool should ring warning bells for Chinese technology companies abroad already compromised by their association with the Chinese state.

Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba and British Prime Minister David Cameron in Shanghai, 3 December 2013. (Flickr/British Embassy Beijing.)

The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab has found that the tool allows the Chinese Government to harness internet traffic and direct it against websites it considers dangerous, overloading them in an attempt to shut them down. The Citizen Lab report shows that the tool was most recently used to target GreatFire.org, a website hosting material censored inside China, and Github, used by GreatFire to host similar material.

This capacity and willingness to conduct powerful attacks on sensitive material outside the Great Firewall demonstrates the extent of the Chinese Government's ability to control political discourse outside China's borders. As a display of cyberpower it is roughly equivalent to the NSA's QUANTUM program

This intent and capacity comes as little surprise to analysts who follow the Chinese Government's increasingly strong hold on an already strangled domestic online political discourse. However, the fact that it operates outside Chinese borders raises new questions about the extent to which the Chinese Government seeks to control politically sensitive material beyond the Great Firewall.

These questions have particular resonance for Chinese internet technology companies, which are increasingly successful in the global market.

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China's three biggest internet companies, TenCent, Alibaba and Baidu, are all publicly listed and all have had highly successful IPOs. Tencent and Baidu now operate in over 20 countries between them and Alibaba also has emerging global ambitions. Importantly, the Great Cannon tool operates in part by inserting malicious code into connections to Baidu, which the company says occurred without its knowledge. 

At least two of the biggest Chinese internet companies have come under fire for allegedly promoting the interests of the Chinese state through information control outside China's borders, just as they – and all companies who wish to access the lucrative Chinese market – must do within China's territory. Tencent has been accused of censoring users of its WeChat app outside China, while Baidu has been accused of installing spyware on users' computers in both Japan and Vietnam. Baidu has similarly been accused of censoring certain sensitive keyword searches in its new search engine in Brazil.

It should be noted that these allegations have yet to be proven in any systematic way. Indeed, these are publicly listed companies that operate without obvious support from the state. Unlike other technology companies such as Huawei or ZTE, for example, they are undertaking international expansion without obvious state financial support in the form of soft loans or lines of credit.

However, if companies want to maintain access to the Chinese market, why wouldn't they err on the safe side and avoid offending Chinese officialdom even when operating outside China? Even Western technology companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Linkedin have been accused of censoring their products within China to maintain their access. Bing, Microsoft's search engine, was even alleged to censor search results for users accessing its products outside China. 

Chinese internet companies, then, have every reason to cooperate with the state's demands outside China in order to maintain access to the market inside China. Internet companies have been praised as 'national champions' in China, and their international success is an important element of Beijing's soft power abroad – witness President Xi's opening of Baidu's offices in Brazil in 2014.

However, the soft power of China's internet technology companies is likely limited precisely because of the links between these companies and the state, and of China's sometimes toxic geopolitics. Recent research suggests a consumer backlash against Baidu in Vietnam forced that company out on the basis of unproven and unlikely allegations that the company censored discussions of sensitive South China Sea topics. Even non-internet companies such as Xiaomi have been subject to suspicion of overly-close links with the Chinese state.

Technology companies strongly associated with state identities are increasingly a proxy for broader geopolitical conflicts at the state level, linking the commercial and securitised realms of cyberspace in ever more complicated webs. The recent standoff between China and the US on US technology companies operating in China is just one example. Earlier this year, the Snowden revelations gave the Chinese Government all the rhetorical ammunition it needed to remove several US companies from an approved procurement list – companies including Cisco, Apple, and McAfee. Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE were similarly banned in 2012 from bidding for government contracts in the US (and Australia) because of security concerns.

  • President Obama nominates Gayle Smith to lead US AID.
  • India cancels licenses of nearly 9000 charities (including Greenpeace India and the Ford Foundation) for failing to declare details of donations from abroad.
  • Confessions of an aid worker: 'after years in the field, I worry I have lost my compassion.'
  • Iraq now has one of the highest populations of internally displaced people in the world.
  • New report from Devex: what you need to know about emerging donors (China, Brazil, Russia, India, Turkey, UAE, South Africa, South Korea).
  • Confused about aid acronyms and lingo? A handy guide produced by IRIN.
  • With the terrible tragedy in Nepal, a startling graphic below from ODI on how little of the overall international aid budget is spent on #DisasterRiskReduction: 0.4%. 


Last week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a speech at the Sydney Institute that touched on the threat ISIS poses to 'the global rules based order', a threat in her opinion that is greater than any since World War II, including the rise of communism and the Cold War. 

Sam Roggeveen wrote on The Interpreter that the more appropriate frame of historical reference is not the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, but the earlier years of the late 1940s. Matthew Townsend-Hill said on Facebook that this may not be the best historical comparison either:


Over the past several months a gradual but significant shift has taken place in China's policy toward Japan. The change is a result of Beijing's recognition that its unrelenting pressure on Tokyo since the Japanese Government purchased several of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private owner in September 2012 has produced far greater costs than benefits for China. Chinese President Xi Jinping's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asian-African summit in Jakarta last month is the latest proof of the adjustment in Chinese policy.

Last November, when the two leaders first met in Beijing, Xi wanted to be seen as a good host and therefore did not snub Abe. In Jakarta, however, Xi had greater flexibility. Not only did he agree to the meeting, he apparently initiated it. Although China's state-run news agency Xinhua claimed the meeting took place at the request of Japan, senior Japanese officials say Xi asked to meet with Abe on the condition that Japan not disclose that it was arranged at China's behest.

China's routine conduct of patrols inside the 12-mile territorial water boundary around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which Japan exercises administrative control, has failed to achieve Beijing's objective of persuading Japan to acknowledge the existence of a sovereignty dispute. Instead, China's patrols, along with the establishment of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone in November 2013 and the imposition of a virtual freeze on high-level political contacts for more than two years, has led to damaging consequences for Chinese security.

Japan's direct investment in China fell by 38.8% year-on-year in 2014 to $4.33 billion. In 2013 it fell about 4%. Japan's defence budget reached $42 billion in 2015 and has increased three years in a row, ending 11 consecutive years of cuts. Japan relaxed the ban on the transfer of defence equipment and broadened the constitutional interpretation of the right of self-defence. Japanese force posture and structure are being reconfigured with a clear priority being assigned to defence of the southwest islands. Capabilities are being bolstered in such areas as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; interoperability; ballistic missile defence; and amphibious landing.

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President Obama has stated publicly that the disputed islands are covered under Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty. The US-Japan alliance has been strengthened with the issuance of updated guidelines for defence cooperation that underscore the 'global' nature of the alliance and enable the Abe Government to pursue 'proactive pacifism' in its security policy, among other things. Heightened concerns about China's policies and intentions was the major impetus for most, if not all, of the above moves.

Recognising that Chinese pressure on Japan was not succeeding, Xi Jinping has changed course. In addition to engaging directly with Prime Minister Abe, China resumed the high-level security dialogue with Japan after a hiatus of almost four years, restarted the Sino-Japanese parliamentary dialogue, and revived the trilateral mechanism among Chinese, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.

Abe's decision to forego a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine since he paid his respects there in December 2013 has helped to create a more positive atmosphere. In addition, although Prime Minister Abe did not repeat key phrases from the 1995 Murayama Statement in his speech delivered at the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in Jakarta, he nevertheless alluded to the topic of 'aggression' in sections citing the ten principles agreed upon at the inaugural Bandung Conference in 1995. Later, speaking to the US Congress, Abe explicitly said that Japan's actions in World War II 'brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries' and pledged he would 'uphold the views expressed by Japan's previous prime ministers in this regard.'

The favorable turn in Chinese policy toward Japan is welcome. The protracted downturn in Sino-Japanese relations has engendered hostility in both countries toward the other and increased the risk of accident and conflict.

More needs to be done to put the Sino-Japanese relationship on an enduring positive trajectory. First, Tokyo and Beijing need to faithfully adhere to the four-point agreement reached last November. Second, the bilateral maritime crisis management mechanism should be established as soon as possible to avert inadvertent clashes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Third, as a gesture of goodwill, China should reduce its patrols inside the territorial waters of disputed islands. Fourth, Beijing should avoid using the upcoming commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the ceremony in Beijing planned for 3 September, to inflame anti-Japanese nationalism and inject new tensions in China-Japan relations. Fifth, Prime Minister Abe should use his speech this coming August to make a clearer statement of apology for his country's war crimes so as to achieve reconciliation with China, as well as Korea, Taiwan, and other neighbouring countries that were occupied or attacked during the war.

If the anniversary of the end of the war can be managed well and opportunities are seized to further improve bilateral ties, a summit between Abe and Xi might be put on the calendar for late 2015 or early 2016 that would provide impetus for more progress. Such a scenario would make a significant contribution to security in the entire Asia Pacific.

Photo courtesy of Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet.


China and the US have both been described as countries that consider themselves to be exceptional. China, so much so, that some analysts argue it sees itself as 'uniquely unique'. What this means in China is that most Chinese understand themselves to be part of a culture that no-one else can truly understand, let alone ever be a part of.

This sense of 'us versus them' is politically expedient, and serves to build and reinforce a powerful sense of national identity. Indeed, so strong is the adherence to an exceptionalist national identity in China that when I was doing my PhD research on Chinese foreign policy, I seriously considered using the methodological approaches offered by the anthropology of religion to analyse and interpret my findings.

Another country which has been the subject of examination through the anthropology of religion is of course the US, for similar reasons.

The sense of national identity in the US is just as powerful and unquestioned as in China. Both 'flag waving' as well as more banal forms of nationalism are ubiquitous. Just as in China, where there exists a powerful logic of Chinese-ness, including the narrative of victimisation and humiliation at the hands of Western powers, in the US the commitment to values like freedom and democracy as being central to how the world should work are apparently largely unquestioned and unwavering.

In my current trip to the US, I started to notice in myself what I presume is the same sense of moral certainty that many Americans feel. I am both by proclivity and training a relativist, and I was surprised to find myself feeling pride and moral confidence as I toured such venerable institutions as the Library of Congress.

Over the course of a number of meetings with US think tanks, government employees and academics, I began to see an acceptance of a certain fundamental bottom line of truth as being the base of many US views about China and its activities in the Asia Pacific. Namely, that China is 'behaving badly' and it is up to the US to stop it. This can be seen in, for example, the recent Washington Post article in which the author casually assumes 'America's job of containing China'.

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In Australia, increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea raises questions about what we want as well as how we should go about trying to achieve it. Among many influential China thinkers in the US, it seems to me, the question of 'how' to deal with China largely subsumes the questions of 'what' or 'why'. It is taken for granted that the US is, and should naturally continue to be, the predominant power in the region, simply because it is, unquestionably, better for everyone that way.

China's activities in the region, generally accepted as being 'bad behaviour', bump up against not only US interests such as trade and political influence but also against America's sense of self. 

Australia, on the other hand, is concerned less by anxiety about its national identity and what it considers to be its rightful and appropriate role in the world. It is more concerned about practical exigencies. Australians welcome China as an economic partner, but fear China's geopolitical intentions, particularly regarding possible changes to existing norms and institutions. As the 2014 Lowy poll clearly showed, Australians see China as being equal with Japan as our 'best friend in Asia'; yet at the same time, Australians fear that China could pose a direct military threat to Australia in 20 years. 

I am not arguing that Western liberal values are not worthy, and I am not proposing that Chinese behaviour has only the purest and most benevolent of intentions. The point is that we don't actually know what China is trying to achieve.

I would argue though that at this moment, precisely as China is rapidly increasing its activities and expanding its presence in the region, it would be wise for the US not to respond hastily or in ways that fail to reflect an awareness of both their own views and biases, as well as China's. It would also be valuable for the US to reflect that not everyone, even old allies like Australia, let alone actors like Indonesia, view the region or feel the same concerns about it as they do.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ehpien.


Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed in Indonesia this week, along with six others. The Abbott Government responded by recalling Ambassador Paul Grigson on Wednesday. Aaron Connelly wrote on the motivations behind Jokowi's decision to proceed with the executions, despite significant pressure from Australia and the international community:

While SBY appeared to many Indonesians to be peragu, a vacillator, Jokowi has always appeared to be a man of action. He has sped up infrastructure projects, sped up subsidy reform, and – tragically – sped up executions.

While capital punishment is anathema to most Australians, it enjoys broad support in Indonesia, and the decision to carry out death sentences issued over the last decade represents for most Indonesians a return to the regular order under a president who is unafraid to enforce Indonesian laws even when placed under intense pressure to offer foreigners special dispensation. To most Indonesians, this is reform.

There is also a streak of 'victimhood' in Indonesian politics, writes Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

Jokowi called for 'reformasi' of global financial architecture, including institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. He also called on Asian and African nations to support an overhaul of the UN 'so that it can function as a world organisation that supports justice for all nations'.

So it's no surprise that Jokowi did not respond to an appeal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend to call off the executions. As elaborated by University of Indonesia International Law professor Hikmahanto Juwana in an interview with local media last week: 'The Indonesian[s] also have a right to ask why there was not a statement from the UN Secretary-General recently when two Indonesian domestic workers were executed in Saudi Arabia'. 

Khalid Koser published a paper with the Lowy Institute this week, Australia and the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as writing on what lessons Europe can learn from Australia's immigration policies:

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Second, Australia's quota for resettling refugees should be an embarrassment to the EU. Australia resettles more refugees than the entire EU area of over 500 million people. Resettlement may not satisfy the growing demand for entry into the richer countries, and probably would not reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but at least it demonstrates solidarity with some of the poorer countries of the world which continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis.

Jane McAdam from the University of Sydney responded to Khalid's paper:

There is clearly a need for states to take a different approach to the management of asylum movements. But the current Australian response is not it. Indeed, given Australia's disdain for any international criticism of its approach (see, for example, the Prime Minister's recent attack on the Special Rapporteur on Torture) it would be difficult for Australia to take the lead on any multilateral reform of the international protection system. Its credibility on this issue is at an all-time low.

Rodger Shanahan on Tareq Kamleh, the Australian 'medical jihadi' that appeared in an ISIS propaganda video earlier this week:

In one way Tareq Kamleh is different to other Australian jihadis because of his education and academic qualifications. But his actions are the same as all the others. He has made a conscious decision that his religious identity transcends his national identity. We shouldn't be too concerned that he is educated rather than a minor criminal or a teenage delinquent. What should concern us is why he and others can come to believe that their religion justifies participation in the imposition of an intolerant and violent ruling system, and the belief that their own government has no right to stop them from being part of the project. Until we can address that, people like Tareq Kamleh will continue to pop up in strange places.

Did the IMF learn it's lesson with Greece? Stephen Grenville:

Meanwhile, the IMF has acknowledged some of the mistakes made in 2010, but the unhappy legacy remains. Having established the precedent of lending to countries which have an unsustainable debt level, Ukraine has also been given substantial assistance. The broad issue of rescheduling sovereign debt, which the Fund has struggled to resolve for more than a decade, remains. Perhaps most important all, this story is a reminder of why governance reform is so vital for the Fund's credibility. 

Chinese firms will most likely be the biggest benefactors from Beijing's regional development initiatives, argues Julian Snelder:

Informed Chinese experts tell me that Chinese firms expect to scoop 93-94% of the contract value of all projects funded by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) plus the Chinese unilateral initiatives (like Silk Road Fund) combined. By Goldman Sachs' calculation, local expectations for China's newly re-combined train-making monopoly assume a clean sweep at home and an heroic 55% share of all railway rolling stock bought overseas in the next five years. These firms expect a bonanza of construction in which Chinese money, materials, management and manpower can build grand overseas projects. Foreign firms will have to settle for spillover business, in the form of subcontracts.

Samir Saran from the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi reviewed Modi's first year in office:

He is determined at one level, as he stakes his political capital on reforming the land acquisition law, and while pushing forth a slew of new initiatives like replacing the economic planning body (the Planning Commission) with a contemporary organisation. On the other hand, you sense there are some wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. There are times when you can see him pensively watching parliamentary proceedings as the lack of majority in the upper house impedes him. There is reluctance while communicating his vision and policies, and an inability to deploy the same communication means to reach out to citizens that got him the top job in the first place.

Two presidential aspirants, Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton, need each other, said Elliot Brennan:

Suu Kyi desperately needs Clinton's support. Suu Kyi's political standing has already diminished. Many of her supporters (both her strong Buddhist conservative backers and the human rights advocates) have criticised her handling of the Rohingya issue. She has wavered and remained mute on other important headline issues. Most problematic is that advocating too hard for the constitutional change that would allow her to run would make Suu Kyi look power hungry and self-interested. Yet if she doesn't advocate for the change, no one will. At some point soon, if the constitutional amendment doesn't go forward, she has to roll the dice and either boycott the elections or back another candidate while she sits on the sidelines.

And Sam Roggeveen on Julie Bishop's speech to the Sydney Institute early this week:

I am not ready to credit Bishop with Churchillian prescience. I think she's wrong about the scale of the ISIS threat. But if she turns out to be right about ISIS in the way Churchill was right about the Soviet Union, it's worth pointing out that Churchill's speech called on the world to act through the United Nations, including by giving it armed forces, initially in the form of air squadrons from each of its member states ('They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation').

That's a bold proposal, to say the least, and what's notable about Bishop's speech is that she proposed nothing remotely as radical to meet this allegedly world-historical threat. Australia has sent a handful of fighter aircraft and a few hundred soldiers to Iraq to fight ISIS, a response Bishop calls 'proportionate and appropriate'. That tells a rather different story about how seriously Bishop takes the ISIS threat.

Photo by Flickr user Moe-tography.