Lowy Institute

It is rarely acknowledged that the list of Australian journalists working on China in recent times is pretty stellar. Just off the top of my head I can think of Jane Perlez (New York Times), John Garnaut (formerly Fairfax), Stephen McDonell (BBC), Chris Buckley (New York Times) and of course Richard McGregor, former China bureau chief for the Financial Times and author of the widely praised ‘The Party: The Secret Life of China’s Communist Rulers’. (Sorry if I’ve left any worthy names out; please let me know in the comments.)

I was proud to introduce Richard last night at a Lowy Institute event at the National Press Club in Canberra, and afterwards we talked about the big theme of his speech, which was Xi Jinping. In this podcast Richard talks about Xi’s record as China’s leader, his reputation both at home and abroad, and how much control he really exercises over foreign policy decision-making.

Apologies for the below-standard audio, but it is definitely listenable.


By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • The Prime Minister of Fiji delivered a keynote address to the UN General Assembly, during which he stated Fiji will be 'more discerning' in its choice of friends, a marked change in rhetoric.
  • The work behind the Lowy Institute’s mapping project ‘Chinese Aid in the Pacific’ is examined here, including the utility of social media.
  • The Solomon Islands has called for Indonesia to allow UN Special Rapporteurs into West Papua to prove Indonesia’s claims that there are no abuses of human rights occurring in the province.
  • The significance of West Papua’s presence on the Pacific Islands Forum agenda is examined in this post by Nic Maclellan on The Interpreter.
  • Vanuatu has started public consultations about an income  tax.
  • Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, has outlined a potential new visa that would allow overseas-born citizens and permanent residents to bring their parents over to Australia.
  • Crowd-funded lawyers representing the former MPs who were arrested following an anti-government protest have arrived in Nauru.
  • The initial eight months of the presidency of the first woman to be elected head of government of a Pacific independent state, Dr Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands, is examined here.
  • American Samoa is seeking to follow the French territories to Pacific Islands Forum membership.
  • The Asaro Mud Men from the highlands of Papua New Guinea are in residence at the Australian Museum in Sydney this week, showcasing their work and contributing to cultural exchange between neighbours.
  • Peter King, a long-time Australian supporter and campaigner for West Papuan self-determination, has passed away.
  • After a warm welcome, the Prime Minister’s XIII defeated PNG 58-0. 
  • The upcoming Disney film 'Moana' will be the second set in the Pacific Islands (after ‘Lilo and Stitch’ in 2002). It tells the story of Moana, a Polynesian girl, who teams up with the demi-god Maui. The film has sparked discussion about the representation of Pacific Islanders, with some raising concerns about cultural appropriation.



Mapping China’s opaque aid program in the Pacific Islands was more complicated and time-consuming than I had anticipated. I made peace with this fact when I found myself building a makeshift 270-degree visual cocoon out of every electronic device in my apartment so that I could cross-check the various colour-drenched excel spreadsheets feeding into the Lowy Institute’s updated Chinese aid in the Pacific map.

Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia program launched a major update to the Institute’s flagship research mapping project on Chinese Aid in the Pacific.  The map now contains a decade of Chinese government aid activities in the Pacific Islands region, making it a valuable resource for anyone working on and interested in the region's shifting geopolitical landscape. Kudos to the map’s original architect, Dr Phillippa Brant, who set incredibly high standards for the project and left big shoes to fill. Here's how we did it.

A Chinese-language researcher was hired to help crawl through Chinese Government budget documents, embassy pages and media articles. With the odd exception, Chinese translations helped confirm what we already knew and provided another source to underpin project classifications. Pacific Government budget documents were a necessary input to extract information for large projects, particularly those which have received little media attention. However, these figures were often optimistic estimates and weren’t always a reflection of what was (or wasn’t) occurring on the ground.

More than 660 sources fed into the updated map, but thousands more potential sources were searched and discounted along the way.

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I encountered the usual combination of obstacles when trying to map even the smallest of grants: incorrect figures cited by the media, overlapping projects and announcements, missing budget documents and confusion about the true origin of the funds. Hours could be spent on research, only to discover that while a particular grant may have been publicly handed over by the Chinese embassy, the funds actually originated from a Chinese community association, a business association (see 'Olympus donation') or a provincial government.

Other reported flows of funds, including an A$99,500 ‘One China’ grant to Vanuatu and an A$332,500 donation to Fiji (to compensate for the cost of President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit) were tracked but considered outside the scope of development assistance.

Follow the trail of money online (especially via Facebook)

There is no substitute for in-field research. But when the budget doesn’t allow for hundreds of site visits across dozens of islands and when many official websites haven’t been updated in years (and are often coated in malware), social media becomes invaluable.  

Thanks to continued mobile broadband growth, Facebook is now a vital source of information for understanding political and social developments in the Pacific Islands region. Public profiles, discussion groups, images and videos posted on the platform provide a window into how capital citiesrural towns and even local debates are impacted and shaped by China’s development assistance and expanding engagement. Analysing images and extracting metadata from Facebook (ie. dates, locations, media type) often provided crucial missing pieces and final confirmation that a project has indeed entered the construction phase

There are plenty of Chinese aid projects (potentially) around the corner

It is worth noting what is not on the map. There are a lot of projects we researched but could not include for a variety of reasons. Some seem to have permanently stalled. Others have been announced but haven’t actually started. For example, Samoa has lined up funding for a police and overseas peacekeeping facility, a US$50 million China Exim Bank loan is in the pipeline to upgrade Dili’s drainage system in Timor-Leste (although there are setbacks), and maintenance repairs are planned for China-constructed buildings in the Cook Islands.

Another project in the works is PNG’s proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) which is majority funded by a $US59 million China EximBank loan. Huawei signed on to be the NBN technology partner in 2013 and Prime Minister O’Neill touted the project back in 2014. But since then information has been scant and with little concrete proof the project has begun, it was decided to omit it from the map.

Project run-off: Who else is settling into the region?

One of the interesting parts of working on a project like this, especially one with a heavy online component, is keeping an eye on what else and who else pops up on the fringes. Like China, most of the region’s newer and re-emerging partners are concentrating their resources in PNG and Fiji.


As previously covered by The Interpreter earlier in the year, Fiji has been on the receiving end of $A11.5 million worth of military ‘donations’ from Russia. This relationship is one to watch. It's hard to imagine Fiji-Russia relations taking off, but newly established bilateral mechanisms offer plenty of opportunities for the security-heavy relationship to expand.

Israel, via its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its development agency, has started providing aid to PNG and the Marshall Islands in the form of humanitarian assistance and professional training support. In a strange development, Israel also provides defence and intelligence support to PNG. Taiwan’s overseas development program is small but continues to have a surprisingly broad presence in the region, including in Pacific Island states that recognise China. It was surprising to find a fair bit of activity in Bougainville, where Taiwan has funded IT centres and computers, donated solar panels and provided agriculture training.

It was recently announced that South Korea is setting up a regional foreign aid office in Fiji.  South Korean ICT experts will be spending more time in PNG and the the country's navy is now also a regular regional visitor. But it's a $US300 million PNG-South Korea port agreement that signals South Korea's clear fisheries interests in the Pacific Islands.

One of the most interesting developments is India’s increased aid engagement in the region, particularly in PNG. A string of rare high-level visits culminated in an announcement this year that the Indian Government, through the Exim Bank of India, offered and signed a US$100 million credit line with PNG for infrastructure financing and HIV/AIDs medication. Also in the pipeline in PNG is a 'centre of excellence' for information and technology. Earlier in the year India provided assistance when Cyclone Winston devastated Fiji and has offered to help the Fjiian Government (as has China) with a proposed new naval base and officer training.

China Exim Bank funding and money laundering 

While social media content helped flesh out details of new Chinese aid projects, a lack of visible media and social media coverage also prompted questions, particularly when sizeable amounts of development money were budgeted and allegedly being spent.

For example, it’s hard to tell whether PNG’s 'distance education network community college' — which is being funded with a US$35 million EximBank loan — ever eventuated. The mysterious project was recently caught up in a high-profile money laundering case in Singapore after authorities detected suspicious transactions that led to the bank account of former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare (of which he denies knowledge). PNG Government budget documents report the project funds are currently in a trust managed by law firm Young & Williams Lawyers (who were the subject of 2015 investigations by SBS  and Fairfax). 

This development,  which may unravel further and is gathering steam across PNG's online discussion forums, should spook Chinese Government officials working in the region. An opaque aid program is already a tough sell in the Pacific Islands where mistrust, misinformation, frustrations and resentment about China's regional intentions abound.

Foreign aid programs are important tools of soft power and therefore linkages between aid and corruption, whether concrete, alleged or completely unfounded, equates to terrible PR for any donor. This is particularly true for China, which is already undergoing its own anti-corruption crackdown and dealing with domestic debates that charity should begin at home. PNG, a country marred by its own corruption issues, is wasting no time in lining up more Chinese concessional loans. The Chinese Government needs to make sure it steers well clear of any future allegations of corruption. Providing greater transparency around development assistance is the crucial first step. 

US presidential race 2016

The first of three presidential debates offered a lot of fireworks, but little to change the state of the race.

Trump trounced Clinton during the first third of the debate when discussing the economy and trade. Had this continued it would have become a rout. As it was, Clinton's preparation clearly paid off and she turned the tables admirably, especially with her ready-made retort to the accusation she had no stamina to be president. As many have noted, Clinton improved as the debate wore on: she was increasingly assured, polished, and on-point, while Trump was loose and at times rattled, squandering opportunities to hit Clinton by quarreling with moderator Lester Holt.

Overall, aided by some favourable moderation, Clinton won on points. But there was no knockout - few minds were changed by the performances, and even fewer were inspired to turn out who were likely to stay home before.

And this is Clinton's real problem. Her imperative is to get supporters to the polls on election day. On this, the debate was a failure for her campaign: Clinton's vision sounded focus-grouped and demotivating to voters, while Trump was not sufficiently outrageous to prove him unelectable.

This is no small problem. Much of the debate was about litigating personal issues — financial statements, emails, past positions — with not enough spent on real challenges facing Americans. For the average voter, there wasn't the substance on either side to inspire support or motivate turnout. Every time there is an increase in cynicism enhancing the general disgust towards politics, the candidate with the stronger base of enthusiasm wins, and that's Trump.

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It remains to be seen how the polls will react to the debate, but even if Clinton's numbers marginally improve this will likely be counteracted by the multitudes of people who won't bother to vote or who go third-party. This is going to be a turnout election, and unless Clinton is able to show herself to be an inspiration and not just a steady hand, she will struggle in the swing states come 8 November.

Nevertheless, Clinton's professional performance clearly demonstrated the benefits of preparation and may stimey Trump's momentum. If the polls show a larger than expected bounce for Clinton (say, much greater than 2% average), or if the Democratic base becomes sufficiently energised with former Bernie supporters signing up as volunteers, then the Clinton camp should consider itself very satisfied with the outcome. If not, they will be morose, because it means that even with a debate win, the mood for change throughout the country is simply overwhelming.

The result is probably somewhere in between. As Tom Switzer has noted, Trump successfully spoke to the punter and this keeps him competitive, yet Trump will still need to match Clinton's discipline and professionalism in the second and third debates if the American people are ultimately to entrust him with the presidency.

So much is happening in this campaign that it's very unlikely the headlines from it will last more than a couple of days, while an 'October surprise' is still likely to impact the race. Clinton won round one, but despite it being a widely viewed spectacle, the impact on the race seems surprisingly minimal. After all, it was very nearly a tie and, for Clinton, that may not be good enough.

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg


Hammering out an international agreement on limiting carbon emissions is hard enough, as anyone who has attended the succession of conferences on such a treaty since the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 can testify. But as the subsequent history of both the extended Kyoto Protocol agreed at a meeting in Doha in 2012 and the more comprehensive climate agreement signed in Paris late last year have shown, the conference itself is only the start of the political saga for these treaties.

International treaties do not come into effect simply because they have been signed by representatives of the governments involved. They have to be ratified (that is, given formal assent) by these governments.

The Paris agreement contains a specific clause that the treaty will not come into effect until at least 55 governments (out of the 190 which signed the treaty) representing 55% of emissions have ratified it. This target has yet to be met; as matters stand, it is expected that these conditions will be fulfilled perhaps by the end of the year, but the process is not straightforward.

In early September, in a bilateral meeting before the G20 summit, US President Barack Obama and the Chinese President Xi Jinping ratified the Paris treaty. The Chinese side is straightforward, but US part of the deal is not strictly ratification, which requires two-thirds majority assent by the US Senate. Ratification is a tough requirement for any treaty, but particularly for a climate treaty in a US Senate dominated by Republicans.

Instead President Obama gave presidential assent to an agreement. The wording of the Paris treaty was changed at the last moment, at the insistence of the US delegation, so that it be classified as an agreement rather than as an international treaty (a 'shall' was changed to a 'should' ). The major difference is that subsequent presidents can simply repudiate the agreement. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has already pledged to do so.

However, Obama's signature still counts as ratification as far as the treaty is concerned, and on 23 September the agreement took another huge step towards realisation when 23 countries ratified it in one session of the UN general assembly.

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That adds up to 60 countries on board representing 48% of emissions. But the EU remains a stumbling block, due to Poland. All 28 members of the EU (including the UK) have to agree before the treaty can be signed, but the Bratislava Declaration (issued after an informal meeting of government heads in mid-September) does not mention the issue at all. Instead it concentrates on the problem of refugee flows.

Poland has indicated that it will agree to the EU (which accounts for about 12% of the world’s emissions) ratifying the treaty, but first all of the EU countries have to agree to Brussels giving financial guarantees for three new coal-fired stations, which the country says its needs for energy security. The European Investment Bank, the EU’s lending arm, has a policy preventing funding for new coal plants. The Polish government has also noted that the coal plants will not be profitable if the price of emission permits (which the plants must have under EU rules) become too high.

More than 80% of Poland’s electricity is generated by coal, and the Law & Justice Party of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, which came to power last year, has vowed to defend the power industry. This hardline attitude also means that Poland has so far refused to ratify the extended Kyoto protocol (also known as the Doha amendment or second extension period) which was hammered out back in 2012. After repeated international meetings, and for want of anything better, the developed countries that signed the original Kyoto protocol agreed to extend it to 2020. When it comes into force that year, the Paris agreement is meant to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

However, that earlier agreement has yet to come into effect. In July a UN statement noted that 66 of the 144 countries required by the original deal have ratified it.  The extended Kyoto deal is no great loss, as it covered only developed countries, and not the big emitters China and India. The US never signed and other developed countries such as Japan, Canada and New Zealand stayed away.

Instead, hopes for effective international emission control system is pinned on the Paris agreement, which may well come into legal force before the start date of 2020. But the treaty does not put any effective limits on emissions from China or India. Instead, those countries have agreed to reduce energy intensity for their economies, which observers have noted is happening anyway.

But even those not very onerous conditions have caused problems. After talks with President Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi expressed support for ratifying the Paris deal (support which stopped short of a commitment) but indicated that India wanted assistance with financing alternative energy projects and nuclear power plants.

The Paris deal was signed with considerable fanfare, but turning this limited deal into reality has proved a grim and difficult business. 

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

US presidential race 2016

The first thing to note is that, despite the avalanche of media coverage and articles such as this one, presidential debates may not matter very much. At the very least, the evidence is mixed. The second thing is that what the candidates say is probably secondary to how they look, and how they react in an unscripted way. As James Fallows points out, one reliable way to pick tonight's winner might be to hit the 'mute' button.

That said, some initial thoughts which I jotted down as I watched:

  • If in fact this debate really is being decided on visuals and the 'human moments' rather than policy substance, then on the first 30 minutes in particular, Clinton wins. Trump was incredibly rude; constantly interrupting, talking over his opponent, and pointing at her aggressively.
  • According to Trump, America is being fleeced by other countries, but his framing is fascinating. He praises the 'opposition': China is the 'best'; Mexico has a smart tax system; America is being ripped off by every country in the world; other countries have incredible airports. Trump is telling Americans that they are being overtaken, and that America may not be as exceptional as it thinks. That's kind of extraordinary, but certainly reflects the historical moment.
  • Incredible: Trump says America has spent $6 trillion in the Middle East when it could have been spending on infrastructure at home. Not long ago, you would have been hounded out of the Republican Party with pitchforks for a sentiment like that. Now the GOP's nominee says it. The Republican Party is being transformed before our eyes.
  • Clinton got into a slanging match over NAFTA, which was weak territory for her and strong for Trump. But Trump spent much of this period badgering Clinton, which looked really unattractive.
  • Let's not blind ourselves to how extraordinary Trump is; how many 'rules' (norms, really) he has broken in US presidential politics. Tonight he directly talks down the US economy, saying that the economy is in a bubble and that the Fed is being more political than Clinton. Unprecedented.
  • Clinton jabbed early by saying Trump was born with a silver spoon. Trump took up the point but in a fairly reserved way. Later Clinton launches her strongest attack, on Trump's refusal to release his tax returns (again, unprecedented) and his record as a businessman. A lot of pre-debate commentary suggested Trump could be baited into self-destructive counter-attacks, and Clinton has tried. But it has to be said this tactic failed.
  • On race relations, Clinton casts herself as the optimist against Trump's vision of lawless inner cities. Optimism is usually a winning strategy for US presidential candidates, but then again, these are not normal times.
  • Clinton pivots to Trump's right on the question of cyber-security, arguing that America needs to be more assertive and more capable. Trump is too close to Russia, she says, and incredibly...Trump defends the Russians! He says it might not have been Moscow which hacked the DNC. Why didn't Clinton point this out in her response?
  • On national security and counter-terrorism, Clinton sounds too much like the type of foreign-policy establishment figure against whom Americans are clearly rebelling. She praises NATO and implies that she wants more surveillance, and at the end of the debate she sends a message to America's allies that it will continue its historical world role. It seems out of touch with the times. By contrast, Trump doubles down on his 'heresy' that America's allies don't pay their way, and says America cannot be the policeman of the world.
  • 'Wooh, OK'. That's Clinton's smiling and ever-so slightly condescending put-down in reaction to Trump's spray about his winning temperament and Clinton being 'out of control'. That's going to become a meme.
  • On nuclear weapons, Trump says 'We should certainly not do first strike'. Did Trump just announce a no-first use policy?
  • Clinton's late attack on Trump's sexism was strong, and Trump's riposte incredibly weak.

 Photo: Getty Images/Joe Raedle


Two weeks on from the worst attack on Indian soldiers in Kashmir for decades, the dust is starting to settle. Many Indian politicians, press, and analysts had struck a relentlessly hostile note, demanding that New Delhi take (in their view) long overdue military action against the Pakistani terrorists who routinely conduct cross-border attacks, and the Pakistan Army's intelligence service, which has for decades aided and abetted them. There had also been unprecedented levels of interest in alternatives to military action, ranging from covert warfare to abrogation of the historic Indus Waters Treaty. But it is now clear that this government, like both its two immediate predecessors, is aiming to lower expectations of an overt strike, while focusing instead on a coordinated campaign to isolate Pakistan diplomatically. 

Immediately after the Uri attack on 16 September, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanded severe retaliation: 'for one tooth, the complete jaw'. 'Pakistan is a terrorist state', tweeted the home minister, 'and it should be identified and isolated as such'. 'Every Pakistan post through which infiltration takes place should be reduced to rubble by artillery fire', argued the retired Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal. 'Action against Pakistan is an imperative for national morale', echoed retired Lieutenant General HS Panag, urging a '(Kashmir)-centric limited war'. An intelligent debate unfolded in sections of the print media, with more cautious voices like Pratap Mehta, Sushant Singh, Ajai Shukla, Suhasini Haidar, Arun Pakash and Manoj Joshi expressing doubts over both the feasibility and desirability of punishing Pakistan with force. 

On 24 September, after a three-day party conclave in the southern city of Kozhikode, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a nuanced speech that indicated where the government stood. He made no reference to retaliation or punishment, challenged Pakistan to a thousand-year war to eradicate poverty, and sharply distinguished between ordinary Pakistanis and the government 'making you fools in the name of Kashmir'. Yet he also promised that India would 'leave no stone unturned to isolate Pakistan in the world' and that 'we will ramp it up and force you to live alone in the world'. Indeed, India has already ramped it up, with aggressive speeches at the UN General Assembly by a junior diplomat, who called Pakistan the 'Ivy League of terrorism', and then the foreign minister herself on Monday.

Modi also hinted at his reasons for restraint: 'the whole world recognises India to be the world's fastest growing major economy'.

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Even if India could strike at Pakistan, doing so would place at risk its wider economic and diplomatic objectives, including rapid development and heightened integration into key global institutions like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the UN Security Council. It is crucial to understand that this restraint is not itself a fixed policy, but a function of several factors. Some are broadly static, such as the economic and diplomatic stakes that might be threatened by a regional war. Others, however, are more contingent. One of these factors is the state of Indian military and intelligence capabilities, which are likely to adapt over time in line with funding and political attention. Such deep-seated reform (which the Economist discussed briefly last week) will take years.

Another factor, however, is the trigger itself. The Uri attack killed 18 soldiers, but this has to be understood in the context of the death of 135 members of Indian security forces this year alone, including 64 in Kashmir. It may be harsh to say so, but Uri is not an attack on the scale of Mumbai in 2008, and so the serious risks that accompany air strikes or ground warfare are not realistically on the table. What this does suggest is that Modi's homilies on economic growth and war on poverty could well be set aside when (not if) we see the next mass casualty attack, political assassination, or similar provocation from Pakistan-backed actors. Restraint now does not guarantee restraint in the future; it may even make it less likely, as public pressure accumulates. 

More broadly, the Uri attack has catalysed Indian debate over non-military deterrence and coercive options. On Monday, Modi chaired a meeting, attended by both his foreign secretary and national security advisor, on the Indus Waters Treaty, a landmark 1960 agreement that governs how India (the upper riparian state) shares river water with Pakistan. The IWT has endured through several wars and crises, and the government is claiming that the treaty itself isn't under review. But it has suspended talks in the Permanent Indus Commission, the treaty's joint dispute resolution body, and declared that it will go from using 11,000 to 18,000 megawatts of power from the western rivers, which will have an impact on Pakistan. All this is a clear signal that even the most durable of India-Pakistan agreements is at risk should attacks recur. Indian critics have, however, pointed out that India is the lower riparian with respect to China and is seeking similar agreements with other neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal, so abrogation could set a dangerous precedent for New Delhi.

Elsewhere, India's former national security advisor (2005-11) MK 'Mike' Narayanan argued in The Hindu that restraint in the past had 'greatly added to India's prestige', and that Indian forces were anyway incapable of 'spectacular raids' using special forces. 'India's best option', he suggested instead, 'would be to engage in cyber sabotage and cyberwarfare, hiding behind the plausible deniability available in such attacks. Our capacity in this area is considerable, and it should be possible to...bring Pakistan to its knees'.

This seems unduly confident. As Arun Sukumar explains in an excellent brief, India has fairly limited offensive cyber-capabilities and has more to lose from any change to the 'stability of cyberspace in South Asia'. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that Pakistan, a nation that lost 1000 civilians to terrorism last year, would be crippled by virtual damage. Indian hackers 'once took down Pakistan Railways' website', noted one Pakistani on Twitter, wryly. 'Nobody brought it back up for at least a year'. 

This curious ferment of ideas, some more coherent than others, is a reflection of Indians' growing frustration at their apparent impotence in the face of major attacks in 2001-02, 2008, and now 2016. This problem is intractable. Pakistan's relationship to non-state armed groups is a fundamental part of its security strategy, linked both to Pakistan's revisionist aims in Kashmir and its broader insecurity around a rapidly rising India. This strategy has contributed both to the ravaging of Pakistan in militant violence for over a decade and to growing alienation from the US. If these costs have not altered Pakistan's calculus, India would have to impose one larger still.

Yet any steps that do so, such as the seizure of Pakistani territory or the degradation of the Pakistani army, would catalyse support for Pakistan's army and anti-Indian jihadist groups, generate costs for India in excess of the original terrorist provocations, and eventually bring nuclear weapons into play. Slow-burning, non-kinetic options (like weaponising water, or supporting Pakistani separatists) might limit the third of these risks, but not necessarily the first two. And yet, although smaller steps that reduce the likelihood of escalation (from angry speeches all the way up to symbolic air strikes in disputed territory) may mollify Modi's restive domestic constituents, they won't make a dent on Pakistan's calculus. Addressing state sponsorship of terrorism is a fiendishly difficult problem, as Israel has found with respect to Iran, and only coercion and diplomacy in parallel are likely to work over the longer term.

 Photo: Getty Images/Hindustan Times.


This is a new series which has just started airing in the US and is available on Netflix here in Australia.

It's a compelling premise for a series, and the reviews are generally positive.

(H/t JG.)

  • The Clinton Foundation has been under the microscope over the last few months. Dylan Matthews takes a look at its record and details how it has undoubtedly had an impact in saving millions of live through playing a critical role in pushing down the cost of HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries.
  • Foreign aid supporters in the UK are pushing the government for more detail on recent figures showing that the proportion of foreign aid to be spent by departments other than its foreign aid ministry (DFID) will rise from 18% this year to 26% in 2019/20.
  • The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria held its Fifth Replenishment Conference in Montreal last week, with $12.9 billion pledged for 2017-2019, $1 billion more than the last replenishment. Australia provided a nominal increase of 10% over its last pledge, which should be considered a win in the context of a massively cut-back aid program.
  • Six candidates will compete to be the next head of the World Health Organisation, as Margaret Chan steps down after a decade at the helm. The WHO is currently facing questions about its relevancy after its failure to effectively and rapidly respond to the Ebola outbreak.  
  • Angus Deaton and Nancy Cartwright have produced a working paper considering the use and limitations of randomised control trials.  
  • Speaking of which, an RCT evaluation of the effect of TOMS shoes in El Salvador has found that the overall impact of the shoe donation program appears to be negligible, since most children already own at least one pair of shoes.
  • Dani Rodrik discusses how and why globalisation should be rolled back and made to work better for democracies. Chris Blattman provides his thoughts here



The issue of human rights in West Papua was high on the agenda at the recent Pacific Islands Forum in the Federated States of Micronesia. Despite the sensitivities for member countries like Australia and Papua New Guinea, leaders at the forum also agreed the issue should stay on the agenda for next year's meeting in Samoa.

Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea went on the record to say: 'It's an issue that needs to be pursued and it's not going to go away. Our bigger countries in the region like Australia and New Zealand realise that this issue is just not going to go to sleep – and it shouldn't go to sleep, because it is very important for our region.'

This line is a rebuttal to Indonesian authorities who would prefer that Forum leaders avoid discussion of human rights and self-determination in West Papua. Speaking after a ministerial meeting in Australia last December, Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu (a former army chief of staff) said West Papua should not be an issue for regional discussion:

There are countries that are getting involved in the issue of Papua. For us, Papua is in the United Republic of Indonesia. The United Republic of Indonesia extends from Sabang to Papua. There is no other solution to talk about it, that's it, that's the way it is. So this is so that everyone will know that that doesn't need to be spoken about.

Pacific civil society has ensured that island leaders continue to address the issue. First adopted in 2014, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism is a new policy mechanism for business and community organisations to put forward submissions for regional action by forum leaders. In both 2015 and this year, the largest number of submissions called for action on West Papua.

In Pohnpei, civil society representatives met over breakfast with a troika of island leaders, lobbying for the Forum to take the West Papuan issue to the international community.

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Non-self-governing territories like New Caledonia and French Polynesia are now gaining full membership in the Forum, yet countries like Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji are reluctant to grant membership to the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, which is lobbying for regional support. The Forum's final communique simply stated that 'leaders recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua should remain on their agenda. Leaders also agreed on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia on the issue'.

The reference to 'alleged' human rights violations is much weaker language than used in other regional statements, such as the 2013 Melanesian Spearhead Group Summit, which supported 'the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination' and condemned 'human rights violations and other forms of atrocities relating to the West Papuan people'.

After the meeting, Emele Duituturaga, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO), said: 'We know that the draft text reflected their intention to take West Papua to the United Nations, but when the final communiqué was released, it had been watered down.' As a journalist who reported on the Forum in Pohnpei, a number of sources from the leaders' retreat confirmed that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull personally weakened the language on West Papua in the communiqué.

After the summit, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi (who will host the 2017 Forum in Apia) said: 'It must be understood that West Papua is part of Indonesia and any other way of handling it is interfering with Indonesia's national interests. That is why the only way to do this is through the United Nations under the right to self-determination.'

Given the lack of agreement at the Pacific Islands Forum , individual countries will now work through the Pacific Coalition on West Papua to lobby at the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN structures. Under the coalition umbrella, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia's FLNKS independence movement are now joined by Nauru, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands, as well as churches and civil society groups like PIANGO.

The Forum summit received poor coverage in Australia because the Australian media failed to take it seriously. The press pack arrived with Turnbull on his plane after the Forum meeting had begun, and left on Saturday night before the official communique was released. I encourage readers of The Interpreter to look beyond Australia's mainstream media, and go to Pacific media organisations that gave extensive coverage to what island leaders are actually saying.

Photo: Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti


China has now started to operate the world's largest radio telescope. The 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) rests in a natural depression in Guizhou, and resembles the famous 300 metre Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. Size alone does not speak of its power. The telescope's reflecting panels can be individually steered. The instruments are highly sensitive. Much of the technology in FAST was developed in Australia by our own world-class scientists. That's understandable from a technical perspective, but it also reflects the fact that American scientists would probably not have been able to co-operate with China to the same extent. Political tensions between the US and China restrict co-operation in space research, largely due to American legislation.

The big dish is another reminder that China is flexing its muscles in science, technology and space exploration. Earlier this month, China launched the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, and expects to soon launch two astronauts to live on board the lab for a month. America is scaling back its astronomy programs and can't even launch astronauts. This is more than just symbolism for a rising power. These projects reflect and reinforce national capabilities that benefit society, the economy and national defence.

The FAST telescope will mostly be used for general astronomy, but China has been highly public in discussing one of its uses. China plans to search the universe for intelligent life, hoping to intercept signals broadcast by civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been carried out by small teams of astronomers for decades without success. It generally suffers from poor funding and a lack of respect from the general scientific community, although the 'Breakthrough Listen' project sponsored by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has been helpful to this ailing area of science. Some governments seem to view SETI with suspicion, concerned about how a discovery would affect social perceptions and religious viewpoints.

It is clear that China takes SETI seriously and has no reservations about stating this openly. With the world's largest dish and support for research, China now stands a good chance of making humanity's first contact with extraterrestrials. That would be a major achievement for China, but it would also be a big deal for the entire world. In the twentieth century, Apollo astronauts planted the American flag on the Moon. The world shared in the glory, generally perceiving the moon landings as an achievement for all humanity. A Chinese discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would hopefully be seen in the same light.

Photo: Getty Images/VCG


The Peterson Institute in Washington has published a report on the international trade policies enunciated by the two US presidential candidates during their campaigns. Its conclusion:

Clinton's proposed trade and international economic policies would damage American well-being, primarily but not solely due to her stated opposition to TPP and to further economic integration. The policies proposed by Trump are another matter altogether. His stated approach to the global economy of waging trade war and protecting uncompetitive special interests would be disastrous for American economic well-being and national security…We call them as we see them: While Clinton's stated trade policy would be harmful, Trump's stated trade policy would be horribly destructive. 

The Peterson study models a couple of different scenarios, including a 'full-scale trade war' in which Trump imposes the threatened 35% tariff on Mexico and 45% on China, and abrogates NAFTA but doesn't end any other US trade agreements. The simulation assumes Mexico and China respond in kind. The result would be a serious recession for the US, which would take unemployment from under 5% to well over 8%. In time, trade would adjust and employment would return to normal within 7-8 years, but with slightly lower living standards.

Both candidates currently say that they would not agree to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), although a back-flip by Clinton is more likely than by Trump, despite her adamant language. When she was secretary of state she supported it and there is some family history of trade-agreement reversals. 

For Australia, the economic case for participation in the TPP was always marginal. Plurilateral preferential trade agreements don't do as much harm as bilateral agreements, and while this 'platinum' set of rules blatantly favours US interests, some of the worst aspects were softened in the negotiation. 

If TPP were to go ahead we would join in order to affirm our close ties with America, hoping to deepen their security commitment to the region. The TPP provides content and profile to America's 'tilt to Asia'. If this falls over, there is not much left other than words and past performance. Hence the response from Singapore, New Zealand and now Australia. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told President Obama face-to-face:

Your partners, your friends who have come to the table, who have negotiated, each one of them has overcome some domestic political objection, some sensitivity, some political cost to come to the table and make this deal. And if at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn't arrive, I think there are people are going to be very hurt.'

NZ's John Key sang a similar tune.

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'If [the US] abdicates leadership in the region, that role will get filled. It has to. In the end, these economies aren't going to stand still.' And Malcolm Turnbull chimed in: 'It is a statement of America's commitment to the region.'

But it is the economics, rather than security aspects, that is holding the TPP back in the US Congress. Bernie Sanders' view of the TPP is widely shared and (allowing for a bit of hyperbole) it's actually easy to agree with much of it:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy. It will also negatively impact some of the poorest people in the world. The TPP is a treaty that has been written behind closed doors by the corporate world. Incredibly, while Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry and major media companies have full knowledge as to what is in this treaty, the American people and members of Congress do not. They have been locked out of the process. 

Everyone knows (or thinks they know) that globalisation and international trade has caused the slump in American manufacturing. Well, actually, the dollar value of American manufacturing output is at a historical high. The key problem is that this production is now done so efficiently that fewer workers are needed. In the period which showed the biggest impact of China becoming 'manufacturer to the world' (2000-2010), 88% of the fall in American manufacturing employment was caused by the huge rise in productivity: fewer jobs, done by more skilled people. If year-2000 technology had been maintained, manufacturing employment would have been almost 21 million, instead of just over 12 million. Technology has been far more important than globalisation. But who want to stop it? Who wants to bring back the steam engine and the hand-loom?

Nor can globalisation explain the extraordinary change reported in Nicholas Eberstardt's 'Men without Work', with labour force participation among American 'prime-age males' (25-54 year-olds) dropping sharply. One in eight is not even in the labour force. Combine this with the finding of Deaton and Case showing that mortality among white non-Hispanic males has risen since 1998, contrary to the downward trend in all other age groupings, thanks to drugs and alcohol, suicide, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. This adverse trend was far strongest among the least educated.

Nor is it the impact of globalisation that Arlie Hochschild reports in 'Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right':

 You are patiently standing in a long line for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and in principle you wish them well. But you've waited long, worked hard, and the line is barely moving.

Then 'Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!' Who are these interlopers? 'Some are black,' others 'immigrants, refugees.' They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — 'checks for the listless and idle.' The government wants you to feel sorry for them. 

At a superficial level, a consensus seems to be forming that globalisation is the principal culprit for Brexit, the unnerving popularity of Donald Trump, and most of the world's ills. This is a convenient scapegoat for a whole raft of discontents of greater or lesser justification. 

The sort of glib remedy directed at 'hyper-globalisation' by Dani Rodrik clearly misses the point. Many of the problems need political remedies. In economics, a basic measure would be to avoid having the sort of Great Recession that America is only now, eight years later, emerging from.

The TPP is no great loss, in itself: the day may come when the system of international governance can write a far better set of multilateral rules for the World Trade Organization, for international corporate taxation, for intellectual property, for global capital movements and the myriad of other global economic issues, rather than having these formulated within the vested-interest processes in a single dominant country. These multilateral economic rules will not be seen principally as a way of winning indirect security advantage over China; they will be designed to make the international economy work better. In the meantime, let's hope Donald Trump can't do too much harm to the existing system, imperfect though it is.

Photo: Gett Images/Bloomberg


Arguably the most important fact about contemporary Australian foreign policy is that, for the first time in our history, Australia's major trading partner is a peer competitor of our major ally. Previously the UK, then the US and in more recent times Japan were not only our chief foreign economic partners, but also closely aligned to Australia on questions of defence and security. Today, our major trading partner, China, has strategic interests that are, at best, in tension with those of the US, Japan and Australia, if not outright inimical to them.

Since The Interpreter began in 2007, China's rise has been the single most prominent theme on this site. And within that larger story, The Interpreter has also charted the debate about how Australia should conduct its relations with China. We are proud to have encouraged a diverse debate among some of our most eminent and prominent scholars, policy-makers and commentators, helping to make The Interpreter an integral part of Australia's foreign policy conversation.

In earlier years, that conversation was confined to policy elites, but in recent months we have seen it hit the mainstream, thanks to stories such as the Ausgrid decision and the Dastyari case. With the Australia-China relationship now so prominent in the national political debate, we thought this was the perfect moment to look back on nine years of Interpreter coverage of this key issue.

Click on this link to see a list of the many posts on this issue on The Interpreter. You can also page through all the posts here.


This week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flew to New York, where he sparred with former PM Kevin Rudd, met with the rapper Ludacris, and addressed two summits on refugees and immigration.

The UN Summit’s main achievement was the adoption of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, wrote Jiyoung Song:

UN officials have described the Declaration as a 'miracle' and a 'game-changer', while NGOs, journalists and academics have largely dismissed it as an 'historic failure'. The truth lies somewhere between.

While at the summits, Turnbull exhorted Australia’s border security model. But if other countries were to follow it, the consequences would be disastrous, argued Frances Voon:

The problem is that if all states insisted that no asylum seekers were allowed onto their territory uninvited, the entire system of refugee protection would fail. If other countries heeded Australia’s exhortations to replicate its ‘model’ border security approach, the very foundations of refugee protection would be seriously eroded.

Elsewhere at the UN, it was a high-stakes week for the secretary-general candidates. Sarah Frankel on how the field is faring:

The former Portuguese prime minister turned UN refugee chief remains the frontrunner, clearly topping all four straw polls thus far. Many speculate that Russia is behind one of his two 'discourage' votes, suggesting that Antonio Guterres still has to overcome Moscow's preference for an Eastern European and the perception of being too pro-Western.

Simon Heffer filed an absolutely crushing obituary for former UK PM David Cameron’s political career:

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After so catastrophic a failure of judgment he had no choice but to resign. And, as befits a man who has always given the impression of being in it for himself, there was nothing to persuade him to stay in politics, hence his decision to quit last week. It isn’t the first undertaking he has broken: he is that sort of man.

After attending a Young Australians in International Affairs panel on digital diplomacy (along with the Institute’s own Sam Roggeveen), UK diplomat George Morrison reflected on why online diplomatic communication matters:

We can get hung up on the number of social media accounts a foreign ministry has, how many likes a tweet received, or how many followers we have. These numbers are great: they are easily measured; they boost egos; and they can be spun as demonstrating successful digital engagement. But they don’t go to the heart of Sam’s question: What difference has it made? In the end, as public servants, we need to demonstrate to taxpayers why it is worth investing in digital.

While Turnbull was overseas spruiking Australia’s multicultural bona fides, an unfortunate poll result was released back home: 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. This number may not be as bad as it looks, I argued:

A significant chunk of Australians may support the notion of banning Muslim immigration, but it's not clear it's a policy priority for anyone outside a very small segment of the population.

Peter Layton argued that the government’s foreign affairs white paper probably won’t be an actual strategy:

While shaping our future has an attraction, in the modern era strategies often lose out to political and bureaucratic pragmatism. Our new white paper seems unlikely to end up as a true strategy, as such an approach is tough on several levels. And if an event-driven White Paper is eventually settled on, there is a model available. Responding to events was the approach underpinning the UK's 2015 National Security Strategy. A DFAT white paper that stresses readiness to respond to (rather than shape) events appears more likely than Julie Bishop's desires might suggest.

Should Indonesia decide to reinstate the death penalty for Philippine national Mary Jane Veloso, the Australian government should intervene diplomatically, wrote Amy Maguire:

At the moment, Australia is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, including from Indonesia. The committee’s recommendation for broader and less partial advocacy against the death penalty will enable Australia to demonstrate the strength of its abolitionist stance. In turn, Australia may hope to more effectively influence other states to abandon capital punishment in law and practice.

Mereoni Chung analysed how social media in Fiji is providing an outlet for political dissidence:

In Fiji social media is creating an alternative space for freedom of expression and assembly, similar to that seen in some other restrictive democracies. Young Fijians are at the forefront of political development. They know the best hope for real democracy is literally in their hands.

Leon Berkelmans argued for a more civilised debate over Chinese influence in Australia:

One thing that does not engender trust or credibility is the ad hominem attack, or the snide comment. I’ve seen too much of that lately, and it has come from both sides. I’ll call out two publicly.

As Australia lobbies the US to pass the TPP, two parliamentary committees have established inquiries in to the TPP with a timeframe beyond the Obama presidency, wrote Greg Earl:

The federal government’s lobbying of US politicians to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership TPP) trade deal this week may look a little hollow when the Americans see what is happening Down Under.

Emma Connors wrote on what’s going on in the swing-state of Ohio:

In this election campaign, at least in Ohio, people are not always impressed by what is but they're willing to back someone they don't believe, often mainly because they dislike the other candidate more. No wonder it feels surreal.

Finally, is it time for a new intelligence review? John Blaxland:

Nowadays a wide range of government bodies not only draw on the intelligence products of the Australian Intelligence Community, but also conduct their own intelligence analysis. More organisations than ever also draw on the work of the AIC to raise their own security awareness and to help with contingency and other planning. The lines have blurred, suggesting there is some benefit from reviewing the AIC.

 Photo: Getty Images/Christopher Furlong


Two international summits held in New York this week were intended to generate fresh political will and substantial new pledges to bolster the international response to refugees. Australia's contribution to these summits was not only inadequate, it demonstrated a fundamental misconception of the requirements of international cooperation for refugee protection.

There was little new or significant in the announcements made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at President Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees on Tuesday, despite this being a condition of entry. The decision to maintain Australia's Humanitarian Program at 18,750 places from 2018-19 onward has been described as 'a bit of a con', simply reflecting that a previously announced increase would not be cut. This falls far short of the (still modest) 30,000-50,000 places that various civil society groups had called for before the summits.

Australia's commitment of an additional $130 million in aid over three years to support refugees and host communities in countries of first asylum has been welcomed, although whether this constitutes a generous contribution is a matter of perspective. It is just a fraction of the $880.5 million allocated in the 2016-17 Budget to maintain offshore processing on Manus and Nauru for a single year.

A Community Support Program was announced to enable communities and businesses to sponsor and support the settlement of 1000 refugees. This appears to be an expansion of the recently completed Community Proposal Pilot, which had mixed reviews. Crucially, it is not yet clear whether the places under this program will be incorporated within the 18,750 places in the humanitarian quota. It will only genuinely expand pathways to protection if it is additional. As lessons from the Community Proposal Pilot show, the details of how such schemes are administered can determine whether they really enhance access to protection, or are merely available to a privileged few.

The announcement that Australia will participate in a scheme to resettle refugees from Central America has raised eyebrows. The scheme is an in-country processing arrangement enabling Central Americans to apply for protection before leaving their country of origin. After pre-screening, with assistance from UNHCR and IOM, those identified as having an urgent protection need are transferred to Costa Rica pending resettlement elsewhere. The scheme is in its infancy, and is part of a suite of measures by the US (including some harsh deterrence measures) to address the increasing irregular movement of Central Americans to the US through Mexico. In this respect, Australia's participation in the scheme could be seen as a cynical attempt to undercut criticism of its own asylum policies by helping the US with its own domestic political problem. The announcement also drew speculation that this might be part of a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby the US would resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru, a suggestion that has been denied by the Australian government. It's unclear whether the Central American places will be additional to the announced humanitarian quota.

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The most resounding criticism of the government's performance has been reserved for its jarring refrain that Australia's policies on border protection and asylum are 'the best in the world', while steadfastly ignoring the elephant in the room: offshore processing. Not only does this disregard the incontrovertible harm wreaked upon individuals and families affected by this policy, but is symptomatic of a broader failure to acknowledge the full implications of Australia's 'border security' approach to asylum.

At the UN General Assembly, Turnbull elaborated the three pillars of Australia's approach to the 'global surge in migration' as follows: 

First, strong border controls, with effective measures to combat people smuggling and terrorism, supported by a planned migration program. Secondly, a compassionate humanitarian policy, one that doesn't focus merely on the numbers that we take in but offers substantial resettlement programs and supports those countries hosting large numbers of refugees themselves. And third, effective international and regional cooperation.

Turnbull had argued the previous day at the Obama summit that this strategy 'addresses all parts of the problem'. He suggested that public confidence in the government's ability to manage borders is an essential precondition to support for humanitarian refugee programs. Putting to one side the question of whether the Australian public's concern about secure borders has been assuaged or amplified by government rhetoric and policy, Turnbull is wrong to say that this approach represents a comprehensive or coherent response to the global challenge of displacement.

Most people would accept that a predictable and well-managed response to refugees and migrants (to the extent that this is possible) is good for everyone, and that countries can and should exercise some degree of control over their borders. But there is a vast difference between managed approaches that seek to expand access to protection, and those that seek to shift responsibility for protecting refugees onto others. 

Since the 1990s, Australia and a host of other wealthy countries have adopted an increasingly duplicitous posture towards refugee protection. On the one hand, they have affirmed their commitment to assisting refugees, while on the other they have increasingly put in place measures to push asylum seekers as far away as possible from triggering international obligations. These efforts have included carrier sanctions, visa restrictions, boat turn-backs and offshore processing. As James Hathaway and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen have observed, this approach 'enables a pattern of minimalist engagement under which the formal commitment to refugee law can be proclaimed as a matter of principle without risk that the wealthier world will actually be compelled to live up to that regime's burdens and responsibilities to any serious extent'.

The problem is that if all states insisted that no asylum seekers were allowed onto their territory uninvited, the entire system of refugee protection would fail. If other countries heeded Australia's exhortations to replicate its 'model' border security approach, the very foundations of refugee protection would be seriously eroded. 

There is some evidence that this is already happening. Recent research by the UK's Overseas Development Institute shows harsh refugee policies in Australia and Europe have had 'ripple effects', encouraging crackdowns, expulsions and border closures in countries such as Indonesia, Kenya and Jordan:

Restrictions in developed countries send a clear message that at best it is one rule for them and another for the rest of the world, or at worst that international obligations towards refugees simply do not hold any more; either way tilting the balance towards restriction.

This is why the three-pronged approach presented by Australia in New York is incoherent. A deterrence-based approach to border security undermines the foundations for international and regional cooperation for refugee protection, and encourages the closure of asylum space in the very countries we proclaim to aid. While resettlement and assistance to refugee-hosting states should both be an integral part of efforts to share responsibility for refugee protection, they cannot offset the profoundly negative effects of attempts to avoid our obligations towards those seeking safety on our shores. Until Australia embraces its own responsibility to protect refugees, it cannot engage in good faith efforts to promote the international and regional cooperation that is so greatly needed to address the challenge of displacement. 

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency