Lowy Institute

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

With Prime Minister Abbott committing to the still-developing international coalition that will work toward containing and combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, several Interpreter contributors discussed what it meant for Australia. Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Rodger Shanahan

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

Anthony Bubalo outlined three core reasons why he thought Australia was making the right decision:

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. 

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. 

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted.

And Michael Green on the possible effects on Australia’s regional engagement:

Read More

The deployment of 400 RAAF and 200 SAS personnel and associated equipment to Dubai is not going to undercut Australia's strategic engagement with Indonesia, India and the rest of South and Southeast Asia. Australia is hardly a one-dimensional player in Asia, and has more than enough capacity to shape regional developments through navy-led exercises, diplomacy in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum, and in trade negotiations such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. 

Stephen Grenville took a look at the idea of economic convergence:

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

Elliot Brennan undertakes a study of religion in Southeast Asia: 

As the region undergoes rapid development, the role of religion is shifting. This will ultimately affect perceptions of identity, a change that will create anxiety in many young men and women and may see them gravitate toward extremism or other positions of intolerance. Coupled with labour migration, shifting gender roles and  changes to traditional social structures, this creates a crucible for potential conflict. Addressing these insecurities of identity in a changing society (where identity is less likely to be prescribed by religion) will be key to tackling the spread of communal violence and extremism.

Julie Bishop's first year as Foreign Minister has been busy, and one success is the MIKTA grouping, says Alex Oliver:

It's early days, but each of the MIKTA foreign ministers appears enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new grouping. None of the five are part of a natural regional or security bloc, so their thinking is presumably that the grouping can achieve more together than each can achieve alone – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And while the parts are significant, the whole is potentially formidable. 

In a fine analysis, Shashank Joshi on the Indian-Chinese relationship ahead of Xi Jinping's visit to New Delhi:

India is therefore fostering a web of commercial and military ties across the region, the sort of 'middle power coalitions' that Rory Medcalf and Raja Mohan have described in their recent paper, while prioritising economic interaction, avoiding the language of containment or even balancing, and resisting 'a bloc-based Asian order with alliances and counter-alliances'. These relationships don't just strengthen India's regional influence; they also force China to court India more intensively, as it did in the decade after the US-India rapprochement.

Julian Snelder argued that China will not follow its realist foreign policy forever:

The bigger question is what happens when China's power outgrows its calculative strategy. At some point, clever and pragmatic might start to look cynical and amoral. It is often said that China didn't create the current global order and therefore is not beholden to it. That raises the obvious question of what system Beijing would prefer instead.

As Jokowi begins to select a new cabinet for Indonesia, the present foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, has undergone a public flaying, says Greta Nabbs-Keller:

Among the most damaging of Susilo's criticisms was that Natalegawa had overseen the death of innovation and reform in the Foreign Ministry instituted by his predecessor, Hassan Wirajuda. Appointed by President Megawati Soekarnoputri in the early stages of Indonesia's democratic transition, Wirajuda initiated a substantial legislative, organisational and ideational reform. He transformed a foreign policy-making culture constrained by the military's political influence and concentration of authority in autocratic President Suharto into one which better reflected the values of Indonesia's 'reformasi' experience. 

And following the Fijian elections this week, Lowy Institute Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones said there are a few reasons to be worried:

The Fiji Government had said the military would not be involved in pre-election and election-day proceedings, but on the eve of the election, Tikoitoga announced the military was on standby. The military also conducted a highly visible training exercise in a public area on election eve, creating a storm on social media, and marched in the streets of Suva. These actions have unnecessarily and unhelpfully raised the profile of the military at the very time when it should have taken a low profile.  

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Natasia Causse.

Hide
Comments

Imagine that the most senior leader of one of Australia's neighbours resigns suddenly during a visit by a minister. And that this follows an election where the winners cannot agree on allocating a key economic portfolio, a street protest where two policemen are shot and a boozy lunch where a senior political adviser is murdered. Now imagine that none of this is even mentioned in an Australian newspaper.


Noumea, New Caledonia. (Flickr/lagrandeterre.)

Well, it's true and it reflects of our lack of awareness, and information, about what goes on in New Caledonia. I have written about Australian ignorance of the strategic significance of France being our closest neighbour to the east of Queensland. Nothing has changed. Our 2013 Defence White Paper doesn't mention New Caledonia, nor even France's role in the Pacific, even as France's 2013 Defence White Paper talks of political and maritime power deriving from the Pacific 'collectivities' (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Clipperton) and strategic collaboration with Australia.

In a sense, our benevolent disregard for New Caledonia, and the French Pacific territories, has not mattered much until now. France has sought to improve cooperation with Australia in the Pacific by stopping its nuclear testing in the region and negotiating an end to bloodshed over independence demands in New Caledonia.

Read More

But the 1988 Matignon/Oudinot and 1998 Noumea Accord, which provided a temporary respite from violence in New Caledonia, are coming to their end. The last provincial elections under the Noumea Accord were held in May, resulting in the election of the local Congress that will decide the future of the collectivity, including its international status, the extent of its sovereign powers and its citizenship. These three things must be the subject of a referendum process before 2018. Three-fifths of the Congress must decide on proceeding to referendum, and if they can't agree, France must hold one by then.

As I wrote in May, the elections resulted in no one political grouping (either pro-France or pro-independence) holding three-fifths of the seats. They will need to work with each other to achieve agreement.

But since the elections, the path has not been smooth. A Kanak protest against environmental degradation from nickel development resulted in the shooting of two French policemen in June. The pro-independence groups cannot agree over which of their parties runs the valuable nickel portfolio, the subject of the murderous lunch in June. The post remains vacant. Disagreements remain about issues critical to the procedures ahead. Voter eligibility, concerning longstanding and new residents, is a sensitive issue. Disputes about electoral lists for the May elections involving over 6000 possible votes from new residents are so bitter that pro-independence leader Rock Wamytan raised the issue in the UN Decolonisation Committee, along with a separate reference to increased arms flows into the territory.

Electoral differences contributed to the unprecedented resignation of the French High Commissioner during a visit by the Overseas France Minister on 19 July. The High Commissioner was seen as being too much in favour of expanding the electoral lists for new pro-France arrivals. A commission sent to review the issue supported the pro-independence claims that Accord principles had not been upheld.

This does not bode well for an agreement over the lists for the referendum process. Elements of the pro-independence groups either did not attend or walked out of a recent planning meeting hosted by the High Commissioner. Later this month, the guiding Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord will meet, a controversial preparatory commission to canvas broad post-Accord issues, led by the able Alain Christnacht (a founding father of the Accord), followed by a visit by the French President in November.

The French State has taken its responsibilities seriously in preparing for discussions aiming at broad agreement about the referendum ahead. Two papers have been released. The first (reviewed here) is written by two senior French legal advisers and unsurprisingly favours New Caledonia staying with France, but sets out the legalities under each of four options (full sovereignty, partnership, extended autonomy and continued autonomy). The second, the Charter of the Kanak People, was released in April 2014 by the Customary Senate, a Noumea Accord institution of Kanak elders who advise on matters touching Kanak custom. Focusing on Kanak identity and victimisation under colonisation, the Charter sets respect and equality as minimum requirements for the future.

Interestingly, few pro-independence players (either the chiefs or the key Kanak political leaders) use the 'I' word in broad public messages. They speak of 'sovereignty', 'emancipation' and 'self-determination' rather than 'independence', suggesting scope for compromise. The Charter is no exception, indeed referring to 'shared sovereignty' with 'no effect on the territorial integrity of the State'. But it also cites the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights as the basis for sovereignty and calls on regional countries to support it.

The strategic stakes for Australia arising from these developments are high. First, continued stability in one of our closest neighbours has regional implications. And second, there is the extent of France's role in the region. An outcome in New Caledonia will have spin-off effects for the region, including for French Polynesia and also Papua New Guinea, when the Bougainville Agreement, itself partly based on the Noumea Accord, reaches a turning point around 2016. It could also effect the Solomon Islands, now operating without RAMSI, a fragile Fiji and neighbouring Vanuatu. 

As for France's regional role, it has been useful in recent years to have a close ally with strategic weight. France is a G20 member, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and NATO, leader of the EU's Pacific regional presence, and host to the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (in Noumea). It participates in defence exercises and FRANZ fisheries surveillance and emergency assistance, and is beginning to share its maritime and environmental expertise. Moreover, France generously bankrolls its collectivities, to the tune of at least US$2 billion each for New Caledonia and French Polynesia every year. If France's hold were to be shaken substantially, Australia would have to meet some of the shortfall.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keith Bacongco

Hide
Comments

The death of Grant Evans at the age of 66 is a notable loss for Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia and a sad event for his many friends. As one of a few academic specialists on Lao society and history anywhere in the world, his death at such an early age leaves a gap that will not be easily filled. And the fact that he will no longer be present to welcome visitors to Vientiane robs us of a host who was always generous in sharing knowledge and wise advice as well as a drink and a meal in his house beside the Mekong River.

I was privileged to know Grant for more than twenty years, but I knew of his writing long before we met. In a frank interview published in 2009, Grant was typically forthcoming in charting his scholarly and political experience, which led him from being, in his own words, on the 'New Left' to being an observer for whom empirical observation and research were the essentials of his work. Describing the genesis of his 1984 book, Red Brotherhood at War, written with Kelvin Rowley, he noted that he and Rowley had 'the theory but the one thing we did not have was, of course, the experience of being here (in Indochina). Because to experience full-on communism is a kind of shock actually.'

The need to sift fact from ideology was to be one of Grant's continuing concerns, whether in his book on the controversial 'Yellow Rain' allegations of the 1980s, which he wrote about in The Yellow Rainmakers (1983), to the book that made his academic reputation, Lao Peasants Under Socialism (1990). His firm conclusion in this latter publication was that there was no point in collectivisation, the policy pursued by the Lao communist government, because 'Without all kinds of accompanying changes, collectivisation just leads back to a sort of feudalism...Why should you even get together? And the answer is there is no point, because peasant agriculture is just about as efficient as it can be.'

My own connection with Grant came as the result of being asked to act as the general editor of a series of short histories of the countries of Southeast Asia. Finding someone to write a short history of Laos posed a problem, but it seemed to me that Grant, despite being trained in anthropology and sociology, could do the job, as indeed he did. His Short History of Laos: The Land In Between, published in 2002, is a definitive reason for concluding that the writing of history does not always have to be left to historians. What is more, Grant ensured that this readable and remarkably comprehensive book would later be published in Lao, an effort in which he was assisted by his long-term publisher in Thailand, Khun Trasvin Jittidecharak, the dynamic head of Silkworm Books.

Read More

Following the publication of his short history and the important The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975, Grant embarked on what at first glance seemed like a doomed, or at very least controversial, project, a book on Lao royalty. This at a time when the government was doing all it could to diminish the importance of the country's monarchy. The result, published in 2008, again by Silkworm Books, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History, is both a treasure trove of information and a wonderful collection of images garnered by Grant over many years to document a once vital part of Lao history. And it can be purchased in Laos.

After many years of teaching at the University of Hong Kong as Professor of Anthropology, Grant chose to move to Laos permanently and to live in Vientiane, where he was formally associated with the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient as a senior research fellow. He leaves a wife and young daughter.

Hide
Comments

Synopsis:

Red Army is about the Soviet Union and the most successful dynasty in sports history: the Red Army hockey team. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky tells an extraordinary human story from the perspective of its captain Slava Fetisov, the friendships, the betrayals, and the personal dramas, which led to his transformation from national hero to political enemy. The film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements and parallels the rise and fall of the Red Army team with the Soviet Union. 

(H/t Slashfilm.)

Comments

Until recently, parents in Thailand would leave their children in Buddhist temples while they worked the fields and factories. Buddhist monks would act as caretakers and teachers. Religious education was strong, as were the donations flooding into Buddhist temples. But with the rise of state-run primary school education, religious education has slipped dramatically (so too the temples' cash flow).

This is a familiar story across Southeast Asia. As the region climbs from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, there is often less time devoted to religious practice and more to working the fields or putting in hours at the office.

 
Graphic compiled by author using Pew Research Data 2014.

Asia leads the world in religious diversity. Southeast Asia is home to two of the most religiously diverse countries (Singapore and Vietnam) as well as two of the least diverse (Cambodia and Timor-Leste). Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are all on the less-diverse side too.

This Pew Research study sheds light on a region that has in recent years been beset by communal violence and religious intolerance.

Recent communal violence in Myanmar has made headlines, as have ongoing insurgencies in southern Thailand and the Philippines. Even Singapore, the world's most religiously diverse country and a bastion of stability, was faced with ethnic unrest during the Little India riots in December 2013. Vietnam (third most diverse on Pew's global RDI) has been long been criticised for its repression of religious groups, highlighted this month by reports that at least 85 Montagnards (hill tribe people of mostly Protestant faith) have fled to Cambodia after a crackdown. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Brunei have all had their problems.

Read More


Graphic compiled by author using Pew Research Data 2014.

The region's religious diversity is nothing new. Different religions have long intermingled and traded. Waves of Indianisation and Sinicisation, not to mention colonialism and the arrival of Islam and Buddhism, left a deep imprint on the region. Through this diversity, a relative tolerance was maintained both to enable trade and due to the naturally sparse geography of Southeast Asia. This was until the first half of the 20th century, when religious movements bound together to oppose colonial powers. 

This politicisation of religion in Southeast Asia may well be going through a period of revival. 

One doesn't have to look far to find a host of examples of religious nationalism and conservatism. The ushering in of sharia law in Brunei has raised eyebrows, as has the growing conservatism of sharia law in Indonesia's Aceh province. Communal violence between Buddhist extremists and Muslim populations in Myanmar has killed dozens since the country's transition to a more open society. In 2012, footage of Myanmar Buddhists hacking Muslims to death with swords and then burning their bodies (some still alive) sent shock waves across the region.

The aspirations of international extremist groups to expand their theatres of operation into Southeast Asia is of similar concern. Islamic State has professed its intent to expand into Southeast Asia, while the hundreds of Southeast Asian ISIL jihadis (from Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia) will cause problems if they return. The recent announcement by al Qaeda  that it intends to start operations in South Asia, including Myanmar, should also be a concern for the region. Meanwhile, the list of sympathetic extremist groups already based in the region is long.

Buddhist extremism is also attempting to spread its tentacles. Sri Lanka Buddhist Nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which is believed to be behind anti-Muslim violence in the country, has links to both the government and nationalist Buddhist Sangha further afield. Earlier this year, BBS invited U Wirathu (often referred to as the 'Buddhist bin Laden' and spiritual head of Myanmar's Buddhist extremist 969 group) to visit. A spokesperson earlier this year noted that BBS was reaching out to a network of similarly minded (read extreme) Buddhist groups in the region. There is an increasing risk of a strong rise in violent Buddhist nationalism, particularly in Myanmar.

One prominent Buddhist scholar earlier this year told me solemnly about what he saw as the corruption and decay of his faith in parts of Southeast Asia. Another Myanmar friend explained what he thought was behind the recent heightened tensions: 'it's easier for Buddhists and Chinese (or non-Muslims) to get along because we shop together in markets and we eat together in restaurants. Muslims have their own halal foods and shops.'

These everyday realities of interaction, when combined with hateful rhetoric, exacerbate differences and create frictions. It is but one fissure in a region that has seen horrendous ethnic violence in the past and could easily see a resurgence of religious nationalism and an escalation of communal violence in the near future.

As the region undergoes rapid development, the role of religion is shifting. This will ultimately affect perceptions of identity, a change that will create anxiety in many young men and women and may see them gravitate toward extremism or other positions of intolerance. Coupled with labour migration, shifting gender roles and  changes to traditional social structures, this creates a crucible for potential conflict. Addressing these insecurities of identity in a changing society (where identity is less likely to be prescribed by religion) will be key to tackling the spread of communal violence and extremism. Far-sighted approaches are needed in order to build robust, tolerant and inclusive Southeast Asian societies. 

Hide
Comments

As jockeying intensifies for ministerial appointments in President-elect Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo's new cabinet, divisions and dissatisfaction within Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs have played out in a very public fashion.

In a riveting if unedifying spectacle, Indonesia's press has carried tit for tat analysis and commentary both supporting, but mostly intensely critical of, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. 

The criticisms (which are strangely reminiscent of those leveled against a certain former Australian foreign minister) accuse Natalegawa of narcissism, poor management, insecurity and general disdain for peers and colleagues.

It was a Jakarta Globe article on 14 August lauding Natalegawa's performance and supporting his appointment to Jokowi's cabinet that provoked the torrent of online criticism. In response, recently retired ambassador to Switzerland Djoko Susilo condemned Natalegawa's record in a piece titled 'The death of reforms in the foreign ministry'. The Ministry's Secretary-General, Kristiarto Legowo, was then compelled to defend Natalegawa's record, which only attracted more negative revelations.

Indeed, Susilo's criticisms cannot be easily dismissed. A former journalist, he was also head of Commission I, responsible for overseeing information, defence and foreign affairs in Indonesia's parliament. As a legislator, Susilo gained respect as an ardent promoter of democratic values in Indonesia's foreign policy. 

Read More

Among the most damaging of Susilo's criticisms was that Natalegawa had overseen the death of innovation and reform in the Foreign Ministry instituted by his predecessor, Hassan Wirajuda. Appointed by President Megawati Soekarnoputri in the early stages of Indonesia's democratic transition, Wirajuda initiated a substantial legislative, organisational and ideational reform. He transformed a foreign policy-making culture constrained by the military's political influence and concentration of authority in autocratic President Suharto into one which better reflected the values of Indonesia's 'reformasi' experience. 

In short, Hassan Wirajuda was an entrepreneur of new ideas who partnered with his cabinet colleagues, key legislators and subordinates to drive a new normative agenda in ASEAN and transform Indonesia's foreign policy making culture.

How does this contrast with Natalegawa? 

On balance, Natalegawa has been an erudite and effective foreign minister who has worked hard to champion Indonesia's interests abroad. Key among his recent accomplishments was his success in reaching a consensus following the 2012 Phnom Penh ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, which dissolved in acrimony over South China Sea tensions.

Natalegawa has kept China talking on a South China Sea Code of Conduct and ably articulated Indonesia's vision for the regional order based on his 'dynamic equilibrium' doctrine. In 2011, as ASEAN Chair, he led a highly successful year of Indonesian diplomacy in the signing of Bali Concord III and Indonesia's chairing of an expanded East Asia Summit incorporating the US and Russia. 

Unfortunately for Natalegawa, however, it seems his legacy will be clouded by staff perceptions of an idiosyncratic personality who arbitrarily implemented budget cuts.

In the end, the public expressions of frustration witnessed in the media in recent weeks cannot go unheeded byJokowi's transition team. Natalegawa's shortcomings, already well-known among Jakarta's foreign policy community, will work against him.  This will improve the chances of other foreign ministerial contenders. Arif Havas Oegroseno, an international law expert and proven negotiator on maritime boundary issues, is reportedly a strong favourite.

Beyond the speculation about ministerial positions, however, there are broader lessons in the public flagellation of Natalegawa. In an era of greater transparency and prolific social media use, it looks like the performance of Indonesia's ministers and senior bureaucrats will not be judged only in the court of public opinion, but increasingly by peers and subordinates.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The Official CTBTO Photostream.

Hide
Comments

This morning on ABC radio Attorney General George Brandis said something quite mundane yet absolutely critical in regard to the apparent ISIS-related terrorist plot disrupted by police in Sydney yesterday:

I want to emphasise the point, and it can't be stressed enough: yesterday's police operation was about crime. It was about disrupting a criminal network that meant to do Australians harm.

Along with NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione's calls for calm yesterday ('We don't need to whip this up'), this is precisely the right tone. This is a criminal matter and we need not elevate it beyond that. Our leaders need to strike a tone of resilience, stoicism and quiet resolve rather than anger and outrage. As Waleed Aly says this morning:

Long-term, it's about us. It's about how resilient we are as a society, and how focused we are in our response. There is one very clear way in which this alleged plot can succeed, even if it is never carried out: that we become so emotionally manipulated, so provoked, that we end up helplessly polarised.

Unfortunately, we have done ourselves no favours in this regard by so eagerly embracing America's military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a strategy which significantly inflates the actual threat posed by the group. And Brandis' language has not always been so measured. Last week he said ISIS 'represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us.' It's a vast exaggeration to say that ISIS could threaten Australia's existence as a political and cultural entity, and the fact that Brandis felt it necessary to throw in 'or seeks to be' just exposes the vast gap between ISIS's capabilities and its intentions.

The Australian Government could take some guidance from President Obama here. For although he has embarked on what I would consider an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive escalation of military operations against ISIS, his language in doing so has been quite measured.

Read More

Throughout his term of office, Obama has been ruthless in using military force to kill terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. Yet he seldom hypes the threat. Even in his speech announcing expanded military operations against ISIS, he painted the threat in realistic terms: 'We can't erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.' He also said there was no hint that IS had targeted the US. It was an admirably honest assessment, which just made the military escalation he announced immediately after sound all the more precipitate.

Obama's language is notably more moderate than that of the Bush Administration, when al Qaeda was routinely described as an existential threat. Back in 2004, then Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry was attacked by President Bush's campaign for saying that America's aim ought to be to once again 'make terrorism a nuisance'. This wasn't anywhere good enough for the GOP, which even amid the unfolding disaster of Iraq, maintained the absurd fantasy that terrorism could be permanently eliminated.

But Kerry and Obama are both right. Terrorism cannot be eliminated, but it is containable, and we only make the problem worse by hyping the threat.

Hide
Comments

Comments

Eurasia's arc of instability is ablaze. Robert Kagan rails against America's impotence. A cartoon depicts Uncle Sam as a hapless fireman, impotent in eastern Europe and the Middle East; others see America itself as the arsonist. Henry Kissinger launches yet another book warning of chaos amid interdependence. Anglosphere pundits wring their hands over the West's declining influence, the rekindling of ancient feuds and the emergence of illiberal powers who would overturn the current order.

Amid the turmoil, Barack Obama jokes that he envies Xi Jinping: 'can't we be a little bit more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything when this stuff comes up.'

Obama's quip, which lit up the Chinese state media, raises a serious point: what does Beijing think about all these troubles?

David Shambaugh's dismissal of China as 'a partial power' has drawn an impressive response. This debate over Chinese foreign policy is well worth reading. Surveying the world's various problems, China may possess abundant material and suasive power, but chooses not to intervene for one or more reasons: principle, indifference, internal preoccupation, or a grander plan to sit out events and wait for the expedient moment to present itself.

China's low profile has been described as a 'calculative' strategy. Far from being pejorative, that term is used admiringly by realists. China is said to be the 'high church of realpolitik.'

Read More

Realism, the self-interested pursuit of maximal power and security, would explain China's stand-offish positions on Ukraine and Iraq. Beijing's policy environment is hard for outsiders to read, but the opinions that are visible suggest Chinese military solidarity with Russia and suspicion of American machinations in Ukraine are possible explanations. But that may just be the hawks squawking. What is officially stated is China's objection to sanctions on Russia, loudly announced when first-ranked Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli visited Russia's Rosneft oil company. Significantly, that same day Beijing signed up for a handsome stake in Rosneft's Vankor oil gusher, a concession to foreigners Putin has never before entertained, stating, 'but of course for our Chinese friends there are no restrictions.'

China wants the oil to keep flowing. Like in Iran and South Sudan, energy security appears high on its foreign policy priorities.

That is the case in Iraq too. Outwardly Beijing appears unconcerned about ISIS edging closer to its giant southern concessions. Perhaps it is confident others will act. There certainly is a strong feeling in China that Iraq is a mess made exclusively by Washington, and a reluctance to get involved. That would be understandable, yet the 'free rider' accusations have created contortions among those defending China's inaction. A Caixin column argues that China 'must advance its influence through the area of trade and economic ties. The Chinese perspective is that the cause of instability in Iraq is fundamentally an issue of the country's economic conditions.'

This is a 'vision of global responsibility which holds economic engagement as the top priority.' At the recent CICA summit in Shanghai, Xi Jinping extolled 'economic sustainable development (as) the premise of security and peace.' China's spectacular boom, the argument goes, has been beneficial for global poverty, and arguably for stability. So, put bluntly, China best helps the world by helping itself.

It's a self-serving truth, like when Washington avows that 'the US Navy protects the world's sea lanes for free trade.'

The bigger question is what happens when China's power outgrows its calculative strategy. At some point, clever and pragmatic might start to look cynical and amoral. It is often said that China didn't create the current global order and therefore is not beholden to it. That raises the obvious question of what system Beijing would prefer instead. As a  former Bush Administration official complains about China at the G20: 'They love to show up, but we're still waiting for their first idea.' He may not have to wait long. A new Chinese G20 think tank proclaims that 'China wishes to inject its wisdom and its ability into global management, especially reform of the international financial system. (We) made the fewest number of mistakes in financial management.'

Henry Kissinger's new book says America must stick to its values while reconciling with China and other powers to create a new world order. Whatever arrangement Kissinger has in mind (I haven't read his book yet) it presumably requires greater American consideration of China's realist interests. Beijing will not be the passive bystander Shambaugh sees today.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prachatai

Hide
Comments

This week's collection of news, commentary & analyis from and about the Pacific island region:

  • ICYMI, Fiji went to the polls for the first time in eight years yesterday. This vlog gives an overview of the day's happenings: 

  • A Queensland woman has taken advantage of constitutional changes to claim citizenship of Vanuatu on behalf of her grandparents, who were 'blackbirded'.
  • President Anote Tong of Kiribati has expressed his disappointment in Australia's lack of support in relation to the impacts of climate change in the region.
  • Here on The Interpreter, Philippa Brant looks at what the visit of the Chinese navy's Peace Ark to Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu means in terms of soft power.
  • Giff Johnson makes a compelling case for Pacific governments to provide funding to non-governmental organisations involved in essential service delivery.
  • On the Devpolicy blog, Matthew Dornan & Joanna Spratt examine the NZ Aid program's efforts to promote use of renewable energy in the Pacific island region.
  • From the Pacific Network on Globalisation comes this critique of Australia's 'aid for trade' approach in the region.
Comments

The count in Fiji's elections is well underway following a smooth, apparently trouble-free poll yesterday. Provisional results are expected today, with the process of allocating seats in parliament to follow. It seems likely that FijiFirst, the party of incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, will form government.

I argued here (Fiji election: More to do to restore democracy) that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy, a sentiment Australia's Foreign Minister echoed last night while welcoming the successful conduct of the elections. From the way the election has been conducted, there are reasons to be confident that Fiji is indeed on the path to building a full democracy. Unfortunately there are also reasons to be worried.

Reasons to be confident:

1. High voter turn-out: reported record numbers of voters coming out to vote indicate public confidence in the process and enthusiasm for participating in democracy. This is important if Fiji's population is ultimately to hold its elected representatives to account and create an impetus for those representatives to do their job.

2. The rise of social media: in Fiji's first election in the age of social media, voters, official observers and journalists excitedly posted photos of the voting experience to Facebook and Twitter. In a country where free speech is constrained and even while a media blackout was in place (which also applied to social media), the determination of Fijians to communicate with each other and with the world about their election bodes well for their willingness to insist on the right to engage openly in public debate.

Reasons to be worried:

Read More

1. A new Secretary-General (Clerk) of the Fiji Parliament was appointed on 16 September, the day before the election. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum announced that senior civil servant Viniana Namosimalua would be taking on the position, effective immediately. He also announced the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary-General, Mary Qiliaso, to work alongside Namosimalua.

The optics of an unelected incumbent government making such a senior appointment on the eve of the election, and during a media blackout, are poor. But worse, it appears to be unconstitutional. According to Fiji's 2013 constitution, the President elects the Secretary-General in consultation with the Constitutional Offices Commission, which includes the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney-General, two people appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and one appointed on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition.

As there is very obviously no leader of the opposition in place prior to the election, it is hard to see who was consulted in this appointment. If Bainimarama does form a government, the apparent disregard from his Attorney-General for the most basic of parliamentary processes does not inspire confidence.

2. Since Rear Admiral Bainimarama stood down from his military commander's role, there has been an expectation that Fiji's military would step back from politics, an expectation supported by statements from Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga.

The Fiji Government had said the military would not be involved in pre-election and election-day proceedings, but on the eve of the election, Tikoitoga announced the military was on standby. The military also conducted a highly visible training exercise in a public area on election eve, creating a storm on social media, and marched in the streets of Suva. These actions have unnecessarily and unhelpfully raised the profile of the military at the very time when it should have taken a low profile. 

If the parties, and most importantly the eventual government, act responsibly, my reasons to be worried may disappear and my reasons to be confident may grow. But it is clear Fiji still has work to do to prove its democratic credentials.

Hide
Comments

The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

  • Xi Jinping is making his first visit to India since the election of Narendra Modi. Peter Drysdale reflects on the growing strategic weight of both countries.
  • And here's Shashank Joshi in The Interpreter: 'Prepare yourself for a glut of feeble anthropomorphic metaphors (elephants, pandas, tigers, and dragons are all anticipated) and bloviating communiqués: India-China diplomacy is underway.'
  • An opinion piece in China’s Global Times argues that Beijing and New Delhi can be partners in an Indo-Pacific era. 
  • Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Raja Mohan says that Modi has much more domestic political leverage in dealing with China than his predecessors. 
  • Interestingly, on Tuesday India issued a joint statement with Vietnam calling for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This is in addition to the already well reported discussions underway between New Delhli and Hanoi over the latter's purchase of the supersonic BrahMos missile. 
  • And lastly in terms of India-China, while there has been some good economic news with the announcement that Beijing will invest ‘billions’ in India, border disputes between the two countries are persisting
  • Two recent publications on the South China Sea take opposing views on US policy. Jeffrey Bader and Kenneth Lieberthal at Brookings recommend that the US should ‘overall, lower the temperature of official public commentary.’ CNAS’s Patrick Cronin believes costs should be imposed on ‘bad behaviour.’ 
  • Is North Korea building submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles?
Comments

Prepare yourself for a glut of feeble anthropomorphic metaphors (elephants, pandas, tigers, and dragons are all anticipated) and bloviating communiqués: India-China diplomacy is underway.

President Xi Jinping today begins the first Chinese visit to India since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Laying the groundwork for this trip, Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari traveled to Beijing in June, followed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval last week.

Xi's arrival is rich with symbolism, as the trip begins not in Delhi, as would be typical, but Ahmedabad. This is the commercial capital of Modi's home state, Gujarat, viewed by many (though not all) as a model of development for the rest of India. It is by some measures the most economically free state in India, and is still frequently invoked by Modi.  

All this underscores the commercial dimension of India-China ties, a narrative that suits India, since it glosses over border disputes and regional competition, and reinforces Modi's twin foreign policy priorities of development and regionalism. From inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to his inauguration, to visiting Bhutan and Nepal, to resolving a maritime border dispute with Bangladesh, Modi has given admirably sustained and high-level attention to the India's periphery. This is something the previous government valued in theory but neglected in practice. Modi also decided to visit Tokyo (in September) before Washington (later this month), emphasising that his engagement with Asia would be paramount.

More specifically, the lure of future Chinese investment, a purported US$100 billion over the next five years and 'thrice the investments committed by Japan' during Modi's recent trip to Tokyo, has considerable value and little political downside (notwithstanding Nitin Pai's measured warning that Beijing seeks to use such investments as carrots and sticks). All this is couched in Modi's own cringeworthy neologisms.

Read More

The commercial narrative also suits China, which has been selling its proposal for a 'maritime silk road', a high profile but nebulous initiative to recreate a historic Chinese trade route through the Indian Ocean by developing maritime infrastructure and setting up free trade zones. During a visit to India last week, I found that most Indians continued to be baffled by the whole idea and slightly irked at China's reluctance to provide more details. One Indian naval officer has suggested that the scheme is a way for China to 'soften' and re-brand the much-maligned 'string of pearls', and the director of India's National Maritime Foundation has dismissed it as 'essentially a Chinese ploy'.

It was therefore unfortunate timing that the Maldives, which Xi also visited this week, decided to hand to a Chinese a firm a US$500 million infrastructure project which had earlier been in Indian hands. India's imperative for regional connectivity and inward investment clash with its suspicion of China's long-term intentions. This is a structural problem that transcends Modi and Xi, and it will continue to give Sino-Indian commercial ties an awkward, tense edge. This is something that is obviously absent in the official pronouncements but more than visible in any Indian newspaper. Full-throated Indian endorsement of the maritime silk road is therefore unlikely, particularly as India appears to be scrambling to turn an old cultural project for the Indian Ocean, Project Mausam (meaning 'Season'), into a copycat initiative

More broadly, Xi's visit also has to be seen in the context of Modi's engagement with both Australia and Japan, both US allies concerned about the implications of growing Chinese power and assertiveness.

Modi signed a long-awaited and landmark civil nuclear agreement with Australia, dissected by Rory Medcalf and Danielle Rajendram last week. Although he could not finalise a similar deal with Japan, his visit to Tokyo did yield progress on the bilateral defence relationship, including a Japanese sale (and possible co-production) of the US-2 amphibious aircraft. In recent weeks, Modi's government has also been hyperactively leaking that India is in the 'advanced stages' of talks with Vietnam over the sale of the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, which has been jointly produced with Russia. India and Vietnam, which the (ceremonial) Indian president is currently visiting, also signed a pointed statement on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea only yesterday

India is therefore fostering a web of commercial and military ties across the region, the sort of 'middle power coalitions' that Rory Medcalf and Raja Mohan have described in their recent paper, while prioritising economic interaction, avoiding the language of containment or even balancing, and resisting 'a bloc-based Asian order with alliances and counter-alliances'. These relationships don't just strengthen India's regional influence; they also force China to court India more intensively, as it did in the decade after the US-India rapprochement. The trick is in getting the balance right, diversifying and upgrading India's Asian relationships as much as possible without provoking a Chinese reaction or getting dragged into others' disputes. 

On the whole, this points to continuity. It is notable, for instance, that after years of condemning the Congress-led Government for pusillanimity in the face of Chinese border incursions, this Government has acted identically, resolving the latest reported incursion, last week, at the usual tactical level rather than escalating the problem. Modi is fine-tuning Indian foreign policy, not recasting it.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Amit Dave.

Hide
Comments

Two anecdotes I have stumbled on recently from reviews of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, a new book about the US conservative movement.

First, did you know Richard Nixon invented the term 'Missing in Action'?:

The ’70s also marked the high tide of the American Right. Much of the country was discomfited by protests, drugs, and crime...In The Invisible Bridge, (Perlstein) describes how Nixon invented the category of soldiers “Missing in Action” (who, in previous wars, would have been called “Killed in Action / Body Unrecovered”) to rile up the home front against peaceniks, making it seem as though they were determined to abandon soldiers on the field of combat.

And here's a great anecdote about Reagan and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger...solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.

Comments
Comments
Loading...