Lowy Institute

As Indonesia's economy continues to slow, President Jokowi is attempting to steer his Government away from the introspective policies of the early part of his term.

Executions of foreign drug convicts have barely been mentioned since the amnesty of the Islamic fasting month in July, and visa restrictions are easing for foreign tourists, journalists and other workers. Meanwhile, the implications of last month's cabinet reshuffle have continued to play out as the President welcomed a new chief of staff and a new party into his coalition this week in Jakarta.

Indonesia's Alliance of Independent Journalists praised Jokowi's commitment to media freedom this week when the President swiftly shut down a proposed regulation that would have required all foreign journalists to run their assignments past every level of government, as well as the National Intelligence Agency, when working in Indonesia. 

The proposed conditions mirrored those that were previously applied in Papua and West Papua, before Jokowi vowed to open access to the region this year. Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, as a major advocate of the new regulation, said it was crucial for the Government to be able to monitor the activities of foreign journalists working in Indonesia. He had previously accused foreign journalists of operating in the country as spies. Meanwhile, visa conditions still apply for foreigners working as journalists. Two British filmmakers are currently facing a maximum penalty of five years in jail after they were caught making a documentary in the Malacca Strait while holding tourist visas.

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Changes are also underway to ease the process for foreigners to obtain work permits. Under the proposed changes, foreigners will no longer be required to hold a university degree, or master the Indonesian language, to obtain a working visa. The move is a reversal from an announcement in March that stipulated an existing regulation would be enforced that requires foreign workers to pass an online Indonesian language test. The move has been interpreted as a signal to welcome foreign investment to boost Indonesia's slowing economy. It will also help prepare Indonesia for the ASEAN Economic Community, under which citizens from all Southeast Asian countries will be able to work across the region.

Another visa issue attracting attention this week related to the addition of 47 countries to the list of 30 already enjoying visa-free access to Indonesia as tourists. Australia was initially announced as one of the countries joining the list, but after Foreign Ministers Retno Marsudi and Julie Bishop met in Sydney on Thursday to discuss the issue, Australia was once again scrapped from the list.

The reason given was that Indonesia expected a reciprocal arrangement, whereby its citizens would also be able to enter Australia visa-free. When Bishop said that wouldn't be possible, the arrangement was called off. However, this condition was not applied for other countries covered under the visa-free rule, including the US and several European countries. The refusal to add Australia to the list suggests that there is still some tension between the two countries following the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April this year, when Australia was scrapped from the first round of visa-free visitors.

Aside from developing a more open attitude towards foreign relations, Jokowi has been busy consolidating his cabinet and coalition after a rocky start to his term. On Wednesday, Teten Masduki replaced Luhut Pandjaitan as the presidential chief of staff. Luhut, who is known to be one of the President's closest advisors, was promoted to the position of Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs in last month's cabinet reshuffle. From this position he is likely to maintain a high level of influence. Teten has been positively received as a clean candidate for chief of staff. He started his career as a legal aid activist, and went on to lead national-level anti-corruption efforts before joining Jokowi's communication team. On the same day, the National Mandate Party announced that it would be putting its support behind the ruling coalition.

Despite Indonesia's economic woes, the Government's growing openness and stronger political support base bodes well for a better ending than beginning for Jokowi's first year as President.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user sightmybyblinded.


Yesterday in Beijing, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two with a massive military parade. Examples of modern military equipment, such as the DF-21D ‘Carrier Killer’ missile, were displayed in public for the first time.

However, a significant new capability that is moving from a lengthy testing phase to active deployment could not be shown in Tiananmen Square: the Type-094, or what will likely be China's first actively deployed ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarine (SSBN).

In the Indo-Pacific, China is not the only regional power that is investing in these powerful, complex and expensive strategic platforms. India, and potentially Pakistan and North Korea, are also at various stages of development. Among the three, India's program is the most advanced, with New Delhi launching its first SSBN, the INS Arihant in 2009. A second and third are also under construction.

In a new Lowy Institute Report, Nuclear-armed submarines in Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or menace?, Rory Medcalf and I argue that over the long-term, SSBNs could reduce the risk of major war in the region, as no adversary would want to strike first against a country with so invulnerable a nuclear arsenal.

But before this contribution to strategic stability can be made, nuclear-armed submarines will likely usher in period of initial instability, as India and China begin deploying them without the full command and communication systems, crew training and doctrine necessary for their credible operation.

Another risk is that the deployment of these platforms could also exacerbate existing regional maritime tensions and help drive conventional arms races.

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It's generally considered that during the later stages of the Cold War, US (and NATO) as well Soviet SSBNs reduced the likelihood of nuclear war. This is because SSBNs provide an 'invulnerable' second-strike – if one side intended to launch a surprise nuclear first-strike against the other, they would be deterred by the existence of nuclear-armed submarines, a platform that is protected through its ability to remain mobile and relatively undetectable in the worlds oceans.

But during the early periods of the Cold War, when SSBNs were first introduced by the Soviet Union and the US, technical limitations forced them to patrol close to enemy shorelines, making them vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare and tracking. Some of these same limitations, such as short patrol ranges, loud acoustic signatures and limited range of their ballistic missiles, are now also present in the programs of China and India, making their deployment potentially destabilising in the short-term.

Thus, at this stage, there are five key areas of risk associated with the proliferation of sea-based nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific:

  1. Changes to India and China's nuclear force posture. For SSBNs to conduct a credible deterrence patrol, nuclear warheads must be mated to their ballistic missiles in the submarine, ready to fire. This would represent a significant organisational and readiness change for both India and China. India's nuclear warheads are generally considered to be controlled by a civilian agency, and China's nuclear arsenal has traditionally been kept by the PLA's Second Artillery Corps. Active SSBNs would require the navy's of both countries to exercise a degree of control over their nuclear weapons, and those weapons would be at a higher readiness than they are currently.
  2. Command and control. Credible SSBN forces place huge demands on command structures, and need survivable communication systems. Transmitting through water at long ranges is difficult, and is done through large vertical very-low frequency and extremely-low frequency stations. However, there is no evidence yet that India or China have begun investing in the airborne communication systems necessary for undertaking credible deterrence patrols. Additionally, the commanders and crews of these submarines will not have much experience in long-range patrols without direct communication with their national command authorities.
  3. Accidents at sea. The number of submarines in the Indo-Pacific is growing. Collisions, particularly between a tailing submarine and its target, occurred repeatedly during the Cold War, with some sources placing the number between 20 and 40. These sorts of situations could lead to miscommunication and increased tensions at a time of crisis.
  4. Maritime tensions and conventional arms races. Nuclear deterrence does not exist in a vacuum. The introduction of SSBNs in the Indo-Pacific by India and China will cause reactions from the conventional maritime forces of other regional powers. Investment in anti-submarine warfare and surveillance capabilities, and well their deployment, will be a higher priority. SSBNs could also help drive regional maritime tensions in areas like the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. One motivation for China's island-building activity in the South China Sea could be to create a 'bastion' for its SSBNs where it could expand infrastructure, like Sound Surveillance System networks, to help disrupt US monitoring of these assets.
  5. Dangerous strategies. Both China and the US, in their quest to develop modern conventional warfighting strategies, have focused on concepts that call for the disruption of command and communication networks. While a major conflict is unlikely, it's not clear whether these strategies consider the need for discrimination between communication systems and satellites that are integral for communication with nuclear forces, particularly SSBNs at sea. Any loss of contact between national commands and SSBNs would put significant pressure on the underdeveloped command and control arrangements of China and India's SSBNs.

The introduction of SSBNs in the Indo-Pacific by India and China reflects the multi-polar and complicated reality of nuclear deterrence in the 21st century. SSBNs are not going away. A realistic goal is not to try to reverse the trajectory, but to try and find ways to minimise risk, and ensure these platforms contribute to, rather than destabilise, peace and strategic stability in the region.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Royal Navy Media Archive.


 On the first Friday of each month the Interpreter will publish Digital Diplomacy links instead of the weekly Digital Asia links. As Australian digital diplomacy strives to catch-up to the rest of the world, these links will highlight the most creative and effective ways in which countries are leveraging the Internet for foreign policy gain.

  • The BBC has a fantastic radio documentary and magazine piece on the UK's leading digital diplomat Tom Fletcher (h/t @ukinaustralia).
  • This critique of how US ambassadors attempt to influence online debates points to French Ambassador @GerardAraud as someone who 'does Twitter right'.
  • Russia's game of trolls: how 'digi-kids' and anime is helping President Putin's fight for online supremacy.
  • The fastest growing government Twitter accounts in the world hail from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and India.
  • The office of Ukraine's President has tweeted detailed intelligence and nifty info-graphics of Russian troop movements and equipment in Ukraine. This journalist believes the information was sourced largely from signals intelligence.
  • In order to be heard, pro-nuclear deal Iranians have joined together to create a 'grassroots' social media and YouTube campaign
  • How Uganda's High Commission in Rwanda is tapping into the power of social media and mobile chat apps.
  • The new head of the UK's diplomatic service is on Twitter via @SMcDonaldFCO (as was his predecessor).
  • It's worth mentioning Australia's equivalent, DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese, is not yet on Twitter (or any other online platform). However, he did touch on DFAT's use of social media – only one aspect to digital diplomacy – in this recent speech.
  • A touching tribute to Dr Suniti Solomon, who is credited with waking up India to the threat of HIV and whom recently passed away, was cross-posted on the blogs of USAID and the US State Department.
  • A snapshot of how the Fijian Government – with a little help from India – is expanding its use of social media.
  • The Digital Diplomacy coalition – a Washington group which began in 2012 with communication officers from embassies and think-tanks – has partnered with Google and is going global.
  • The UK Government wants you to know what it's doing to 'destroy and dismantle' ISIS and it has launched a new Twitter account (@UKAgainst ISIL) to provide you with updates.
  • On that note, this video from last year analyses some of tactics used by the US State Department to digitally counteract ISIS and includes a history of the department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications:


The crisis over garbage collection in Lebanon continues to pile up. This weekend thousands of Lebanese gathered again in downtown Beirut to denounce politicians for their failure to resolve this problem and the myriad others that Lebanon faces. These include, but are not limited to: constant water and electricity shortages; the failure to elect a new president; the delay of parliamentary elections and general malaise about the problems of unemployment, infrastructure and the refugee situation.

While the initial build-up of refuse was disposed of earlier this month, government handling of garbage in general and bickering over whom to award the new contract has led to accusations of corruption from disgruntled citizens. It was reported that members of the ‘You Stink’ campaign stormed the Ministry of the Environment and have staged a sit-in until the Minister, Mohammed Machnouk, resigned, but the protesters were later forcibly removed by riot police.

The protests began just over a week ago, with a peaceful demonstration that grabbed local headlines mainly because of the conduct of security forces in shutting it down. According to a personal account from a participant which appears to have been widely circulated on Facebook, the protests in downtown Beirut on 22 August began peacefully at 6pm and included families and small children. Around 10,000 people turned up, which is a significant number for a spontaneous protest in Lebanon that is not backed by a political party (at least since the epic protests that took place after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005).

According to the blogger, the crowd were mostly chanting ‘down with the system’ – as they were again this week. The blogger noted that the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army were present in large numbers and that he overhead one of them remarking they had a ‘carte blanche’ for the day. Around 7:15pm the army started firing; reports on this vary in other media sources but it's generally agreed that rubber bullets were fired, and water cannons and tear gas was used to disperse protestors.

The use of live ammunition is unconfirmed. The level of violence used by the protesters is currently also unclear, but it is suggested that some people responded aggressively to the Government’s use of force.

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Ultimately the Lebanese are tired of a malfunctioning political system that appears to benefit only those in the upper echelons of power. The ever-present security threats that extend from the region – be it ISIS or an Israeli invasion – are consistently used by politicians to justify their grip on power, such as postponing elections and failing to appoint a new head of the armed forces or a new president. Bureaucrats sometimes invoke security threats in absurd attempts to cloak bureaucratic incompetence.

One such example was the reaction to a food safety campaign launched by the Minister for Health Wael Abou Faour, to investigate the state of public hygiene in Lebanon’s food outlets and supermarkets. The campaign garnered immense public interest as restaurants and high profile supermarkets were named and shamed as harbingers of disease. Rather than congratulate their colleague for trying to safeguard the nation’s health, the economic minister initially accused the health minister of 'terrorism' and described his actions as putting 'a bullet in the head' of the economy. The tourism minister argued the campaign would damage tourism – as if concerns about food hygiene are the reason tourism in Lebanon is struggling. It's behaviour like this that ordinary civilians are becoming increasingly frustrated with.

The latest protests raise two concerns for Lebanon that are not insignificant.

After the first wave of protests, I was surprised the Lebanese Armed Forces did not receive more negative feedback from the general population regarding the way in which the protesters were suppressed: the army’s use of force against a largely peaceful demonstration by its own people risked crossing a very dangerous line. The army is arguably the single most important unifying state institution in Lebanon, and has thus far largely retained its image as an impartial and non-sectarian guardian of the people. It has the respect of the population, and works hard to maintain it. So its actions in suppressing a popular protest was a high-risk strategy. Yet criticism of the army has been curiously muted since the initial crackdown, and attention has remained focused on the politicians themselves.

The second, more serious, concern is the risk that a growing protest movement will destabilise the country, running the risk of being hijacked by organised political actors for their own gain, as has happened repeatedly in the Arab Spring: in Egypt, in Yemen, in Syria. The Lebanese protesters need to ensure protests remain peaceful and focused on specific demands – yes, infrastructure – but more importantly on constitutional decisions such as reaching agreement on a new president. Finally they need to remain inclusive and representative of all Lebanese not just in terms of religious sect but also socio-economic status.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Victor Choueiri.


For many people around the world, ISIS represents a new terrorist phenomenon. The truth is, however, that militant groups like ISIS are not new, and nor are their bloody tactics in the Middle East. What ISIS is doing today is no different from what the Taliban did in the late 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan, or Saddam Hussein during the 1970s in Iraq to consolidate his power. 

What then should be the response of Western powers, and particularly Australia, which has no direct interest in the Middle East region but is involved as a part of an international coalition?

For Australia there are two concerns: an internal one in the form of domestic radicalisation of Muslims, and an external one to do with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. As radical as it may sound, in response to both these concerns, the Australian Government should take a step back, breathe, and do nothing.

The Government needs to go back to basics and distinguish between the threat posed by ISIS and home grown radicalisation, because that's where things have gone wrong. In its attempt to simplify the problem for the larger audience, the Australian Government has jumbled up, even at the policy level, Islamic radicalisation and the threat of ISIS, which are two completely separate things.

In reality, Islamic radicalisation is more of an internal ideological, religious and political struggle within the Muslim world which has been going on for centuries. The assassinations of Islamic Caliphs, the Sunni–Shia feud and violent movements to topple Muslim leaderships, are reflections of this radicalisation throughout Islamic history.

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The radicalisation of Muslims in Australia, especially those who end up joining ISIS, is a continuation of the historical phenomenon and has little to do with hate of Australia or its policies, and more to do with problems in the Middle East. This radicalisation, ideological in nature and focusing on the Islamic world, is being inflated as a threat to Australian society, despite the fact that there has been no serious attempt by Muslims in Australia to sabotage peace in the country or engage in organised terrorist activities. Joining ISIS out of some misplaced ideological conviction or harbouring radical views on Middle East politics is one thing, and acting against Australia is completely another – a distinction that is missing in both the media and policy discourse.

Equally damaging is viewing the issue of Muslim integration in Australian society through the lens of radicalisation, and construing it as a potential terrorist 'threat'. As a result, the Australian Government has been spending millions of dollars on Muslim deradicalisation programs, which has singled out the community and in the process, given life to a threat that may not really exist. 

The Australian Government must shift its narrative and its overwhelming focus on counter-radicalisation programs, and recognise that Islamic radicalisation has less to do with Muslims against the West, and a lot more to do with Muslims against Muslims. Explaining Islam in terms of one 'version' or another, as the Australian Government has attempted in the past, will only mire it in a centuries-old feud within the Muslim world, and is likely to be viewed as an inappropriate interference in religion by a secular government. 

In the face of the external threat of ISIS, it's about time the Muslim countries were asked to lead the war from the front; the Western powers, Australia included, should only play a containing role. As Rodger Shanahan has rightly observed, none of the Muslim countries that are directly threatened by ISIS are doing much to counter it – perhaps they see it as a problem to be dealt by the West? Not simply the product of failed American involvement in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is a result of brutal dictatorships, illegitimate regimes and Muslim resentment of Muslims on the ground in the Middle East. The Australian Government should be cautious about getting itself deeply involved in the affairs of the Middle East and instead let Muslim countries tackle the spread of ISIS for a long-term sustainable solution.

Drawing a distinction between home-grown radicalisation and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the Australian Government will be better placed to avoid becoming embroiled in a war that is internal to Muslims. Billions of dollars have been spent by many countries in counter-radicalisation efforts with no results. Australia should try doing nothing for a change and let Muslims resolve their internal issues over time.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Of Papua New Guinea's population of about 8 million, 80% are rural villagers who produce most of their own food. This makes them vulnerable to extreme weather events. Reports of severe impact on food crops from the recent frosts and ongoing drought in Papua New Guinea are coming from most areas in the Central Highlands. This is where over 40%, or more than 2.5 million, of rural villagers live.

The most serious damage has occurred above 2200m, but many reports are from lower altitudes in the highlands and even from some lowland locations. This impact, in late August, is already greater than at similar stages in previous frosts and droughts, suggesting that this may be a more severe event than the major food shortages of 1997. These required large scale interventions from both the Australian and Papua New Guinean Governments to avoid widespread famine.

It's likely that the current crisis is going have a serious impact on the national economy, both the resource and agricultural sectors. In 1997, the Ok Tedi mine was closed for six months because of low water levels in the Fly Rivera, and the Porgera mine was closed for six weeks. This year, the Ok Tedi mine has already been closed for more than a month due to low water levels in the Fly River, which has prevented copper ore from being shipped out. The drought prevents supplies, including helicopter fuel, being brought by barge to Kiunga, which affects gas exploration in that region.

A long drought is likely to have significant impact on oil palm production, particularly on New Ireland and New Britain and possibly in Oro and Milne Bay provinces. There are already reports of some oil palm blocks in West New Britain being destroyed by fire.

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A major impediment to planning a relief effort is the lack of current meteorological data. In 1970, 330 stations were recording data, but during the last major drought in 1997, we were able to obtain current rainfall data from about 30 locations. This figure is now less than 10.

More detailed information is urgently needed, both to understand what is happening and to plan relief efforts. We could then extrapolate more broadly, albeit from a limited number of locations. For example, if we knew that repeated severe frosts had destroyed sweet potato and other food crops as low as 2000m in Enga and Western Highlands provinces, we could be reasonably certain that the outcome would be similar at many other locations in these and the two adjacent provinces.

Similarly, if people were suffering from lack of water for drinking and processing sago in parts of inland Western Province, then similar scenarios would be likely in many other inland locations there and the adjacent Gulf Province.

Residents living in or near the affected areas, and field assessments by agricultural, water supply and health specialists, could provide the detailed information necessary to assist the Papua New Guinean Government in assessing the situation and formulating a plan to reduce the suffering for rural villagers and others.

Relief could include helping people move to other locations where they maintain ties, which is the traditional coping mechanism at such times for villagers living at very high altitude. It could also include the provision of water containers, water purification units, food aid and medical assistance, as the drought will almost certainly increase the incidence of malaria, typhoid, diarrhoea and possibly dysentery.

At this stage the Government has not requested assistance with drought relief, as it did in 1997, so that international development partners, NGOs and the churches could assist with transport, food aid, water purification, medical supplies and logistics.

That in itself will be complicated:

  1. Many transport networks in rural PNG are run down to some degree. Some locations that could be reached by road in 1997 can now only be accessed by helicopter or on foot. Many airstrips in remote locations are no longer serviceable.
  2. The PNG health system is under considerable strain and, in many rural locations, the air posts and rural health sub-centres fundamental to the system no longer function.
  3. The forthcoming national election in 2017 has the potential to distort food distribution efforts, as potential candidates and current serving politicians seek to gain an advantage from this climate-induced crisis.

In 1997, it was the action of the rural villagers and their urban-based wantoks which prevented widespread famine. Villagers and their urban relatives purchased over 80% of the additionally-imported rice. This resilience, and the wantok safety net, remain intact and will be critical in saving many lives again in 2015 and beyond.

The 1997 event scarred the memories of millions of Papua New Guineans: many people will be aware of what is happening and know what to expect in coming months. They will also know what they have to do to look after their families, unlike in 1997 when most people had not experienced the previous nation-wide food shortages of 1941.

We too must recall the lessons of 1997, so we can help them in their distress.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Alice Drury is an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia program, and currently undertaking a Masters of Iranian Studies at the University of Tehran

The UK reopened its embassy in Tehran the Sunday before last, eager not to be outdone by France and Germany in the jostle for a share of Iran’s enormous unrealised market potential as the country begins to open to trade. 

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated at the reopening ceremony that it was a necessary first step to 'support British trade and investment' in Iran. The reality is however, that after nearly two centuries of economic subjugation and political interference, the British will have to work much, much harder than their European rivals to gain a foothold in the Iranian market. Even then their position will be tenuous.

The significance of the two nations’ imperial history has been missed in the reporting on the reopening of the British Embassy. It stops at the most recent, relatively insignificant diplomatic spats: the protests which led to the Embassy’s closure four years ago in response to the UK imposing sanctions on Iran; Ayatollah Khamenei’s accusation of British involvement in the 2009 Green Movement; and the fatwa issued against British author Salman Rushdie.

These were headline-grabbing events at the time, but they were the symptoms rather than the cause of tensions, which run much deeper. Without paying heed to those tensions, such commentary does little to explain the significance of the renewed diplomatic and economic relationship and the challenges facing UK businesses.

Britain’s economic and strategic interests contributed significantly to the haplessness of Iran’s experience of the 19th and 20th centuries. To the great European powers France, Britain, Russia and Germany, the Persian Empire was regarded as little more than a barrier between them and India, the British Empire’s most valuable colony. Accordingly, Britain’s Iran policy was to keep the state weak and responsive to British interests, and prevent it from straying too far into Russia’s sphere of influence.

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British domination over Iran started with military confrontation when it expelled Iran from its former territory in western Afghanistan in 1856. It proceeded to pursue a policy of economic domination, made easy by Iran’s variously inept and corrupt monarchs, who were often all too ready to sell their country in order to fund their extravagant lifestyles. In 1872 the Shah agreed to what was then considered to be the most extraordinary surrender of a kingdom's resources to foreign hands: a single British national had been promised sole control over all of Iran’s future railways, forms of transportation, factories, agriculture and mineral extraction.

Another concession in 1890 granted a complete monopoly over the production, sale and export of Iranian tobacco to a Briton. While these two agreements ultimately collapsed under pressure from Russia, a further concession in 1901 granted exclusive rights of the country’s petroleum to a British prospector and led to the creation of the mammoth Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now British Petroleum). Thus the British found themselves in a position of control over Persia politically and economically, without needing to formally colonise and invest in the country. 

Things worsened for Iran after the turn of the 20th century. In 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to split the country into three zones – the south for British influence, the north for Russia and a neutral 'buffer' zone in between.

As well as completely debilitating Iran’s leadership, the impending risk of war between Russia and Britain ensured neither would bother to invest in Iran, leaving it poor and undeveloped. Desperate to find a third partner that might be able to free Iran from this foreign domination, Pahlavi King Reza Shah reached out to Nazi Germany. The Allies responded by invading Iran and forcing the King to abdicate the throne to his son. Finally, British meddling in Iranian affairs came to a head in 1953, after Iran’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalised Iran’s oil industry in an attempt to prise the country from the grip of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The British, along with the CIA, orchestrated a coup d’état and reinstated the dictatorial King Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, who imprisoned and killed many of Mossadegh’s supporters. 

Recalling events that took place in the 19th century may seem antiquated in a comment on modern day political and trade relations, but to Iranians this is recent history, and it continues to inform the country’s foreign policy. To a revolutionary Government that has promised never again to fall victim to Western hegemony, its credibility mandates that it concede little to the British. Claims of being a 'puppet' to Western capitalists is an easy and devastating political accusation to make of one’s more moderate opponents. Hence the minimal fanfare when the UK Embassy opened in Tehran. Iranian embassy workers were reportedly reluctant to attend the press conference and the opening was not mentioned in any official announcements published by President Rouhani or Foreign Minister Zarif. Iranian media also reported the story with headlines along the theme of 'Reopening of embassy chance to stop UK hostilities'. 

The reopening of the UK embassy in Tehran is a positive step for British business interests in Iran and bilateral relations in general. However, the British Government and those British businesses which ignore their imperial history in the Middle East do so at their peril. Deep-seeded mistrust fuels propaganda, which makes the relationship vulnerable to another flare-up of the kind seen in 2011. And that would not be good for business. 

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @foreignoffice


Delivering the 2015 Lowy Lecture in Sydney yesterday, General David Petraeus outlined a thought-provoking grand strategy for 'Greater Asia'. 

Geographically, Petraeus defines Greater Asia along a maritime axis from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, but also overland 'from Western Russia to Southeast Asia'. This is even broader than the Indo-Pacific construct, but conceptually compatible with thinking in Australia, aimed at breaking down geographical silos that have inhibited a more connected view of the Asian macro-region as a strategic continuum.

Petraeus' bottom-line logic is that rather than thinking of the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific as 'two autonomous spheres' we should approach Greater Asia as 'an increasingly integrated and interdependent strategic whole'. Even as US dependence on the Middle East for oil and gas continues to shrink, he highlights Asian countries' economic reliance on hydrocarbons from the Middle East as an enduring strategic connector for Greater Asia.

Another linking theme in the lecture is the indivisible nature of US alliance commitments – and US credibility.

Petraeus considers the US to be a 'permanent resident power' that cannot afford to disengage or withdraw from the Middle East or Asia Pacific. The security challenges facing both regions that he identifies are different but 'equally urgent and important'. According to Petraeus, two big winners have emerged from the struggle for power across the Middle East.

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First, Sunni extremists – manifested in the twin incarnations of ISIS and al Qaeda – have created far-flung terrorist sanctuaries. Second, Iran has exploited the chaos afflicting the Arab world to strengthen its position. Petraeus declined to pass judgement on the recent Iran nuclear deal in his speech, but in the question-and-answer conversation that followed, he argued that the US should explicitly threaten force if Tehran enriches uranium to weapons-grade. In the Asia Pacific, Petraeus focused on the challenges posed by China in the maritime and cyber domains, singling out the militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea as 'particularly aggressive'. Russia was also mentioned as a destabilising influence.

Petraeus highlighted a 'zero-sum game' trap whereby US efforts to engage in the Middle East or Asia Pacific are erroneously viewed as mutually exclusive options. Here, he invoked General George Marshall's concept of 'theateritis': 'the tendency of military commanders to advocate for their particular regional area of responsibility, rather than thinking about the global big picture.' Petraeus is supportive of the good intentions behind the US rebalance to Asia, but argues that the roll-out of the policy unnecessarily fanned the fears of Middle Eastern allies about US abandonment. Correspondingly, as the US has refocused on the fight against ISIS, East Asian states have questioned the Obama Administration's commitment to its signature policy in Asia. Petraeus singled out the failure to enforce US 'red lines' in Syria as compounding the concerns of Asian allies about Washington's resolve – further demonstrating how connected the two regions are.

Petraeus drew repeatedly and no doubt earnestly from his personal experience as a coalition commander in Iraq and Afghanistan to underscore Australia's importance as a 'treasured ally' of the US. He said that the alliance is becoming 'even more important', but offered few specifics beyond bullishly predicting that US-Australian strategic cooperation will be undiminished in future – and unaffected by Australia's economic proximity to China. The main recommendation from the lecture was a pitch for Washington to 'follow Australia's example' by increasing defence spending. This is flattering if not misleading, considering that Australia still spends a far smaller proportion of its national wealth on defence than the US. 

While the vision of Greater Asia presented by Petraeus in his Lowy Lecture is certainly expansive, beyond a general plea for increased military resources and confidence in the reliability of stalwart allies like Australia, the question was largely unanswered as to how the US and its partners can effectively counter the various hybrid-warfare challenges being posed, in series, across Greater Asia by Russia, China and North Korea – all of which possess nuclear arms. 

The unfamiliar and daunting nature of this challenge is perhaps sharpened by the fact that Petraeus is representative of the 9/11 generation of US commanders who obtained their combat experience 'in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan'. Despite Petraeus' commendable efforts to link together the US Central and Pacific Command areas of responsibility as a single geo-strategic entity, the question can legitimately be asked: how transferable is the accumulated stock of US military experience from these CENTCOM army-centric environments to PACOM's bigger, more maritime area of responsibility, including more capable potential adversaries than the US has faced on the battlefield in well over a generation?

In that narrow sense, therefore, the strategic geography of Greater Asia is probably more uneven than it appears.


There were huge protests over the weekend in Japan against legislation, approved in principle by the Abe cabinet in July, which will reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to permit the very limited exercise of collective self-defence. This fierce public opposition to the normalisation of Japan's Self Defence Forces highlights two connected problems for Prime Minister Abe. 

The size and cross-sectional nature of the protests highlight a serious policy communication problem for the Japanese Government in general, and a particular problem for the Abe administration. There is a strong bipartisan consensus, supported by Japanese public opinion, that Japan faces a very serious and growing security threat from China and North Korea. As shown by the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines released under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, there also is strong bipartisan support for Japanese foreign and security policy to become much more focused on these neighbourhood threats, for a stronger US-Japan alliance and for Japan to play a more active alliance and regional security role.

But there is partisan disagreement on how to do this, with the leader of the DPJ joining the leader of the Japanese Communist Party at the protest rallies. The partisan disagreement is fuelled by the public's unwillingness to support a more active Japanese security role in general, and particularly changes like collective self-defense seen to undercut the totemic war-renouncing Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution.

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Unfortunately, Abe, with his conservative, revisionist views and tense relations with much of the media, is not the leader to help bridge the gap between what policy and legal changes the Government thinks are necessary for Japanese security, and what many parts of Japanese society are willing to support. Rather, Abe is likely to widen or harden this gap that so frustrates Japanese security policymakers and those who want Japan to play a more active security role.

As the demonstrations show, Japan's battered opposition parties see an opportunity to wedge Abe on this issue. The media and governments in Seoul and Beijing likewise.

The protests, while large and loud, are not a significant political threat to Prime Minister Abe or his administration. Abe's position in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is rock-solid and it looks very likely that he will be re-elected unopposed as party leader this month. Second, the LDP faces no serious opposition party threat, and the popularity of Abe's cabinet has actually increased despite these mounting, headline-grabbing demonstrations, a slowing economy and an embarrassing flip-flop on the centrepiece stadium for the upcoming 2020 Olympics.

We should expect more demonstrations and denunciations inside and outside Japan, but the process of revising Japanese legislation to operationalise the limited right of collective self-defense seems as secure as Prime Minister Abe himself.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christian c.


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.

  • A new report authored by Michael Krepon and Toby Dalton from Carnegie on Pakistan's nuclear program. Essentially, will Pakistan accept achieving a strategic deterrent vis-à-vis India, or will it pursue 'full-spectrum' deterrence against targets both near and far?
  • There's also an accompanying blog post from Krepon on Arms Control Wonk.
  • Ahead of the massive World War Two victory parade in Beijing this week, Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times argues that China may be tempted by nationalism and militarism.
  • And speaking of militarism, the PLA has its military monkey handlers in Beijing to help clear the skies of birds in preparation for the parade.
  • Japan and China are also in a diplomatic row over UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's planned attendance at the parade.
  • A report from Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense has warned that China is likely to eventually declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
  • Also, two researchers from SIPRI have speculated on China's motivations for its island building in the South China Sea.
  • James Goldrick and Hugh White are involved in a debate over the future of Australia's surface naval combatants and shipbuilding.
  • Why does North Korea's aging submarine force still pose a threat?

The view from Tokyo

In the international politics of Japan's war memory, Yasukuni Shrine has become indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism.

Each 15 August – the anniversary of the ending of the Pacific War with the unprecedented noon-time radio broadcast by the Showa Emperor – a motley crew of right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many 'ordinary' Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalisations about the meaning of Yasukuni.

The shrine was founded by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to enshrine the spirits of all those who served the imperial restorationist cause in the civil war against the remnant forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. This includes restoration (isshin) heroes in the popular imagination, such as Ryoma Sakamoto, and excludes those who resisted them, as they had not served the emperor. Yasukuni is therefore deeply linked to the ideology of imperial service, and this is reflected in the imperial chrysanthemum crest that adorns the shrine. It's striking that the present Emperor (like the Showa Emperor from the late 1970s on) will not visit the shrine,

Yasukuni Shrine is controversial for its enshrinement of convicted war criminals, especially the 'A class' criminals (those who planned and made war) of the Tokyo War Crime Trials. This was a consciously provocative decision of the chief priest of the shrine in 1978, and prompted the Imperial family to discreetly distance itself from Yasukuni. Other convicted war criminals had been gradually enshrined from the late 1950s, with rather less contention. The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 marks the eligibility cut-off, meaning those killed in the service of the contemporary Self Defense Forces are excluded.

The cooperation of government ministries in providing details of military personnel and some categories of eligible civilians killed in conflicts up until the end of World War II was long controversial. Enshrinement is non-consensual, and if they object to it, family members cannot have it undone, because of a theocratic assertion that the souls of the dead are made indivisible.

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Yasukuni Shrine is also controversial for the Yushukan war museum that has been co-located with it since the late 1880s. While there are similar exhibition spaces at the Australian War Memorial and the like, what is problematic is the museum's revisionist depiction of Japan's Pacific war, with its narrative of liberating Asian peoples from Western colonialism and the downplaying of Japanese aggression and warcrimes.

Japan's critics, especially the governments of China and South Korea and some of their citizens, draw dire conclusions about the meaning and intent of Japanese political figures who visit Yasukuni. Japanese opinion polls generally show significant opposition to the visits, out of regard for foreign sensitivities. At the same time, there is widespread distrust in the motives of the Chinese and Korean governments in criticising the visits.

Arguably, a key motivation for both Prime Minister Abe visiting Yasukuni in December 2013, and former leader Junichiro Koizumi, was a desire to redefine the meaning of shrine visits against the interpretation of sometimes ill-willed critics. Both leaders stressed Japan's peaceful intent, their motivation to pay respects to the war dead, and not to glorify Japan's wartime past. Yet Yasukuni has acquired a totemic association with historical revisionism and indifference to Chinese and Korean sensitivities that has proven impossible to break.

For a fringe of right-wing activists, Yasukuni is precisely what its critics allege, and they are unrepentant. But for a large majority of those who visit the shrine, it's something important yet rather more mundane: a place to to mark remembrance of those who died in a military conflict that became a deep national stigma, disallowing a more consoling legacy that they died in order that Japanese might enjoy prosperity and freedom today.

Many types of people come to Yasukuni on 15 August, and with varied intent: it is, to quote Australian playwright Alan Seymour, the 'One Day of the Year' for the established organisations such as the association of war bereaved, and the much-thinned ranks of veterans groups.

A wide variety of 'ordinary folk' accompany their veteran or bereaved grandparents to Yasukuni, and often keep up the custom of visiting as a mark of respect to them after their passing.

Senior serving Self-Defense Forces officers visit Yasukuni to pray in honour of the war dead.

A bassman works up a sweat, the full body tattoo associated with gangsters – the yakuza – showing through his drenched white shirt. The main 'exclusive' yakuza organisations typically double as nationalist organisations and that has long been part of their self-legitimisation. Every 15 August yakuza are in abundance at Yasukuni.

An old man dressed in the even older uniform of the Russo-Japanese war period.

15 August is a key day for hardcore right-wing martial groups, who also gather on other significant public holidays and in response to disputes with Japan's neighbours. A certain demographic of working-class men, some associated with bikie gangs, or in parts of the construction trades, associate culturally with Japanese nationalism and can be seen in abundance at Yasukuni. There is also another notable demographic: often well-educated white-collar conservative admirers of the Imperial family, modest in attire and sometimes ill-at-ease in the company of the 'rougher' elements drawn to Yasukuni.

Dressed as a World War II soldier, this doll-like young man consciously blurs the boundaries of bishonen (beautiful young man) idol culture, manga-inspired cosplay practice and military re-enactment: at odds with most military cultures but not out of place in modern Tokyo. Yasukuni every 15 August comes to resemble to a military 'cosplay' festival, akin to the youngsters dressing up in outfits of their favourite anime and manga characters at Akihabara. There is a clear performative intent at Yasukuni. For many it is the annual equivalent of their '15 minutes of fame', Warhol-style.

A cheery Japanese chap dressed as a Wehrmacht enlisted man. He gave a warm welcome to visiting Israeli students, telling them in Japanese English, 'don't mind.' A young German neo-nazi who came to visit told this photographer that he would smash the camera if his face was photographed, as he feared losing his job. He readily admitted that his act was illegal at home, and said that the Holocaust had been stopped too soon. Japanese around him, some associated with the right-wing, were clearly made uneasy by his presence. Yasukuni can take on an international significance in ways that surprise Japanese.

Yasukuni draws all types, including this well-organised group visiting from Taiwan who are committed to restoring Imperial Japanese rule over Taiwanese territory. They reject the KMT-imposed Taiwanese state, but obey it and are strongly opposed to reunification with China. In uniforms and Salvation Army-like marching formations, they aim to raise the consciousness of Japanese people to 'the fact' that Taiwanese soil remains the domain of the Japanese Emperor.

Predictions of ill fortune drawn through a lottery in a Japanese shrine are left tied so as to leave the bad luck behind. Yasukuni uses the cherry blossom and an evocative subtle pink as motif colours, along with stark white and black and a variant of Chrysanthemum crest signalling the Imperial system. Cherry blossoms have been a potent aesthetic in Japanese militarism, inheriting an association in samurai culture. The cherry blooms beautifully and soon is lost: a motif for the flowering of beautiful doomed youth destined to fall too early. White is the colour of purity and of death, and the subtle pink hues of the cherry blossom evokes images of white silk lightly stained with the fresh blood of the fallen warrior. Yasukuni has an abundance of cherry trees and is a popular sightseeing destination in the spring. Arguably this has reduced the resistance of many Japanese to visiting the Shrine. It is also in a central and beautiful part of Tokyo.


The humanitarian tragedy unfolding daily in Europe has forced the West to again try and redefine its obligations to those who have been made vulnerable as a result of conflict in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war.

But it may also have stirred a desire to question why the burden is shared by so few countries. In particular, why are wealthy Gulf countries still able to salve their consciences by donating money to UN agencies, along with weapons to Syrian rebels, while at the same time refusing to sign the UN Refugee Convention or accept any refugees for resettlement. 

You won't hear it in polite political company of course, but Amnesty International pointed out in December last year the glaring inability of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to offer a single resettlement place for Syrian refugees. They are not the only guilty ones, but they are from the region, speak the same language, several have helped fuel the ongoing crisis in Syria, they are wealthy and have a huge appetite for expatriate workers.

One needs only to look at the table below to gauge how wealthy these states are and in some cases how many expatriate workers they import to fuel their economy, which allows them to live in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

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It seems to be no great sacrifice for them to open their doors to fellow Arab Muslims, allow them to settle in their countries, and in due course become citizens. For reasons that are too varied to go into in such a short space, the GCC won't sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and will remain happy for the West and some regional states to deal with the human misery that its policies help in part to create.

Sources: Arabnews.com, Migration Policy Institute, US State Department, Migration Policy Centre and Gulf Research Center, Times of Oman, Government of Kuwait

Perhaps the Australian Government could put aside aspirations for the chimera of a GCC Free Trade Agreement to publicly question the groups lack of commitment to the regional refugee crisis ,and their unwillingness to sign up to the UN Refugee Convention. Or, the Government could spend less time advocating for the Europeans to join in bombing Syria and more time in advocating for the Gulf States to join in accepting Syrian refugees. Perhaps refugee lobby groups could also expend some of their energy and advocacy in publicly questioning why the GCC appears unwilling to share the refugee burden in their own region, while Australia does.

There is something intrinsically wrong when Saudi Arabia can source 1.5 million people to act as domestic help, and a country like Bahrain can issue visas for more than 33,000 housemaids, and yet they can't even resettle one Syrian refugee. 

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones and Jonathan Pryke argue that Australia-PNG relations should be better after 40 years of PNG independence.
  • The Australian Senate committee investigating conditions at the detention centre on Nauru has found it inadequate and unsafe for the asylum seekers detained there.
  • In the first of a three-part series for the Aus-PNG Network, David Bridie criticises Australia’s lack of engagement with its closest neighbour, PNG, and shares the story of his personal connection to the country.
  • Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has made strong statements in response to reports that militias are training to create a breakaway Christian state. He has said that challenging the Government is an attack on democracy and defies the will of the Fijian people.
  • Pacific Island leaders are meeting in Port Moresby next week for the 46th Pacific Islands Forum. This year’s theme is ‘Strengthening Connections To Enhance Pacific Regionalism’, while climate change will be high on the agenda. Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor’s consultations with local communities has revealed other concerns, including West Papua and cervical cancer.
  • The Pacific Islands Development Forum is taking place this week in Suva and will be focusing on climate change. It is the third such summit held by the Fijian Government.  
  • The harsh impacts of the El Nino weather pattern continue to be felt in PNG’s highlands. Mike Bourke explains the complexities of the drought on The Conversation.
  • The ABC’s Bruce Hill spoke to PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill about what his Government is doing to tackle the drought, including considering overturning the ban on imported fruits and vegetables from Australia.

By Yanmei Xie, International Crisis Group’s Senior China Analyst, and Rachel Vandenbrink, graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University.

China’s unsuccessful invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the country’s Second World War victory over Japan was an example of diplomacy at its most passive-aggressive.

Beijing publicly announced the invitation in July. Subsequent negotiations for Abe to visit either before or after China’s commemorations failed. 

The inability to agree on the visit speaks volumes about a rivalry that both sides seem happy to keep alive for short-term political gain, while managing its intensity to prevent open conflict. The failure to agree on a summit meeting reflects deep and growing currents of mistrust, which are impeding prospects of any genuine reconciliation. 

Abe’s speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War included the requisite key words Beijing had been listening for, including 'aggression' and 'apology'. But the prime minister avoided a direct apology of his own. Japan’s past 'heartfelt apologies' remain, he said, but future generations should not have to keep apologising. The prime minister soon after gave a nod to his right-wing constituency by sending an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorialises Japan’s war dead, including 14 'Class A' war criminals.

Unsurprisingly, China was not impressed. The foreign ministry accused Japan of 'being evasive' on its past 'militarism and aggression'. The state-run Xinhua news agency said Abe offered a 'diluted' apology.

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Not that a more forthright apology from Abe was likely to move the Chinese Communist Party to give up history as a tool to keep Japan down and prop up its own legitimacy. The military parade that anchors China’s commemoration events will serve as a chest-thumping reminder to the public of China’s ascent – under the Party’s leadership – from a country under Japanese occupation to today’s global power. 

But Beijing’s muscle-flexing has had unintended consequences. Arguably, the threat perception created by China, especially since it began to patrol regularly a group of East China Sea islands that both Japan and China claim, but had been solely administered by Japan, has done the most to help Abe advance a more proactive security agenda at home. 

Under a process started by the previous administration and accelerated by Abe, Tokyo has embarked on defence reforms that are historic in the Japanese context, although still modest by other standards. In a country deeply wedded to the principle of non-aggression in international relations, the reforms are controversial, but the perception of an increased threat to the existing order is helping to usher them through.

Japan has reconfigured its defence orientation from deterrence of a Soviet invasion from the north to a 'dynamic defense force' capable of rapid response to threats anywhere in Japan – especially defending or retaking the remote southwestern islands facing China. In 2014, Japan’s defence budget grew by 2.2%, its first rise in over a decade. 

The Abe administration has also loosened a decades-old ban on arms exports, and 'reinterpreted' Japan’s constitution so that the Japanese Self-Defense Force could come to the assistance of allies and friends in conflicts, partially lifting a longstanding, self-imposed prohibition on collective self-defence. Indeed, under the aegis of 'proactive contribution to peace', Abe has presided over the greatest upgrade to US-Japan defence cooperation in decades. His Government has also stepped up cooperation with Southeast Asian countries entangled in maritime disputes with China, helping Vietnam and the Philippines to acquire patrol vessels and professionalise their coast guards. 

In short, Japan is enhancing its capability not only to defend itself, but also to project power and contend for influence in a theatre where China considers itself the natural leader.  Asia’s two most powerful nations are treading farther down a path of strategic rivalry in a region rife with flashpoints.

For now, it appears both sides understand the disastrous consequences of sliding towards open conflict. They have made progress on establishing a maritime crisis management mechanism scheduled for operation by year-end and aimed at preventing military clashes in the East China Sea. Faithfully implemented, this will go a long way towards averting accidents and miscalculation.

But without visible political will for genuine reconciliation, managing this rivalry is only going to become harder. A 2014 Genron-China Daily joint poll showed 93% of Japanese viewed China unfavorably, a staggering increase from 36% in 2006. Among the Chinese public, 87% viewed Japan unfavorably in 2014, up from 57% in 2006. In that same baseline year of 2006, Abe, in his first term as prime minister, agreed with the then Chinese President Hu Jintao to 'build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests'.

A decade later, the current bilateral relationship is moving ever further from that peaceful vision.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.


In recent days both Bob Carr and Gareth Evans have publicly argued that Australia has a 'moral obligation' to bomb Syria. Of the two, Evans' position is clearly the more thought through, pointing to ample 'grey areas' in the legal justification, and providing sober reflections about the efficacy of airstrikes in protecting civilians in Syria.

Yet, in this case, the 'moral obligation' argument is dangerously misguided, and reflects a failed lesson offered by recent history.

Four years ago I warned that the Libya intervention would prove a major strategic error; a view shouted down by three foreign policy heavy weights within the Australian Labor Party: Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans – and the personal regard I have for these individuals cannot be overstated.

However, the Libya intervention proved an unmitigated disaster. Libya is now a failed state. Some 'rebels' we supported proved to be Sunni extremists who helped destabilise the state, culminating in the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. A second civil war is now raging across Libya to the advantage of ISIS, with atrocities perpetrated on a horrendous scale.

On almost everything that is important to Rudd, Carr and Evans – human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, R2P, NATO-Russia engagement, legitimacy of multilateral institutions and the rule of law – the Libyan adventure was a disaster.

For example, during the intervention in 2011, members of the regime lamented giving up Libya's WMD program in 2003. Commentators have speculated that this 'mistake' spurred North Korea and Iran to further develop their own programs. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was also gravely discredited, and the West's abuse of the UN resolution authorising force betrayed Russia's trust, leading to the diplomatic impasse we face over Syria today.

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Now, in claiming Australia has a 'moral obligation' to commit to airstrikes in Syria, both Carr and Evans are readopting an extremely narrow strategic perspective with regard to the reasons for, and consequences of, employing military force: prescribing violent means without credible ends.

Carr and Evans have a noble aim: to strengthen R2P through its practice to deter and prevent acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing such as those we saw in Rwanda during the 1990s. But what strengthens R2P is not waving it around whenever we want to bomb someone – as Carr and Evans aptly pointed out during the Iraq war – but rather to remain clear-sighted about where R2P is effective and relevant, and sober about it being misapplied.

A good first step is being clear about the nature of the violence. If, for example, we are witnessing one-way violence being perpetrated against unarmed civilians by organised groups, such as in Srebrenica, Rwanda or East Timor, then R2P is relevant and would, where effective, override state sovereignty with regard to the use of armed force. 

In contrast, Syria, like Libya, is a civil war. Multiple armed groups are locked in conflict in pursuit of ideological and political objectives. Of course, civilians suffer enormously in civil wars. But to expect foreign airstrikes to protect civilians caught in one is fantasy. Moreover, there has been no suggestion of protecting Syrian civilians from the atrocities of the Assad regime – the proposition before us is to take sides.

Australia's obligation as a good international citizen is to do what we can to assist Syrian civilians suffering as a result of the conflict. If that is the objective, then what is the means by which it is best achieved? Bombing the place is surely way down that list. 

So what will be achieved by Australian airstrikes in Syria? Australia is not proposing to commit significant additional resources to the fight, and the Americans are already there. From a strategic point of view, the prospective benefit is vanishingly small. It's clear that airstrikes alone will not stop the ISIS advance, yet with Iranians fighting in Iraq and Russia propping up Assad, Western airstrikes may help extend the conflict to the point where a new Sunni-Shia strategic equilibrium emerges in the post-Iraq War era. None of that has anything to do with humanitarian intervention. If anything, the short-term human misery will be increased in pursuit of this higher strategic aim.

And there is a price to be paid by Australian bombing in Syria. Australia's current military campaign in Iraq has the solid legal foundation of being undertaken at the request of the duly-elected Iraqi Government. Bombing Syria is illegal without a UN Security Council resolution authorising it (notwithstanding dubious contentions to the contrary). This is problematic for us, because promoting rigorous adherence to international rules regarding the use of force accords with our own long-term security interests. It would be unfortunate if, for example, one were to call the South China Sea 'ungoverned space' for the purpose of employing military force.

None of this is to say categorically that Australia must not bomb Syria under any circumstances. But the arguments put forth are weak, the cost and risks are real, and the strategy is somewhere between unclear and nonexistent.

Humanitarian intervention is a weak argument for bombing Syria, even while protecting civilians remains a noble and worthy aim. Doing so with military means should not be shirked where it is both necessary and effective, but neither is true in this case.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.