Lowy Institute
  • Over 100 people have died in the past week as Typhoon Rammasun hit northern Philippines, northern Vietnam and China.
  • Typhoon Rammasun marks the beginning of typhoon season in Southeast Asia and much of the region remains ill-equipped, as this Oxfam release notes about the Philippines.  
  • China moved its oil rig out of disputed waters this week. Carl Thayer explains four possible reasons why.
  • Filipino President Bengino Aqinuo III is facing a movement for his impeachment after a Supreme Court ruled he had acted unconstitutionally in spending for an economic stimulus. 
  • On Monday, Thailand conducted a headcount of Myanmar refugees, sparking fears that a refoulement (similar to that seen with undocumented Cambodian workers) may be about to occur. Since Thailand's military government took power, warmer relations with Myanmar's military have ensued.
  • Nicholas Farrelly explains why Myanmar matters.
  • Under considerable pressure (as I examined last week), Malaysian PM Najib announced today that he has negotiated directly with Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed PM of the 'Donesk People’s Republic'.
  • Here and here are two great in-depth pieces on how the region's insatiable appetite for hydrodams continues and why they are so contentious. (Thanks Milton.)
  • Final talks’ took place today between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and the Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
  • Last week Cambodian opposition party protesters, demanding the re-opening of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, clashed with police:


Australian diplomacy at the UN has kicked up a gear over the last two weeks. On 14 July the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165, drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg, setting up a new mechanism to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria. And yesterday it approved Resolution 2166, tabled by Australia, demanding a 'full, thorough and independent investigation' into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine. This can only be a small consolation for the Australians, Dutch, Malaysian and other families who lost loved ones in the catastrophe. But both resolutions are evidence of Australia's increasingly confident diplomacy at the UN.

In a Lowy Institute Analysis published last month, I argued that the Australian team in New York had outperformed expectations in the Security Council through 2013 and the first half of 2014. Their biggest success before this month was Resolution 2139, tabled with the Luxembourgers and Jordanians in late February, which called for unfettered access for aid agencies working in Syria. The mere fact that Australia and its allies got Russia and China to sign up to this demand was a diplomatic coup.

But by last month, Resolution 2139 looked like an illusory success. Syria has consistently failed to fulfill its terms, and with Russia at odds with the West over Ukraine, any serious follow-up resolution seemed unlikely. Australian officials felt obliged to pursue the issue, but feared that they could end up 'going backwards' by sparking a fight with Moscow or settling for a pointlessly weak rebuke to Damascus.

Painstaking diplomacy delivered a pragmatic alternative. To satisfy Russia, Resolution 2165 shies away from sanctions or other penalties against Damascus for its non-compliance with the Council's earlier demands (although it hints that such measures are possible in future). But it goes beyond Resolution 2139 by authorising UN aid agencies to make humanitarian aid deliveries without the Syrian Government's prior consent while also directing monitors to check these aid consignments for hidden weapons or other illicit supplies for the rebel groups.

This is a decent compromise, showing just enough deference to Moscow's concerns while putting in place a concrete plan to ease the situation. The same could be said, in very different circumstances, about Resolution 2166 on the MH17 investigation.

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To get Moscow's support for the Ukrainian resolution, Australia and its allies watered down their text. Security Council Report, a think-tank that tracks day-to-day UN negotiations in detail, summarises some of the intricate niceties involved:

In the initial exchange over the original draft, it seems China and Russia stressed the importance of not prejudging the outcome of the investigations. The initial text of the draft resolution contained a paragraph which condemned the 'shooting down' of flight MH17. This was changed to 'the downing' of the MH17 flight. This was likely done as some members insisted that no conclusions should be made until a thorough investigation is completed, making the reference to 'shooting down' unacceptable.

But the details are still solid, including a specific demand for investigators to access the crash site and a call for whoever is responsible to be held accountable.

Australia seems to have learned the art of letting Russia save face at the Security Council while backing it into concessions on matters of substance. This is no small feat as Britain, France and the US have ended up colliding with Russia at the UN in unproductive spats over both Syria and Ukraine.

But the devil is still in the details.

Both the new aid mechanism for Syria and the MH17 investigation could backfire. If Damascus wants to discredit the humanitarian deliveries authorised by Resolution 2165, it won't find it too hard to stage the 'discovery' of a cache of weapons in an aid truck cleared by UN monitors. And the MH17 investigation could be drawn out and ultimately prove inconclusive – the US and NATO can offer the investigators signals intelligence and satellite imagery on the incident, but Moscow will say this is fixed.

All diplomatic deals are ultimately vulnerable to poor or dishonest implementation. But the last fortnight's deals over both Syria and Ukraine are clearly preferable to the alternatives: giving up on the humanitarian effort in the former case, and getting caught in an escalatory cycle of denunciations with Moscow over MH17 in the latter. UN diplomacy is the art of the possible. Australia seems to have mastered this art well.

Photo by Flickr user Scott Garner.


The Imitation Game tells the story of mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, who is credited with helping turn the tide of World War II by breaking Germany's Enigma code.

The Imitation Game is due for release on 21 November.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


By Charles Hunt, Lecturer in International Security at the University of Queensland, and Mark Malan, Senior Lecturer in Peacekeeping at Massey University in New Zealand.

UNMISS peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan. (UN Photo.)

As the last of the reinforcements arrive for the newly mandated UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), questions remain over its ability to protect civilians and put South Sudan on a road to peace and stability.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, following a referendum held under the conditions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought to an end the 22-year Sudanese civil war. The birth of the new nation was a significant achievement for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which deployed in 2005 to support the implementation of the CPA. However, UNMIS was not very effective at disarming and demobilising the myriad armed groups prior to independence, nor did it make much headway with the transformation of the post-war security sector.

Following independence, the UN's role was re-conceived as a peacebuilding endeavour, with the newly-named UNMISS mandated to build the institutional capacity needed to govern the nascent state of South Sudan. Despite early optimism, UNMISS was unable to address the maladies of a bloated security sector, and despite an explicit mandate to 'protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence', was incapable of responding to brutal attacks on civilians once political violence flared in December 2013. 

The violence, sparked by a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar, led to civil war, with widespread attacks on civilians instigated along ethnic lines. Since December, over 10,000 people have been killed and over 1.5 million displaced. Having opened their gates to fleeing civilians, UN peacekeepers now face the task of looking after over 100,000 civilians seeking refuge in impromptu protection sites inside ten UN bases across the country, a situation that Secretary-General Ban says is taking UNMISS into 'uncharted territory.' 

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In addition to the direct effects of fighting, South Sudanese are threatened by impending famine, particularly in the conflict-affected states where farmers were unable to plant seeds before the arrival of the rainy season. While the fighting has claimed many victims, these numbers may pale into insignificance against the numbers now likely to starve to death

In late June 2014, the UN Security Council passed a resolution reconfiguring and re-prioritising UNMISS. Troop strength went from 7000 to 12,500 and the UN police force was strengthened from 900 to 1323, with the addition of several helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. This fortified force is to abandon the previously mandated task of state building and embrace the new priorities of protecting civilians and securing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Yet UNMISS finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The mission is deployed in the midst of a lethal civil war. As matters now stand, there is no way the Council can extricate the mission without compromising the safety of thousands of UN personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians. Instead of liquidating a peacebuilding mission, the Security Council has resuscitated the notion of maintaining safe havens protected by peacekeepers.

The practice of establishing UN-protected areas is not exactly uncharted territory, as suggested by Ban; it was in fact discredited in the 1990s because of the UN's failure to protect against the Srebrenica massacre of 1993 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. However, in addition to protection against armed attack, the UN is now also accepting responsibility for protecting South Sudanese against disease and famine. For example, UNMISS has expressed concern about the situation in Bentiu, where 100-200 displaced people continue to arrive daily, many of them malnourished. The UN-protected areas are likely to be in increasing demand as feeding centres regardless of the conflict situation.

Serious questions therefore remain about the ability of UNMISS to fulfill its 'close protection' and broader protection mandate.

As Secretary-General Ban has said: 'the strengthening of UNMISS's protection capabilities will not happen overnight. Even with additional capabilities, we will not be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan.' In addition to risks associated with deteriorating health and sanitation, the task of protecting and feeding more than 100,000 civilians within UN bases presents serious challenges for the Formed Police Units which are for the first time being asked to protect vulnerable populations from external threats as well as hostile elements in the camps.

Given these challenges, UNMISS peacekeepers cannot be expected to hold the line indefinitely, so South Sudan's political process needs impetus. Although a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January 2014, there has been little tangible progress towards a political settlement that would contain the power struggles and usher in a transitional government.

The interests and support of regional powers need to be carefully managed during any diplomatic offensive. The conflict is already regionalised through the presence of Ugandan troops, the central mediating role of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the standing-up of an IGAD monitoring and verification mechanism. While the support of regional powers remains essential to settling the conflict, there is also potential for the interests and meddling of those same regional powers to exacerbate the conflict

The UN Security Council and some of it more powerful members, though at the moment seized with other pressing issues of global and regional security, need to bring much more pressure to bear instead of abdicating their responsibility to IGAD and the African Union in the hope that they will find 'African solutions to African problems'. If the UN is to support the transition to peace, then the Security Council, the Secretariat, and UNMISS leadership need to help shape a transitional strategy that results in a stable settlement and ends the de facto impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the worst atrocities. 


It is always morbid to talk of what ground nations might gain from disasters such as the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, but international politics has never been a place for the squeamish.

For US President Barack Obama, the attack has provided him with atypical room for patience as, curmudgeons like John McCain aside, many of his typically loudest Republican detractors seem willing to let investigators in Ukraine come to some definitive conclusion on the nature and extent of Russian involvement rather than criticise his supposedly weak foreign policy.

In the longer term there is a very real possibility that the legacy of the disaster might be a Europe that is more engaged in affairs to its east, and maybe even further afield, as its leaders become aware that their own interests are increasingly at threat from a rising tide of conflict and instability.

President Obama spoke in terms similar to these in a White House briefing shortly after the MH17 attack (which claimed the lives of 193 Dutch citizens, along with Belgians, Brits and Germans), calling it a 'wake up call' for Europe and warning that violence could no longer be contained to the continent's fringes.

This comes after the US had been left frustrated by the failure of European governments to match Washington's high-level sanctions on Russia, which enjoys the insurance of considerable interdependence with European nations that might otherwise challenge it, particularly concerning the supply of energy.

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Just a day before the downing of the MH17, Obama reluctantly went it alone, beefing up penalties on Russia's energy and defence interests over its continued material and ideological support for the Ukrainian rebels, while Europe opted only for so-called 'Tier 2' actions that froze assets and banned travel for Vladimir Putin's closest offsiders.

Obama will have been pleased to see UK Prime Minister David Cameron's support for escalating to the tougher Tier 3 sanctions in light of the disaster, and calling for the continent to 'make our power, influence and resources count'. He will no doubt closely follow announcements out of Brussels, and indeed Berlin and Paris, to see how far that wave of indignation spreads.

Such a change in European fortunes could be considered overdue, with the continent largely a source of frustration for US foreign policy in the Obama years, despite the rapture with which Europe's leaders and citizens greeted his election after the disastrous relations of the Bush years.

Europe's continued economic calamities and political disunity have denied Obama much-needed support in tackling many of the international obligations from which he had hoped to remove the US in order to focus on the domestic sphere.

With a majority of Americans still favouring a withdrawal from foreign entanglements (according to the latest poll from Politico), stronger multilateral partnerships with Europe on security and other matters could be a shot in the arm for a somewhat floundering Administration. With Japan also coming to the party in the Asia Pacific — by moving to reinterpret its pacifist constitution and face up to the rise of China — it seems Obama might finally be getting what he wants on the international stage.

The problem now is one of time. With a little over two years left to run in his presidency, there may be far too little of it to achieve the vision.

Photo by Flickr user U.S. Ambassador Gutman.


[I]t is much easier for an expansionist power to insert an asset in disputed waters than it is for the defenders to remove it. This is the key issue here: how to remove a hostile asset without escalating the dispute using lethal force. 


The UN Security Council observes a minute's silence for the MH17 victims. (UN photo.)

The clocks at the UN were approaching midnight on Sunday night when the Security Council concluded an emergency session on the Gaza conflict, and then immediately reconvened for consultations on an Australian draft resolution dealing with the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17. Unscheduled late-night meetings, especially on the weekend, are uncommon at the UN. Two back-to-back meetings at such a late hour involving such major crises may well be unprecedented. But with the debris-strewn crash site becoming more contaminated with every passing hour, there was no time to lose. 

Negotiations had been conducted earlier in the day on a resolution calling for an independent international investigation and demanding that armed groups in control of the crash site immediately provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access. But at the eleventh hour – in the most literal sense of all – the Russians threw a sickle in the works. At the midnight meeting, the Russians came with their own resolution. Vitaly Churkin, a protégé of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said he had problems with 'ambiguities' in Australia’s draft.

British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, angry over what he saw as blatant Russian obstructionism, told reporters: 'it looks like typical Russian delaying  tactics. It's extraordinary that they've introduced some new amendments which they didn't introduce earlier in the day.' 

Just hours earlier, the language of the draft had been softened to make it more palatable to Moscow. It referred now to the 'downing' of the Boeing 777 rather than its 'shooting down'. But the Russians wanted the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, to take the lead, rather than Ukrainian crash investigators acting with the help of the ICAO. 

After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, Churkin indicated that Russia’s reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.

Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.

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Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.

Australia enjoys a lot of goodwill on the Security Council, not least for its efforts to secure resolutions boosting humanitarian aid to Syria. What made its achievement doubly significant was that it came precisely a week after unanimous passage of its resolution, co-sponsored by Jordan and Luxembourg,  opening the way for more cross-border aid to Syria.

The presence in the chamber of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, along with her Dutch and Luxembourg counterparts, was meaningful and well-received. It provided a clear demonstration of Canberra's determination. It gave Australia's words extra emotional power. Though the nitty gritty of the negotiation was conducted by Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, Julie Bishop was heavily involved behind the scenes.

Raising a hand in support of a UN resolution is a very different thing from lifting a finger where it matters, and the test of this resolution will be in its implementation. Russia claims it has already offered assistance, but America's ambassador Samantha Power said there should never have been any need for a resolution if Moscow had used its influence over the separatists to allow for unfettered access. For the Kremlin not to have condemned the “armed thugs” for tampering with evidence and blocking investigators sent a powerful message, she claimed: 'We have your backs.'

Since the shooting down of MH17 the chamber of the Security Council has felt more like a courtroom. Even after this resolution, Vladimir Putin is still very much in the dock.


A delightful profile of US Vice-President Joe Biden by the New Yorker's former China correspondent, Evan Osnos. This quote will get a lot of mileage as the MH17 story develops:

To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: “I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”

“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line. 

“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

But as the Russia scare-mongering ramps up, this Biden judgment should also be remembered: 

Other than being crazy enough to press a button, there is nothing that Putin can do militarily to fundamentally alter American interests.” 

There's also a killer quote early on in the piece illustrating the Obama-Biden relationship:

The trials facing the President and the Vice-President, who are separated by nineteen years and a canyon in style, have brought them closer than many expected—not least of all themselves. John Marttila, one of Biden’s political advisers, told me, “Joe and Barack were having lunch, and Obama said to Biden, ‘You and I are becoming good friends! I find that very surprising.’ And Joe says...

This is a family website, so I will leave you to read the punchline here


Indonesia's General Elections Commission (KPU) is tomorrow likely to confirm a victory by Joko ('Jokowi') Widodo over presidential rival Prabowo Subianto by a margin of somewhere between 4% and 6.88%. While supporters of Indonesian democracy collectively hold their breath in anticipation of a negative response from Prabowo, it is useful to also look beyond Indonesia's domestic politics to the foreign policy and defence implications for Australia resulting from a Jokowi presidency.

Prior to the election, Jokowi and his vice presidential candidate Jusuf Kalla released a policy platform or Vision Mission (Visi Misi) statement to the KPU which included defence and foreign policy objectives. The statement was predicated strongly upon securing Indonesia's economic and security interests in the maritime domain and enhancing Indonesia's identity as an archipelagic state. 

Advised by a cohort of talented Indonesian intellectuals, the statement reflected the authors' views of the Indo-Pacific region as a single geopolitical and strategic entity. 

In a significant development for Australia, the statement committed a future Jokowi-Kalla government to an increase in defence spending from 0.8 to 1.5% of GDP and to building the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) into a regional maritime power of consequence. It further committed to enhancing regional defence diplomacy and maritime cooperation through multilateral entities such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), of which both India and Australia are members. 

Although the statement did not refer to any specific countries, the sub-text was clearly China. Priorities included defending Indonesia's outer islands, protecting natural resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and strengthening the regional architecture in order to 'prevent the hegemony of major powers'.

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The third presidential debate on 22 June on 'International Politics and National Resilience' revealed further insights into Jokowi's thinking on foreign policy and strategic issues.

On the Australia relationship, the candidates seem to agree there was a trust deficit between Jakarta and Canberra, but Jokowi offered more considered analysis. He indicated his willingness to work towards ameliorating this deficit through business, education and cultural diplomacy, but cautioned that a government he led would not abide perceived condescension or disrespect from its southern neighbour. 

On the South China Sea, a critical security issue for the region, Jokowi generally kept to the foreign ministry line that Indonesia was not directly involved in the dispute but would continue to work towards a diplomatic solution. His equivocation during the debate about Indonesia's ongoing commitment to mediating in the dispute can be attributed more to inexperience on foreign policy matters than an indication of any forthcoming policy shift.

If Jokowi is confirmed as Indonesia's next president on 22 July, as widely anticipated, Australia can expect a degree of policy continuity with Jakarta. At the same time, Australia could also expect a more assertive and more militarily capable Indonesia over the next five years. 

A key disjuncture from the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono period will be the weakening of high-level executive support in Jakarta to steer bilateral relations through the inevitable peaks and troughs. In short, Canberra can expect the troughs to be deeper and to last longer without the champion of bilateral relations represented by SBY. 

On the upside, powerful systemic forces are likely to enhance Australia's utility in the minds of Indonesian defence strategists, mitigating against the risk of protracted bilateral tensions. There is a higher-stakes game emerging in the Indo-Pacific, with China's increasing presence in Southeast Asian states' EEZs

The Jokowi-Kalla Visi Misi statement recognises the realities of contemporary geopolitics in its strong emphasis on Indonesia's maritime domain. Indeed, Australia, through a combination of its geographic proximity to Indonesia's maritime approaches and middle power defence capabilities, may assume an increasingly important role in the strategic policy of a future Jokowi government. 

 Photo by Flickr user Hendrik Mintarno.

  • Prime Minister Abbott announces that former Air Chief Marshal (and now Lowy Institute board member) Angus Houston will go to Ukraine as his personal envoy.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has gone to New York to lead diplomatic efforts for a binding UNSC resolution mandating an independent investigation.
  • Here's The Guardian's latest report on the content of the draft UN resolution.
  • John Garnaut on what China will do in the UN Security Council. Will Xi follow Putin or Abbott.
  • James Fallows in the New York Times: don't blame Malaysian Airlines.
  • Obama calls on Europe to do more; says 'We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing'.
  • Marc Ambinder on how Obama's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, used the KAL007 shootdown in 1983 to pressure the Soviet Union. Here's Reagan's address to the nation:

Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control. Putin’s defiant annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine inflated his popularity at home. Despite a flaccid economy, his approval rating approaches levels rarely seen beyond North Korea. But the tactically clever and deeply cynical maneuvers of propaganda and military improvisation that have taken him this far, one of his former advisers told me in Moscow earlier this month, are bound to risk unanticipated disasters. Western economic and political sanctions may be the least of it.


In September 2010, the Australian Labor Party's Greg Combet sat down with The Australian's Samantha Maiden to explain why the coal industry 'absolutely' had a future. Given Australia is a leading coal exporter, this should have been unexceptional, except that Combet had been put in charge of the development of a carbon price for Australia. Trained in engineering, economics and labour relations, the rising star of the Gillard Government had the unenviable task of navigating between the popular 'soft energy path' policies supported by the electorate (wind, solar, tidal, efficiency) and the realpolitik of energy policy. 

This was five months before the unveiling of the Labor-Green carbon tax. History will record the highly capable Combet as another victim of the Australian carbon pricing debate, along with three prime ministers and a federal opposition leader, all of whom have been defeated or deposed since the start of 2007, in part due to an inability to construct a coherent narrative on carbon pricing. So what has gone wrong?

Winding the clock back to the late 1990s, arguably the single most significant failure of Australian climate policy was the Howard Government's rejection of Environment Minister Robert Hill's proposal for a modest carbon price in the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol. On the other hand, the problem for the Labor Party is that it has allowed itself to be drawn into fruitless debates on 'targets and timetables', and devised complex policy instruments without clear goals, or a means to satisfactorily explain them.

Economics 101 tells us that pricing carbon, ceteris paribus, will lower emissions relative to other factors. The strength of direct pricing is its ability to capture the low-cost efficiency and conservation opportunities and encourage marginal fuel switching. Indeed, the experience of the northern Europeans since the 1990s has been that carbon taxes do in fact reduce emissions from what they would otherwise be, and mostly without a loss of industrial competitiveness.

But there are two distinct differences in the Australian experience.

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Firstly, the Europeans implemented carbon taxes within a broader tax reform agenda, essentially forging a no-regrets response irrespective of global pricing. Secondly, the broad political support ensured a credible commitment to ongoing carbon pricing, in contrast to the highly contested debate in Australia, which has resulted in a labyrinth of carve-outs, compensation payments, and reliance on overseas permits for imported abatement.

The script is supposed to run as follows: a low starting price followed by a rising price with greater global buy-in. But the Labor-Green script has run backwards: a high starting price, then falling to the European price, and now a repeal of the price entirely, due to the inability of Labor to consolidate its carbon package. 

The ambitious Australian scheme was caught between a price that was too high for a starting price but too low to drive a switch to low-emission electricity generation. The sort of carbon prices required to displace incumbent baseload coal start from typically $60 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) for gas and in excess of $200 per tonne CO2-e for baseload solar. 

But even if carbon pricing had run to script, economics alone won't allow us to convert marginal abatement into long-run deep abatement. To understand this, we need to look at how electricity is generated.

Regional electricity markets were developed during a period when nearly all electricity was generated with thermal or hydro-rotary turbines. The problem is that a broadening of the electricity mix is introducing a suite of unintended consequences that are not captured by energy or carbon markets.

For example, the degree to which renewables can be integrated is dependent on the growth of 'flexible generation'. We are already seeing this globally with gas-fired generation complementing wind power, which is crowding out the potential for low-emission baseload and locking in a vague medium-emissions future scenario. This highlights the need for a greater focus on low-emission baseload, a notable omission in Labor's plan.

The divergence of climate and energy policies over the past decade has proven expensive, delivered only marginal abatement, and failed to provide a plausible long-run pathway to low emissions. A credible framework will integrate climate and energy policy to provide investor certainty, clear goals, and a broadening of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation's charter beyond 'soft energy'. Few would argue that the Abbott Government's 'Direct Action Plan' is better than a well designed carbon tax, but perhaps the repeal will at least provide an opportunity to reset the debate and examine the mistakes to date.

Photo by Flickr user Qian.


The spectre of the MH17 outrage is casting a long shadow across AIDS 2014, the 20th international AIDS conference, which opened yesterday in Melbourne. Six of its delegates, including one of the world's leading HIV/AIDS scientists, Dutchman Jeop Lange, were among the flight's 298 passengers.

The mood at last night's opening was sombre and the six were well missed. But HIV has stalked many of the 12,000 people attending this week-long conference, so the threat of death has never been far from their minds. As Australia's eminent jurist Michael Kirby (pictured) said in his opening address last night, people affected by HIV/AIDS are no strangers to suffering, irrationality and hatred. They are also no strangers to death.

So the conference refuses to be bowed by an outrageous act. Instead, it is using the tragedy to spotlight an ongoing outrage: the human rights abuse, happening in many parts of the world, which curses the lives of people either infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

It's true there has been significant success in pushing back HIV's advance over the past three decades. UNAIDS estimates that the global effort to fight HIV has averted 7 million deaths since 2002 and averted 10 million new infections. Globally, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections continues to decline. New infections among adults in developing countries in 2012 were 30% lower than in 2001

Advances in treatment have been a large part of the success, with an estimated 14 million people now on anti-retroviral drugs. But of the 35 million people living with HIV, more than half of them do not know they are infected. And the profile and intensity of transmission differs between regions, with Sub-Saharan Africa remaining the global centre of the epidemic with an estimated 70% of all new HIV infections in 2012.

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The Asia Pacific's position is mixed. It has one of the world's lowest overall rates of HIV prevalence but because of the sheer number of people living across the region — 60% of the world's population — it is also home to the second highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS, at 4.8 million.

Over the past three decades, fears about HIV/AIDS have shifted from a concern for a potentially devastating impact on the general population to a situation where those fears have not been realised. In many parts of the world, and notably in Asia, the disease now largely affects three particular segments of the population: men who have sex with men; male, female and transgender sex workers; and people who inject drugs.

It is the identity of these populations and how they are regarded by broader society which presents a major challenge in responding to HIV/AIDS. Simply because of who they are, it is difficult for them to access the prevention and treatment services that are fundamental to a successful HIV response. In addition to dealing with the risks and reality of legal penalties, each of these groups often has to deal with the broader issue of popular stigma and discrimination which impacts negatively on their human rights on a daily basis. Prohibitive laws, discrimination and stigma combine to create major barriers for the key affected populations to access health services.

The extent of this discrimination and stigma shows through in these UNAIDS statistics: same sex acts are criminalised in 78 countries and punishable by death in seven countries; sex work is illegal and criminalised in 116 countries; people who inject drugs are almost universally criminalised for their drug use or through the lifestyle adopted to maintain their drug use; 42 countries have laws specifically criminalising HIV non-disclosure, exposure and transmission.

So it's not surprising there is a major push by the conference to spotlight human rights. Its organisers, who represent a 25-year history of successful partnership between science, community, government and advocacy, see Melbourne as a watershed for human rights and have released the AIDS 2014 Melbourne Declaration. Its call to end discrimination and eradicate criminalising laws is based not only on human rights but on hard scientific evidence that accessing prevention and treatment reduces HIV incidence.

The conference wants the memory of its dead delegates to galvanise a renewed push against hatred and irrationality, whether in war-torn Ukraine or a back lane in Melbourne.

Photo courtesy of AIDS 2014.


For Western audiences, Moscow's initial prickly attitude to the downing of MH17 can be read as an example of how not to manage a crisis. Even with the weak hand he inherited, President Vladimir Putin has been consistently strong when on the foreign policy offensive, devising creative ways to advance Russian interests. He has made the West look hypocritical over South Ossetia, reckless in Libya, and rashly misguided on Syria. 

But as MH17 demonstrates, Putin's Kremlin is one-dimensional when it finds itself on the back foot. Rather than a preparedness to assist, it has instead focused on an unconvincing sleight of hand, backed by bellicose denials. 

The first mistake was having the state-controlled media devise frenzied conspiracy theories in an ill-judged attempt to deflect blame from pro-Russian separatists. One account seized on the similarities between Malaysian Airlines branding and the livery on Russian government aircraft, insinuating that Kiev had tried to bring down Putin's plane. Another story (quickly exposed as fraudulent) featured an air traffic controller's claims that Ukrainian fighters brought down MH17.

Putin's second mistake was to issue a muted statement of condolence, most of which was spent chastising Kiev for creating a war zone. His omission of any mention of the separatists was interpreted as a tacit admission that they had fired the missile, and cemented suspicions that Moscow had something to hide.

A third mistake was the cavalier way Russia has treated requests for assistance. Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was told, astonishingly, that Sergei Lavrov was on holiday, and that nobody else at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could speak to her. Putin stonewalled Mark Rutte, the Netherlands Prime Minister, over appeals for Russian aid to secure the bodies of Dutch nationals that lay strewn around the crash site. Eventually an exasperated Rutte bluntly told the Russian leader that he had 'one last chance' to help.

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From a domestic perspective, Putin's vigorous defence of Russia was understandable. He sees trial by an independent media as a Western affliction and has prevented it from gaining a foothold at home. Domestic political reasons prompted his officials to stress that there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement.  And Moscow's confused response strongly suggests the Kremlin was as surprised as anyone else by the downing of MH17. 

But in an international tragedy, winning external public relations battles is initially much more important than domestic manoeuvring. On that score, Putin's crisis management strategy has failed badly. It has failed to deflect attention away from suspected Russian involvement in the shoot-down, much less the ongoing conflict. And it has failed to mollify foreign governments demanding a secure crash site to identify and repatriate their nationals. Hence Russia has appeared obstructionist rather than proactively seeking to help.

A public relations disaster prompted by MH17 is potentially a huge blow to Russia's regional ambitions.

In Ukraine and elsewhere, Putin has relied on pushing plausible deniability to its limits. Proof that Russia was supplying the separatists, either with missiles or the technical assistance to operate them, would make any continued support hard to justify. Yet backing down in Ukraine would send a clear message to Moscow's allies in Tashkent, Astana and Minsk that Russian primacy can be challenged. In turn, that would threaten Putin's Eurasian Union, which is effectively a politico-economic bulwark against an EU-China geopolitical pincer. Without it, China, the US and the EU could tempt Russia's neighbours into more explicit multi-vector foreign policies. 

If these included deals on oil and gas, Russia's main strategic multiplier would be significantly diminished. And a weakened Russia might also encourage the myriad ethnic groups on its own territory, many with long historical memories, to try their luck at secession. The West, too, recognises that Russian bellicosity stems from its vulnerability. A Russia fragmented along ethnic lines — resulting perhaps in some new states with nuclear weapons — would be a far more horrifying prospect than Putin trying to re-consolidate control over the post-Soviet space.

All of this is why a coherent Russian response to MH17 is vital.

So what could Moscow have done differently? It is unrealistic to have expected a full capitulation from Putin, especially since he was backing the likely culprit. But he could have acted more decisively and even achieved many of his aims by using his penchant for brinkmanship. 

In a crisis like this, three objectives are critical. First, deflect suspicion by publicly taking a sincere and conciliatory posture, with promises of full cooperation. Second, protect one's interests by limiting damage. Third, take advantage of proximity by seizing the initiative. 

Using that formula, Putin could have expressed horror at the loss of MH17 and promised to persuade the separatists to stop fighting immediately, regardless of any 'provocations'. He could then have called a Security Council meeting to guide its focus towards accessing the crash site, rather than who was to blame. Finally (and this is the insidious part) he could have declared Eastern Ukraine a dangerous warzone and unilaterally nominated Russia as the regional power with the capacity to secure it. That could have been the pretext to roll 12,000 troops across the border, ostensibly to create a cordon sanitaire to MH17's resting place.      

This would have fooled nobody, but it would have been harder to argue with a 'compassionate' Russian military presence, especially if UN-backed inspectors were then allowed full access to the site. It would also be nearly impossible to dislodge Russian forces once the recovery mission had been completed. 

Perhaps it is better, especially for the Ukrainians, that Putin's response has been so hastily contrived.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray.


In recognition of the International AIDS conference in Melbourne this week, an AIDS-themed edition of our regular Aid & Development Links. The conference opened yesterday with a minute's silence for the delegates lost in the MH17 disaster. 

Firstly, the latest facts from UNAIDS Gap report for Asia and the Pacific:

  • In 2013, there were 35 million people living with HIV. 4.8 million are in Asia and the Pacific.
  • New HIV infections have fallen by 38%  globally since 2001, but in Asia and the Pacific there were an estimated 350,000 new HIV infections.
  • Indonesia is cause for concern, with new HIV infections rising by 48% since 2005.
  • India accounts for 51% of all AIDS-related deaths in the region.
  • In Asia and the Pacific, only in Thailand and Cambodia are more than 50% of people living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment
  • Of the 35 million people living with HIV in the world, 19 million do not know their HIV-positive status. But as people find out,  they seek life-saving treatment. For example, In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 90% of people who tested positive for HIV went on to access antiretroviral therapy. 

AIDS analysis and readings: 

  • The Guardian reviews the status of recent claims of an AIDS 'cure'.
  • Oilsearch’s role in partnering with the PNG Government on  HIV prevention, testing, counseling and treatment services is an important model for developing countries.
  • Dream of Ding Village,  by Chinese author Yan Lianke, is a novel that offers a disturbing insight into the AIDS epidemic in China resulting from blood-selling.

Helpful AIDS 2014 Conference links:


One consequence of the tragedy over MH17, apparently at the hands of Russian-backed separatists, is that it raises the question of whether President Putin should attend the Brisbane G20 Summit in November. Some newspapers are reporting that Australia is threatening to ban Putin.

The predominant view among the Australian public is probably that Putin should not be invited to the Brisbane Summit. But things are not straightforward and Australia may be placed in an invidious position. Moreover, depending on how things develop, the character of the G20 may change significantly.

The G20 is an informal forum. There are no rules on membership or revoking membership. Decisions are based on consensus. As such, it is not really up to Australia to decide not to invite a G20 member to a summit. This was made clear to the Australian Foreign Minister in March. In response to comments from Julie Bishop suggesting that Russia's participation in the Brisbane Summit could be brought into question because of events in Ukraine, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) foreign ministers issued a communique saying that they 'noted with concern, the recent media statement of the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014. The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all member States equally and no one member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character'. The Russian Foreign Minister went further and said 'we altogether not just Australia formed the G20'.

But to repeat, there are no formal rules, and events have moved on since March. There are a number of scenarios as to how things could play out in the lead-up to the Brisbane Summit. The preferred outcome would be for Russia to co-operate on all fronts, including the investigation of the crash of MH17, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and resolving the situation in the Ukraine. In such a situation, tensions over Putin's attendance in Brisbane would decline.

Another scenario is that Russia's belligerent attitude continues and intensifies in coming months. All G20 members are outraged and agree that Russia's actions are such that they should not participate in the G20, including official meetings, the G20 finance minister meetings in September and October, along with the leaders' summit in Brisbane.

Such an outcome would change the character of the G20.

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It would move from being purely an economic forum. A precedent would be set and political and security considerations would be a factor in determining future attendance, and would likely be discussed at the summit.

A third scenario is that Russia's attitude is considered less than acceptable to many countries but that some G20 members oppose excluding Putin from the Brisbane summit. The view of the BRICS will be particularly important. So far China has warned Western nations against rushing to implicate Russia. At the BRICS Summit on 16 July, leaders condemned the sanctions imposed on Russia to date. The position of some other European countries may also not be straightforward. Much of Europe's response to imposing sanctions on Russia prior to the crash of MH117 was weak, primarily due to the close economic interactions between Europe and Russia. Europe failed to present a united front on sanctions against Moscow and the Netherlands was among the European countries least inclined to challenge Russia.

If the last scenario develops, Australia could be in an invidious position.

Australian public opinion, and that in some other countries, may remain strongly opposed to allowing Putin to attend the Brisbane Summit. It is possible that, given such controversy and the prospect of a hostile reception in Australia, Putin may choose not to come. But if Australia did not let Putin attend, other countries may oppose and conceivably bring into question their attendance. Should this eventuate, the future of the G20 could come into question, particularly if those not attending were major emerging markets. The strength and significance of the G20 is that it brings together the leading advanced economies and emerging markets. In addition, political and security issues would be brought front and centre in G20 deliberations, overshadowing the economic agenda.

The coming months could be very tricky ones for Australia, given its role as G20 chair for 2014. At this stage the Prime Minister's approach is appropriate. He has been firm in his condemnation of the situation, acknowledged that Russia's attendance at the Brisbane summit is an issue, but said Australia would be reluctant to act unilaterally because it is an important international gathering and that it is necessary to see how things develop.

Photo by Flickr user Bohan_Shen.