Lowy Institute

By Samir Saran, Vice President, and Abhijnan Rej, Fellow, both at the Observer Research Foundation.

While droughts can be written off as an 'act of god,' the fact that the ongoing drought in India has acquired its current intensity is a reflection of the sorry state of economic governance and planning in this country.

This state of affairs has its origin in four structural problems that plague India's political-economic system at large, and are of immense consequence when it comes to managing India's water:

  1. The continued use of government-mandated support prices and subsidies for farm produce and farmers.
  2. The de facto orientation of infrastructure projects towards industry, and not for lifeline support.
  3. The perverse effects of the rural employment guarantee schemes.
  4. The absence of innovation and finance around fresh-water recycling, desalination, and river-linking schemes, as well as the continued dominance of revenue expenditure over capital expenditure for the rural sector.

The negative externalities of agricultural subsidies

India is the second-largest producer of sugar in the world after Brazil. Last November, India's cabinet approved a US$173 million subsidy for sugar cane producers supplying mills that export sugar and produce ethanol. This subsidy would, in effect, make sugar and ethanol produced in India cheaper relative to other countries, and thus make it more competitive at a time when the global commodities super-cycle is at an all-time low. 

Such subsidies, along with mechanisms like government-guaranteed minimum support prices for agricultural products, incentivise producers to cultivate commodities that are natural-resource intensive. It is not an accident that Maharasthra, India's biggest sugar-producing state, finds itself hit the hardest by the current crisis. The drought in the district of Marathwada, a region which accounts for 25% of the state's sugar output, is the worst since 1972.

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Temples for the few, and the lucky

India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once called dams the temples of modern India. It now transpires that these temples only serve a select few through a system of rent-seeking and patronage. The Jayakwadi dam in Maharastra is one of the largest of its kind in Asia. It was created in 1965 with the express purpose of providing relief to the drought-prone Marathwada district. Instead it seems, as India's Agriculture Minister has claimed, that the biggest beneficiary of this dam is the sugar industry. Meanwhile 89 irrigation projects in the state have been on hold for more than 20 years. 

It is not uncommon in India for these projects to be approved to placate certain sections of the population. Synching the approval and completion of lifeline projects to the electoral cycle leads to the kind of unmitigated disaster India is witnessing today. This electoral pandering, coupled with abysmal short-sightedness, leads to a situation where Maharastra has 1845 dams (35% of all dams in the country), yet only 18% of agricultural land is irrigated (compared to the national average of 47%).

Wither rural employment guarantees? 

But construction of dams and other large-scale irrigation engineering projects is only part of the solution. A sustained effort must be made to renew and rejuvenate traditional water bodies and harvesting systems.

The previous government's much-vaunted rural employment guarantee (MNREGA) scheme took as its goal the provision of employment to the rural poor by directing surplus labour towards infrastructure projects. In principle, MNREGA should have been the perfect vehicle through which traditional water works could have been maintained. Instead, MNREGA has distorted labour markets by disincentivising rural industries and jeopardising the income potential of the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the scheme continues to bleed money. In 2006-07 (the first year of the scheme's implementation), MNREGA allocation stood at US$1.53 billion. By 2010-11, the heyday of last government's populism, it had reached an astonishing US$6.2 billion. The Modi Government seems to have fallen for the same trap: MNREGA's budget estimate for the current financial year stands at US$5.8 billion

The sad fact is that despite India's considerable success in achieving food security (through the Green Revolution), very little effort has been made since to push India's agricultural products up the value chain, which would have increased rural income as well as reduced the vulnerability of India's farmers to climatic shocks such as the ongoing drought. Instead of infusing private capital and public infrastructure into the sector, a system of patronage through doles and waivers continues, which seriously compromises the very people it ostensibly seeks to protect. The archaic mechanism of minimum support prices continues to drain the exchequer while insufficiently contributing to the laudable goal of subsidising food. In 2011-12, the procurement subsidy accounted for 85%1 of all food subsidy. Under the Modi Government, this has come down to 43%2, a worthy first step.

Meanwhile, rural capital expenditure has fallen from US$71.3 million3 in 1999-2000 to a measly US$9 million4 in 2015-16. The sharpest drop happened between 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, from US$49 million5 to US$14.6 million6 — not surprising since between these two years, MNREGA allocations jumped three times. Even in irrigation and flood control, revenue expenditure growth overwhelmingly dominates capital expenditure growth: between 1998-1999 and 2015-2016, the former grew by 21%7 while the latter grew by 4%8 .

The need for large-scale innovation

A key challenge of a rapidly growing urban India will be the sustainability of its cities.

Modern India has never shied away from espousing faith in technology to meet its national challenges – a legacy of Nehru's vision. However, as is the case with most ambitious national projects, the time-lag between announcing a vision and actually implementing it is often unacceptably large. An ambitious project to link 37 of India's rivers in the north and the south is a case in point. First announced in 1982 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, this project had laid dormant for more than 33 years, to be once again taken up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. But opposition remains rife, from the usual coterie of nay-sayers who have a vocal anti-technology stance in the name of environmentalism. This view carries political weight in India.

It is estimated that India's water demand will rise to 1180 billion cubic litres by 2050, more than 1.6 times the current consumption. The increase in demand for fresh water will be exacerbated by the dwindling water table. A government that plans for the future ought to incentivise the entry of the private sector into large-scale desalination plants that caters to cities along the coasts. For this to be commercially viable, the target cities should be empowered to generate more revenue. Industrial demand for fresh water is increasing at 8% annually while India's large cities alone generate close to 40,000 million litres of sewage every day. Recycled water can also be directed towards agriculture as Israel does with 86% of its waste water contributing to farm irrigation.

If the government's ambitious renewable energy targets are an indication of national will, large-scale deployment of desalination technology may not be out of reach.


Based on calculations derived from Yearly Account of Department of Food And Public Distribution 2011-12 and Food Subsidy, Expenditure by Broad Categories, Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2012-13. 

Based on calculations derived from Yearly Account of Department of Food And Public Distribution 2014-15 and Food Subsidy, Expenditure by Broad Categories, Expenditure Budget, Union Budget 2015-16.

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2000-01 + Department of Land Resources 2000-01) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2000-01 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying, 2000-01).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2016-17 + Department of Land Resources 2016-17) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2016-17 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2016-17).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2007-08 + Department of Land Resources 2007-08) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2007-08 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2007-08).

Based on calculations derived from Expenditure budget for Ministry of Rural Development (Department of Rural Development 2009-10 + Department of Land Resources 2009-10) and Ministry of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture Cooperation 2009-10 + Department of Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying 2009-10).

Calculated using Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts- Revenue 1999-00 and Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts- Revenue 2016-17.

Calculated using Budget Provision by Heads of Accounts-Capital 1999-00 and Budget Provisions by Heads of Accounts- Capital 2016-17.

Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.


Recently, The Interpreter published another post warning readers of the dangers of China's intentions and actions in the South China Sea.

The piece argues that 'the real danger' is that 'China will take its notion of "sovereign rights" in the South China Sea too far, and that China's para-military forces will be employed to eject fishing vessels and other units of the littoral nations, probably starting with the Philippines'. The post also implies that it is almost inevitable that China will build 'yet another artificial island' and declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. The author concludes with a warning that if China gains dominion over the region, resentment will fester in other claimant nations, and peace will be lost. It cautions China to 'finesse its policies for the South China Sea with a sensitivity that has so far been absent from much that it has done'. 

It is of course unarguably true that China has, among other things, been undertaking some fast-paced building activities in the region, has declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea and has said that an ADIZ in the South China Sea is not out of the question. It seems to be just clear common sense that what this adds up to is China's desire for regional pre-eminence.

What else, when you look at the facts, could it mean?

Let us for a moment remember that 'common sense' is not universal. It's not even necessarily shared between two people from within the same social group, let alone across vastly different cultures. Interpretation of what we think we see is not flawless; each individual has their own lens through which meaning is created. So let us just for a moment pause to ask what hard evidence we have — apart from our own interpretation of what we see — of China's intentions.

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This is of course almost impossible; where would one turn for such evidence? The Global Times says one thing. The spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says another. The high profile academic something different. The retired army general something else again, and what we can gauge of public opinion is a whole other matter.

So, all that we can really conclude is that there are different views within China about what China wants to achieve, and how best to achieve it, and we on the outside cannot really know for sure.

Considerable debate exists around the extent to which actors behave independently or as part of a grand, directed strategy. No one, in fact, really knows. Xi Jinping no doubt has a pretty strong view of what he wants to achieve — the 'China Dream' — but the specifics of that vision are not universally agreed. Yes, Xi has consolidated a great deal of power, but its debatable whether he has been successful in owning and operating the entire system.

It is the very lack of certainty about what China wants that constitutes a large part of the concern over its activities. There have been a lot of calls for China to clarify its intentions.

Without this clarity, though, many analysts conclude that determining meaning from what we see is the only reliable method. From what we see, interpreted through our own understanding of how international geopolitics works, China's activities certainly look like it is trying to push the US out of the region to replace it as the predominant power. If that's the case, what does it matter what its motivations are? What difference does it make why it wants to be predominant? Is it relevant if Chinese notions of predominance are different from our own?

These issues are important when we are weighing up risks and when developing responses, if we want those responses to be effective in the long term. There is little point, in the long run, trying to quash the symptoms without addressing the cause.

As I have argued elsewhere, Chinese policy elites see the world and China's role in it differently from Western policymakers. Something as apparently obvious as 'predominance' is actually a very culturally nuanced concept. Can we safely assume it means to the Chinese exactly what it means to us? Even a fleeting study of Chinese language and culture will show how many variations there are to something that we think has a clear meaning.

Chinese Culture 101 teaches that Chinese people don't like to say 'no' to requests – but it doesn't mean there are things they can't or don't want to do. The term 'it's not convenient' doesn't mean 'it's not convenient', it means 'no', but many an over-enthusiastic foreigner has pushed ahead regardless, to everyone's frustration and embarrassment. These are of course simple examples, but what they indicate is that if there is space for misunderstanding and misinterpretation at the most mundane level, there is certainly a significant possibility for misunderstanding and misinterpretation in international geopolitics, with far more serious implications. 

I do not mean to single this article for particular scrutiny; it is just one of many, largely from within the defence and security community in Australia and the US, that places the onus of responsibility for peace in the region at China's feet. The authors are of course well intentioned: in their line of business, being acutely sensitive to and highly anxious about the national interest is their bread and butter. But, like all of us, their background and position colours their perspective. As such, their analyses tend to rest on assumptions of what China is trying to achieve and why, or on a conviction that motivations don't actually matter when the reality is so clear. But the truth is, most of them, like the rest of us, actually do not know.

In fact, 'the real danger' is that we continue to allow discussion about China's regional behaviour and aspirations to be dominated by views from only one field based on a shared perspective, in a circular reiteration of a particular set of assumptions, until they become solidified as unquestionable 'truths'.

If (and most analysts could probably agree on this) the current period is becoming increasingly tense, it is paramount that we ensure that we are seeing the picture in all its nuance, and not just in black and white.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lain.


Has there been a recent shift in China's maritime strategy in the South China Sea? Has Beijing tempered its land reclamation and island building campaign, choosing to highlight positive aspects of its maritime security conduct? Is the PLAN becoming more accepting of the realities of the South China Sea, recalibrating its strategy to emphasise a more passive and benevolent presence?

In a recent Lowy Institute Report, Rory Medcalf and Ashley Townshend point to an interesting evolution in China's maritime thinking. The duo contend that not only has China turned more conciliatory in its maritime policy, Beijing is now advocating confidence-building measures that until recently it had refused to consider, helping lower the risks of maritime incidents, miscalculations and accidental conflict. Yet this behaviour is also facilitating what the authors say is a form of 'passive assertiveness' that challenges Asia's maritime status quo.

The authors note that while China's creation and militarisation of disputed islands, its establishment of new zones of military authority, and its conduct of expansive patrols in the East and South China Seas are tactically non-threatening, these actions represent a long-term strategic challenge to the regional order. Beijing's new strategy, Medcalf and Townshend point out, forces regional states to assume a degree of cost and risk in assessing China's latent aggression, complicating their strategic calculi and leading to ineffective responses.

What is needed, the authors recommend, is a prudent balance between the 'open display of tactical resolve and the pursuit of other indirect strategies' to shape Chinese behavior in ways that minimise the risks of escalation. Doing so, they say, needs a multidimensional international effort, one that is likely to impose costs on Beijing even as it offers incentives linked to its 'reputational, strategic, and economic interests'.

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This is an insightful report on China's contemporary maritime behaviour and it makes some useful observations. Despite its informed assessments about China's revised maritime posture in the Pacific littorals, however, it overlooks some critical political and maritime developments, which suggest Beijing's recent maritime turn is more in the nature of a 'strategic pause' marked by a political expediency rather than a considered re-calibration of national maritime strategy.

There are three reasons why Beijing could have suddenly turned more conciliatory in its approach to defending its maritime stakes in the contested waters of the Pacific.

First, there is a process of sweeping defence reforms underway in China that is causing turmoil in the PLA's military power structure. The proposed changes challenge a number of established interests, including some in the higher echelons of the military, causing deep resentment in the PLA's power elite. Most notably, Beijing has announced its decision to restructure the PLA's four general departments, the vast bureaucracy responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the military, blaming it as a primary source of the corrupting patron-client relationships within the military. An anti-corruption drive launched last year targeted officials of the general departments, leading many observers to term the anti-corruption drive as an old-fashioned communist purge – a vindictive campaign to eliminate senior officials perceived to be disloyal to President Xi Jinping.

The politics of the reform process is significant, because there is enough evidence to suggest that Xi is using the reforms to consolidate his power and position in the CCP, to the detriment of the military's organisational effectiveness. Indeed, even as officers in the general departments have been targeted, some other military commanders known for their inept ways remain untouched, possibly because of their loyalty to Xi, who has now assumed direct command of the armed forces. 

More importantly, internal differences between the services seem to be undermining the PLA's operational efficiency. While the reforms seek to put the Army, Navy and Air Force on an equal footing, senior naval and Air Force officers are unhappy with the fact that the Army retains overall command of the new military theatres. Given that China's three principal external threats (Taiwan, the South China Sea and East China Sea) have a maritime character, the PLAN was said to have been expecting command of the Southern Theatre Command. The Chinese Air Force, which plays a major role in defence of the western Pacific islands, had also been hopeful of a greater command responsibility. The continuing dominance of the Army over joint formations, analysts say, is likely to effect the PLA's operational posture, especially its ability to undertake integrated operations in a maritime environment.

Beijing realises the limitations imposed by the defence reforms on maritime operations, and deems the coming months particularly unsuited for militaristic missions in the western Pacific. 

The second reason for a lull in China's maritime provocations in the South China Sea is the impending decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the legitimacy of China's Nine-Dash line. The case, brought before the PCA late last year by the Philippines, is widely expected to reject China's excessive claims in the South China Sea. While Beijing has refused to participate in the case and publicly declared its intention to ignore the ruling, it realises the verdict could impact the political dynamics of the South China Sea. A decision in favour of the Philippines' position would be perceived as a moral victory by the US and its allies. Fearing the worst, China has intensified lobbying of other nations to win support for its own claims in the region. It is Beijing's keenness to avoid 'internationalising' the South China Sea issue that has held Chinese maritime agencies back from an open display of aggression. At a time when Beijing has been urging Asian countries to collaborate in the framing of a security governance model with 'Asian features' to counter the US 'rebalance' to the region, a maritime power-play would seem incongruous.

The third and most important reason for China's strategic drawdown in the South China Sea is ironically an issue of maritime tactics. Apparently, Beijing's slow build-up of maritime features over the past two years has already given it the facilities it needs to monitor and control maritime activities in the South China Sea. During a hearing in the US Congress last week, it was revealed that China's ongoing reclamation at Scarborough could create the 'third vertex of a triangle of Chinese military bases' which could be used to not only threaten the main Philippine island of Luzon (as is being widely speculated) but also to exert wider control over the South China Sea. US Pacific Fleet intelligence indicates that China's seven new islands at the southern end of the Spratly Islands and a new naval facility at Scarborough could provide Beijing the ability to effectively control the freedom of navigation and free access to markets for nations which ply the waters of the South China Sea. Beijing's announcement that its forthcoming drills in the South China Sea will involve forces both in the Spratly as well as the Paracel islands, as well as recent confirmation by a source close to the PLAN who said Beijing would begin reclaiming Scarborough shoal, appears to vindicate US suspicions.

Beijing realises that while it operates from a position of strength in the region, it must not harm its interests by displaying needless aggression. All it must do is ensure a quiet and efficient assertiveness to make sure it protects its strategic interests without indulging in an act that could provide the spark for its own tactical containment.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.


Aside from the joys of diversity and learning from people different to ourselves, one of the benefits of living in a multi-religious society is that sometimes the holidays overlap. In Indonesia, there are six officially recognised faiths, and their holy days are marked as public holidays by all. It just so happens that this year the Ascension of Christ and the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad are marked consecutively  on Thursday and Friday this week, adding up to a four-day weekend for workers in Jakarta. 

In a display of love for the capital they call home, Jakartans began fleeing the city on Wednesday night in an expected weekend exodus of around 127,000 vehicles. To demonstrate what that looks like on the ground, traffic on the toll road to the airport on Wednesday evening was reported to be moving at an average speed of 30 km/h (Kingsford Smith, eat your heart out). Drone footage showed congestion continuing late into the night.

Before jetting off for the long weekend, government officials in Jakarta were able to celebrate the release of 10 Indonesian hostages who had been captive by the Islamist militant Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines for more than a month. Another four Indonesians and four Malaysians are still being held by the group at another location. After a Canadian hostage was beheaded last week, authorities moved quickly to secure the release of the Indonesian boat crew members who had been abducted by Abu Sayyaf. The 10 men were returned to Jakarta on Sunday and reunited with their families on Monday this week.

It's still unclear exactly how the release was negotiated, and whether a ransom was paid. Vice President Jusuf Kalla confirmed to media on Wednesday that no ransom was paid to the ISIS-linked group. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi credited coordination between the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines as a key factor for success.

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Meanwhile, a report by the Jakarta Post alleges that the sailors' employer, as well as civil society groups and certain public figures, played a shadow role in the release that may have included paying a ransom. Media mogul Surya Paloh has claimed a role in the process through a group called the Sukma Foundation, which he founded. In response, Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan commented only that many actors were involved, and that few details can be revealed while four more Indonesian sailors remain captive.

In other news, a horrific case of gang rape and murder of a schoolgirl in the western Indonesian province of Bengkulu became a rallying cry for feminists in the capital, who are pushing for the ratification of a law against sexual violence. A candlelit vigil was held outside the State Palace in Jakarta on Wednesday to remember the 14-year-old victim, identified by her family as Yuyun, who was raped and killed by 14 boys and men on her way home from junior high school. The incident took place in April, but hit national headlines this week due to the efforts of women's rights advocates.

Indie rock singer and activist Kartika Jahja started the hashtag #NyalaUntukYuyun, or 'light a candle for Yuyun', to draw attention to the tragedy and to garner public solidarity against sexual violence. Rights advocates Yenni Kwok and Kate Walton, an Australian feminist activist, were also instrumental in bringing the issue to international attention. The cause continued to gain traction among celebrities, public figures and others, until President Jokowi finally responded in a tweet on Wednesday, calling for the heaviest possible punishment against the perpetrators. It remains to be seen what impact the campaign will have not only on the case, but on the passage of the bill to tighten regulations against sexual violence nationwide.

Photo by Flickr user Selka.


There is no sugar coating it. This year’s budget will see Australia’s foreign aid reach the lowest levels of generosity in our history. But there are some silver linings within the budget allocations and process. Bilateral programs, which were savaged last year, have been by and large protected. And DFAT looks to be maturing in its role as custodian of Australian aid, with aid transparency and budget documentation vastly improving.

A run through the numbers provides a bleak picture of the aid program. When adjusted for inflation, the $224 million cut this year amounts to a 7.4% cut to the program. This is the sixth-largest cut in any one year in our program’s history, a painful fact the aid community is no doubt numb to after last year, when the program was slashed by 20%. After four consecutive years of budget cuts, the aid program is now 30% smaller in real terms than it was at its peak under Labor in the 2012-13 budget. Our aid generosity, as measured by aid expenditure as a proportion of gross national income, has also dropped from 0.34% to 0.23%. This is the lowest in our nation’s history and well below the OECD average.

Growth in the aid program is now pegged to inflation over the forward estimates period, meaning the cuts have finally come to an end. Sadly, that doesn’t provide much solace when the aid budget is at rock bottom.

Figure 1: Australia’s new norm of aid generosity

The Government has been quick to argue that the overarching budget situation made tough decisions necessary. Shrinking the aid budget might indeed be justifiable in times of austerity. However,  total government expenditure has actually increased by 9.3% over the same period that aid has been cut by 30%. Over that same period, aid as a share of government expenditure has dropped from 1.32% to 0.85%. It seems the tough decision taken has been to prioritise other expenditure over foreign aid.

So that’s the bad news. What about the good?

Let’s start with how the cuts have been managed. Last year, Australia’s bilateral programs bore the brunt of the 20% cut to the aid budget. This year, they have been protected, with most bilateral programs remaining the same in nominal terms and the inflation-inflicted pain will be felt across the board. Instead, DFAT has implemented some crafty accounting to delay cash payments to multilateral agencies. We were assured in the lock-up that all commitments to multilateral agencies will be upheld, and the aim is to plug the gap with the small incremental increases the aid program is expected to receive over the forward estimates. The only downside to this approach is the jettisoning of the Coalition’s commitment to performance-based allocation of Australian aid, as discussed in detail at Devpolicy’s aid budget breakfast. Naturally this would have been much more palatable with a program that is scaling up rather than bottoming out.

Some other good news is the way the budget was delivered, with a lot more information and transparency. Since 2001-02 the budget had always been accompanied by an aid ‘blue book’, which provided invaluable information down to the country level. With the merger of AusAID into DFAT the blue book disappeared. We were assured that all information previously found in this resource would be put online but it wasn’t. Now, after a two year absence, the book is back (though it's now orange), allowing more detailed analysis into areas such as sectoral expenditure. It’s a relief to have it back, and even better that it is accompanied with the (still green) statistical annex that is invaluable for aid researchers like myself.

Another interesting point to note is that departmental costings to the aid program remain quite high. As a proportion of the total budget, staffing takes up 6.35% of expenditure this year. This is down from its 7.42% peak in 2013-14, but much larger than the 3.5% reported when the budget was at a comparable (inflation adjusted) level to today’s, back in 2007-08. With this increased level of staffing, and no future scale-up on the horizon, one would hope that the aid program would have more resourcing at its disposal, even with the blended roles many aid staff must now be working in DFAT. An adequately staffed aid program should mean we will be able to do more with less.

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Overall what could be controlled by DFAT has been controlled well, all while giving back to the sector a lot of the transparency that was taken away in the AusAID merger. Perhaps this is in response to the sector's demands, or it could be because the aid program has found its feet within DFAT. Whatever the case, it’s good to see DFAT taking the first steps to being a mature custodian of the aid program, and we should all hope to see this continue.

Despite these silver linings, it’s hard not to drown in the negatives of a budget that sets the least generous aid program in our history as the new norm. Now that we are in this new reality it’s important that the sector as a whole continues to reflect on exactly how we got here. The government must bear the most responsibility for picking on the aid program so severely. But it's also on all of us, the supporters of aid, who have allowed this to happen. When in government, Labor should have better communicated why a scale-up of foreign aid was good not only for the world’s poor, but also good for Australia. Aid campaigners, who had a huge role in the bipartisan commitment to a 0.5% aid/GNI target back in 2007, should have kept the pressure on Labor as it continued to delay funding commitments (which in turn allowed the Coalition to walk from the table completely). The NGO community, which has the greatest advocacy resources and mobilisation power, has been too focused on its own funding and failed to effectively unite behind a cause that would lift all boats. Lastly, researchers and commentators like me tended to focus too much on the negative and overlooked the good work that Australian aid continues to deliver.

We should all be taking a look in the mirror.

A comprehensive dataset of all budget figures and assumptions in this piece is available here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFAT


The People's Liberation Army released a new 'action-packed rap' recruitment video a couple of days ago. A couple of the lines in the video have gained some attention such as: 'Are you afraid? No! Are you afraid? No! Just need the order to kill kill kill!' and 'always think about the mission; the enemy forever in your eyes.' Catchy.

It's a pretty slick ad. Although it could be slowed down from its eye-watering, Clockwork Orange-esque pace. What is included in the video is interesting though. While most of the shots are of seemingly smooth infantry manoeuvres and hostage rescues, there is a big focus on 'informationised' warfare: satellites, space launches, global positioning systems and AWACS planes. Also featured is a large segment of China's mobile missile force, the main part of its growing anti-access and area-denial capabilities.

By and large, the image of a modern, highly trained and mobile military force largely represents the direction and intention of the recent organisational and doctrinal reforms instigated by President Xi Jinping. Interestingly, the one thing missing was a feature on China's cyber forces. The US Air Force started recruiting ads for its cyber division as far back as 2008. Can't be long before China follows suit.

11 of 11 This post is part of a debate on Do embassies still matter?

By Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller & Dr Hadianto Wirajuda

In the debate over the relevance of diplomatic missions in a globalised and networked world that's been sparked by the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, it is important to consider how diplomacy is both perceived and conducted by non-Western states.

Indonesian President Soekarno at a function in 1965 (Photo: Flamini/Express/Getty Images)

Consider Indonesia as a case study. For Indonesians literate in their country’s political history it would be quite unthinkable to question the contribution of diplomats and diplomatic missions in advancing Indonesia’s national objectives. Moreover, the stakes of diplomacy historically have been much higher for Indonesia, and the political imperatives more compelling, than in a Western democracy like Australia.

Indonesian diplomats were midwives to the birth of the independent nation-state. And although the role of armed struggle against repeated Dutch police (military) actions in 1947 and 1948 is rightly acknowledged in Indonesian history, the work of Indonesia's nascent diplomatic corps and the influence of individual ambassadors and emissaries kept Indonesia's nationalist struggle on the international agenda resulting in eventual Dutch capitulation.

The battle for Dutch West Papua New Guinea

But the vital role of diplomacy in achieving statehood was not moribund upon the formal transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands in 1949. For Indonesia, the Republic remained incomplete without the incorporation of Dutch West New Guinea. Through a combination of US pressure on the Dutch and Indonesia’s intense diplomatic lobbying at the UN and through the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN instituted an interim administration arrangement in 1962 prior to handing administration to Indonesia. Leveraging off geopolitical tensions and a large Soviet arms build-up in Indonesia, Indonesian politicians and diplomats played on America’s Cold War anxieties about monolithic communism and Soviet influence in Asia. The protracted decolonisation process in West New Guinea had served only to empower Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI); a fact made increasingly obvious to Washington.

During the same period, President Soekarno’s revolutionary politics were impacting on Indonesia's foreign ministry and the country’s regional diplomatic posts, revealing the high stakes game in Jakarta. Soekarno's political embrace of the PKI and the feverish discourse around NEKOLIM (Neo-colonial) and OLDEFOS (Old Established Forces) fuelled the politicisation of both the foreign ministry and Indonesia’s overseas diplomatic missions. Diplomats who served during this period, for example, recall the preferential treatment reserved for members of Deplu's leftist Youth Movement in First and Second Secretary appointments. Scholarships and study experience gained in the West increasingly became a career liability.

As a result of the Konfrontasi campaign (1963-66) against the new Malaysian Federation, Indonesia’s regional relations deteriorated markedly. Indonesia closed its diplomatic missions in Singapore, Penang and Jessselton (Kota Kinabalu) in protest against not being consulted on such an important regional development and suspicions the Federation was a neo-imperialist plot designed to contain Indonesia.

The apex of Indonesia's revisionist foreign policy was manifested in the closure of Indonesia’s permanent mission to the UN in January 1965 and subsequent announcement of a political axis with Peking. To date Indonesia remains the only state to have withdrawn from the supra-national body.

The turbulent times for Indonesian diplomats did not cease with the political demise of President Soekarno, however. As the military consolidated its power, Indonesia's foreign policy apparatus was 'cleansed' and 'purged' by Army authorities. In 1966, foreign minister Dr Subandrio and departmental Secretary-General Garis Harsono were both arrested and sentenced to death. The Suharto-led New Order government later commuted the death sentence against Subandrio (a former ambassador to London and Moscow) following British intervention.

At Indonesia’s missions, meanwhile, military officers known as 'Special Executives for Foreign Affairs' (Laksus) were installed to oversee the 'mental development' (pembinanaan mental) of Indonesia's overseas students and screen staff to 'remove extremist and subversive elements'.

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Reflecting the military’s broader dual socio-political role (dwifungsi) and its institutionalisation across Indonesia's bureaucracy, the Suharto-led New Order regime increasingly appointed senior Army officers as ambassadors to Indonesia's strategic missions then classified as 'D1' posts. As the end of the Cold War led to an increased focus on human rights by Western states, Indonesia's choice of diplomatic appointments on occasion fuelled bilateral spats. In 1995, for example, Jakarta's choice of General Herman Mantiri as ambassador to Canberra was rejected by the Keating Government, exacerbating differences over civil and political rights.

Following Suharto’s political downfall in 1998 and with Indonesia subsequently eager to project a new, democratic identity, career diplomats, entrepreneurs and former politicians increasingly replaced military officers as Heads of Mission at key posts. This trend coincided with important shifts in Indonesia’s civil-military relations, enhancing civilian authority over foreign policy and providing the space for renewal within Indonesia’s foreign policy bureaucracy and at Indonesia’s missions.

The reforms instituted by foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda [2001-2009] required greater accountability of Indonesia's ambassadors, consul-generals and consuls, and greater efficiencies in the management of personnel and resources at post. The democratic state's duty of care to it citizens overseas, meanwhile, comprised mainly of young female domestic workers, was reflected in institutional changes in Jakarta and enhanced consular services for Indonesian expatriates.

Today former military and police officers are installed at ambassadorial posts where there is a key security dimension or hardship component. Retired Marine General Safzen Noerdin, for example, served as Indonesia's ambassador to Iraq from 2012-2015. Whilst, former Police Commissioner General and Head of Indonesia's Criminal Investigations Agency (Bareskrim), Ito Sumardi, heads Indonesia's mission in Myanmar.

Whilst the political influences shaping the work of Indonesian diplomats are now driven less by radical politics, internal stability concerns or democratic norms, Indonesian diplomats now work within the ideational context of President Jokowi’s revolusi mental and Nawacita. A continuum of early Soekarnoist ideology, revolusi mental aims to improve both the integrity and productivity of the Indonesian people, whilst Nawacita articulates nine aspirational goals or principles of state.

These ideational influences combine with the practical imperatives for Indonesian diplomats to facilitate trade and investment critical to Indonesia’s infrastructure priorities. The need to finalise land and maritime boundaries, moreover, is made more urgent by China’s increasing assertiveness in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Although the protection of Indonesian citizens and legal entities abroad has remained a core foreign policy priority in the post-authoritarian era, diplomats now express this through the conceptual terms of revolusi mental and Nawacita.

In summary, Indonesia’s diplomats and overseas diplomatic missions remain indispensable, as they stand at the intersection of Indonesia’s nation building project with the broader international community. The nuances of this project may have shifted over time, but the fundamentals remain similar: diplomacy for the development of a cohesive national identity, diplomacy for economic growth and prosperity; diplomacy for defence of Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yes, embassies still matter; for Indonesia at least.


On 9 April, Egypt's cabinet announced it would transfer sovereignty over the strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The deal has sparked widespread anger in Egypt. Many Egyptians consider the transfer — announced during a five-day visit by King Salman to Egypt — as payment for continuing Saudi financial support for Egypt.

Protesters outside the Press Syndicate building in Cairo, 15 April (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Shortly after the decision was made public, Twitter users started expressing ire towards President Sisi under the hashtag #AwadSoldHisLand, a reference to an Egyptian folktale about a man named Awad who brought his family shame by giving up the family farm. On 15 April, 2000 people protested the decision in front of the Press Syndicate building in downtown Cairo in the largest anti-government protests since President Sisi took power in 2014. 

Much has been made of the significance of these protests. Indeed, the 15 April protests were bigger and more diverse than many had anticipated, and touched a raw nerve even among Sisi's staunchest supporters. Large pro-Sisi media outlets, such as the private Egyptian daily al Watan and the state-owned Al Ahram paper, expressed rare criticism. 

The regime went to great lengths to limit further protests announced for 25 April, Sinai Liberation Day. Dozens were arrested by the security forces in synchronised raids across Egypt in the lead up to the protests, and the locations of many planned demonstrations were cordoned off by the military who deployed across the country. The crackdown was successful; there were no sizeable demonstrations on the day other than those organised by the regime celebrating the liberation of the Sinai.

But mostly, the protests merely confirm what we already know. Discontent with the Sisi Administration has grown over the past year and the president's broad support structure has been shrinking. Crucially though, the security establishment remains firmly behind Sisi while many Egyptians who are not normally politically engaged — the so-called 'sofa party' — continue to accept his regime's transgressions.

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A survey carried out by Baseera, an Egyptian polling organisation, showed that 30% of respondents believed the islands were Egyptian while almost half were unsure or even unaware the islands existed. But in a country where public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable and political engagement remains low, an important measure of the public mood will be the level of parliamentary resistance. According to the Egyptian constitution, parliament will have to vote on the deal. Egypt expert Michael Hanna has rightly argued that 'if a legislative body that is often seen as little more than a rubber stamp chooses to assert itself on such a highly contentious and sensitive matter, it will be a major setback for the Sisi regime.'

Sisi chose closer Egyptian-Saudi relations at a time of considerable economic distress for Egypt. The coinciding territorial concessions were always going to be controversial. Yet, it was the administration's handling of the case — the 'absence of politics' and the lack of transparency as Egyptian journalist Maged Atef called it — that has done much of the damage to its reputation at home.

Crucially, the anger over the islands deal has obscured scrutiny of the pay off; a package of 21 economic agreements worth US$25 billion. Contrary to previous installments of Saudi aid, the current package no longer includes direct financial assistance and is generally thought to be no longer free of political charge. Saudi analysts have argued that 'any aid Riyadh offers is to be repaid either by political support for Saudi positions at the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation against Iran and Hezbollah or by military backing, such as Egyptian participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism'.

If true, this would further increase the political costs at home for the Sisi Administration.


Most people understand what is involved in a ceasefire.  Fewer would be familiar with the term 'cessation of hostilities', and there would not be many at all who would know what a  'regime of calm' means. This melange of terms reflects the challenges involved in brokering any kind of reduction in fighting in the confused and confusing environment that is Syria.

Syrian kids protest against Assad Regime forces air attacks targeting Aleppo

The confusing terminology largely reflects the fact that military action was allowed to continue against the two proscribed terrorist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.  On the face of it, this sounded like an imperfect — but feasible — diplomatic outcome.  Syrian forces used the opportunity to shift their weight of effort to attack Islamic State targets and retake the symbolically important, and operationally useful city of Palmyra/Tadmur.  Coalition aircraft, both alone and in concert with Kurdish ground forces, have kept up the pressure against Islamic State in the northeast.

And while the 'cessation of hostilities' has more or less held and led to a reduction in deaths, a golden thread has started to unravel the cessation; Aleppo.  This is not only because Aleppo has been a strategic focus of the regime since the introduction of Russian airpower allowed Syrian and allied forces to resume offensive operations, but also due to the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra operates within it.

And therein lies the rub.  Unlike Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra has been a much more Syrian-focused group, and much more collaborative with on-the-ground partners.  It is far more respected by locals than is Islamic State, so groups regularly form local alliances and fight with it.  More respected doesn't mean wholly respected, as indicated by protests in Idlib, and concerns about the group's renewed interest in Aleppo reported by Lebanese media.   The more cooperative environment on the battlefield though means it can be difficult to separate Jabhat al-Nusra from other, non-proscribed groups.  The Russians and Syrians don't really care, and view anyone working with Jabhat al-Nusra as fair game.  The US and its allies think the Russians and Syrians overstate the areas within which Jabhat al-Nusra operates so they can take over more territory in Aleppo.  Hence the difficulty in reconciling areas that are fair game for targeting and those that aren't.  This dilemma has resulted in a rather extraordinary proposal; a joint Russian/US violation monitoring centre,  extraordinary in its concept and extraordinary if it works.    

With the Geneva peace talks currently moribund (Germany and France are trying to perform CPR), and the cessation of hostilities hanging on by its fingernails, Aleppo has become the last hope for the reduction of fighting to stay.  But, with a regime that sees Aleppo as 'winnable', Washington which has warned Damascus against thinking this, and an opposition who continues to cooperate with a proscribed terrorist group on parts of the battlefield, the prospects for anything other than a temporary respite to the fighting appears bleak.

Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


A first look at the 2016-17 budget for foreign affairs, aid and defence yields few surprises. For an unsurprising budget, this is a long post, but it’s worth looking deeper at how each of the agencies fared, particularly after the comparatively controversial efforts of the last two Coalition budgets.

Source: Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index

Foreign affairs and aid

One of the surprises is a pleasant one for those of us who’ve long argued for a larger diplomatic presence for Australia, with a $42 million budget measure to expand Australia’s overseas diplomatic network by adding a new post in China, presumably in the vast and booming inland. The location is yet to be announced.

This builds on last year’s foreign affairs budget which, if you are partial to surprises, was the big one. It heralded an unprecedented investment of $100 million to increase Australia’s overseas representation, adding five new posts in Doha (Qatar), Macassar (Indonesia), Ulaanbaataar (Mongolia), Phuket (Thailand) and Buka (Bougainville). The Buka post idea has now formally been abandoned, scotched by an awkward communications problem between the Australian and PNG governments. 

In its place is a new post in Lae, as well as the post in China announced yesterday. This makes a total of six new posts for Australia’s still-underdone overseas network, bringing our total to 115 posts. The planned additions will lift our position in the global rankings and OECD nations’ diplomatic networks from 27th to 26th; ahead of the Czech Republic but behind Belgium (117 posts) and Portugal (123 posts).

Overall, the appropriation for DFAT is $1.4 billion this year, up $53 million (4%) on last year’s budget. This doesn’t include the aid budget, which is an administered expense and not included in the department’s operating costs. The bitter pills in the foreign affairs and aid budgets came earlier in the term of this Coalition government: in late 2013 there was a 10% reduction in staffing over the foreign affairs and aid portfolio with the ‘integration’ of AusAID into DFAT, and last year a 20% cut ($1 billion) to the aid budget.
This year's $200 million cut to aid is small by comparison, and it was also expected. As Devpolicy’s Stephen Howes put it today, ‘we’ve got used to aid cuts’; and besides, the average Australian isn’t that fussed: in our polling on the aid cuts last year, 53% were in favour of last year’s $1 billion budget cuts, with only 35% opposed. When it comes to easy budget savings, it appears the aid budget is now low-hanging fruit.

Among the other measures in the foreign affairs budget are:

  • $9.2 million over four years for the government’s people-smuggling prevention program.
  • $2.4 million to bring forward the opening of two new ‘landing pads’ in Singapore and Berlin under the government’s Innovation Strategy, adding to the existing pads in San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Shanghai.
  • $46 million to meet the increased costs of producing passports, which will be more than offset by an additional $173 million in revenue for the government over four years raised by upping the cost of a passport by $20 ($10 for children and seniors).
  • $48 million in revenue from increasing notarial service fees (though sadly this also goes to consolidated revenue, not to the departmental budget).

One of the persistent problems for the foreign affairs and trade portfolio is the relentless demand for efficiencies. Read More

These are always styled by government as ‘business as usual’, with periodic reviews conducted across the whole of the public sector to identify potential cost savings. This year, the ‘efficiencies’ generated by DFAT’s last Functional and Efficiency Review amount to the single biggest budget item for the portfolio, with savings of $74.5 million over five years. These will come from a variety of areas including:‘streamlining business processes’; ‘changing overseas posting arrangements’; and ‘removing consular assistance for dual nationals and permanent residents in the countries of which they are citizens’. This last one was bound to cause consternation, even though it was foreshadowed in the Foreign Minister’s review of consular assistance leading up to its recent Consular Strategy. It is also the practice of like-minded countries such as the UK and New Zealand.

Adding to this efficiency drive is the ongoing public sector ‘efficiency dividend’. This is a government-wide initiative, introduced back in 1987, to reduce the annual costs of departmental operations by a fixed percentage. Some agencies (but not DFAT) are exempt. The dividend has ranged from 1% to a high of 4% in 2012, and now sits at 2.5%. For a department the size of DFAT, with an operating budget of around $2 billion, this means $50 million in savings must be found each year. The 2015-16 budget promised to reduce it to a more manageable 1% in 2017-18; this budget overrides that, maintaining the 2.5% for the next two years, winding it down to 1.5% in 2019-20.

This is all very well for government departments and agencies which have enjoyed ‘historically strong public expenditure growth’ over the last 10-15 years. However, as we’ve argued in the past, DFAT was not one of them. Its share of total government expenditure actually fell from its ‘high’ of 0.43% in 2000-2001 to an historic low of 0.28% just before the AusAID integration. Over the same period, its budget in real terms was almost stagnant. The public sector as a whole grew by 57% between 1998 and 2013, while DFAT grew by only 7%. It did not experience the boom the public sector enjoyed, but it is expected to wear the continuing punishment. The 2010 Incoming Government Brief prepared for the Gillard government by DFAT noted that:

...limited gains are achievable after more than a decade of having to offset the eroding effects of the 1.25 per cent cumulative efficiency dividend... Having exhausted opportunities for reprioritisation and efficiency gains, meeting the challenge of a more complex diplomatic world will require additional funding, with a particular focus on growing the overseas network.

Six years later, that additional funding is materialising, albeit painfully slowly. But if the opportunities for further efficiencies were exhausted in 2010, they must surely be almost non-existent by now.


Defence is of course a different story.

Defence gets $32.3 billion this year and $142 billion over the next four years, in line with the Coalition’s 2013 commitment to reach 2% of GDP by 2020-21 . This is up just 3% up on last year’s budget, but a very substantial 22% increase on the pre-Coalition 2013-14 budget.

This year, Defence operations gets over $616 million for additional operations funding (around half of DFAT’s entire operations budget), and a similar amount over the forward estimates. This funds the continuation of our existing operations in the Middle East, with Operations Accordion, Highroad, Manitou, Okra and Resolute all getting additional money.

It’s full steam ahead on Australia’s naval shipbuilding strategy, with $90 billion over the term of the White Paper invested in the 12 future submarines, offshore patrol vessels and future frigates projects.

Our friends over at ASPI have dissected the Defence budget story, and called it a ‘no surprises budget’. 

In sum: no surprises in a good way for the Defence budget, no surprises for the aid budget which has endured its share of jarring shocks under the Coalition, and a small surprise for the overseas network in an otherwise unexceptional budget.



Later this month, President Obama will attend the 42nd G7 Summit in Ise, Japan, about half-way between Tokyo and Hiroshima. Following John Kerry's visit to Hiroshima in early April, the first ever by a sitting US Secretary of State, many speculate that Obama will do the same and could in fact apologise for the atomic bomb drop of August 1945. Kerry apparently found his Hiroshima visit harrowing, and it fits with Obama's less blustery approach to US foreign policy that he would consider an expression of remorse, perhaps akin to his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009.

But if the politics of that speech were contested, this would be worse, as almost no one wants it.

US Conservatives

It is a populist article of faith in the US that the bomb-drop was necessary; I do not remember this even being controversial in any textbook I read until my senior year of college. Veterans groups and public opinion were powerful enough to shut down a major exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the bomb drop in 1995, and no serious public figure I can think of talks about this. Hiroshima is even less controversial than Dresden.

So it is not hard at all to imagine the huge backlash Obama would face at home from Republicans, neoconservatives, talk radio, Fox News, veterans groups and so on. That this is an election year only worsens the calculus. Donald Trump has fractured the Republican party, but if there is one thing all Republicans agree on, it is that Obama is 'weak.' A favorite conservative critique is that Obama apologises for the US, and a Hiroshima apology would be easily spun as another stop on Obama's 'apology tour.' Were Obama to do this, it would be an election season gift to the struggling GOP, and Hillary Clinton would find herself answering questions on this for weeks. Honestly, this alone is probably enough to derail any Obama effort.

China and the Koreas

Similarly, it takes little imagination to see how badly this would provoke China and the two Koreas. Memories of the Pacific War run deep, and resistance to Japan in that conflict are central legitimising narratives in all three countries. The communist parties of both China and North Korea were tested in the crucible of that war, and the nationalist credibility both earned from having fought the Japanese justified their post-war take-overs. Even today, both continue to use Japan as a villain for nationalist and state-building purposes, with their constant insistence that Japan must remain disarmed and that any military build-up on its part is a precursor to renewed Japanese imperialism. The standard World War II narrative suits these two just fine; indeed, it is still quite alive for both of them today.

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An apology to Japan by the major contributor to its defeat would throw the moral economy of North Korean and Chinese post-colonial anti-Japanism into doubt. Not only would it suggest that anti-Japanese forces in the war did awful things too, a US apology would explicitly recognise how far Japan has come from the Axis imperialist of the 1940s to today's liberal, human rights respecting, global governance cooperating democracy. China and North Korea are none of those things of course. It suits neither Pyongyang nor Beijing to see Japan rehabilitated; ghosts of the 1940s are preferred as politically useful strawmen.

Worse, the anti-Japanese struggle narratives of the North Korean and Chinese communist parties are highly exaggerated. Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong did far less to defeat the Japanese in their countries than, respectively, Chiang Kai Shek and the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Mao and Kim were quite content to free-ride on these forces, which of course can never be admitted. So any major re-examination of the war's end, which such an apology would provoke, is unwanted.

Given that South Korea is a democracy, one might have expected a different course. But there too, Japan-as-villain is deeply politically inscribed. The issue of who collaborated with Japan during the colonial period is hugely divisive and continues to roil the country 70 years later, as does the fate of the comfort women. South Korean analysts too tend to see Japanese re-armament as a pre-cursor to imperialism, and there is deep resistance to seeing Japan as rehabilitated or deserving of apologies for wartime events. That Japan cannot quite seem to admit to itself that it started a truly awful conflict only hardens the resistance to apologies to the erstwhile colonialist and imperialist.

Japanese conservatives (yes, really)

One might imagine the nationalist community in Japan to most seek such an apology, but as Jake Adelstein notes, there is little interest there too. A US apology would have domestic ramifications Americans are likely unaware of, but for the Japanese conservatives trying to make Japan a more 'normal' partner of the US, the apology would only help the domestic left's effort to hold onto Japan's unique pacifist, semi-isolationist foreign policy.

Specifically, an Obama apology would revive discussion about the conflict from which the Japanese pacifist position draws its political and moral strength. Japanese conservatives want to look forward to tension with China or North Korea to justify a more robust military, not back to a time when the Japanese military rampaged around the region. And an apology by the war's victor only strengthens pacifist arguments on the futility of the use of force: even in WWII, the 'good war,' the good guys acted badly, suggesting that the use of state violence always leads to immorality. 

This, curiously enough, aligns with America's long-time interest that Japan carry a greater burden in the alliance and generally do more, leading to the bizarre outcome that an American president doing this to show America's maturity would be acting against US interests.

Reconciliation vs zero-sum politics

Obama's impulse to apologise is morally laudable. As a student of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, he sees that reconciliation and trust-building are achieved in part through the mutual recognition of error and inappropriate violence. Obama, unlike so many Americans, seems willing to recognise that even the US has done some pretty awful stuff (if he wants an even greater challenge, consider how the US should reckon with the fate of Native Americans). There is in fact a pretty good case that the bomb drop was unnecessary.

But humility is rare in international politics, intellectually dominated as it is by nationalism, grievance-pandering, prestige-seeking, and demands for recognition. While US and Japanese elites may embrace this post-modern, post-national ethos, that does not apply in modernist, nationalist East Asia where an apology will be read as just another turn in enduring regional competition.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.

US presidential race 2016

Those wondering how Donald Trump became the presumptive  Republican party presidential nominee should have a look at this video, and listen to the short comment below. In a case of remarkably fortunate timing,  the Lowy Institute, publisher of The Interpreter, today hosted a lunchtime lecture from renowned US journalist, author and one time presidential speech writer James Fallows. Fallows, speaking just a few hours after Trump rival Ted Cruz  bowed out of the race, told the capacity crowd he was honoured to be delivering the first speech of the Trump political era. In his lecture  Fallows explained why he thinks Trump will be the end of the GOP, why Trump has emerged triumphant from the once-crowded field vying for the GOP nomination, and why Trump is very, very unlikely to win the election. (You can listen to the full lecture here.)

On the second point, Fallows said it was a strange confluence of events that has allowed Trump to pull ahead and one of these was the fact the primary race had become 'indistinguishable from an American reality TV show' and 'a lot like pro-wrestling which is full of phony, histrionic, tough-guy performances'. Fallows urged the audience to look the wrestling video, recorded back in 2007 in one of Trump's many past lives as a pro-wrestling promoter. Fallows said the video was both 'primal and Lord of the Flies like';  a good description for the Republican nomination race of 2016.

In this quick comment, Fallows elaborates on his views on Donald Trump's campaign success to date and what is says about the US.


By Alastair Davis, an Intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • Following the unanimous ruling by the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court that the detention of people at the processing facility on Manus Island is illegal, the question of responsibility for the 850 asylum seekers and refugees is under negotiation. The time frame for these negotiations is unclear, as the Australian Federal Budget has allocated AUS$55.4 million in funding for Manus Island and Nauru according to Sky News.
  • The Economist ran a useful explainer on the regional processing issue last week.
  • Lisa-Marie Tepu argues that the PNG Supreme Court decision provides an opportunity to reform the legal framework for the treatment of asylum seekers and to reassert the primacy of the Papua New Guinean constitution. A copy of the Supreme Court's decision can be found below.
  • Also, Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Sean Dorney discusses the enduring strength of the Papua New Guinean constitution in extraordinary times.
  • The uncertainty around Papua New Guinea's police anti-corruption unit continues, with the Supreme Court ordering the Police Commissioner to reopen the unit as the closure is affecting criminal cases before the courts.
  • The 2012 election victory of Don Polye, leader of the opposition in Papua New Guinea, has been stayed by the National Court. Polye has since stepped down as opposition leader.
  • The much anticipated Leaders' Summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group has been postponed, leaving the issues of leadership of the Secretariat and potential Indonesian and West Papuan memberships unresolved.
  • The nature of the Pacific Islands Forum could change significantly with the drive for full membership for New Caledonia and French Polynesia gaining support from New Zealand. The two French territories would be the first non-independent entities to attain full membership.
  • Vanuatu Infrastructure Minister Jotham Napat is to travel to China to negotiate further Chinese assistance in road construction.
  • Allan Bird writes for The Interpreter on why many Papua New Guineans are occupied with issues other than Manus Island.


It's an Oliver Stone film, so it's no surprise to see a trailer that reflects the paranoid-conspiratorial strain in Stone's political views.

Stone has ideological enemies who made much of the director's historical over-reach in JFK (1991). The problem for those critics now is that Stone's wild theories about an unaccountable national-security establishment which secretly runs the country (and can even assassinate a sitting president) look slightly less fanciful in the age of XKeyscore.

Stone is a fringe figure these days, but JFK was a major success in part because it tapped into Americans' sense that the system was rigged (The X-Files was big in the early '90s too). In the age of Trump and Sanders, it is hard to argue that that feeling has diminished. Maybe Snowden is a film for the times.


The PNG Supreme court ruling last week that the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island was illegal did not come as a surprise. The PNG judiciary has always been fiercely independent and it proved so once again.

It is also not unusual in PNG for governments to do the wrong thing and only correct their actions when ordered to by the Supreme Court. And sometimes not even then; the illegal ousting of the Prime Minister in 2011 has still not been rectified even after several Supreme Court decisions on the matter.

However the detention of asylum seekers (or illegal immigrants depending on which side of the fence you sit), has hardly galvanised sentiment in the PNG public except among politicians and lawyers and those on Manus.

In fact, most Papua New Guineans could not care less about the whole issue.

In my hometown of Wewak, the entire population is focused on simply getting on with life in these hard economic times. Next door in Madang, they are just recovering from an ethnic clash which shut the place down. Similar stories can be found all around the country.

This is what happens when you are ranked 158 out of 170 odd countries in the United Nations Human Development Index (Australia is ranked 2). We are very much inward looking and worried about our own problems.

Politically, PNG will always stand ready assist Australia in whatever way it can, this is the Melanesian way. We stepped in to help Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and we will continue to step in as required. At home though, most folks are worried about medicines in the clinics and teachers in the classroom and hoping there may be a job opening down the road.

The court decision will not affect the politics of PNG. We will continue to vote for the people who promise to bring home the most freebies. Our politics is not determined by doctrine or conviction but by very basic human needs.

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As harsh as this sounds, it is the hard truth. Perhaps this is the reason why the majority of the so-called asylum seekers on Manus island refuse to be settled in PNG. They have probably figured out this is a much more difficult place to put down roots than the countries they left behind.

I suspect that if PNG were further up the human development ladder, if it was a place bounding with opportunities, then asylum seekers would choose to stop here and not keep going to get to Australia.

That prospect might warrant more significant investment on the part of Australia's leaders if they want a more effective — and legal — buffer between Australia and boat people.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Tanaka Juuyouh