Lowy Institute

This week our links are focused on the Pacific Islands Forum taking place in Koror, Palau.

  • On the Devpolicy blog, Seini O'Connor asks: what can the people of our region expect of the regionalism project?
  • Islands Business provides a detailed backgrounder on what Pacific leaders will be addressing at the 45th Pacific Islands Forum meeting.
  • For the second year running, Australia's prime minister is not attending the Forum. Whilst Tony Abbott's absence may be understandable, it represents a missed opportunity.
  • In his opening speech, President Tommy Remengesau of Palau stressed the importance of ocean health for Pacific island countries. Further to last year's Forum meeting, which included the adoption of the Majuro Declaration, the impacts of climate change in the region will be a key issue for discussion.
  • PNG is using the Forum meeting to further establish itself as a regional aid donor. Its delegation has been lobbying hard for the appointment of Dame Meg Taylor as the new Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat. She is one of five candidates; whoever gets the job will have plenty to deal with.
  • Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo of Solomon Islands will be presenting an independent review of RAMSI to leaders that was commissioned by the Forum and the Government of Solomon Islands.
  • Prime minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu has used the Forum as a platform to advocate for changes to the 'Least Developed Country' graduation processes, an issue which also affects other Forum members. 
  • There have been calls for Forum leaders to follow the lead of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and discuss West Papua at its meeting, but this will most likely go unheeded.

In my previous post I argued that the last few months have seen a spike in punditry claiming that Northeast Asia's status quo is about to change, and that conflict is more likely. Japan's constitutional revisions have provoked exaggerated responses from South Korea and China, while Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent successful trip to South Korea has been interpreted in Japan in a similarly negative manner.

But much of this is exaggerated nationalism and posturing from regional hawks (and some American think tanks) about a stable, but disliked, status quo. As I argued, South Korea is not in fact 'finlandising' or going over to China. Such talk is more indicative of the Japanese right's glee in snubbing Korea whenever possible.

Not to be outdone, one can always rely on Chosun Daily in Korea or the Global Times in China (here is a link of special interest to Australian readers) to overreact to Japanese military developments.

But most of this is overstated and little of it is helpful.

Northeast Asia is fairly stable. It could certainly be better, but compared to many regions, it is doing rather well. Trade and tourism are robust. The problems of state failure and irregular wars, so common elsewhere, are not apparent. As Dave Kang has noted, much of the maritime tension is being 'fought' by fishermen and coastguards. For all the big talk, there has been no war in the region since the 1950s.

So should you really care that Japan 're-interpreted' its constitution? Not so much, for three reasons:

1. Until Japan actually spends more on defence, the 're-interpretation' makes little difference

Japan spends less than 1% of GDP on defence. This is even lower than the European members of NATO, who are routinely castigated by the US for free-riding (as the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating yet again).

It takes huge amounts of money to field comparatively small military forces. The logistical tail (the number of support staff, technicians, trainers, crew, and so on) behind each actual warfighter or platform is longer today than ever before. Modern militaries — basically since World War I — have also increasingly relied on technology and combined arms tactics whose complexity requires even greater resources (Stephen Biddle explains all this nicely in the opening chapters here). The long, troubled, and hugely expensive history of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aptly demonstrates the spiraling costs and troubles of modern military platforms.

So sure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may want to buy an aircraft carrier, but does a troubled economy have an extra US$5-10 billion for that? Perhaps, but until the budget numbers change, it's all just talk. Read More

2. Unless Japan can actually translate that extra spending into genuine capabilities, that too reduces the importance of the 're-interpretation'

A basic materialist approach to Japanese 're-armament' would simply be to look at GDP percentages. But bigger budgets are not enough either, because money has to be translated into capabilities — the deployment of modern complex platforms by highly skilled technicians in complicated ways (combined arms, the networked battlefield, C4ISR, and so on) to achieve a goal. Very few modern militaries have been able to do that successfully, and most of them in the twentieth century were Western. Just throwing money at the defence ministry is not enough.

Japan too of course had a reasonably effective military in the twentieth century. But World War II was seventy years ago and was followed by a decisive social break against 'bushido', militarism, and so on. Since then the Japanese military has not fought once. No one really knows how well it will fare (a point that applies to all regional militaries, actually). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Japan's navy is the most competent, followed by the air force, then the army, but these are soft qualitative judgements at best. (Here is a good outlet on this issue.)

Finally, it has been widely noted that the Japanese public is either indifferent or opposed to the 're-interpretation'. That should be comforting to those worried about militarisation. Abe may be able to squeeze more resources out of the finance ministry because his parliamentary coalition is unnaturally large due to the quirks of Japanese election law. But without public support (not just tepid uninterest, but genuine support) he will find it hard to build a force capable of much beyond homeland defence. A serious expeditionary or power projection capability — necessary to do anything serious with the Americans in the region — will require public support. At the moment at least, it is not there.

3. Engaging in 'collective self-defence' is a right every other country in the world has. By embracing it, Japan is becoming more, not less, normal, and so more predictable

David Pilling makes the useful point that collective self-defence is the right of every other country, and that Japan moving in that direction is no big deal. Pilling couches the argument in normative language, stating that it is Japan's right to arm itself as it sees fit and align itself with whomever it likes. All that is so, but it is clearly uncomfortable to Seoul and offers fuel for Chinese efforts to isolate Japan in Asia over its alleged militarism.

A better interpretation is that Japan's defence normalisation makes it more like every other country in the world and therefore more predictable. It is Japan's weird post-war state — radically pacifist yet disturbingly unrepentant about the empire, located in Asia but not really a part of the region — that makes it such a hot potato. The more Japan is responsible for its own military and security, the more like every other country it is, and the more it will come under pressure to conform to modern democratic norms on the use of force.

A more independent and normal Japan will be less tied to the US and more a part of its own region where it will have to engage in normal diplomatic back-and-forth, including finding a modus vivendi with South Korea and China. A Japan responsible for its own defence, directly facing the costs of bad behaviour, such as historical denial, is far more likely to come around than one permanently hiding in America's shadow as some kind of weird semi-pariah.

Northeast Asia is fairly stable. China's rise is unnerving, but compared to places like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, South Asia, or central Africa, regional politics is fairly predictable. Local elites are nationalist, but they are calculating too. There has not been a major war since the 1950s, and the non-state violence so common elsewhere is non-existent. Nor do regional states spend as much on the military as the this year's World War I analogies suggest. There's no need to make it worse with hyperbole.

Image from REUTERS/Issei Kato


As readers of The Interpreter may have heard, I've just launched a revised second edition of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.

Most of the speeches in my book are about Australian history, culture and politics, not Australian foreign policy.

As I've argued before, foreign policy is Australia's area of speechmaking underperformance. Too often, Australian foreign policy speeches are workmanlike rather than profound. They have content but not much flair. However, the pickings are much richer if we broaden our perspective from foreign policy narrowly-defined to Australia's place in the world more broadly.

In a two-part post, I'll nominate ten great speeches about Australia's place in the world. These first five cover the period from Federation to Vietnam (transcripts for selections 1 and 2 are not online, but all of the speeches selected here are featured in the book):

1. Vida Goldstein, 'You will soon be citizens of no mean country', London, UK, 17 June 1911

Australia was in the front rank of nations when it awarded (most) women the right both to vote and to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902. In subsequent years, Australian suffragists tried to coax their British cousins down the same path: our parliament passed resolutions recommending the policy, and our activists carried the word to the UK in person. 

The most prominent of these women was Vida Goldstein, who organised an international contingent to march with 40,000 others in a 1911 suffrage procession through London. Goldstein gave a rousing speech at Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the march, urging the Brits to follow our lead in awarding women the right to vote. 'I know that you will soon be citizens of no mean country', she concluded.

2. Billy Hughes, 'It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country', 18 September 1916

Billy Hughes was prime minister for most of the First World War, earning the affection of Australia's soldiers and the sobriquet 'The Little Digger'. In 1916 Hughes became concerned by the depletion of Australia's military strength through the appalling casualties of the Western Front, and was converted to the cause of conscripting Australians for service overseas.

His speech to a monster public meeting in Sydney in September 1916 created immense (though ultimately inadequate) momentum for the conscription cause:

Nearly three hundred thousand men have enlisted. Why should some take on their shoulders the burden that belongs to all? If life be such a sacred thing that no government or no individual has a right to lay hands upon it, why should these three hundred thousand be chosen to die, that we may live, unmolested, allowing the roll and thunder of battle to pass over us undisturbed? This war must be brought home to every man and woman in this great Commonwealth of Australia. If voluntaryism fails, the war must not fail. The interests at issue are too great. Australia must do her part. It may be that voluntaryism will save us; but if it does not, then we must still be saved.

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3. John Curtin, The Battle of the Coral Sea speech, 8 May 1942 

Towards the end of a slow sitting day on 8 May 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin rose and announced to the House of Representatives that battle had been joined in the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east, between Allied forces and a Japanese naval task force seeking to capture Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian territory of Papua. The address was short in length and spare in language, which added to the drama of the moment.

Old hands regarded this as Curtin's finest speech, especially its closing moments:

I ask the people of Australia, having regard to the grave consequences implicit in this engagement, to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation. As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have – it may be for many of them the last full measure of their devotion – to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory. In the face of such an example I feel that it is not asking too much of every citizen who today is being defended by these gallant men in that engagement, to regard himself as engaged in the second line of service to Australia. The front line needs the maximum support of every man and woman in the Commonwealth. With all the responsibility which I feel, which the government feels, and which, I am sure, the parliament as a whole shares, I put it to any man whom my words may reach, however they may reach him, that he owes it to those men, and to the future of the country, not to be stinting in what he will do now for Australia. Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant setback suffered by Japan and many now regard it as a turning point in the battle for Australia. It was also a turning point in our relations with the US, and underscored the prescience of Curtin's statement in the Melbourne Herald of 27 December 1941 that 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'.

4. Robert Menzies, 'A spirit, a proud memory, a confident prayer', 26 June 1950

Prime Minister Robert Menzies told a British diplomat that the purpose of this speech to the Adelaide chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was to 'restore the Commonwealth relationship to its proper place in the forefront' of Australian foreign-policy thinking. Menzies was sceptical of the UN, in which former external affairs minister HV Evatt had put such faith, preferring an interests-based approach and especially close relations with Britain and the US, Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.

The British Commonwealth is more than a group of friendly powers. It is more than a series of concerted economic interests. It is and must be a living thing – not a corpse under the knives of the constitutional dissectors. It would be the tragedy of our history if what began as a splendid adventure and grew into a proud brotherhood should end up as a lawyer's exercise. When the Commonwealth ceases to be an inner feeling as well as an external association, virtue will have gone out of it.

5. Arthur Calwell, 'I offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated', 4 May 1965

In response to Prime Minister Menzies' 1965 announcement that Australia would send an infantry battalion to Vietnam, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell laid out Labor's opposition to Australia's participation in the war in a finely argued parliamentary statement. The party politics of the Vietnam War were, in fact, strikingly similar to the party politics of the Iraq war nearly forty years later. In both cases a Coalition government sought to shrink the US-Australia alliance to the dimensions of a single conflict, while a Labor opposition argued that the war was inimical to the interests of both countries. Calwell's remarks laid out Labor's case in plain English, argument upon argument. They were anti-war without being anti-American, and were substantially vindicated by history.

Here is Calwell's rousing conclusion:

May I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security.

21 of 21 This post is part of a debate on MH17

It is now two weeks since the downing of MH17 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. In that time we have witnessed frenetic activity by leaders in Europe, the US and Australia. But amid the flurry of diplomacy, little seems to have changed for the better, either for the investigation or for the conflict more generally.

If anything, the situation is even uglier. International investigators are still being held back from the crash site, even though they have the backing of an Australian-drafted UN Security Council resolution supported by all Permanent Members. The Ukrainian Government's decision to launch an offensive towards Donetsk has put the crash site dangerously close to the battle zone. Ukraine faces fresh elections after its governing coalition collapsed. And Western pressure on Vladimir Putin has not shifted his resolve one iota. According to recent reports, Russian military aid to Ukrainian separatists has actually increased.

One glimmer of hope for Western audiences has been the broad sanctions regime Brussels and Washington have just announced, which certainly appears to be a more robust Western response to continued Russian defiance over its role in Ukraine's civil war.

Prior to the downing of MH17, the EU and US had embarked on a minimalist 'first line' of sanctions that focused on individuals close to the Kremlin. The aim was to put pressure on Putin by taking aim at his entourage. But asset freezes and travel bans against prominent politicians and businesspeople were largely ineffective. Russian parliamentarians named on the 'no fly' list wore their status as a badge of pride. And while the US claims to have made Russia 'weaker' by engendering an estimated $100 million in capital flight, the sanctions did little to dampen Putin's resolve.

Indeed, US sanctions of any kind on Russia are largely symbolic, given the absence of any real trading relationship between the two nations. The EU's 'sectorial' sanctions on energy, arms sales and finance, on the other hand, have more promise. The Brussels-Moscow trade axis is more than ten times larger than the US-Russian relationship. And the EU's sanctions go much further than before, targeting core Russian businesses.

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They restrict the sale of technology for oil exploration, which hampers Russia's desire to exploit its contested claims in the Arctic Circle. They include a ban on weapons sales, estimated at some €20 billion annually. And they forbid Europeans from buying debt or equity in state-owned Russian banks, except for short-term trading. The list of embargoed individuals has also grown.

But these sanctions won't go anywhere near far enough to deter Putin. At best, they are a small PR victory. At worst, the length of time taken to negotiate them will only reinforce Putin's calculation that Europe is divided.

To begin with, these sanctions don't lock the EU into a long-term course since they are reviewed every three months. Actual energy trading will continue, and the focus on oil exploration leaves Russia's gas sector unmolested. A crucial compromise to win the backing of Paris was that the military embargo could not be retroactive. That gave the green light to a 2011 French deal to sell Russia two Mistral helicopter carriers at a price of €1.2 billion.

The aspects of this package with the most teeth are the EU's financial sanctions. Putin will find it harder to obtain credit, which will drive Moscow closer to Beijing. China is likely to charge a steep price for that credit, as it did during the global financial crisis. Even so, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's response that Russia would not bother engaging in 'hysterics' with tit-for-tit sanctions was a sure sign that Moscow is confident in Europe's fragility. Just like Kosovo and Chechnya in the 1990s, when the tokenistic suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe and the NATO dialogue process lasted a mere six months, Russia intends to simply wait Europe out.

In fairness, the EU's response had to be carefully negotiated. Internal wrangling, coupled to a precarious economic position, each played a strong role. There are already concerns that the total cost of the sanctions might drive the EU into recession. Opinion polls in Germany put support for tougher sanctions against Russia at 52%; a majority, but by no means a convincing one. Angela Merkel was extremely reluctant to impose broad sanctions that would hurt Germany's high-technology sales, especially in computers and advanced machinery. That is why the initial call for a ban on 'dual use' technologies was watered down to 'military end-users'.

Hence the brunt of the pain from sanctions will be felt in London's financial district. This is unsurprising as well. The UK, with a low stake in Russian gas imports, is the nation with the least to lose in terms of vulnerable overdependence.

But the upshot is that Western responses – whether justified or not in their assessments of Russian culpability – have been monumentally weak. Faced with the opportunity to send a clear message to Moscow, Europe and even the US have settled once again for half measures.

All of this suits Putin very nicely. Caught between a thirst for Russian gas and domestic vacillation, the EU may score points in the propaganda war, but it has failed strategically in an important test of its resolve. As the war in Ukraine drags on, any hope that some good might come of the MH17 tragedy must now be nearly extinguished.

Photo by Flickr user Jeroen Akkermans.


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

  • Despite a negative response from China, constitutional reinterpretation has paved the way for greater military cooperation between the US and Japan. 
  • Largely overlooked, however, have been the potential constitutional constraints on the US to fulfil its alliance commitments to Japan.
  • Doubts aside, Japan joined and hosted the annual US-India naval exercises, Exercise Malabar. Undertaken off the south coast of Japan, the drills will conclude on 30 July 30 . 
  • Meanwhile, China also began nationwide military exercises, which included naval drills in the disputed East China Sea. The scale of the land component reportedly caused mass disruption to China’s domestic air traffic.
  • Increased competition with China has been cited as a reason for the accelerated development of India’s submarine launched ballistic missile system, again raising concern over the subcontinent’s nuclear balance. 
  • Amid regional tension, Indonesia has called on China to make the Indo-Pacific ‘peaceful’.
  • The recent overture again highlights Indonesia’s increasing concern over the impact of regional disputes
  • On a more positive note, China and South Korea worked towards managing their differences by announcing the establishment of a defence hotline between capitals.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation


Two reader comments I'd like to flag in response to my piece highlighting new research by the Brookings Institution's Charles Frank, written up in The Economist, which suggests renewable energy is still way too expensive to take over from coal, oil and gas.

Here's OfKember:

The basic inadequacy of Frank's analysis is that it takes no account of the amount of emission reduction needed from the power sector over time. Sure, it's cheapest in the short term to switch to gas if you want to go from high- to low-carbon power production (and how is that news?), but by 2050 we need to be approaching a zero-carbon power supply (see the IEA's recent Energy Technology Perspectives report) . Either the new gas plant gets CCS (ed. note: carbon capture and storage) or it has to be replaced before the end of its operating life, either of which rather messes with his comparative costs. (Interestingly he dismisses the prospect of widespread storage by saying the technologiy isn't competitive without subsidies yet - well yes, but it seems odd to suppose it will stay that way for the next forty years.)

Chris Williams wrote:

I am surprised The Interpreter is seduced by The Economist's rubbery economics. In comparative economics of energy, TE's analysis sureptitiously excludes a range of coal power externalities that current debates have exposed as being the 'true' costs of coal power, and which ought to be allocated in any cost-benefit analysis. While economists are about it, they could also declare all the subsidies that coal mining, transportation and generation have been allocated over the years to develop the industry's critical mass. Sure, they are sunk costs now. On a level playing field, however, the renewable energies are not being permitted similar startup costs to reach critical mass, whether these be by government subsidy or by a customer levy which reduces over time.

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By mimicking a British magazine, The Interpreter does Australian industry and science a disservice. CSIRO has just developed solar technology that heats water-under-pressure, which was previously a barrier to large-scale solar power plants. China's mainstream media has picked up this breakthrough, but both Australian media and The Economist are notably silent on this significant Australian achievement. It's time for The Interpreter to give credit where it is due. Good on you, CSIRO, keep up the energy breakthroughs so that, one day, Australia may become a technology leader rather than a laggard.


What should be done about corruption in developing countries? Stephen Grenville discussed this issue in commenting on the recent work of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (universally known in Indonesia as the KPK or the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi).

It is important to note that the problem of corruption is hardly ignored in developing countries. In Indonesia, corruption has been at the top of the public policy agenda for decades. Indeed few topics attract more local attention than corruption. When a 'big fish' politician or official is caught by the KPK, it is headline news. TV programs cover the prosecution of leading politicians or officials in vivid detail.

And the KPK has caught some big fish. The recent arrest and subsequent sentencing of Ratu Atut Chosiyah attracted enormous press attention. Ratu Atut had been a high-profile governor of the province of Banten, just to the west of Jakarta. She and her family had built up an extraordinary political dynasty complete with extensive business links across Banten. But recently the KPK moved in on Ratu Atut. She didn't last long once the KPK focused on her and her family, and she is now in jail.

The KPK has caught quite a few other big fish lately too. So the problem of corruption is widely recognised in Indonesia, and institutions such as the KPK are landing some heavy blows.

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But Stephen Grenville points to two worrying problems with this aggressive approach. The first is that unless there are reasonable checks and balances on the powers of corruption commissions, gross injustices can occur. The second is that if officials come to live in fear of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns, the bureaucracy will choke up because everybody will avoid taking decisions.

An example of the first problem appears to be recent suggestions that the Vice President of Indonesia, Dr Boediono, might be prosecuted by the KPK for decisions taken by Indonesia's central bank, Bank Indonesia, in 2008 when Dr Boediono was governor.

There are pros and cons to the decisions taken by Bank Indonesia in the midst of a banking crisis at the time. However, these were typical policy decisions that central banks all around the world are expected to take in the midst of a crisis. Yet for several years the KPK has been hounding Bank Indonesia officials for their decisions about monetary policy. KPK has put one senior executive of Bank Indonesia in jail. It seems quite remarkable. But the KPK has the bit between the teeth. The latest indications are that it is quite possible that the KPK will soon focus on Dr Boediono. If so, it will be a gross injustice committed against one of Indonesia's outstanding leaders (disclosure: Dr Boediono is a friend).

The second problem – that the Indonesian bureaucracy will choke up for fear of witch hunts – is just as serious. While the aggressive role of the KPK is to be welcomed, if the result is that bureaucrats all over Indonesia run for cover then government across the nation will clog up. If an attempted prosecution of Dr Boediono were to lead to reluctance on the part of the central bank to take difficult decisions in the midst of a financial crisis, then the consequences for economic management in Indonesia would be serious indeed.

Photo by Flickr user F Mira.


The 'Unity Journal' case in Myanmar has been cited as an example of media freedom under threat and as proof that reforms are slowing down. The case began with an article published in Unity Journal in early 2014, which claimed that a named defence facility was really a chemical weapons factory. The Government denied the report, claiming the accusations were baseless and highlighting that it relied only on comments from 'locals'.

Officials also reportedly confiscated unsold copies, and arrested and charged the journalists as well as the journal's CEO, citing violations of national security. Following a trial, the group was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for trespassing and taking photographs inside a defence facility without permission. In July, they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.

On The Interpreter, Andrew Selth put the chemical weapons claims in perspective, and Irrawaddy also took a closer look. Many criticised the Government's initial response and the journalists' sentences. Commentaries ranging from Amnesty International to the New York Times condemned the Government response, while some seemed seem to suggest that the quality or accuracy of the story was less relevant than the outcome of the case.

However, the quality and accuracy of the article is relevant, as is the legality of the journalists' behaviour. Critical assessment of this case and the article has generally been neglected in favour of portraying the journalists as victims who were merely 'doing their jobs'. But this is not entirely accurate.

Although the 'chemical weapons' claim was on the Journal's front page and in the article's heading, there were few references to it in the article itself. However, the article did discuss other sensitive issues including alleged land confiscation, and included descriptions and photographs of the site and its (military) personnel, including claims of presence of 'Chinese' workers. Any of these were likely to annoy or embarrass the Government.

The article gained significant international attention and has been described as 'investigative reporting', suggesting it was a well-researched and evidence-backed piece. It wasn't.

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The article's sourcing was hazy and questionable. It provided no supporting evidence, especially for the central allegation, despite one of the journalists claiming he had such evidence. The article also lacked a clear focus, dedicating paragraphs to irrelevant information (such as the origins of bricks used at the site and its water and electricity sources). The concluding paragraphs were straight-up opinion.

One Myanmar journalist and political analyst criticised Unity Journal's journalistic ethics for publishing the article, citing the lack of credible evidence, irrelevant information and potentially misleading use of photographs. Bertil Lintner eloquently described the article as 'a crap report' that 'was poorly researched'.

Others in Myanmar understood that the journalists were probably in the wrong. For example, the secretary of the Interim Press Council suggested the Government should forgive the journalists' mistakes, since 'some media people are not professional' and are inexperienced, while U Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Journalists association said that journalists had a duty to maintain ethical standards and strive for accuracy.

It may not be palatable for some, but we need to recognise these faults when using this case in claims about media freedom in Myanmar.

Even if the journalists' claims were accurate, the article did nothing to support or prove this. Conversely, the Government didn't help its cause by initially seizing unsold copies. This made critical assessment, which may have worked in the Government's favour, much harder.

The guilty verdict also shouldn't be surprising. The journalists admitted committing the offences. In an interview shortly after publication, the CEO separately admitted that his staff entered the facility. The legal defence against trespassing (arguing that the facility did not have 'No Entry' signs) was weak, as the journalists admitted knowing it was a defence facility and wrote that locals had been warned about trespassing. As journalists, they would know even without reading the Official Secrets Act or having signage in place that defence sites have restricted access.

The guilty verdict was not surprising, but the sentence of 10 years imprisonment with hard labour was, even if the Official Secrets Act allowed for up to 14 years. While journalists who trespass on military facilities in other countries are also likely to be arrested and charged, their sentences are not likely to be so severe. Moreover, since the Unity staff who were charged each played different roles, and therefore had different degrees of involvement, it doesn't seem fitting that they all received the same sentence. 

The sentence supports a view that the Government was using this case to punish the journalists and send a message to the local media, which is hard to dispute. During the trial, the prosecution reportedly submitted a list of 40 witnesses for what appeared to be a straightforward case. It sent a clear message about how the Government viewed, and would treat, national security issues. Specifically, it served as a warning that the Ministry of Defence and its facilities were off limits.

While there are numerous cases involving official interference with the media that deserve scrutiny, this case is relatively straightforward: The journalists wrote an article of questionable quality whose main claims they did not (and perhaps could not) support, they broke the law while doing so and they were punished for it.

Recent news that an appeal was granted will be welcomed. If successful, it may result in a lighter sentence while still allowing the Government to punish the journalists and send its message. An amnesty is also a future possibility for political leaders.

For now, this is likely of little reassurance to the journalists and their families. But the case serves as a lesson about the importance of journalistic diligence and the standards journalists are supposed to follow. It should also send a message that freedom of the press does not mean journalists are free from their responsibilities, including in complying with local laws and reporting accurately.

  • Fairfax's former China correspondent John Garnaut tweets about the detention of Zhou Yongkang:

China has four categories of bilateral ties according to levels of friendship: a "relationship of friendship and cooperation" with Russia and other countries; "normal ties" with France, Germany and other countries; the "new type of great power relationship" with the United States; and finally, a "relationship of rivalry," which describes current ties with Japan. 


Yesterday was International Tiger Day, and Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the occasion by hauling in the biggest kill of his 'Tigers and Flies' anti-graft campaign yet: Zhou Yongkang (pictured). Zhou is a retired member of China's most powerful committee and former head of the country's security apparatus. 

The innocuously worded announcement on Zhou's fate came from China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection last night. He is 'under investigation' on 'suspicion of grave disciplinary violations,' which means he'll almost certainly be jailed for corruption.

Zhou is the highest-ranking member of the Communist Party to be brought down on corruption charges since 1949.

President Xi has said from the start that no Communist Party cadre is off limits when it comes to corruption investigations. This proves it. 

But Zhou's real crimes were likely his association with Bo Xilai and carving out an oil industry and security fiefdom that rivaled the power base built by President Xi on his way up. In this sense, Zhou's downfall is more reminiscent of a Mao-era purge. Many would say it is a purge, the target of which is all and sundry associated with former President Jiang Zemin. 

We'll know soon enough. If Xi's anti-graft drive is an honest attempt by a man who views himself as clean to root out the corruption that pervades the Party, we'd expect the intensity of the campaign to continue. If it wanes, then Zhou was likely the top target of a purge from the start. 

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For now, Xi is all powerful. With Zhou, rival princeling Bo and powerful ex-General Xu Caihou (and the military) all brought to heel, the President would seem to have little to gain from expanding the tiger net.

Other big names have been suggested. Malcolm Moore at The Telegraph quotes sources that Wen Jiabao could be next. The former Prime Minister has been on the corruption radar since The New York Times reported in October 2012 that Wen's family had amassed billions during his time in office. The Telegraph also records a connection between Wen's son and Zhou Yongkang's son, Zhou Bin, who was reported as under arrest for dodgy business dealings minutes after news of his father's fate yesterday. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation earlier this month, Willy Lam suggests that Xi's 'purge' may now turn to the Communist Youth League and intimate associates of former President Hu Jintao. Lam points to the tightening noose around the neck of Ling Jihua, a close Hu ally. Ling's brother was arrested in June and his brother-in-law was detained in mid-July.

But the downfall of the Communist Youth League didn't start with Xi, and Ling also had a Zhou Yongkang connection. After Ling's son killed himself at the wheel of his Ferrari in March 2012, Jiang Jiemin, the former Chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation and a Zhou protege, arranged a payment of millions of Yuan to silence the family of a female victim and a surviving passenger. The payment was made at the behest of Zhou, according to Reuters. Jiang was brought down in September last year and investigators have questioned him about the payment.

At present, the CCP's factional rivalries have been smashed. There would seem little incentive — and a lot of disincentives — to go after a names bigger than Zhou. Proceedings against Bo Xilai and ex-General Gu Junshan, whose patron was Xu Caihou, were initiated under the Hu-Wen team, which could suggest some degree of continuity between the administrations. Equally, however, those proceedings could have been an early indication of the power Xi was amassing behind the scenes as the transition took place. 

On an optimistic note, Zhou's fall may be good news for the Chinese economy. Xi likely needed Zhou in the dock to push through promised economic reforms. Powerful interest groups — such as the petroleum industry, atop which sat Zhou's confidants — had stymied reform under the weaker Hu-Wen administration. With Zhou out of the way, Xi may be free to enact the economic reforms pledged at last year's Third Plenum.

Photo by REUTERS/Jason Lee.

  • The success of ISIS (or the Islamic State, as it now refers to itself) will have significant impact on Southeast Asia, argues Zachary Abuzza in the second of his excellent series on the future of terrorism in Southeast Asia (the first piece is here).
  • Following a 10-day trip to Myanmar, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar pulled some punches in her first statement since taking over the role: 
    In three years, Myanmar has come a long way since the establishment of the new Government. This must be recognized and applauded…Yet, there are worrying signs of possible backtracking which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights. As many have said, Myanmar therefore needs further encouragement and understanding in order to address these challenges and to continue on the path of reform.
  • After wide international censure, Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State, home to 140,000 IDPs, allowed previously banned aid agencies to return this week
  • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has a difficult task in front of him to reform the country and will find it difficult to join the TPP, says CSIS's Nigel Cory.
  •  Lowy Visiting Fellow Rodger Shanahan offers an insightful look at Shi’i Islam in Malaysia
  • In an excellent explanatory piece, Abby Seiff breaks down last week's accord between ‪Cambodia's Hun Sen and the main opposition party. 
  •  Indonesia’s new president is crowdsourcing his cabinet.
  •  As many in Southeast Asia celebrated Eid al-Fitr (the end of the holy month of Ramadan), the Wall Street Journal took a look at what was on the plates of Indonesians to celebrate the end of fasting. 
  • The population of the Philippines hit 100 million this week. 
  •  The Thai junta won royal approval of its interim constitution. Half of the members on the proposed list of members for the new National Legislative Assembly are high-ranking officers of the armed forces.
  • Cambodia's fish stocks will be hit badly by 88 planned Mekong hyrodams, warns IRIN, a UN information service, this week. 
  • At the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok last week there was a fascinating discussion on the future of Thailand's economy. It included this lecture by the former Minister of Commerce on 'The Macroeconomic Impact of Thailand's Military Intervention':


In the fabled spice trade, pepper outranked even nutmeg and cloves in importance. Bales of Chinese and Persian silks, Indian cottons, Chinese rhubarb and precious stones supplemented the exotic traffic which aroused the envy of all Europe.

–Douglass North, The Rise of the Western World.

Five hundred years ago, Portuguese mariners opened sea routes from Europe to east Asia, and the Silk Road was doomed, another loser in the history of globalisation. The Silk Road had long been failing due to banditry and rebellion as the Mongol empire disintegrated, and later from protectionism as the Ottomans rose in Constantinople. Before long the Khanates of the dusty fortress towns along the road were swallowed up by imperial Russia. The modern world and its sailing ships simply bypassed Central Asia.

China's revival of the Silk Road is not only evocative of a mythic history but says much about the country's strategic orientation. Perhaps anticipating trouble at sea, China is covering its back. With its population huddled on its eastern seaboard, China has started turning inwards to secure development, stability, access, and energy in its continental interior; it is China's 'own counterbalance'.

Beijing proposes an alphabet soup of initiatives: the new AIIB development bank, the CICA security architecture, and corridors through Pakistan (CPEC) and Burma (BCIM) to the Indian Ocean. All this augments the existing SCO partnership, which binds most Eurasian states to a power order nominally co-led with Russia but increasingly under Beijing's sway. Under Xi Jinping, China 'will prioritize relations with neighbors', if necessary at the expense of Sino-US ties. 

China's pivot to Eurasia is smart, necessary and urgent.

The US subtly threatens China's sea routes, whereas the Eurasian 'heartland' is a landlocked space occupied by weak countries. China offers them investment, trade and security assistance, and in return gets a lock on Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas. Beijing cherishes the goal of 'breaking through' to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Europe, bypassing its Malacca dilemma. Washington stands by; its own 'New Silk Road' program is flailing and its main focus is to leave Afghanistan. It should welcome Beijing's initiatives. The truth is, China has far more to offer the region than distant America.

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China proposes three broad systems as part of its new Silk Road: a northern railway to Europe which eventually converges on the Trans-Siberian, the pipelines to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and possibly beyond to Iran, and the southern highway corridors.

Three hundred freight trains have so far plied between Europe and China, a journey of 14-16 days; ocean-going ships take twice as long. But although an express train to Hamburg sounds nifty, it moves only a couple of hundred containers at a time and can get held up at any of the seven borders it must traverse. Container ships carry up to 18,000 boxes on a daily service at one-third of the cost. That's the first of China's challenges. It turns out that those 16th century Silk-Road-killing laws of economics still rule. There is no escaping the scale and efficiency – but also vulnerability – of marine transport.

The second issue is that central Asia is a tinderbox – corrupt, repressive, suspicious and ethnically riven. A superb recent French study debunks the 'Chinese invasion' claims, but tensions over migration, wealth and influence do mirror China's expansion elsewhere. The publics in each of the 'Stans are highly ambivalent about their thrusting, resurgent old neighbour. On my travels there, I've heard repeatedly that 'even the Russians are better.'

That's the third and perhaps most fateful problem: the question of residual Russian influence. The recently-deceased Alexandros Petersen noted that 'China has partnered if not (already) over-run' Russia in their 'joint hegemony' over the region. Xi and Putin today share a common objective of expelling Western influence, but it is not clear how Moscow – or the locals for that matter – will acquiesce as the Chinese inevitably assert their grip over the Silk Road. Russia's own clumsy attempts to draw central Asian economies into its shabby Eurasian Economic Union has foundered on the blood-spattered cobblestones of Maidan Square.

China can and will do better. The whole world benefits from its grand Silk Road endeavour to open new transport lanes, to bring stability and prosperity and to unlock stranded inland energy reserves. Outsiders can only watch and wish the Chinese luck. I suspect they will need it.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

  • Facing metastasizing Middle Eastern instability, Andrew Nikolic argues that Australia needs to focus on supporting a regional approach to counter-terrorism.
  • The US Army's technology magazine has a whole issue devoted to the impact of 3D manufacturing on military logistics.
  • Meet Ara Dolarian, the one-time pig trader turned arms broker who funneled US purchases of Soviet-era weapons to various Third-World factions.
  • Spencer Ackerman explores the battle over the future of the UCLASS carrier-launched unmanned strike system.
  • With Anglo-French decision to go it alone in co-developing the Taranis UCAV, other European states are calling for coordination in the production of unmanned systems. 
  • Over at War is Boring, David Axe reviews USMC Maj Edward Carpenter's contribution to the debate on the nature of the modern warrior code.
  • Given the challenge of a revanchist Russia, what should NATO seek to achieve at its September summit in Wales?
  • Finally, Blogs of War's John Little discusses food and conflict with celebrity-chef and globetrotter Anthony Bourdain.

'Fight corruption!' A Corruption Eradication Commission event in Bandung in 2009. (Flickr/Ikhlasul Amal.)

Indonesia's reputation for corruption in not in doubt: it comes 114th out of 177 in Transparency International's ranking. For more than a decade, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has been putting high-level officials away for long jail terms. But any judicial body which boasts of having a 100% conviction rate is likely to have made some mistakes.

Having recently succeeded in putting the head of the Constitutional Court in prison for life and given lesser sentences to ministers close to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the KPK has returned to one of its long-term targets: the central bank. Since 1998, most of the senior members of Bank Indonesia have spent some time in jail or have survived long periods with this threat hanging over them. The causes have been various, but an ongoing issue has been the 2008 rescue of a failing bank, Bank Century. 

In the context of the global financial crisis, it was feared at that time that the collapse of even a smallish bank would set off a chain reaction of runs on banks. With Bank Century saved by the injection of lender-of-last-resort funds, Indonesia sailed through the 2008 crisis with GDP growth maintained at over 6%. Many would regard the support for Bank Century as an insurance premium well worth paying, especially recalling the damage of the 1997-98 financial crisis. 

But in any case the issue here is whether public servants should face criminal charges (and long jail sentences) when their policy decisions are harshly judged after the event.

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One member of the Bank Indonesia board (which made the decision to rescue Bank Century) has just been given a ten-year jail sentence. While his case is complicated by other factors, the KPK has indicated that it will now turn to the other members of the Bank Indonesia board*, including current Vice President Boediono (who was Bank Indonesia Governor in 2008) and one of president-elect Jokowi's suggested names for finance minister

The KPK has gone so far beyond its proper role here that 35 leading citizens — lawyers, former ministers, politicians — wrote an 'amicus curiae' ('friends of the court') letter to the KPK. Respected senior legal figure Todong Mulya Lubis said that 'If public policy is criminalised, many public officials will be afraid to take decisions'.

Indeed. It is already clear that Bank Indonesia will not attempt another lender-of-last-resort operation, should it be needed. Indonesia goes into a volatile period in global markets, with its own financial sector in a fragile state, without the most basic of crisis-management instruments. The new president begins his term with a commitment to combat corruption, but with the KPK already so politicised that an urgent task will be to discipline the KPK itself.

* Disclosure: some of these people are personal friends.

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.


Terrific segment here from British comic John Oliver's new HBO show Last Week Tonight on the terrifying but seldom discussed risk of nuclear weapons mishaps. There's some NSFW language:

At around the 13.45 mark, Oliver turns to the issue of public engagement in debates around nuclear weapons. As Oliver said, in the 1980s the issue generated enormous public concern and there was an active (and disruptive) abolition movement in various countries. Of course, the Cold War has since ended and as Oliver points out elsewhere in the segment, overall numbers of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian stockpiles have reduced substantially. So it makes some sense that the issue generates less public concern nowadays.

But it's also interesting to consider the fact that, while nuclear abolitionism was popular in the 1980s, it was not politically mainstream in countries that possessed nuclear weapons, or even among Western allies such as Australia, where both the major parties supported nuclear deterrence.

That is, until the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, during which Reagan and Gorbachev got this close to an agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons (any such deal probably would have foundered against opposition from domestic and allied consituencies anyway, but it's pretty remarkable that they even discussed it). As former US arms control supremo Ken Adelman points out in his new book about the summit, Reykjavik led to the first true Cold War arms reduction treaty and helped end the Cold War.  It also made nuclear abolitionism a mainstream position, championed in later years by  Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, along with the rest of the 'Four Horsemen', Kissinger, Perry and Nunn. President Obama is also (rhetorically, at least) committed to abolition.

It is remarkable that the embrace of this movement by the political mainstream has coincided with its marginalisation in the public debate. Here's a Carnegie Endowment essay collection from 2009 which includes a piece by Lawrence Freedman arguing that nuclear abolition, having evolved from popular movement to policy-elite project, needs to find its popular roots again.