Lowy Institute

Russian state-run news agency Tass confirmed on 22 April that Kim Jong-un will be in Moscow for the 9 May Victory Day celebrations. The North Korean leader will be among 26 other heads of state who have so far confirmed their attendance.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong (Flickr/UN Geneva)

This visit will mark Kim's first official foreign trip since he took over the leadership of North Korea in late 2011, and will mark a high point in the bilateral relationship in 2015, designated the 'year of friendship with Russia' by North Korea.

Pyongyang's relations with Russia have regained momentum as its relationship with China started to deteriorate after Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February 2013. Until the Soviet Union's collapse, Moscow was North Korea's closest political ally and main trading partner. But since the end of the Cold War, China has become its main supplier of economic aid, prompting worries about over-dependence in a nation that officially strives for Juche, or 'self-reliance'.

In 2013, 90% of North Korea's exports were bound for China. In 2014, bilateral trade fell by 2.4% to US$6.39 billion, marking the first annual decline since 2009.

Meanwhile, North Korea's outbound trade to Russia reached US$10.17 million in 2014, up 31.9% from a year earlier. The gap between Russian and Chinese trade is still large, but these figures show the beginning of a change in relations between the Hermit Kingdom and its two powerful neighbours.

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North Korea started seeking closer ties with Russia in order to balance China's influence at the same time Moscow decided that 'looking east' would demonstrate its contempt for Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea.

The Kremlin's renewed interest in North Korea can also be explained by hopes that the Russian energy sector would benefit from Northeast Asia's crude oil and gas demands. In 2012, Russia decided to forgive 90% of North Korea's bilateral debt (US$10 billion) and said it would invest the remaining US$1 billion (to be paid back over 20 years) in North Korean infrastructure projects. A major natural gas pipeline would be built, running from the Russian Sakhalin Island fields through the Korean peninsula.

Seoul has taken an interest in this issue too. It has promoted South Korean firms' participation in the Rajin-Khasan railway linking the North Korean port city to Russia's Trans-Siberian railway. The ROK Government sees this project as being closely linked to President Park Geun-hye's 'Eurasian Initiative', first announced in October 2013 as a way to boost the regional economy by linking railways in China, Russia and both Koreas. A first test shipment of Russian bituminous coal was delivered to South Korea in November 2014 and a second one is expected to arrive in South Korea in early May.

In October 2014, Russia and North Korea also announced the creation of the Pobeda (Russian for 'victory') joint venture to refurbish North Korea's 3500km rail line between Jeadong and the port city of Nampo in exchange for access to coal and other minerals such as titanium, tantalum and gold.

According to the Nautilus Institute, North Korea is estimated to have 4.5 billion tons of reserves of anthracite, a form of coal with high carbon content and few impurities, widely used for high quality metallurgy. Exports to Russia might start before the end of this year. Over the course of 2014, North Korea shipped on average 1.2 million tons of coal a month to China, generating over US$1 billion revenue in 2014 and nearly US$5 billion since 2011.

Other bilateral cooperation includes 50,000 tons of Russian food aid, agreements with Russian Far East authorities to lease agricultural land to North Korean farmers and develop bilateral agricultural projects, building a bridge for car traffic across the Tumen River (currently, those seeking to enter North Korea from Russia by road must travel via China) and joint military drills with the North Korean People's Army.

Russia is not the only country North Korea has started wooing more actively, thanks to the diplomacy of North Korea's Foreign Minister, Ri Su-yong. In North Korea, the position of foreign minister is typically given to figureheads with no real power. But Ri, who, as Ambassador to Switzerland from 1987 to 2010 oversaw the Kim family's local assets and acted as Kim Jong-un's guardian during his school years in Berne, seems to break the mould.

In the past year, Ri has made 18 official foreign visits, starting with Algeria in May 2014.

Discussions about bilateral relations were held in Kuwait (which, according to an Asan Institute study, hosts the largest number of North Korean workers, after Russia and China), Gambia, Mozambique, Lebanon, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cuba and Belarus. Trade was also high on the agenda of meetings in Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, Syria (where Ri met with Bashar al-Assad in June 2014), Iran and, most recently, India.

In India, while questioning Ri Su-yong on transfers of nuclear and missile technology (without specifically mentioning Pakistan), Minister of External affairs Sushma Swaraj promised that food and educational aid to North Korea would be 'considered positively' by the Modi Government. India has shipped oil to North Korea in the past and was second only to China as a destination for North Korean goods, especially silver.

For historical reasons, Russia comes as an obvious solution to counterbalance China's importance to North Korea's economy. But the list of countries visited by Ri Su-yong this year shows that North Korea is clearly making efforts to reach out to a larger array of countries as a way to increase trade.

  • Vietnam (6th) and Myanmar (9th) are with North Korea and China in the top ten worst media censors, according to the annual list by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • A new round of ceasefire talks will begin in Myanmar, led by the armed ethnic group UWSA. Shan Herald looks at what it believes is behind the round of talks
  • ISDP's Chris O'Hara spoke to Morten Pedersen to find out if Myanmar's reform is on track.
  • The 26th ASEAN Summit kicked off over the weekend. A draft ASEAN statement noted that Beijing's island-building 'may undermine peace'.  My overview on the Summit is here.
  • Interesting reading from Transparency International on why ASEAN must tackle corruption, and here are two excellent ISEAS papers on the Economic Community and China's 2+7 initiative toward ASEAN.
  • Vietnam and the Philippines are drawing closer to solidifying a strategic partnership in response China's land reclamation in the South China Sea. 
  • The peace process in the Philippines is faltering, warns Zach Abuza.
  • The Bali Nine ringleaders have been given 72 hours notice of their execution, Australia is considering recalling its Ambassador.
  • How Hun Sen is influencing the UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Thanks Milton).
  • Vietnam will add two Russian-designed, locally built warships (Molniya-class fast-attack missile ships) to its fleet in two months after successful tests.
  • And lastly, Singapore announced that it has developed a pepper spray gun.

The differences between the recent crises of boat arrivals in Europe and Australia are far greater than their similarities. There is not a civil war brewing 200km from Australian territory, and neither is the worst refugee crisis in the last half century being unleashed within striking distance.

For the record, over 30,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Europe this year, not just from Libya and Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Senegal, Tunisia and more. Over 1000 of them have already lost their lives.

Similarly the political obstacles of enacting asylum policy in Australia pale into insignificance when compared to the challenges of reconciling the very different experiences and priorities of the 28 member states in the EU. But neither the scale of the challenge nor the policy constraints should excuse the half-hearted response by the EU to the disaster in the Mediterranean last week.

In at least three ways, the EU can learn from Australia's efforts to stop the boats.

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The first lesson is resolve. Australia's asylum policy, in my opinion and that of many others, pushes legal and ethical boundaries. But it is at least (and at last) consistent and predictable. This is an important message to convey to would-be migrants and the smugglers who transport them. At the very least the EU should ensure that its internal regulation on asylum, the Dublin Convention, is implemented properly.

Second, Australia's quota for resettling refugees should be an embarrassment to the EU. Australia resettles more refugees than the entire EU area of over 500 million people. Resettlement may not satisfy the growing demand for entry into the richer countries, and probably would not reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but at least it demonstrates solidarity with some of the poorer countries of the world which continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis.

Third, Australia's policy is based on research, not guesswork. It was striking that one of the 22 recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in Australia was to conduct further research, and the Government has taken this recommendation seriously. This has resulted, for example, in a far more thoughtful and effective approach to combating migrant smuggling than simply apprehending and penalising operatives, as currently proposed by the EU.

Of course there are lessons Australia might also take on board from Europe when reflecting on its own policy. Some examples include respect, rights, and proportionality.

But this misses the point. In one respect the asylum crises in Australia and Europe are comparable as manifestations of an international protection system that is no longer working, and that is failing states and refugees alike. Rather than tailoring national and regional responses, Australia and the EU should be addressing the causes of their boat crises together, rather than the symptoms separately.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Photo Unit.


Last week, in an op-ed for Nikkei Asia Review, I made the argument that the US and China ought to settle for a military balance in the Asia Pacific. Such a balance will be difficult to manage and will probably not satisfy the ambitions of either country, but would be less dangerous than the alternative, in which both strive for superiority over the other.

Now I see that Michael Swaine has made a similar argument for Foreign Affairs, though with far greater sophistication (h/t Sinocism). The premise of Swaine's argument is that in the face of China's rise, America cannot take the risk of trying to maintain its regional military primacy: 

It is inconceivable that Beijing will accept U.S. predominance in perpetuity and that it will grant the United States complete freedom of action in the Pacific and recognize its ability to prevail militarily in a potential conflict. Trying to sustain such predominance, therefore, is actually the quickest route to instability, practically guaranteeing an arms race, increased regional polarization, and reduced cooperation between Washington and Beijing on common global challenges. And even if some Chinese leaders were tempted to accept continued U.S. predominance, they would almost certainly end up meeting fierce and sustained domestic criticism for doing so as China’s power grows and would likely end 
up reversing course to ensure their political survival.

So what should be the ultimate aim?

...the primary future strategic challenge is finding a way to develop a mutually beneficial means of transitioning from U.S. predominance toward a stable, more equitable balance of power in the western Pacific—one in which neither nation has the clear capacity to prevail in an armed conflict, but in which both countries believe that their vital interests can nonetheless remain secure.

Read on for Swaine's specific proposals about what a negotiated military balance would look like in the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


There are high expectations for the 26th ASEAN Summit, which began yesterday and continues today in Kuala Lumpur. As this year's chair, Malaysia wants to assert itself as a leader in the region.

 Malaysian Prime Minister Najib is under fire at home, with powerful former PM Mahathir launching a roadshow calling for Najib's resignation. Najib has struggled to assuage strong conservative voices in the country (earlier this year one Malaysian state introduced hudud law), and is reeling from the unpopular introduction of a GST and a scandal in a debt-laden state fund. Last week at the Invest Malaysia conference Najib asserted his country's strong credentials as a key emerging market and a growing centre for sharia finance and banking. It is a card he is playing hard.

So with the host yearning for headline success there's hope that this Summit could yield strong results. Indeed, with the ASEAN Community entering into force at the end of the year, progress is needed on many fronts. The Community is comprised of economic, political-security, and socio-cultural pillars; progress is needed on all three to solidify the framework and harmonise positions.

Economic integration is arguably the toughest. The ASEAN bloc is composed of countries in differing stages of development (compare Singapore and Myanmar, for example), and corruption is endemic in most. Transparency International report this week rightly argued that ASEAN must tackle corruption.

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The political-security pillar will also cause problems. Already there is talk of change to the bloc's non-interference policy, prompted by the increasing flow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to other ASEAN states, particularly Thailand and Malaysia. The political-security pillar will also be challenged by territorial disputes between ASEAN states and China in the South China Sea. The Philippines last week said China's land reclamation in the South China Sea would be its top priority. On Sunday, before leaving for the Summit, President Aquino  called for a consensus against China's land reclamation. Stronger rhetoric also came from ASEAN'sSecretary General, who said he 'can't accept' China's claim. This is contentious in a bloc that has strong economic ties with China; Cambodia has previously frustrated debates on the South China Sea within ASEAN.

When it comes to security issues, ISIS and other extremist threats are more of shared concern. Malaysia faces considerable problems, with several terror plots foiled, including one on the eve of this weekend's Summit. Kuala Lumpur will call for deepening of regional anti-terror cooperation.

The third, socio-cultural, pillar won't be easy either. It tries to build strong civil society across the ASEAN bloc through agreement on standardisation in areas such as education. ASEAN researchers have highlighted the importance of strengthening this pillar for a robust regional community.

This year's Summit should also feature discussion on ASEAN positions for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is meant to be complete by year's end. This FTA, which would be the world's largest, would include ASEAN, China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Bringing China and India together in the same agreement is ambitious,but progress could smooth the road for Obama's TPP, and the EU is also keen to kick-start talks on a bloc-to-bloc FTA.

Despite the urgency for agreement and Malaysia's hope for big announcements, don't be surprised if this Summit passes by in the usual fashion, with a murmur.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


With Greece once again teetering on the brink of default, a recent paper from the Centre for International Governance Innovation explores one episode in the amazing saga of how this tiny country came to threaten the viability of the euro, and left a damaging legacy for procedures and governance at the IMF.

When the Greek crisis emerged late in 2009, many European leaders believed the problems should be resolved within the eurozone, just as a financial crisis in one of Australia's states would be resolved by Australian authorities without calling in the IMF to assist.

But the IMF, after a decade without any major call on its services, was anxious to affirm its raison d'etre. Its then Managing Director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, perhaps with some personal political motivations, was eager to take a substantive role. The outcome, orchestrated by the powerful European voting faction in the IMF Board, was a key role for the Fund, but also a failure to restructure Greece's unsustainable foreign debt burden (much of it owed to German and French banks). The IMF's participation required it to depart from its own principles, under which it provided assistance only where there was a 'high probability' that foreign creditors would be repaid.

The Greek story is, of course, still unfolding. Despite the 2012 debt restructuring, the current level of  debt is unsustainable and will require further restructuring – a central element of the current impasse.

Meanwhile, the IMF has acknowledged some of the mistakes made in 2010, but the unhappy legacy remains. Having established the precedent of lending to countries which have an unsustainable debt level, Ukraine has also been given substantial assistance. The broad issue of rescheduling sovereign debt, which the Fund has struggled to resolve for more than a decade, remains. Perhaps most important all, this story is a reminder of why governance reform is so vital for the Fund's credibility. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Theophilos Papadopoulos.


The newly released YouTube video featuring Australian doctor Tareq Kamleh is in many ways just another in the voluminous output from the ISIS media department. But this one has caused discussion here because of who Tareq Kamleh is. Unlike most of the other Australian jihadis we know of, he is well educated and had an occupation that was highly valued in Australian society.

In many ways though, this video is like others ISIS has released. The information it transmits is quite limited because the shooting is tightly controlled. He is in a clean medical facility somewhere, so the video seeks to portray ISIS as running a modern health and medical facility. But the viewer is denied any context. There is another ISIS video about its health services and, while the facility it shows is not nearly as clean and modern as the most recent one, it shares at least one characteristic: the camera lingers over medical machinery but few staff and visitors are ever seen.

In the video featuring the Australian doctor, the impression ISIS seeks to create is of a fully functioning hospital with high-tech equipment, but even a cursory viewing raises several questions. The incubators are all arranged along the walls, as though there are machines but few patients (it is impossible to see how many are occupied). We also see few if any other nurses or doctors in the shots in which the doctor appears. For an allegedly fully functioning neonatal unit, it seems there is plenty of equipment but few staff or perhaps even patients. Tareq Kamleh's statement to the camera even asks for medical personnel to join him in Raqqa because they have plenty of equipment but few staff.

Tareq Kamleh appears for about three minutes of the 15-minute video and he is one of only two English speakers, so the film is not aimed exclusively at the Western market.

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And while he is young and well educated in the medical sciences, like all the other jihadis he speaks of his journey as a religious rather than a humane obligation. He doesn't refer to people being killed, her refers to Muslims being killed. His is not a journey to relieve human suffering; it is an avowedly religious one to support his Muslim 'brothers'.

Before people argue that Tareq Kamleh's presence in a paediatric medical environment somehow shows him to be essentially an 'accidental jihadi', his acknowledgement that he is in Raqqa to undertake jihad ought to raise questions. If that's not enough, his Facebook page shows him in action shots with two different types of rifles and a bow and arrow, which shows some predilection for weaponry (somewhat incongruent with the carefully staged video showing the caring doctor in a neonatal ward). Then there is the claim that he had a wayward moral compass while in Australia.

In one way Tareq Kamleh is different to other Australian jihadis because of his education and academic qualifications. But his actions are the same as all the others. He has made a conscious decision that his religious identity transcends his national identity. We shouldn't be too concerned that he is educated rather than a minor criminal or a teenage delinquent. What should concern us is why he and others can come to believe that their religion justifies participation in the imposition of an intolerant and violent ruling system, and the belief that their own government has no right to stop them from being part of the project. Until we can address that, people like Tareq Kamleh will continue to pop up in strange places.


Today is Anzac Day in Australia. Each year the national commemoration prompts a substantial amount of public reflection both on its meaning for Australians today, its place in Australia's national identity and whether it should hold a place of such prominence. The Interpreter hosted two pieces on those topics this week, the first from historian James Curran:

The real risk for Australia's wartime commemorative culture is not the proliferation of military histories weighing down the shelves of bookshops. Rather it is the danger that the rhetoric of Anzac becomes so caricatured and hackneyed that the occasion becomes little more than a national sedative, an annual Anzac dosage which dulls the mind and skates over the challenge of understanding the history of Australia's participation in global conflicts. 

The risk is that we lose sight of the national interest that propelled Australia into the Great War. We must resist the parochialism of the present which so often says that those who joined up in 1914 were little more than duped patriots, and that Australia followed blindly its British imperial masters with no thought as to its own interests. 

Jenny Hayward-Jones, who worked as a diplomat at the Australian embassy in Turkey for several years, wrote on her memories of the Anzac Cove ceremony she attended in 2005 and other visits to the area:

The last thing Kenan showed us was a simple stone monument with no names of the dead or details of the battle inscribed. It marked a site where thousands of soldiers (mostly Turkish) were buried as they were killed (because the battle had to continue). It was mid-afternoon and we were beginning to lose the winter sun. I had spent a day walking among graves of young men and gazing at monuments to important stages in the battle. Yet although I had long been taught that this event defined my nation, I was struggling to create my own relationship with the place. It was only at this last, most unfamiliar of sites that I could hear the souls of the dead and I understood.

Robert Kelly warned the US Congress that tactics like its recent Iran letter would not work in Asia:

One of my greatest concerns for US foreign policy in the coming decades is that this neocon 'omnidirectional belligerence' will, in time, come to the Asia Pacific. Neocon belligerence and recklessness are not feasible in Asia as they are in the Middle East, in Cuba or Venezuela, or even in responding to Putin. John McCain brought this type of thinking to Europe when he famously said 'we are all Georgians now' after the 2008 Russian invasion. Russia's stagnant GDP and population made such talk more feasible.

How the EU contributed to the crisis in Ukraine, from Matthew Dal Santo:

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In other words, because Brussels was in denial about not only the geopolitical consequences of the ENP but also, even more damningly, its aims, it believed it could afford to ignore Moscow. Indeed, Menon and Rumer imply that Brussels simply found Russia – an old-fashioned power pursuing hard interests rather than values – impossible to fit within its model of the world. The gap was filled by the hope (famously 'not a policy', as the authors remind us) that Russia would see the world as Brussels saw it.

Not for the first time, this hope got the better of prudence. 

Julia Gillard's speech writer, Michael Cooney, wrote on the relationship between the former prime minister and President Barack Obama, as well as comparisons between US and Australian politics:

Australian conservatives are fond of arguing that Australia is better served by Republican presidents. Putting aside the disastrous black swan of George W Bush, there's been some logic to the argument that the free traders, internationalists, Asia hands and realists of the old Republican mainstream served Australia's interests well. But Australian public opinion appears to favour Democratic presidents, and in turn the US, and the alliance, seem to rise in popularity during Democratic presidencies. This is not a small advantage in an alliance between democracies.

Two posts this week in our Digital Disruption series. The first from Fergus Hanson on ways to combat ISIS online:

In June last year, TIME dubbed Australia 'the biggest per capita contributor of foreign jihadists to ISIS'. Given this, and the fact ISIS and its members continue to exploit the internet almost unchallenged, it makes sense for Australia to make a modest investment in an ICT offensive to complement other efforts. The Government's announcement of $18 million to do just this is right on point. It is critical that it be implemented effectively, that it draws on top tier technical and area expertise, and that it leverages existing resources, including the emerging efforts of other countries.

The second was from Danielle Cave on ways Australian diplomacy could be augmented by digital means:

Our diplomats have developed an online passivity that is disconnected from the reality of Australian diplomacy. Given that Australia is located in the most digitally dynamic region of the world (45% of the world's internet users live in Asia), and that our ability to reach and influence the populations that live in our region has diminished following the Government's divestment in international broadcasting; Australia can no longer afford to remain ineffectual in this area.

How Indonesia is positioning itself between Japan and China, by Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

This is a stance Jokowi has maintained during his first six months as president. Despite suggestions that his party's preference is for loyalty to China over Japan, Jokowi has given a studious impression of neutrality, courting both countries for investment in a trip to Tokyo and Beijing last month. While China responded more generously than Japan — with an offering of around $63 billion in investment from Chinese companies compared to $8.9 billion from Japanese companies — Jokowi has refused to pick sides.

The next Non-proliferation Treaty review conference starts latter this month. John Tilemann gave us an update on the NPT and the politics of nuclear disarmament in the lead-up to conference:

However, the real test of success is the extent to which parties remain convinced that despite its weaknesses, the NPT serves their national and global security interests. This might be hard to read amid the acrimony of unmet expectations and regional conflict. But the global condemnation of North Korea's proliferation and the serious effort invested in a deal with Iran give cause for optimism. The way countries respond to these challenges to the NPT is the litmus test of its continuing relevance.

Is economic history back in vogue? Hannah Wurf thinks so:

At their worst, economists pursue ahistorical models that are supposed to hold eternally across time and place, whereas historians tell us 'history never repeats itself' and present past events as contextually bounded and therefore without comparison. Since the 1970s the social sciences have been fragmented, with post-modernism and post-structuralism producing a shift in history towards cultural and micro-history, while economics has moved in the opposite direction towards neoliberal orthodoxy and imitating the rigour of the hard sciences. The self-imposed exile of economics from the other social sciences has led to the criticism that economists reject interdisciplinary approaches. 

Marie McAuliffe on the importance of data in stopping migrant smuggling:

Greater monitoring of smuggling can only benefit migrants. It can help inform responses designed to prevent the deaths of migrants planning perilous journeys in the upcoming European summer. But just as importantly, it can inform the development of sustainable responses aimed at sparing future generations of would-be migrants from the lure of smugglers' hollow promises.

Government-sponsored 'vigilante' groups have made a return in Burma, writes Andrew Selth:

Indeed, it was hoped that, with the advent of a new and reformist government in 2011, the use of groups like the SAS would cease. Naypyidaw emphasised the management of internal security through an expanded and modernised civil police force which publicly embraced modern doctrines such as community policing. The role of the armed forces was reduced and greater emphasis given to 'the rule of law'. 

Such hopes, however, have been dashed.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


Islamic extremism in Palestinian communities in the Middle East is emerging as a significant security threat. These relatively ungoverned spaces are proving vulnerable to radical takeover from without and within.

The Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus was invaded by ISIS troops in early April. Reports of the security situation are confused. Local Palestinian militia groups such as Hamas-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were reported to have repelled ISIS but it is now thought ISIS has reclaimed around 90% of the camp; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS have taken over 80% of the camp. According to the Syrian Government, the majority of civilians have now left Yarmouk and only 6000 remain; the UN is demanding access.

Gaza, 2009. (Flickr/Marius Arnesen.)

Reports from civilians in the camp only a few days ago said they are terrified to go out for fear of being killed. Their terror serves to compound the misery of constant shortages of food, water and other essential services, which has been ongoing since a siege on the camp launched by the Syrian Government in 2012 as a result of infiltration by anti-Government forces.

For years in Lebanon, Palestinian camps have been regarded by the Lebanese as a source of radical Islam. In recent years unrest has emerged from Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli and Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon. In 2007, the group Fatah al-Islam took over Nahr al-Bared, with around 170 soldiers and 64 civilians killed in the ensuing battles. For years, Ain al-Hilweh was known locally as a place that the Lebanese Armed Forces dare not enter for fear of being attacked. It is known to house some of the more extreme Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad, Jund al-Sham, Shabab al-Muslim, Fatah al-Islam, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. It was the site of support for the political activist turned terrorist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who launched an attack on an army checkpoint in Sidon in 2013. While the army managed to disperse Assir's group in Sidon, Assir himself was not caught and some of his supporters are believed to be hiding in the camp.

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The tension between Sunni and Shia military groups is often exposed inside the camps and may be leading to increasing violence. Earlier this month Marwan Issa, a member of the Hezbollah-linked Resistance Brigades, was found dead in Ain al-Hilweh. The Government and the Lebanese Army have announced publicly that they are strengthening checkpoints around the camp and will work with the camp committee to develop and enforce a more comprehensive security plan to prevent the rise of Islamic extremism. A confidential source however has revealed that an attack is being planned, led by Fatah forces and supported indirectly from Ramullah and the Lebanese Internal Security Services to drive extremist Islamists from Ain al-Hilweh.

Another camp, Burj al-Barajneh, is less known for its militant activities, but this is may be changing. During the bombings in Beirut in the summer of 2013, when I lived in the adjacent Hizbullah heartland of Dahiyeh, Hizbullah surrounded the camp a number of times as it was rumoured that two bomb-laden cars lay in waiting to be driven out to suitable destinations for detonation. True or not, local suspicion surrounding the camp remains high, not least because a large number of Syrians have moved in, fueling fears that they are developing radical movements to coordinate attacks in pro-Hizbullah areas.

Lebanon's experience with Palestinian camps is the main reason the Government has thus far refused to establish formal Syrian refugee camps. The Government is understandably concerned that establishing Syrian refugee camps would create the same conditions of unrest and sanctuary for criminals and terrorists. And just like the Palestinian camps, the occupants would remain in Lebanon far into the future. As many of the original refugees who fled Syria were Sunni, there is particular concern that sympathy for ISIS would be fostered there.

The camps are not the only problem. Sympathy for ISIS among young Gazans is reported to be growing; Hamas' failure to negotiate a working alliance with Fatah and the desperate living conditions residents have experienced since the Israeli offensive last year are among the causes. Hamas is working hard to combat rising support but after years of failing to advance the Palestinian cause, it is unsurprising that a large number of youth look fondly on what they see as the success of ISIS. The bombing of the French Cultural Centre in Gaza City on 12 December last year is claimed to be the work of Islamic groups that support ISIS, and some academics and journalists have allegedly received threats. Hamas is working hard to downplay local ISIS support, as it recognises the threat the group poses to support for the Palestinian cause in the international community.

As if the peace process didn't have enough problems after Netanyahu's declaration that he does not support a two-state solution (a statement since somewhat unconvincingly retracted), the rise of support for ISIS in Gaza provides further justification for Netanyahu's argument that Israel cannot have a terrorist state formed in its heartland. Rising support for ISIS could also further damage Hamas-Egypt relations. And on a practical note it could lead to the withdrawal of humanitarian actors who fear for their safety in light of ISIS killings in Syria.

In the absence of a political solution to the Palestinian issue, there is an urgent need to combat poverty, which helps drive localised violence in Palestinian communities but also potentially something more sinister. It has never been more important to prevent these communities from becoming breeding grounds for further radicalisation.

Digital Disruption

Australia's approach to digital diplomacy is second-rate and entirely inadequate for a nation that sees itself as 'a top 20 country'. Despite an expanded social media presence, Australia continues to lag far behind other countries – large and small – that are investing serious resources into building up their digital diplomacy capabilities.

The Australian Government is failing to leverage the internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) tools to carry out foreign policy objectives; rather, it has confined itself to using these tools to communicate the fact that diplomatic activities are occurring. This approach is limiting Australia's ability to project global influence.

Our diplomats have developed an online passivity that is disconnected from the reality of Australian diplomacy. Given that Australia is located in the most digitally dynamic region of the world (45% of the world's internet users live in Asia), and that our ability to reach and influence the populations that live in our region has diminished following the Government's divestment in international broadcasting; Australia can no longer afford to remain ineffectual in this area.

Here are six policy recommendations for how the Australian Government can build a digital diplomacy capability:

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1. Develop a strategy

A digital diplomacy strategy can guide the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from online communications to using the internet for influence. The Department should learn from the experience of other countries, particularly those that have already fleshed out and are now implementing a strategy. A 1.5 track dialogue would be a good way to bring together experts with officials to share experiences and map out a draft approach. Crowdsourcing public opinion is an additional and inexpensive way to feed through proposals; DFAT could use its growing crop of social media networks to do this. 

2. Create a digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts

The Government should create a dedicated digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts to staff it. Bureaucracies are generally averse to hiring outside the public service but few countries have successfully developed these capabilities without external help. Other countries have tended to poach from their domestic tech industries, civil society organisations and from abroad to build such teams.

This unit should take advantage of the latest innovations in ICT to creatively contribute to solving foreign policy problems. It will need to be given the freedom and flexibility to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and respond to international developments without having to go through rigid clearance processes. This new unit should be independent of DFAT communications and public diplomacy. While it will need to work with such teams, attaching the unit onto well-developed bureaucratic functions runs the risk that the end result will evolve into nothing more than an extension of those functions.

3. Empower officials

Ambassadors and other officials using social media need to be unleashed to talk, explain and advocate for official policy positions. They need to be given the freedom to engage with the public online and respond to international developments. Diplomats are not limited to reading aloud official releases when they represent Australia at public events, so why is a re-tweeted media release as exciting as it gets when they're online? If it is talked about publicly, it should be able to be tweeted publicly. Providing officials with training and access to a dedicated digital diplomacy unit will help alleviate risk. 

4. A social media review 

DFAT has built a social media presence that mirrors its physical presence. Such a set-up means each post must take responsibility for its patch, leading to a messy and uneven presence, good in some countries but neglected in others.

In China, for example, there is an opportunity to use the country's favoured online platforms to influence the largest single purchaser of Australian products and our top holiday spenders. But DFAT is currently only present on a small number of Chinese social media channels and is not keeping pace with how China's 600 million online users are using the internet. A review of social media accounts could address this, and form part of the overarching strategy.

5. Start a blog

Blogs have long been a standard feature for foreign affairs and aid departments around the world (the UK has 85). Blogs provide governments with a forum to informally and intellectually discuss issues and ideas in a format that is accessible to the public. DFAT has no online mechanism to engage in public policy discussion and currently limits itself to 'announcing' information via media releases and a news feature. A blog that hosts individually authored posts would provide a one-stop shop for the Government to informally contextualise and discuss its position on various issues. It would also provide a space to better articulate, to the public and other stakeholders, what DFAT does and what modern Australia diplomacy looks like. Presently, the Australian media largely controls the messaging on foreign policy; a blog could help shift that.

6. Revive the online identity of Australian aid

Digital diplomacy must be used to enhance all foreign policy functions, but there is currently an imbalance: the flagship of Australian foreign policy, its aid program, is being neglected.

When AusAID's merger into DFAT kicked off in 2013, almost all of the aid program's online channels were stopped or deleted — an odd decision given AusAID and Australian aid are not the same thing. Those who want timely updates about Australian aid must now comb through the website to see if any webpages have been updated, and search through generic DFAT and embassy feeds. It's a messy process that makes it almost impossible for Australians to stay updated on developments with our own aid program. It is obvious that this diminished digital identity has hampered DFAT's ability to engage with the aid program's stakeholders, many of whom unwittingly continue to use the AusAID Twitter handle (even some other Australian Government departments do this!) despite its closure.

When Canada went through a similar integration in 2013 it retained almost all of its communication channels, simply changing the names of the accounts from CIDA to 'Canada International Development' (including on Facebook and Twitter). The Australian Government should revive and re-badge the aid program's idle online accounts. These accounts are a valuable commodity, providing Government with an opportunity to leverage off influential aid-related online networks and a further avenue to reach the Australian public via an area of foreign policy that is more relatable than is other parts of DFAT's core business.

Australia's digital diplomacy capabilities have the potential to provide government with an inexpensive and powerful mechanism to reach global audiences. It can convey vital messages, develop networks (at times more useful than physical networks), monitor and respond to breaking events, correct misinformation (vital when free press is compromised), coordinate and harness goodwill, participate in public discourse and promote Australian soft power.

But none of this will happen unless the Government commits to catching up to the rest of the world. In the meantime, we remain behind and our failure to exploit the internet is hampering Australia's ability to shape global events.

Photo courtesy of @JulieBishopMP


David Holbrooke, son of the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, has made a documentary on his father's career. It apparently does not leave a good impression of the Obama Administration (it was well known that Richard Holbrooke has significant disagreements with the Administration).

The film is now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be on HBO later this year.


The Lowy Institute for International Policy is looking for an experienced research editor. The position will be responsible for editing all major research publications, and will assist with the management and administration of research procedures. The role will also provide some editorial assistance to The Interpreter.

The successful applicant will need to demonstrate outstanding editing skills, including at least 5 years' experience in an editorial role. They will also need to possess a very high attention to detail and outstanding proofreading skills. They should also be highly organised and have excellent time management skills. Knowledge of international affairs is highly desirable.

Applicants should submit a CV and one-page covering letter, using the 'Apply Now' button here.

Applications close Friday 22 May. Only shortlisted candidates will be contacted. For more information email Dr Philippa Brant.


The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • New Chinese mobile app 'MyIdol' is breaking the internet. The app, which is still only available in Chinese, allows users to turn themselves (or anybody else) into an animated avatar. Try it here.
  • China has turned to social media to help enforce the country's new smoking rules (taking effect 1 June) by asking residents to report violators via uploaded images or videos.
  • South Korea has allegedly uncovered the hacking codes North Korea has used against them in cyber attacks aimed at the country's financial sector and nuclear operators.
  • Internet.org has launched in Indonesia. The Facebook initiative aims to speed up internet adoption rates in some developing countries by providing free access to select basic web applications (a weather app, Wikipedia, Facebook etc).
  • Internet.org is under fire in India (and Latin America) for giving users a limited version of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg has responded.
  • Some Chinese companies are crossing the Straits and helping to revive Taiwan's tech industry.
  • At a Social Media Summit, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the government to censor some websites 'to block out all this filth that comes to us through the Internet' (but not including his own very popular blog).
  • Will robots kill the Asian Century?
  • Myanmar is planning to establish a new information and communication technology (ICT) zone that it hopes will boost the country's tech sector. (Thanks Elliott.)
  • Can the internet be saved without harming democracy?  
  • The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) project has launched an open-source live news dashboard. The dashboard, which maps worldwide news activity and summarises the world's top 60 trending narratives, is updated every 15minutes, and its news collections includes mass (machine) translation of 65 languages. Find out what news is trending in Asia (and elsewhere) here.
  • Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, often described as one of India's most internet unsavvy politicians, is now advocating for net neutrality. What is net neutrality?


Indonesia became a middle ground for China-Japan relations this week as the leaders of both nations attended the Asia-Africa Conference in Jakarta.

At the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Indonesia's President Jokowi was rather symbolically seated directly between China's President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to avoid giving the appearance of preference for either leader.

This is a stance Jokowi has maintained during his first six months as president. Despite suggestions that his party's preference is for loyalty to China over Japan, Jokowi has given a studious impression of neutrality, courting both countries for investment in a trip to Tokyo and Beijing last month. While China responded more generously than Japan — with an offering of around $63 billion in investment from Chinese companies compared to $8.9 billion from Japanese companies — Jokowi has refused to pick sides.

Investment from both countries will be crucial for Indonesia's development during Jokowi's five-year term, and especially for the realisation of the president's vision for Indonesia to become a global maritime axis.

China has enthusiastically backed the development of Indonesia's maritime infrastructure, pledging support during Jokowi's recent visit for private investment and sponsorship of projects through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Meanwhile, Japan has offered to form a bilateral 'maritime forum' with Indonesia to enhance cooperation on maritime security and infrastructure development.

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One point Jokowi has been clear on is the need for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity among states in the region, interpreted by some as a statement of tacit support for Japan in its conflict with China over islands in the East China Sea. However, this has clearly not become a problem for cooperation with China and its investments in Indonesia.

With most negotiations taken care of during the visits to China and Japan last month, there was little left for Jokowi to discuss with Xi and Abe at the conference in Jakarta besides the implementation of the commitments made so far. For the two foreign leaders, however, the conference posed an opportunity to meet face-to-face and continue the slow thawing of relations.

The much anticipated meeting between Xi and Abe on the sidelines of the conference continued the process of mending relations that started when the two leaders met late last year. Amid ongoing tensions regarding territorial and historical disputes, China and Japan reaffirmed a commitment to improving relations in the interests of mutual strategic benefit and regional stability. To this end, Jokowi has done well to place Indonesia as a middle ground for the rival regional powers.

Photo courtesy of AACD2015.