Lowy Institute

13 Hours follows the story of six private security contractors during the 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, where US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. The political controversy around the incident continues three years on.

Michael Bay directed the movie and there is already some talk of it being his Black Hawk Down.


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.


With the high likelihood that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will regain the presidency in the January 2016 elections, many analysts have predicted a return of tensions in the Taiwan Strait after eight years of relative stability under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou.

DDP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and Professor Lo Chih-Cheng walk with supporters down Renai Road, 2014 (Flickr/tomscy2000)

Whether a DPP victory in those elections would indeed mark a return to hostilities will be largely contingent on how Beijing reacts to this likely development.

From the outset it's important that we clarify what the DPP under its Chairperson and presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is not. Unlike her predecessor Chen Shui-bian, who served two terms from 2000-2008, Tsai has taken a more subdued approach to cross-strait relations. She has chosen instead to focus on domestic matters and to consolidate the nation. When pressed to explain her cross-strait policies, Tsai has adopted a more centrist position than her predecessor by vowing to maintain the 'status quo' under the current constitutional framework of the Republic of China (ROC) and to seek continuity in the relationship with Beijing. 

In other words, despite the alarmism in some circles, Tsai will not suddenly declare de jure independence for Taiwan, an act that Beijing has made clear would provide 'justification' for the use of force.

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Moreover, by avoiding the issue of the 'independence clause' in the party charter and instead using the Resolution on Taiwan's Future, which states that the ROC/Taiwan is already an independent state as her basis for Taiwan's relations with China, Tsai was signaling that she did not intend to make cross-strait relations a major factor in her campaign.

Tsai's China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT's Ma, who throughout his presidency made the 'status quo' a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial '1992 consensus,' of which its 'one China' clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the 'platform' on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the 'KMT-ization' of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents. 

If the KMT was to have any chance of defeating Tsai, it would have to field a formidable candidate, someone who has the ability to harness the forces of a society that is increasingly assured of, and vocal about, its Taiwanese identity, as the Sunflower Movement made perfectly clear in March and April 2014. 

Instead, the KMT picked (and on 19 July confirmed) Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy legislative speaker whose China policy, as it is understood, seems to go against all the trend lines in society. Hung's views on China and Taiwan are such that a number of KMT legislators – from both the 'mainlander' and 'Taiwanese' factions – threatened to quit the party, while others openly criticised it and as a result were expelled.

Seeing a crisis in the making, party elders of the KMT did their best to convince Hung to tone down her rhetoric, an intervention which became necessary after she stated her espousal of a 'one China, same interpretation' (一中同表) policy that not only contradicted the official KMT position of 'one country, different interpretations' (一國兩憲), but seemed to echo Beijing's position on the matter. Her announcement that, if elected, she would sign a 'peace agreement' with China and possibly end arms procurement from the US alarmed many people within the KMT, not to mention within the rest of Taiwan, while her flip-flopping on whether the ROC existed – Hung initially said that recognising the ROC would create 'two Chinas,' which was 'unacceptable' – raised eyebrows in many circles. After being pressured by party members, Hung eventually reverted to the KMT's favoured 'one China, two interpretations' and 1992-consensus formulas, while proposing a 'one consensus, three connotations' (一個共識,三個內涵) platform and assuring us that she would press Beijing to recognise the legitimacy of the ROC Government. 

Hung had nevertheless revealed her ideological foundations and it was difficult to imagine that the apparent softening of her stance wasn't anything more than a tactic to reassure the public ahead of the election.

Although Hung is perfectly entitled to her views in democratic Taiwan, they are nevertheless a problematic position to adopt prior to January. The fact that her beliefs seem to be diametrically opposed to the consensus that has been built across Taiwan, and that they dovetail so perfectly with the position of the authoritarian regime on the other side of the Strait, is probably enough to ensure defeat for the KMT, which currently finds itself in a state of crisis. 


Mullah Omar is the Lazarus of the international jihad. The one-eyed Taliban leaders has been pronounced dead at regular intervals over the years, with each occasion prompting furious denials from Taliban officials and, in due course, a missive purporting to be from the man himself.

But this time is different. The Afghan president's office has released a statement saying that Omar died in April 2013. Other Afghan officials have attributed the claim of Mullah Omar's death to their counterparts in Pakistan, where Omar is widely believed to have been under the protection of that country's intelligence services.

What is significant is the timing, for the Taliban faces an internal power struggle, in part over budding Pakistan-brokered peace talks with the Afghan Government, and due to the growing challenge from ISIS in Afghanistan.

In many ways, the Taliban has been fragmenting for years. The authority and legitimacy of older Taliban leaders, who established themselves in the 1990s, has waned. The US-led kill-capture campaign against mid-level commanders gave rise to what one study called a generation of 'more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic...and therefore less pragmatic' leaders with little memory of an Afghanistan at peace and less inclined to compromise with Afghan Government. More recently there have been several reported power struggles at the top, pitting senior leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, who has supported peace talks, against various figures said to oppose them, including Mullah Omar's 26-year-old son Mullah Yaqub and sacked military commander Abdul Qayum Zakir.

It is those talks, which began in the Pakistani town of Murree on 7 July and were scheduled to continue on 31 July, which would be most immediately affected were the news of Omar's death to be confirmed and acknowledged.

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In 2012, former State Department adviser Vali Nasr told the New Yorker's Steve Coll that Omar was crucial because 'there is no legitimacy to a Taliban decision without him. He is the Ho Chi Minh of the war. If you have him, if you hold him, you control the whole organization'. While this may exaggerate the degree to which the Taliban obeys a formal hierarchy, perceptions of Omar as a moral arbiter – especially in his role as 'commander of the faithful' – is crucial.

This is why, on 15 July, Mullah Omar 'endorsed' the peace talks in a supposed Eid message, smoothing over an argument between the Taliban's Qatar office and its leaders in Pakistan. Dead or alive (one senior Taliban figure openly acknowledged that Omar had 'no control' over the message), Omar's perceived imprimatur for the talks and for specific envoys has given the process a degree of coherence and credibility. It has encouraged the hope, however modest, that what might be agreed in Pakistani hotels could, eventually, translate into changes on the ground in Afghanistan. Even with Omar deemed alive, it was far from clear what proportion of Taliban commanders and fighters would abide by any settlement. But acknowledging his death would challenge the legitimacy of those who claim to speak on their leader's behalf. Indeed, those dissatisfied with the course of events may have leaked the news precisely for this reason.

Even if those in favour of talks can ride out the consequences of this news and sustain the dialogue with Kabul, they could see increasing dissent, and even defection, from their commanders in the field. ISIS has increasingly sought to challenge the Taliban's authority in the south and east, hoping to co-opt disgruntled Taliban commanders. ISIS's presence remains limited, and its Afghan leader was killed in a drone strike earlier this month. ISIS faces a radically different sectarian and political environment to that in Syria or Iraq, and has made few inroads so far. But the group would exploit any chaos in the Taliban ranks.

For the past fourteen years, Mullah Omar has been an unseen, ghostly presence over the war in Afghanistan. It is the idea – the myth – of Omar, rather than his everyday leadership, that matters. Formal acknowledgment of his loss could change the direction of this long war. The irony is that the West might come to regret the splintering of a group they fought for over a decade, both for its impact on peace talks and for the opportunities it has created for new and more radical actors like ISIS.

Photo by Flickr user thierry ehrmann.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

8 of 8

By Ken Ward, author of Condemned to Crisis?, a new Lowy Institute Paper published by Penguin Australia. 

At the book launch for Condemned to Crisis? in Canberra last week, Anthony Bubalo described my text for the first time (at least for the first time in my hearing) as an 'essay'. This is my own preferred description of it. I also see it as subjective and selective, faults that can, I hope, be forgiven in an essay.

I chose to focus on the diplomatic relationship between the two countries as this was the arena in which my reliance on public data seemed to be the least crippling a constraint. Had I tried to write about the bilateral defence relationship, for example, I would have been forced to carry out many confidential conversations that I could not have reported adequately, if at all.

I will respond to the first several contributors to this debate in turn. At the outset, however, I feel obliged to point out that there is an all-important question mark in the title. I will probably go on defending the survival of this brave question mark for a long time to come. It has already been exposed to relentless attack. Its defiant presence is meant to signal that I do not believe the relationship with Indonesia is doomed to crisis. 'Crisis-prone' refers to the past, not necessarily the future.

What I believe rather, is that we should expect difficulties and clashes of national interest to arise from time to time between Australia and Indonesia for various reasons, and I am urging Australian political leaders to adopt more temperate language in public to help prevent such bilateral differences from deteriorating or escalating into crises.

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I am grateful to Aaron Connelly for drawing readers' attention to my second chapter. I see it not only as the least bad chapter, but also as the one that I would least likely need to revise if I chose to revisit this subject several years from now. I believe that there is no reason to reduce any of the investment that Australia makes in understanding Indonesia, and young Australians should certainly be encouraged to study Indonesian. I find it very disappointing, on the other hand, that the Indonesian Government doesn't encourage young Indonesians to study Australia more. 

I agree that 'administrative ballast' can help to prevent small problems from degenerating into crises. We will need a lot of ballast to counter the danger that ambassadorial withdrawals, of which we have had three in the last decade after traversing 60 years without a single one, might be upgraded into ambassadorial expulsions.

Hugh White suggests that I may be 'a little impatient' with speculation about the future. I am sorry if I have given this impression. I myself have benefited greatly from speculating about the future. I began studying both Indonesia and the Indonesian language a full half-century ago and still enjoy writing about Indonesia and speaking Indonesian even now. That was a bet on the future that really paid off. 

What I feel we need to do is distinguish speculation about the future from statements of what we can be pretty sure will take place.

E.H.Carr wrote towards the end of What is History? that what bothered him most was 'the loss of the pervading sense of a world in perpetual motion'. Then he ended the book with these words targeting various conservative writers: 'I shall look out on a world in tumult and a world in travail, and shall answer in the well-worn words of a great scientist – "And yet ...it moves".' I use this quotation for a slightly different purpose to Carr's. Let us by all means speculate about the future, particularly in this context, about how rich and powerful Indonesia will become over the next few decades, but let us also be ready to adjust our viewpoint if the world 'in perpetual motion' moves in a somewhat different direction.

Hugh goes on to suggest that I may be content with the relationship as it is and that I merely want it to be better managed. Admittedly, I am guilty of having set myself a limited objective in my essay. This is to get across the point that it is urgent for our political leaders to learn how to address their Indonesian counterparts and talk about Indonesia in public. I see little value in adopting ambitious goals now before that message has been absorbed. But a quick perusal of the DFAT Indonesia Country Strategy paper and of the website of our embassy in Jakarta shows that 'the relationship as it is' is no mean thing at all.

Furthermore, I do have my own ambitions for the relationship. For example, I would very much like to see sooner or later an Indonesian-speaking foreign minister in Australia. We have not even had many Indonesian-speaking ambassadors. An Indonesian-speaking foreign minister might find it easier to reach that cosy and agreeable state of being 'santai' (relaxed, easy-going, unstressed, even 'cool') with Indonesian counterparts that is so valued in personal relationships among Indonesians themselves. Having a prime minister who can speak a foreign language I see as less important. Sir Anthony Eden, for instance, combined a sophisticated grasp of Persian with a disastrous Middle East policy. 

Putting aside the question of the Indonesian language, I am heartened by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's commitment to MIKTA, the dialogue or partnership linking the five middle powers, Mexico, Indonesia, the ROK, Turkey and Australia. This could evolve into an effective way of discussing issues with Indonesia in an environment immune to any bilateral stresses. 

I feel that Greta Nabbs-Keller has grasped my overall approach remarkably well. What I am arguing for is a style of public communication with Jakarta that steers comfortably, but unerringly, between the extremes of the insulting and the ingratiating. It is bewildering to me that in recent times some of our leaders have managed to be both insulting and ingratiating with equal facility. 

I am glad that Greta brought up the question of the rather mysteriously small size of the Indonesian community in Australia. To go back to the concept of 'ballast', I think the fact that very few Australians can have any daily contact with Indonesians robs community attitudes to Indonesia of some much-needed ballast. I am also grateful to Greta for mentioning Rhonda and Ketut. Rather than using this story to draw attention to Australian insularity, however, I see it as a missed opportunity for Indonesia to exert some soft power. Had the Indonesian embassy asked for my advice, I would have recommended that it contact the advertising company concerned and discuss possible future collaboration. Making Indonesia appear 'sexy' in the eyes of a mass Australian audience would surely be a worthy goal for that country's cultural program.

While I agree with much that Stephen Grenville has written, I believe that, just as one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, one shouldn't judge it by its title. I don't find the text itself 'despairing'. 'Downbeat' I can perhaps live with. Stephen reads more into my reference to New Zealand than I intended. I have been arguing that the impact of the cultural differences between Australia and Indonesia have been exaggerated. After all, there is little prospect of vast numbers of Australians and Indonesians joining forces in some common endeavour, in which their mutual ignorance of each others' cultures might create terrible misunderstandings and wounded amour-propre on one side or the other. The number of Australians who need to acquire some appreciation of Indonesian etiquette and protocol norms is not very large. Here I am surely being upbeat and confident, rather than despairing.

It is true, as Stephen points out, that I devote little space to Papua. I haven't been to that part of Indonesia since 1969, when I had the good fortune to meet SBY's future father-in-law. I didn't feel that I had anything new to say on the subject. Stephen's paragraph on Papua contains nothing from which I would dissent. Stephen ends his post with the observation that our 'diplomatic dexterity' during the Sukarno era made it possible for us quickly to build a close relationship with the successor regime. This is indeed true, but let's not forget that half a million Indonesians had to meet their deaths before our diplomatic dexterity obtained its just reward.

Andrew Parker argues that Indonesia has never been more important to Australia than it is now. I disagree. Indonesia was most important to Australia during Konfrontasi, because there was a danger that our undeclared war with Indonesia, which Stephen refers to, could escalate into open warfare. It is very important for our relationship that this didn't eventuate. Fear of war is why I was unhappy that SBY withdrew two ambassadors from Canberra during his tenure. Nor did I clamour for Ambassador Grigson to be withdrawn from Jakarta following the recent executions. Withdrawing one's ambassador is the lowest rung on the ladder of escalation towards breaking off relations and, worse, declaring war.

The only other comment I wish to make about Andrew's post is that, while there is a strong case for arguing that Australia should be Indonesia's preferred partner in dealing with the challenges he identifies, I don't see any way of persuading President Joko Widodo of this point of view. Maybe we will be luckier with his successor, whoever he or she may be. This is not a counsel of despair. Sukarno once explained that he hadn't withdrawn his ambassador from Canberra despite our clashes with Indonesian troops in Borneo because he accepted that Australia, unlike his main foe, the UK, was here to stay. This hasn't changed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

  • Vanuatu’s leader of the opposition Edward Natapei has died. The former prime minister has been remembered as a leader who was able to bridge the gap between Western and Pacific political styles. 
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion has expressed concern about the rule of law in Nauru, as Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor meets with Nauru government and opposition MPs.
  • Australian lawyers weigh in on controversies on Manus Island and Nauru. 
  • Blogger Martyn Namarong explains some of the complexities around the Ok Tedi mine suspension in PNG’s Western Province. Revenue from the mine provides for around a quarter of the government’s budget. 
  • Great interactive from the Sydney Morning Herald on the newest island on Earth, which sprang up from a Tongan volcano in January.
  • In her first speech post-Westpac, Gail Kelly spoke about her recent trip to Vanuatu as an ambassador for Care Australia, highlighting the challenges ni-Vanuatu women face.
  • On the Aus-PNG Network, Benson Saulo explains how his Indigenous Australian and Papua New Guinean heritage has influenced his life.
  • Solomon Islands NGO Youth@Work has released the first digital edition of its youth magazine, YOSI

Long resisted by the US for its impracticality and because it was considered too big a concession to Turkish interests, the concept of a 'no-fly zone' in northern Syria now appears to have morphed into a so-called 'safe zone'. The plan, as far as it appears to have been enunciated, involves US and Turkish aircraft (flying from Incirlik in Turkey) and possibly Turkish artillery assisting as yet unknown Syrian opposition forces to clear ISIS from as yet unknown swathes of northern Syria. Once areas are cleared of ISIS, the safe zone(s) will develop naturally, according to the Turkish foreign minister. An interesting concept.

There is often a substantial gap between announcements and execution, but this proposal has the potential to significantly change the dynamic in Syria, and possibly muddy the waters further. Here are some concerns, in the absence of much detail:

Who makes the 'safe zones' safe?

Air power alone can't do it, so there has to be a significant ground component, supported by air strikes, to seize and hold territory. While there has been some commentary that the hitherto ineffectual Free Syrian Army may be strengthened (yet again) in order to do the job, this is unlikely to occur quickly, opening up the distinct possibility that the safe zone could be held and cleared in part by anti-ISIS jihadist groups, of which there is no shortage in northern Syria.

One could even mount an argument that the recent media appearances by jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra on al-Jazeera and in The Washington Post (which I have commented on previously) have been about positioning themselves as 'acceptable' jihadis. When the New York Times describes the plan as involving the use of 'relatively moderate' insurgent groups rather than simply 'moderate' groups, it's time to start worrying.

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Things rarely occur 'naturally'

The 'naturally occurring' safe zones may allow some Syrian refugees to return to Syria, but how would these people survive? What humanitarian assistance would be provided to them and by whom? Who would provide the governance and security functions within these zones? What would be the Syrian Government's approach to them and what would the international community do if the Assad regime sought to reassert its authority over the parts of Syrian territory cleared of ISIS? Nature and politics abhor vacuums, and once safe zone(s) are created, there will always be someone who seeks to take advantage of them. The UN certainly has some concerns about the prospect of a safe zone, particularly given the lack of detail released to date.

Turkey isn't doing this for altruistic purposes

The Turkish Government has long stood accused of not doing enough to combat ISIS because President Erdogan saw Assad as the primary enemy, and because of the Government's Islamist proclivities. But now with the ISIS bombing of the town of Suruc and ISIS attacks against Islamist groups over whom Anakra has more influence, Turkey finally sees a need to join the West's campaign against the group. With the signing of the recent Iranian nuclear agreement as well, Ankara may well have concluded that it is time to accelerate its role in Syria before the easing of sanctions gives Tehran a freer hand to assist Damascus. So while Turkey may not actually occupy these safe zones, the fact that Ankara will control all the entry points means Turkey effectively controls them, and will be able to support those groups who wish to fight Assad rather than ISIS. For Ankara, this is potentially a big win.


To new readers, this is part four in a running debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van (we are friends) originally argued that the group of countries pushing back on China in the South China Sea (SCS) could use South Korea’s extra weight. I responded that South Korea, as a middle power, can bring little to bear on the SCS tussle and that such intervention might heal the emerging rift between North Korea and China.

Van then responded that the current Sino-North Korea split is likely exaggerated, and that too much focus on North Korea blinds South Korea to its other regional interests. In this round, I will argue that North Korea must dominate South Korean foreign policy, on both national security and humanitarian grounds, and that Seoul brings so little to the SCS fight that even the modest glimmers of a Chinese-North Korean split is worth its reticence.

South Korean Grand Strategy

In the end, as Van says, the root of our debate may be disagreements over South Korean grand strategy.

Van seems to fit in what one might call the ‘Global Korea’ school. Global Korea was a notion for South Korean strategy first pushed by former President Lee Myung Bak. Lee sought, with strong support from the US and the Washington DC think-tank scene, to re-imagine South Korea as a ‘responsible middle power’ with global interests. Lee was the first Korean president to draft a ‘national security strategy’ (here is the most recent) based on the American model. He got South Korea involved in the struggle against Somali piracy, and Washington think-tanks wrote the expected salutations of Korea’s expanding horizons, which, not surprisingly, dovetailed with American preferences. Korea, for example, would be a more vocal participant in the war on terror.

None of this is really wrong. But much of it changes the subject from the issue which everyone, not just South Koreans, are burned out with but nonetheless will not go away: North Korea. Call this the ‘North Korea first’ school of Korean strategy. When North Korea is gone, then Global Korea makes sense. Until then, it's important that Seoul stay the course.

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South Korea needs to take serious ownership of the North Korea problem, and I worry that it does not. South Koreans are increasingly wary of unification given the huge costs. North Korean defectors in the South - heroes to my mind - often face social discrimination. South Koreans get far more animated discussing Japan in their foreign policy than North Korea. Missile defense, which seems strikingly obvious to the analyst community, is nonetheless very contentious in Seoul. Civil defense for nuclear scenarios is not taken seriously. The South Korean military has regular problems with abuse, hazing, corruption, and glitzy, prestige-driven procurement choices. It's not properly structured for post-unification stabilisation or ready for a COIN scenario in the North. Nor was it able to takeover its own defence despite years of lead-time. Most Western analysts of Korean security I know worry about ROK Army readiness, and fear that the US defence guarantee has blunted Korean strategic thinking.

In my own experience in Korea, I routinely find my students, colleagues and friends are simply exhausted with North Korea. This is entirely understandable (most analysts are too). South Korea is a modern, globalised place. Like the rest of us, South Koreans want to watch their HDTVs, travel, gab on their cellphones, find a cool job and otherwise live the sorts of modern, fun lifestyles they see in Western television. No one wants to hunker down for a long, grim, expensive head-to-head contest with grey, gloomy, reactionary North Korea. And Global Korea’s appeal is precisely that. It places South Korea in the company of states Koreans want to be peers with – the US, Japan the EU – not bizarre, backward, fatiguing North Korea.

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and their spiraling nuclear program, it's not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

In short, South Korea needs to get out front on North Korea. North Korea should not be pushed onto the US, China, the Six Party Framework, the international community and so on. South Korean politicians need to be upfront on the costs and risks, and argue vigorously that they are worth it. South Koreans need to be reminded that, as seductive as Global Korea is, the Cold War is still on in Korea, and that North Korea is their historic burden. Yes, that really sucks, and yes, the rest of us can help at the margins. But firstly and largely, this is a South Korean problem, which means more leadership, more defense spending, more preparation for North Korean occupation and reorganisation and more honesty with the public to groom support for this historic project. And to her credit, President Park's Administration has moved on some of this. She has reiterated the goal of unification, faced down the North in one of its typical ginned-up faux crises in 2013, and has pushed the Chinese hard on the issue.  

Korea, China and the South China Sea

Van makes a few other points worth debating:

  1. I argued that South Korean reticence on SCS helps the widening rift between China and North Korea. Van may be right that this is not due to South Korean diplomacy, but that does not alter my point that if South Korea does step into the SCS flap, that step will push China back toward Pyongyang. So long as North Korea and China are scrapping, we should not rock the boat, and if Park can keep that ball rolling by schmoozing the Standing Committee, so much the better.
  2. Van argues that North Korea could probably find a way to survive without Chinese aid. I am extremely sceptical of this. North Korea’s economy is such a disaster that it almost certainly requires regular, large subsidies, as it did throughout the Cold War from the USSR, and since then from China among others. The only time North Korea stood on its own, a brutal, self-created famine followed. Van suggests maybe Russia could step into the gap. But Putin’s Russia is dwarfed by China and has little regional presence. China is the irreplaceable lifeline, as Kim Jong-Un’s last-minute decision to skip the Moscow WWII festivities suggests.
  3. Van suggests that China only acts on its national interests defined by cold realpolitik. I agree. But interests come from identity and perception, and there is growing evidence that the Chinese are rethinking the value of the North Korean buffer. Specifically, moderates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese international relations academia have intimated for years now that the North Korean alliance is not balance-positive for Beijing because it fuels the American pivot and pushes Seoul and Tokyo toward the US. Abandonment will not happen soon, but the easiest way to smother this emerging debate is for South Korea to strike an openly anti-Chinese position.
  4. Finally, I still see little evidence that South Korea can make much of a difference in the SCS. It's a medium-sized power and distant from the area. What matters is the response the littorals, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, plus the larger, over-the-horizon states – the US, Japan and India. I see no obvious reason to jeopardise this long-sought, very valuable cooling Sino-North Korean relationship for one more small weight on the regional scale. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Expert Infantry.


It's increasingly clear that China intends to use its artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, delivered this assessment on a panel that I was privileged to be part of at the Aspen Security Forum last week. Harris described the newly-created islands as potential 'forward operating posts' for the Chinese military. Beijing hasn't denied that it will use the outposts for military functions, but it has emphasised plans to provide public goods such as maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation and meteorological observation. 

What are the potential military uses of China's artificial islands and do they pose a threat?

First, the outposts in the Spratly Island chain will undoubtedly be equipped with radars and electronic listening equipment that will enhance China's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime domain awareness capabilities. The newly built 10,000-foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef will accommodate virtually every aircraft in China's inventory, and hangers are being built that appear designed to host tactical fighter aircraft. As Admiral Harris stated, 'A 10,000-foot runway is large enough to take a B-52, almost large enough for the Space Shuttle, and 3,000 feet longer than you need to take off a 747.'

China will be able to operate surveillance aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, unmanned aircraft, transport planes, tanker aircraft and fighters. Depending on what platforms and systems are deployed on these outposts, China could have the ability to monitor most, if not all, of the South China Sea on a 24/7 basis.

These enhanced capabilities will provide China with advantages over its weaker neighbours and pose challenges to US military activities in the region.

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China may declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over part or all of the area within its nine-dashed line claim. To enforce such a zone would require several airstrips in various locations in the South China Sea. China has been expanding its runway on Woody Island in the Paracel group from approximately 7500 feet to almost 10,000 feet. Recent satellite imagery indicates that China may be preparing to build yet another airstrip on Subi Reef in the Spratly chain. In November 2013, China unilaterally set up an ADIZ in disputed waters in the East China Sea. At the time, a PLA major general confided to me that the Chinese military has long had plans to establish an ADIZ in all of China's near seas, including the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.

China will likely use the Spratly outposts to extend its anti-access/area denial envelope farther southward and eastward into the Philippines Sea and the Sulu Sea. Runways will enable the People's Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force to extend the operational ranges of aircraft based on the mainland and Hainan Island to encompass the entire South China Sea and beyond. Chinese capability to observe and respond to US military operations in the region will be significantly increased. Chinese aircraft will be positioned to intercept US and other foreign aircraft far from the Chinese coastline. The time required for Chinese aircraft and ships to reach the Malacca Straits, in the event of a blockade of this major trade artery, will be significantly reduced.

According to Admiral Harris, the US has not yet seen China place anti-ship cruise missiles or supporting gear on the islands, but such capabilities could be deployed in the near future along with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the harbour at Fiery Cross Reef is better suited to submarine basing than the shallow waters at Hainan Island where the PLAN's fleet is currently based. Within a few kilometres from shore, the waters quickly drop to a depth of 2000 metres.

If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold US forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a US effort to come to Taiwan's defence. A US carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert US assets from performing other missions.

In the event that China decides to dislodge other claimants from their outposts, the PLA will have greater capability to do so. Helicopters, amphibious landing craft and mobile artillery batteries could be used to conduct assaults on nearby land features. Alternatively, China could opt to put pressure on rival claimants to abandon some of their outposts. For example, it could attempt to disrupt resupply operations to isolated features that lack self-defence capability, such as Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of Filipino marines is stationed on a decaying World War II military ship. In early 2014, Chinese coast guard ships twice tried to block civilian Filipino vessels from resupplying the marines deployed on the Shoal. 

Policy Recommendations

Calls for China to halt its artificial island building in the Spratlys have not been heeded. Completing the island projects as quickly as possible is apparently a high priority for Beijing, given the frenetic pace of dredging in the past year and half. However, there is still a possibility to put a cap on militarisation of the islands by China and the other claimants. The deployment of offensive power projection capabilities by any claimant would be dangerous and destabilising. The US should help to facilitate an agreement that restricts deployments by all claimants to strictly defensive capabilities on all outposts in the South China Sea.

The growing uncertainty created by China's artificial island building and the purposes for which the new features will be used should motivate ASEAN, or at least a sub-group of ASEAN members with deep interests in maritime security, to draw up a draft of a Code of Conduct (CoC) that contains risk-reduction measures and a dispute resolution mechanism. China is evidently unwilling to make progress with ASEAN on a CoC in a reasonable time frame and it's time for others to push this forward. If China and ASEAN are unprepared to finalise and sign a CoC, then a coalition of the willing should proceed on its own and try to bring the others along later.

The US and like-minded countries should conduct freedom of navigation patrols around China's artificial islands that were originally submerged reefs. UNCLOS provides that artificial islands do not qualify as 'islands' under the Convention because they are not naturally formed areas of land surrounded by and above water at high tide. Therefore, artificial islands are not entitled to any maritime zones. Since 1979, the US has carried out the freedom of navigation program to protect maritime rights throughout the world. Conducting such patrols in the Spratlys would signal to China and the region that disputes must be managed peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

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I couldn't agree more with Hugh White's commentary on Ken Ward's new book Condemned to Crisis? published by the Lowy Institute and Penguin Australia. White argues that Australia must build its relationship with Indonesia based more on how it perceives its northern neighbor is developing, rather than on historical experiences.

White agrees with Ward that Australia's approach to Indonesia is outmoded and needs rethinking. Ward argues that Canberra must discard the long-held policy mantra, embraced by all prime ministers since Paul Keating, that 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.' 

Both Indonesia and Australia have changed since then, and this hasn't been fully reflected in the way they conduct relations, perhaps more so on the Australian than the Indonesian side (which deserves a separate article). While both White and Ward recognise the changes that have taken place in post-Suharto Indonesia, they fail to grasp the implications for bilateral relations and for the geopolitical environment in Asia.

White rightly postulates that Canberra's approach to Indonesia should take into account two facts. First, that Indonesia's economy is growing so rapidly that it will become bigger than Australia's and hence more powerful, and second, that Indonesia's rise has implications for the geopolitical order in Asia.

But White and Ward have underestimated the internal changes that have occurred within Indonesia which are equally dramatic, and which have inevitably changed the way Indonesia looks at itself and at its place in the region and the world. These changes have implications for Indonesia's foreign policy and for all of its foreign relations, including with neighbours like Australia.

If Ward and White represent the typical Canberra foreign policy community view, then Australia is misreading Indonesia.

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Both assume that cultural sensitivity still matters, with Ward suggesting that Australian politicians had better be careful in what they say, or they risk offending Indonesians. Prime Minister Abbott tried the cultural sensitivity approach in trying to persuade President Jokowi for a stay of execution against two Australian drug traffickers this year. When that failed, he changed tack and became more abrasive. That the executions went ahead suggests that cultural sensitivity made no difference.

Indonesia today is vastly different from Suharto's Indonesia. It's a far more open and democratic society. Everything is discussed and debated in the open, and social media has made the public debate fiercer, if not sometimes unethical. This means that Indonesia has become thoroughly desensitised, and its people and leaders can take all kinds of insults without being in the least offended. Whatever Australian politicians, and the notorious media including talk back radio hosts, say about Indonesia, far worse things have been said by Indonesians about themselves. They'll be sure to respond with equally if not more harsh words. But then that's free speech. 

A more open Indonesia has stopped taking Australian insults seriously. They would surely not affect bilateral relations. Over the years, Indonesia and Australia have moved on from the days when a single issue (East Timor) undermined their entire relationship. Or from being too personalised, as in the way Suharto retaliated to personal insults or Keating 'coddling' with the dictator. Even President Yudhoyono measured his retaliations in 2013 when he learned he and his wife had been targets of Australia's wiretapping operations.

Indonesians have also come to accept that their country becomes a punching bag in every Australian election for Jakarta's 'lack of cooperation' in tackling human smuggling. But as soon as a new prime minister was elected (or re-elected in the case of John Howard), the first thing they'd do was visit Jakarta and pacify its leaders to cooperate on human smuggling. They would blame their own press for exaggerating their criticisms of Indonesia during the election campaign. 

A democratic Indonesia is doing exactly the same. In the 2014 elections, foreign countries became convenient targets for politicians, aware that they could not respond or defend themselves. But as soon as the new government took power, they had to be responsible and tone down their xenophobic rhetoric. You can only hurt your foreign relations so far. Admittedly, Abbott went the furthest of all prime ministers in dealing with Indonesia, but look at where relations are today.

Yes, Indonesia's economy has been growing and that is altering its position in the region and its relations with its neighbours. But a more important change is that Indonesia is a far more open and democratic nation, albeit not a perfect one (but then what country is?) Yes, a re-reading of the report Seeing Indonesia as a normal country by Douglas E Ramage and Andrew MacIntyre, as suggested by another commentator in this debate, Greta Nabbs-Keller, may be warranted.

Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Let's all move on and be more realistic about each other.

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


I wrote a piece for The Interpreter last month about Chinese worldviews. I argued that a majority of Chinese people share a powerful belief in several 'truths' about China and its role in the world.

These include that China would in time inevitably resume its natural role as a great country, having been shoved off that path by colonial powers in the century of humiliation starting in the mid-1800s, and that the Chinese people and the Chinese nation-state are part of the same family, rather than existing in opposition, as in the West. 

In the latest edition of the Griffith Review I explore that argument more deeply, examining how the Chinese Party-state deliberately constructs and perpetuates these perspectives, and what that means for our understanding of China's foreign policy behaviour. 

There are a number of ways an individual can be socialised into a particular worldview. Schools and education are a particularly powerful mechanism. My research focused on a particular Chinese university training students to become diplomats and foreign policy actors, as universities teach not only a carefully designed curriculum, but also 'correct' attitudes and behaviours.

The university does this through explicit training, the way it structures students' lives and their use of time and space. Most students live on campus for the duration of their tertiary education, sharing cramped dormitories with around five others. They also share many of the same classes, schedules, meals and extra-curricular activities over the course of several years. Deliberately removed from 'normal life', students are taught to think of themselves primarily as members of the great 'Chinese family', and place their primary loyalty with the Chinese nation-state.

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This is not to say that young educated Chinese are mindless automatons with no will of their own. Debates certainly exist around issues such as corruption and the environment. However, the long tradition of what was officially known as 'thought remolding', up until the 1980s when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced the term would be removed from the official lexicon, remains a powerful force.

After the Tiananmen incident in 1989, the Party renewed its push for educating the minds of the Chinese people. While there seemed to be some increase in openness under former President Hu Jintao, it appears that this is being systematically rescinded under President Xi Jinping. This means that while there are far more areas open for discussion than even 10 years ago, very often the conclusions (among these particular educated elite at least) are to a large degree predetermined.

So the conversation between the students often goes: corruption is bad – but the Party-state is doing something about it. Environmental problems are terrible, but that's because of local businesses and Party members – and again, the Party-state is on to it. The Central Government isn't perfect, but it's synonymous with, and inseparable from, what 'China' is.

Where there is real cynicism and dissatisfaction, the tendency seems to be resigned acceptance or to leave the country. It is very, very rare to find Chinese people in Beijing who think challenging the system as a whole is in any way worthwhile.

For the most part, where young people are socialised to believe that the state is not a power to be resisted and that their own best interests are served by being aligned with the Chinese nation-state, strong incentives exist to consent to and operate within the system, rather than struggle against it. Benefits derive from maintaining, not challenging, the social order. Educated elites are taught to internalise the 'truth' that aligning with whatever the prevailing state stories are is the right thing to do.

CCP dominance, and the strength of these particular worldviews, go hand in hand. Cultural explanations for beliefs and behaviour should not be removed from their political context, but need to be understood as constructed, created and utilised by those in power – this is true around the world, and certainly in China. While the Chinese population is overall growing wealthier, travelling more, being educated overseas and generally more exposed to the world, we must not assume this will bring a change in ideas and worldviews.

Many in the West continue to assume that China needs to become like 'us', as did Nixon when he argued in 1967 that 'taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.' We are then disappointed and frustrated when China does not seem to want to engage with the rest of the world except on its own terms – we want China to be a 'responsible stakeholder' – according to our norms and values.

While we need not accommodate or appease China where these values and norms differ, it is not impossible to influence and dissuade, if we understand the whats, hows and whys of how Chinese policymakers think and act the way they do.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zixi Wu.


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

6 of 8

In a new Lowy Institute Paper, former ONA analyst Ken Ward makes the case for 'more realistic' expectations for the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

He writes that despite years of Australian governments prioritising the relationship, it continues to be marked by tensions and crises. The recent execution of Australian citizens for drug crimes in Indonesia, despite our diplomatic protests, is presented as an example of why we should lower our expectations for a close relationship with our nearest Asian neighbour.

The Paper's title poses a question: is the Australia-Indonesia relationship condemned to crisis? In answering this question, Ward explores Australian and Indonesian history, domestic politics and communication and culture in search of triggers for the disputes that continue to erupt between the two nations, and analyses how these disputes are handled. Leaving aside the factors of history and domestic politics, which will surely be highlighted in other reviews of the Paper, I'd like to focus on the aspects of communication and culture, which arguably can have significant impact on the other causes of crisis and how they are handled.

Ward debunks the idea that Australia and Indonesia are too wildly different in terms of culture to ever understand each other.

He highlights Indonesia's capitalist economy, democratic government and social media-obsessed populace as being not so different from our own. Instead of cultural differences, he sees negative stereotypes and prejudices found among the Australian public, and expressed by our media and politicians, as one cause of frequent crises. In the first chapter, Ward points out the often 'clumsy and tactless' handling of clashes by Australia, and 'great sensitivity' on the part of Indonesia.

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This indicates a great deal of unfinished work on Australia's part in establishing a strong relationship with Indonesia. It also gives life to the claims made by successive governments regarding the high priority given to developing the relationship. As Ward explains, Australian politicians can't expect Jakarta to selectively hear the pronouncements made about Indonesia's importance to Australia on the world stage, while ignoring the insensitive comments made back home.

From the Australian side, we can't help Indonesia being 'sensitive', but we can equip ourselves to better approach sensitivities and work to overcome our 'clumsiness and tactlessness'. In the Australian school curriculum, this is part of what's called 'Asia literacy'.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority describes Asia literacy on its website as providing students with the 'skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region'. This includes recognising that Australia is part of the Asian region, and that our histories and futures are closely linked. It also means learning the languages of the region.

A sincere commitment to developing Asia literacy in Australia would transform our modes of communication and culture. In relation to Indonesia specifically, it would help to address the stereotypes and prejudices that cause or inflame clashes in the relationship, and improve the ways in which tensions are handled by those in power. At the very least, it would help to bolster what Ward calls the 'thin cultural underlay' now supporting government-to-government relations.

In rhetoric, commitment to Asia literacy, including the study of Indonesian language and culture, has continued among successive governments in Australia. In reality, it has been inconsistent and even declining.

Despite decades of stated commitment to the goal, this year's Lowy Poll shows that many Australians know very little about Indonesia, including whether or not it's a democracy, or the name of the country's new president. As pointed out by David Hill, a strong supporter of Indonesian studies, Australian universities are now closing their Indonesian programs as enrolments continue to drop.

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

The execution of two Australians in Indonesia this year was a tragedy that a majority of Australians rightly objected to. But rather than seeing this as a reason to give up on strengthening the relationship, we should see it as a greater reason to be more deeply involved in dialogue about our different cultures, with a hope of finding some common ground. If we are to be truly realistic about the relationship, then surely we can admit that our efforts to engage on the level of communication and culture have barely begun.

It's only if we continue to lower our expectations that the relationship will in fact be 'condemned to crisis'.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gabriel Sai.

  • Human Rights Watch slammed the conviction of 11 opposition activists in Cambodia. The activists are from the Cambodian National Rescue Party and have been sentenced to between 7 and 20 years in prison for 'insurrection'.
  • Indonesia has begun repatriating irregular migrants from Bangladesh that are in Aceh. 
  • Meanwhile, a prominent Thai general was included on a list of 72 people indicted for suspected involvement in human trafficking. The move came ahead of the release of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons report.
  • Matthew Smith from Fortify Rights has written on Southeast Asia's boat crisis:
    For now, boat departures have slowed. The region has started to exhale, but it shouldn't. If Burma fails to end its systematic persecution of the Rohingya the 'sailing season' will begin again like clockwork, one way or another. And Rohingya will continue to perish.
  • CSIS's Greg Poling discussed the upcoming elections in the Philippines on the CogitAsia Podcast.
  • Thailand and Vietnam have boosted trade ties with an aim of reaching US$20 billion in bilateral trade by 2020.
  • The latest round of ceasefire talks has ended in Yangon with little result. The toughest issues remain unaddressed. The next round of talks will take place in August.
  • Ken Ward's new Lowy Institute Paper, Condemned to Crisis? (debated on these pages here), argues for a more realistic approach to Indonesia-Australia relations. Ross Tapsell took a critical look at the paper for New Mandala.
  • A raft of new laws in Cambodia, including one that restricts the operations of NGOs, will help Hun Sen hold onto power.
  • Myanmar-China relations, which have been dealt numerous blows in the past 12 months, have been further tested this week with the sentencing – most for a term of life in prison – of 153 Chinese nationals for illegal logging in Myanmar's north.
  • UK Prime Minister David Cameron is beginning his four-country tour of Southeast Asia this week, accompanied by a business delegation expected to sign deals worth US$1.2 billion. Here's why it is important: 


Over the last two months, there has been noticeable progress on three separate fronts in Japan's 30-year process of 'renormalising' its' approach to external defence:

  1. Last week, the Abe cabinet approved the 2015 Japanese Defence White Paper after revisions were made to make it focus more squarely on the growing military threat from China, both to Japan and the region more generally. As Malaysia, the Philippines and the US are doing in the South China Sea, Japan is more frequently providing photographic evidence of Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.
  2. On 15 July, Japan's House of Representatives passed the first of many key legislative changes that will enact last year's constitutional reinterpretation that permits Japan to exercise a limited right of collective self-defence.
  3. Regional support for Japan's more active defence policy has grown and become more tangible. For instance, in early June the Philippines and Japan signed a joint statement on security cooperation with an attached action plan. On 25 May, Japan and Malaysia signed a similar, but less ambitious joint statement. Discussions have started on a possible status of forces agreements between the Philippines and Japan. On 23 June, as part of a Japan-Philippine bilateral exercise, a Japanese P3-C Orion anti-submarine surveillance plane flew over disputed waters in the South China Sea to Beijing's ire. The Philippines could also be the first recipient of Japanese arms exports when it finalises the purchase of a small number of these maritime surveillance aircraft from Tokyo.

However, Japan is still far from a normal external security actor and alarmist talk of Japanese remilitarisation tells you more about the ideological predispositions of the accuser than of present reality. Yet, it's clear that Japan is again becoming a more proactive and independent security actor in East Asia in both words and action. It is also increasingly focused on the threat from China and is finding growing support from regional countries with similar concerns.

The US-China major power relationship is not the only one that is reshaping the regional security order.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.


This trailer for a new documentary about Steve Jobs  (there's also a biopic in the works starring Michael Fassbender) reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to tell you about a thoughtful essay I read recently called Web Design: The First 100 Years.

Over the last few years a backlash has begun against the technological utopianism of the tech industry, and Apple and Google in particular. I suspect the tech sceptic Yevgeny Morozov has had a lot to do with this shift (see particularly To Save Everything, Click Here), and more recently it has become popularised in the TV comedy series Silicon Valley, in which tech industry CEOs with more than a passing resemblance to the Jobs persona are depicted as ruthless capitalists who have the public image of spiritual leaders. The industry's altruistic pretensions are also regularly mocked by way of a running joke on the mantra to 'make the world a better place': 

Maciej Ceglowski, an American programmer who shares this scepticism about Silicon Valley's utopian mission, writes in Web Design: The First 100 Years:


This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley. The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized...This vision holds that the Web is only a necessary first step to a brighter future. In order to fix the world with software, we have to put software hooks into people's lives. Everything must be instrumented, quantified, and networked. All devices, buildings, objects, and even our bodies must become "smart" and net-accessible. Then we can get working on optimizing the hell out of life...

....But what if after software eats the world, it turns the world to shit?  Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt. There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd's Burden.

Technological Utopianism has been tried before and led to some pretty bad results. There's no excuse for not studying the history of positivism, scientific Marxism and other attempts to rationalize the world, before making similar promises about what you will do with software.

Ceglowski endorses a more modest vision for the web, one that has largely been achieved: to erase the barriers of distance between people, and put all of human knowledge at our fingertips.

Do read the whole thing