Lowy Institute
  • Nauru’s former president Sprent Dabwido remains stranded in Nauru as he seeks to travel to Australia for urgent medical treatment. His passport was cancelled by Justice Minister David Adeang.
  • Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save the Children (which delivered services on Nauru for two years) gave a wide-ranging speech on the challenges his organisation faced in Nauru at ANU last week. You can listen to the podcast here
  • Meanwhile, Amnesty International has accused Australia of deliberate torture in its detention centre on Nauru and a UN rapporteur has slammed Australia’s human rights record.
  • Samoa’s largest private sector employer Yazaki (an automotive component manufacturer) has announced it will close operations in 2017, citing the winding down of the Australian automotive industry. The company employs 740 people in Samoa. 
  • Tonga’s prime minister has expressed concern that Tonga will not be able to host the 2019 Pacific Games due to the requisite grounds and infrastructure not being ready in time. 
  • Henry Sherrell has summarised a fascinating conversation he had recently with Peter Bumseng from Vanuatu, who has participated in New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer program every year since its inception in 2007.
  • Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has announced that it will help PNG build a 5,457-kilometre submarine cable network to connect 14 main cities and towns. Paul Barker notes that new cabling should be welcomed only if it reduces service costs and is cost-effective. 
  • Charles Yala, the head of PNG’s National Research Institute, delivered a comprehensive and provocative speech on the opportunities and contradictions facing PNG.
  • Fiji has lifted its ban on three foreign journalists, which include the Lowy Insititute's Nonresident Fellow Sean Dorney. Congratulations Sean! 
  • The lifting of the ban comes in the week that PM Frank Bainimarama visited Australia and New Zealand (his first visit to the latter since the 2006 coup). 
  • Finally, Niue’s inaugural Ukelele Festival ('NiueKelele') starts this week; Radio New Zealand recently interviewed one of the organisers. The tourism board also penned an open letter asking actor and wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson to visit the 'Rock of Polynesia'. 


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ Policy is slowly stretching to the far east and encompassing the Pacific Ocean as a key zone of interest. As the new kid on the block, Modi’s approach to the region has been shy and tentative, but appears earnest in its search for genuine and lasting partnerships. With 14 Pacific nations, five major non-independent inhabited territories, a sizeable Indian diaspora in Fiji (the legacy of the indenture system of the 19th century), as well as a throng of invested and sometimes anxious Pacific rim countries, Modi is spoilt for choice and well placed to act strategically.

One particular partnership that deserves particular attention in the Pacific, however, is India's links with a European power: France. During their years in office, Modi and President Francois Hollande have strengthened an already long-standing relationship between France and India. The two leaders have engaged in a partnership of strategy and flattery: bestowing public honours on each other; issuing joint statements on defence, terrorism, investment and trade; and signalling a clear and close association for expanding engagement.

Perhaps surprisingly given their fraternity in the Indian Ocean, India and France have yet to articulate a partnership model in the Pacific arena. At first glance, it might seem like an obvious step for India to engage the four French bases in the Pacific (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton Island) as well-placed stepping stones across the ocean, but due thought must be given to the implications of such an arrangement, and the potential risks.

One recent development that India must be mindful of is the decision at the 47th annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to accept two of France’s Pacific territories (French Polynesia and New Caledonia) as full Forum members. The implications of this controversial decision are many; aside from adding yet another (arguably loaded) voice to the Pacific scuffle for regional cohesion, the memberships effectively validate France as a Pacific island power. It is yet to be seen how the Pacific island nations will negotiate this new political dynamic.

For India, the regional response to the PIF membership decision will determine whether an association with the French will hinder or assist India's ambitions in the Pacific. Depending on the successive developments within Forum politics, and how the Forum Island Countries (FICs) characterise the two newest members in the Forum, India will need to decide whether to adjust, discard, or propagate the Indian Ocean model of cooperation into the Pacific region.  Read More

India must contextualise France in a region-specific sense because in the Pacific the French are inescapably associated with their colonial past and present. France was a brutal 19th and 20th century force, establishing protectorates and colonies throughout Oceania, and it still claims foreign control over the majority of these lands and seas, only relinquishing possession of New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in 1980. Significantly, pro-independence movements against the French are still being waged by Pacific islanders, most notably in New Caledonia and, to a certain extent, in French Polynesia. New Caledonia’s bid for independence from France will manifest in a 2018 referendum, and will be strongly campaigned for by the FLNKS (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste), which is a recognised political entity within the active Melanesian subgrouping (see Melanesia Spearhead Group).

Back in 1971, Pacific island leaders rejected a role for France in Pacific politics when they split from the colonial-led South Pacific Commission (SPC) to form the independent South Pacific Forum (now the PIF) in 1971. This helps explain the controversy regarding PIF's recent membership decisions.

Of course the Pacific is not alone in its colonial past. But ongoing and omnipresent threats to Pacific island sovereignty mean a higher-than-normal sensitivity to colonial histories and colonial realities. After all, in this region there remain not just recognised colonial territories, but also non-recognised colonial territories (West Papua), states of ‘compact association’, states of ‘free association’, states subject to external governance and control of air spaces, states reliant on Official Development Assistance (ODA) and states dependent on foreign investment and bail-outs. The Pacific also faces the possibility, and perhaps inevitability, of redefining sovereign rights without sovereign land: rising sea levels encroaching upon low-lying islands is a key source of anxiety and uncertainty.

In the Pacific, the fight for self-determination has not been triumphantly assigned to the annals of history but, rather, is a struggle that persists to the present day. It is part of everyday conversation; it feeds prejudices; it influences world views; and it dictates the partnerships states choose to purse and neglect.

No effective Pacific policy can discount such considerations and India needs to understand that direct association with France might impinge India's ability to relate to the island countries: to their history; their priorities; and their fears for the future.

One way forward for India could be a tailored approach that distinguishes between ‘Pacific Partners’ and the ‘Pacific islands’. While support for France evidently exists within the PIF, it is likely to be pigeon-holed by the FICs into the Australia and New Zealand category of ‘others’, which restricts ability to act within the region. Indeed, the French are already firmly aligned with the Australia and New Zealand camp, evidenced by the signing of defence, security and humanitarian pacts in 2014 and 2015 (see FRANZ, also), and the strong support for France in the Forum from Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and John Key.

India’s positive relations with Australia, New Zealand and France are of course integral to its global agenda, but it is important that India does not present to the Pacific through the lens of a trilateral or quadrilateral arrangement with these ‘Pacific Partners’. India needs to play to its strength as a neutral power in its relations with Pacific island states.

By Flickr user Hamza Hydri Syed


Compared to Syria, Iraq is going well. Admittedly, war-torn Syria is a low bar but still, as the Mosul offensive accelerates, it is worth reflecting on how far Iraq has come since 2014, when its army collapsed in the face of the relatively small force of Islamic State. Iraq’s future will now be decided by its actions after the almost inevitable tactical victory in Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must win both the war and the peace, or the destabilisation of Iraq will start over.

Earlier this week Abadi announced that the operation to retake Mosul was underway. In reality, the offensive has been running ever since the Third Battle of Fallujah in June this year. The Iraqi army has been in intensive training, coinciding with a move north up the Tigris and the continuation of both the air offensive and the Peshmerga ring around the west, north, and partially around the east of Mosul. Abadi has promised the Iraqi people he will give them back Mosul by the end of the year, and that is not a bad estimate. It may take another six months to a year to make the city liveable. The hundreds of thousands of refugees to the south and east of the city, including both those in UN camps and those not, should not expect to march back in to normality sometime in January.

Most of the Iraqi forces, be they army, police, Shia militia or Sunni tribal forces, are still about 30 kilometres away from the outskirts of the city. Crossing the Nineveh Plain with its small villages, each of which will be at least peppered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) if not actively defended, may take some days and possibly weeks. As the US Marines say, 'slower is faster', and there is no need to rush. Sceptics have said that Abadi’s announcement this week was also given with an eye to US politics, to help President Obama gain support for the final fight against the Islamic State in Iraq before he leaves office in January. But Obama’s reputation from Iraq and Syria will not be salvaged by a victory in Mosul. The US actions in those nations under his watch will continue to be questioned, much as the Iraq war has haunted the reputations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

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For its part, the Iraqi army has had more than its fair share of ups and downs. Having made a small contribution to its rebuilding in 2005, I was disgusted at its failure against IS in 2014 under then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as were many of its officers and soldiers. Video of the army this week shows a well-equipped force with a certain amount of confidence from wins in Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah. It's a force made more confident by coalition air support overhead, and a number of mainly US advisers on the ground. It's also backed by efficient logistics and an adequate casualty evacuation capability. Our Australian trainers in Taji say they have been impressed by with the Iraqis' willingness to learn, but again, when you are working from such a low base, any change is dramatic.

The militias are a real concern, especially the Iranian backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (or PMU). There were accusations of war crimes towards Sunnis following the Tikrit and Fallujah battles, and Abadi tried to stop them from participating in the Mosul fight. He was not able to do this. While the PMU nominally answer to him, many Shia militias are really controlled by Iranian Quds Force officers. Abadi seems to have allocated these militias a task on the West flank of the Mosul offensive in the area of Tal Afar, but what they will do there, and whether they will be content to stay there, is yet to be seen.

Unless IS pulls out soon, the battle will grind on for months. In 2005, Fallujah was about one tenth the geographical and population size of Mosul; it took 10,000 of the best troops in the world, 2000-3000 Iraqi troops, and six long weeks to win it, stabilise it, clear every house and IED, and then start moving residents back in. Supposedly, an escape route has been left out towards Raqqa, inviting IS to move out of Mosul. But IS knows that if its people pull out now, they will be torn to pieces on the road or on the plain by the Peshmerga, the PMUs or the coalition air forces, as they were after Fallujah. I suspect that whatever top IS leadership there was in Mosul will have already pulled out to Raqqa, and those that remain are going to have to be killed one by one.

So even if IS makes a stand, by January Abadi should have his victory and be working to make the city liveable again. I can see no reason why the Kurds will get involved in the house-to-house fighting because they will never control Mosul as part of autonomous Kurdistan; why should they die for Baghdad? But they will consolidate as much as they can of their traditional areas, and then hold on to them. Even if the PMUs don’t go on an orgy of killing and push the Sunnis into the hands of the next extremist who passes by, their presence (along with Hezbollah and other Iranian forces) in Syria could be seen as Iranian influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Abadi has to make this country work, perhaps as a loose federation of Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions, as is legal under the current constitution. Maliki refused to even consider such an arrangement. We can only hope Abadi will be a bit more imaginative.

Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


In 2015, the United Nations adopted a new global development agenda with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Australia, however, this agenda seems to be making little headway.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000, predecessors to the SDGs, were a unifying call to action to increase foreign aid from developed countries. They were simple enough to remember and were ultimately successful, given the global reduction in poverty (thanks in no small part to economic growth in China and India).

In contrast, the SDGs have been criticised for trying to do everything and therefore prioritising nothing; the notoriously crotchety William Easterly provided one of the more blistering critiques

While the MDGs were explicitly targeted towards developing countries, the SDGs are designed as aspirations for all, making them more relevant for domestic adoption in developed countries. 

But in Australia, the SDGs have been a non-event. In 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop didn't attend the critical Addis Ababa conference to determine how the SDGs were to be financed. It is not yet clear if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has any well-formed views on the goals (though one development enthusiast tried to cherry-pick from previous speeches how he might support the goals in theory).

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Outside of government, there have been more concerted efforts to understand what meeting the SDGs mean for Australia, notably through an initiative at Monash University and the Australian Council for International Development's focus on sustainable and inclusive development.

Other countries have been more overtly supportive of the SDGs. Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed Germany would be 'adopting new goals which cover the entire spectrum of global development and which apply to all, industrial and developing countries alike', and vowed to align Germany's national sustainability strategy with the SDGs. China also advocated for the SDGs as part of their G20 presidency. In the 2016 Hangzhou communiqué, G20 leaders agreed to 'place sustainable development high on the G20 agenda' and 'further align our work with the universal implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development'.

But again, this has had little impact on ministers in Australia. There are a number of possible explanations: the non-binding nature of the SDGs, the climate change focus, the lack of interest in global development given the shrinking Australian aid budget, or perhaps Australians are just  'sick of being lectured to by the United Nations'.

Some might argue that it does not matter if Australia is unenthused about the SDGs, given the 192 other UN countries that have signed up. But the success of the 2030 agenda is premised on all countries at all levels of development committing to common goals. The SDGs could even represent an opportunity 'to make Australia itself more prosperous, fair and sustainable'. It might be confronting for developed countries to recognise that they too have to address poverty and inequality.

 Photo: Flickr/ UN Photo


In January of this year, Vietnam announced plans for a ground station that could downlink high-resolution imagery from Indian satellites as they pass overhead. Vietnam now has a view of its immediate area from space in near real-time. The ground station is another chessboard move in the increasingly contested control and sovereignty over certain maritime areas between China and several Asian nations. But it also highlights the political nature of who has ground stations for other nation’s satellites.

In  2003, China abruptly shut down a space control station in the small Pacific nation of Kiribati, shortly before China’s first astronaut launch. The decision was made shortly after Kiribati established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, ruffling feathers in Beijing. The United States, in turn, refuses to allow its extensive space tracking assets in Australia to be used for Chinese space missions. But this does not stop European space tracking antennas in Australia from being used for this purpose.

Nations regularly try to spy on satellite transmissions with ground antennas, but cannot always decrypt the signals they send. Like scrambled pay TV, you can pick up the transmission but it’s pointless to watch. Nor can they legally control those satellites, although cyberwarfare will certainly involve such attempts at hijacking control in times of war.

Most nations on Earth do not operate weather satellites, but these nations can still download data with their own antennas. International agreements on weather monitoring actually encourage the sharing of this data for civilian purposes. The images are good enough to spot approaching storms but not detailed enough to see tanks or aircraft. Getting high-resolution images of military value is a different question.

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But you don’t really need your own antenna. A credit card will do. Commercial image companies will sell images of almost anywhere, to almost anyone, provided that their own host government approves it. Sales embargoes can sometimes be more effective than dismantling dishes. The initial search phase for the lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 employed extensive use of satellite imagery. Much of this was carried out by US commercial satellites at Australia’s request so these images arrived on Earth through ground stations that were not on Australian  soil.

Some space tracking antennas are carried aboard large ships, which are deployed in international waters shortly before critical missions are launched. China has a large fleet of vessels for this purpose. Apart from being able to move them in ways that cannot be done with land-based antennas, the tracking ships are immune from territorial control issues.

One way countries get around the dilemma of chokepoints on the ground is to get satellites to talk to other satellites above them. This technique is extensively used by military and intelligence-gathering satellites. The 'relay' satellites then channel the telemetry to ground stations in secured locations.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user .fresside.

US presidential race 2016

In Utah the independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin - who only entered the race in August - is polling well enough to make both Democrats and Republicans sit up and take notice. He is now a real chance to win the State and, in a remote but still possible outcome, the White House. McMullin and his running mate Mindy Finn are already looking beyond 8 November. Last Friday the pair sat down to chat with the editorial board of Utah news organisations. Here's an excerpt from the newspaper's report of that meeting:

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin says he's not only in the race to win but also to start a new conservative movement that might or might not include the Republican Party.

"We are highly skeptical that the Republican Party will be able to make the reforms it needs to make in order to be a politically viable vehicle to the conservative movement," McMullin told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Friday.

Sometimes you almost have to pinch yourself to check we're not all part of a bad dream. At this point, three weeks out from the day America votes, neither of the Republican Presidential nominees from 2012 and 2008 (Mitt Romney and John McCain respectively) or the two most recent Republican presidents, George W Bush and his father, George H W Bush, are supporting the GOP nominee, Donald Trump. For his part, the 'unshackled' Trump is doubling down on his claim that if he doesn't win it will because the election is rigged (this in a nation where voter fraud is almost unheard of).

The Republican party machine has its hands full trying to keep the pro- and anti-Trump factions from tearing each other apart (and putting off voters in the process) before the election. The inter-party friction ratcheted up after the audio surfaced of Trump making lewd comments but a few weeks earlier, another swathe of Republicans came unstuck when Ted Cruz announced, finally, he would support Trump. [Fold]

Here's longtime Cruz supporter Michael van der Galien on PJmedia:

As co-founder of Ted Cruz 45, a grassroots movement on social media supporting him for president, I've seen many of my friends express their disillusionment with the Texas senator. Some friends -- loyal supporters of Cruz -- have announced they're taking a break from politics, while others have remarked that this is yet another disappointment this election season -- one they may not be able to overcome soon, if at all.

I understand these people. I sympathize with them. We all thought and hoped Cruz would be above party politics as usual. He even implied he was by refusing to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention,

simply urging conservatives to vote their conscience. Yet, he has now caved. It's sad, it truly is.

Plenty of Cruz supporters are hoping their guy will be back for another try in 2020 and are contemplating writing his name in anyway this time around. Trump supporters argue there will be no GOP left if Hillary Clinton wins. Here's an example of this logic from Alicia Powe on American Freedom Fighters:

The fact is this: You vote Trump unless you want Hillary and all she stands for. You vote Trump or you can kiss the Republican Party goodbye.

You vote Trump if you don’t want to become part of a globalist world. You vote Trump if you want your country back.

But supporting Trump is exactly what the Republican party should not be doing, argues Josh Barro in this piece on Business Insider, titled: Why I left the Republican Party to become a Democrat:

The Republican Party had a fundamental vulnerability: Because of the fact-free environment so many of its voters live in, and because of the anti-Democrat hysteria that had been wilfully whipped up by so many of its politicians, it was possible for the party to be taken over by a fascist promising revenge.

And because there are only two major parties in the United States, and either of the parties’ nominees can become president, such a vulnerability in the Republican Party constitutes a vulnerability in our democracy.

Plenty of commentators like John Kass, writing in the Chicago Tribune, have moved from bemusement through to despair:

So this is where we are now, an uncertain people in a post-constitutional society. The establishment center is corrupt and has been collapsing for years. And the people, tired of their lies, become angry. And now anything goes.

A political realignment is coming, no matter how this election turns out, but that won't happen for a while. In the meantime, we wait, stunned, and in a few weeks we'll all become quite gamy. That's probably why Americans dream of taking a long, hot shower, to scrub our brains out with soap.

Photo:  Kena Betancur via Getty


Globalisation is currently everyone's whipping boy. Not only is everyone criticising it, but they also have ready answers on how to fix it. Unfortunately many of these glib solutions, if implemented, would diminish the very real benefits of globalisation.

Politicians on both the left and right are finding a remarkable measure of agreement here. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don't have much in common, but they both think that foreigners have stolen American workers' jobs and advocate trade restrictions to rectify this. The fact that US unemployment is much the same as it has been for decades and manufacturing output is at record levels carries no weight in this debate, nor does the evidence that technology was far more important than imports in reducing the number of manufacturing jobs. 

The evolution of anti-globalisation arguments reflects a changing environment. When Joe Stiglitz wrote 'Globalisation and its Discontents' in 2002, he still had the 1997-98 Asian crisis on his mind. His 'discontents' were largely in the emerging markets, disappointed with the way globalisation was working out for them (and how the IMF mishandled the Asian crisis).

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In general, however, globalisation has been good for those emerging economies that have embraced it, with a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty over the past few decades. When Stiglitz resumed his criticism in 'Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy' in 2015 his main target was income inequality, largely a domestic issue:

American inequality is the result of misguided structural rules that actually constrict economic growth. We have stripped away worker protections and family support systems, created a tax system that rewards short-term gains over long-term investment, offered a de facto public safety net to too-big-to-fail financial institutions, and chosen monetary and fiscal policies that promote wealth over full employment.

Globalisation still has a place in Stigliz's wide-ranging disapproval: he also calls for rules to 'tame globalisation' and argues against trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because the rules embodied in these agreements reflect the interests of 'Big Business'. 

Bernie Sanders shares this belief that Big Business has subverted the rules on international trade in its own interests, describing the TPP as 'a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy.' 

Certainly, the 2007-08 financial crisis raised the public's hackles due to the way the financial sector was bailed out with little penalty for misdeeds and mistakes. But the connection with globalisation is indirect. Branko Milanovic's Global Inequality: a New Approach in the age of Globalization spells out the detailed global story, with technology (rather than globalisation as such) playing a central role in income distribution.

While it is not usually associated with of the anti-globalisation debate, the feeble recovery from the 2007-08 crisis should be a central part of the story of discontents. Olivier Blanchard, Larry Summers and now the IMF are making the case for greater efforts to stimulate growth, particularly with fiscal policy, which was actually in reverse during the first four years of the recovery. 

In this weak and prolonged recovery, some workers who lost their jobs in the recession stopped looking for work, permanently lowering potential output. Few of those who left the labour force in this way are happy with the outcome, but the blame should be placed on the lacklustre recovery, not globalisation.

Once globalisation has become the accepted punching bag, everyone can proffer their favoured nostrums, some of which make little sense. Jared Bernstein and Lori Wallach offer a 'progressive' response; stipulating that there should be rules covering everything from currency manipulation to international rules on labour and environmental conditions, and that countries that didn't play by said rules should be ostracised. Some of their criticisms are valid; trade deals like the TPP should be negotiated for general benefit rather than vested interests. But it is still a rag-bag collection of ideas.

This debate still has a long way to run. Here is some tentative guidance on how to evaluate the multitude of suggestions:

  • It makes no sense to inhibit globalisation or technological progress; these are the source of higher productivity and better living standards. Undoubtedly there are losers in this general progress, who should be compensated. But import tariffs are always a bad idea.
  • Countries aiming to emulate the success of South Korea's industrialisation strategy should require subsidised industries to be export-oriented. That way, the product has to survive in international competition.
  • Subsidies to assist workers displaced by international competition are clearly needed, but these should be designed to keep workers connected to the labour force (retraining, mobility subsidies, income-related benefits) rather than encouraging workers to drop out of it.
  • Global trade needs rules, just as domestic trade is surrounded by a panoply of rules and regulations. Ideally these rules should be multilateral, written with the global economy in mind. But until the WTO gets its act together, plurilateral trade deals may be the only way to make progress. In making these rules, the overriding principle should be the same: these should be developed with all participants in mind, not just the vested interests of the strongest participant.
  • While full economic integration along the lines of the European Union involves free flows of goods, services, capital and people, the last two are just too difficult at the global level for the foreseeable future. Defenders of globalisation should focus on keeping the first two flows open.
  • If economic policy-makers could avoid financial crises and promote a sturdy pace of economic growth, the current discontent in the advanced economies still suffering from the after-effects of 2007-08 would be ameliorated.

This is just a small start towards a rational response to anti-globalisation. What other suggestions are there?

Photo: Getty Images/Olivier Douliery

  • Médecins Sans Frontières US executive director Jason Cone discusses why the organisation rejected Pfizer’s offer of free pneumonia vaccines, standing by its commitment calling for the drug manufacturer to lower the cost of the vaccine to all developing countries.
  • A new report from UNICEF and the World Bank shows that children in developing countries have twice the poverty rate of adults.
  • AidData has released some fascinating results on analysis into the impact Chinese-funded aid projects are having in China, showing an interesting concentration of projects in the head of state’s birth region.
  • The Bretton Woods project has a summary of the outcomes of the World Bank-IMF annual meetings.
  • Experts from the Overseas Development Institute provide four priorities for incoming UN Secretary General António Guterres.
  • Owen Barder suggests 12 policy interventions that could help to reduce the threat of conflict and instability in fragile states.
  • Terence Wood takes a look at the performance of Australian aid evaluations.
  • Vox has a piece on how researchers are trialling an education program to help kids spot dubious health claims on 15,000 students in Uganda.


By Carrie Zhang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East China program

Situated between much larger powers and ruled for decades by a military junta, Myanmar is emerging anew under the de facto leadership of its state counsellor and foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi. For many of Myanmar’s neighbours, this transition has relatively few implications for the current balance of power – at least for now. The exception is China, for which Myanmar is an important investment destination both in itself and as an enabler via the China-India-Myanmar corridor. Two factors will be particularly influential for the future of Sino-Myanmar relations under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership: the economic ties that bound the two nations and leveraging Chinese influence to solve Myanmar’s ethnic conflict.

Suu Kyi’s first priority following the NLD’s sweeping and historic victory in November last year was arguably to cement relations with China. This work was clearly underway even before the election, with Suu Kyi accepting an invitation to go to Beijing in July 2015. Its importance was reinforced with another visit in August 2016, a notable first (outside Southeast Asia) in a series of overseas engagements for Suu Kyi. Much of the focus has been on allaying anxiety in Beijing that Myanmar’s normalisation of relations with the West, which began under Thein Sein’s leadership, would lead to a shift in foreign policy by the new government, given the NLD has been historically pro-West.

Suu Kyi’s desire to broaden relations with her north-eastern neighbour may seem surprising given China’s long history of backing the junta: only in 2013 did China deviate from this by inviting NLD delegations into the country. But while Suu Kyi may have historically leaned West, in both political ideology and education, it is difficult for her to look past the ‘logic of geography’ when considering both economic growth and long sought peace. Striving to find a way to end the ethnic conflict that has waged for decades across Myanmar’s northern border is a massive challenge for Myanmar’s new government; China, with its influence over various armed groups, could be a valuable ally.

For these reasons, disagreement between the two countries regarding the planned Myitsone Dam, arguably the biggest stumbling block in the way of stronger ties, is unlikely to jeopardise relations in the long-term. This is not to say that a solution will come easily; the US$3.6billion project is controversial because of the threat it poses to an area rich in ecological biodiversity and cultural significance. Suu Kyi faces the difficult task of balancing these local concerns with China’s pressing need for a quick resolution. It is unlikely any proposed solution would be clearly favour either party. Recourse may be taken to the Letpadaung Investigation Commission of 2013, which recommended construction of the copper mining project in west central Myanmar continue, under significantly revised terms, in the face of local opposition. The recently initiated Commission into the Myitsone project could return a somewhat similar outcome, one that would allow further development in return for a more favourable division of profits and resources (the current contract stipulates that approximately 90% of the electricity generated will be directed to Yunnan, China).

Given her awareness of the need for foreign investment, Suu Kyi is unlikely to risk the fallout that would eventuate should the project be terminated entirely. Indeed, in retaining a stance favourable to China in her position as Chair of the Letpadaung Commission, Suu Kyi gave investors a sense of consistency and credibility that they had perceived to be almost wholly absent under Thein Sein’s leadership.

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The need to set in place a more robust peace process after decades of ethnic conflict is another important priority for the new government. China is well-placed to offer support on this front, though its assistance will, as Myanmar expects, come at a price. In a demonstration of its capabilities, China helped nudge three armed groups to attend the four-day Peace Panglong Conference in Naypyidaw last month. These three groups (the Kokang, the Arakan Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army) have reportedly received Chinese backing in the past. Many of these relationships date back to China’s support of the Communist Party of Burma in the 1960s and 1970s. When the party fractured across ethnic lines in 1989, China retained its connections to factional leaders and used these to negotiate ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw. Today these links translate into significant influence over attempts to resolve ethnic conflict.

For its part, China also has much to benefit from a consolidated peace process. The 2009 Tatmadaw offensive against Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng drove an estimated 30,000 refugees across the Yunnan border, while shelling in May of 2015 was reported to have injured many Chinese citizens. In addition to presenting a constant challenge to the livelihoods of Chinese nationals, the ongoing Kokang conflict presents an immense challenge to the feasibility of Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’, which numbers among its goals connecting China’s interior to the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal. Given this project relies heavily on Myanmar support and border stability, Myanmar’s internal peace and security is a pressing concern for both nations and thus an area ripe for improved and sustained cooperation.

Economic outcomes and peace processes will feature strongly in the current and emerging phase of the Myanmar-China relationship. Negotiations around these topics will be delicate. However, they also offer opportunities to achieve important outcomes with lasting and substantial impact.

Photo: Getty Images


This is a disconcerting period for all those hoping to see more pushback against China's bid for supremacy in the South China Sea, and its pressure tactics towards that end. The US is in the throes of an epochal political convulsion masquerading as a presidential election campaign. Its ability to focus on China and the South China Sea is being further diluted by Russia's strategic pyrotechnics and North Korea's leap forward towards a working nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile a cagey US lead in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, totaling just three US Navy innocent passage transits in a year, and no acknowledged military overflight, has hardly encouraged commitment from normally dependable allies like Australia.

Moreover, since the Philippines' legal triumph in The Hague mid-July, President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown an insurgent's hand grenade into his predecessor's post-tribunal game plan, not to mention the US-Philippines alliance. This is sparking wider 'Finlandisation' fears across Southeast Asia. While such concerns are probably overwrought, stand by for further disappointment when Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib visits Beijing at the end of October. It will get worse before it gets better.

In such an unsteady climate one might readily conclude that Canberra's calibrated caution on the South China Sea is understandable, if not prudent. Australia maintains neutrality on the sovereignty disputes but has provided declaratory support for freedom of navigation and robustly backed the Hague tribunal ruling as final and binding . Yet this diplomatically-forward position belies the Turnbull government's operational conservatism about joining the US in kinetically contesting the excessive claims of China (and others) in the South China Sea, even though these are non-combat operations – and in marked contrast to our open-ended air combat commitment in the Middle East. Canberra has settled on a watch-and-wait policy of not operating within 12 nautical miles (nm) of disputed features, at least for the duration of the Obama administration.

Perhaps sensing hesitancy, Beijing berated Australia directly and indirectly after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's statement supporting the tribunal award. Now senior Chinese military officers have again weighed in, urging Canberra to be 'cautious' in the South China Sea.

Canberra's silence on Australian freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and overflights in this context could be interpreted as acquiescence in the face of Chinese pressure. So, it is good that the Opposition has rejoined the political debate in Australia. Many, including me, assumed that former shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy's interventions on the subject were time limited to the Federal election earlier this year. However, Conroy's successor, Richard Marles, recently renewed Labor's offensive, urging the government to 'authorise' the ADF to conduct operations within 12 nm.

Marles' framing of FONOPs as an activity that politicians should leave to military professionals was fundamentally flawed on the principle of civilian control. A decision of such importance should not be delegated to military commanders. In peacetime, only the prime minister and cabinet can assume that responsibility. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was right to call him out . But Mr Keating himself belongs to a chorus of elder statesmen in Australia, not limited to ALP circles, consistent in urging caution in Australia's approach towards the South China Sea. This has at times edged into advocacy of what might be termed an 'accommodationist' position towards China.

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Labor's Penny Wong, when interviewed at the weekend, reiterated her support for 'the principle' of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, on the basis that governments 'always authorise activities', in consultation with allies and partners. She also appeared to caveat Labor's support for Australian FONOPs on the basis that such action should not escalate 'particularly where you are asserting that others should de-escalate'. This has the effect of softening the hardline edge to Marles' comments, distancing the Opposition from backing a solo FONOP demonstration by Australia.

While the gap between the parties may be narrowing, the FONOP question triggered unusually testy exchanges last week in Parliament. Malcolm Turnbull accused Labor of 'immaturity and unreadiness to take responsibility', while Ms Bishop dismissed Marles' comments as 'vague mutterings'. In her counter-attack, Bishop added that sailing within 12 nm of contested features in the South China Sea is 'something Australia has not ever done before', confirming what has been previously suspected but not officially confirmed. I doubt we would have had such clarity otherwise.

In fact, for as long as this remains the Government's position, it would be advisable for the RAAF and RAN to keep their distance from Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea. The ADF are frequently present there on the surface and in the air. But operating close to the 12-nm mark from Chinese-occupied features could be misread as offering customary recognition of territorial sea and airspace – including submerged reefs that have no jurisdictional rights at all. Last month, RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said that although the South China Sea is an extremely low-threat air environment, 'We do not plan to overfly just because we could'. His observation that 'There are claims within that area that are nothing to do with Australia' suggests a further and perhaps more political distancing.

Last year, I argued that a distinctly Australian FONOP was worth it on balance to underline concerns and interests that are defined independently of the US. However, the surface environment near China's artificial features in the Spratlys is becoming more complex and potentially threatening . This is informing US preferences for a 'rainbow' coalition approach to FONOPs with allies and partners, not simply for reasons of political solidarity but out of a basic need for force security. A solo Australian surface FONOP, while still possible, will entail operational risk. This may reinforce Canberra's caution, although overflight is legally clear cut and, for the moment, less risky.

Realistically, no multi-national operation on a significant scale is likely to happen before the next US administration can formulate its policy on the South China Sea. That does not mean that US allies and partners should simply wait. This is precisely the time for allies to show leadership, not by launching uncoordinated quixotic actions – that would suit China – but by consulting and coordinating on ways to demonstrate rights of access to international air and sea-space in the South China Sea, within heightened but acceptable bounds of risk. For a concerted international approach to have meaningful effect it cannot be composed only of Asian treaty allies and European powers, like France or the UK. Asia including Southeast Asia needs to be represented. Canberra should also continue to explore ways to keep The Hague tribunal ruling alive, creatively maximising the value of Canberra's seat at the tables of ASEAN-plus summitry.

A measure of operational forbearance was justified in the period that followed the Hague ruling . We are moving beyond that hiatus now. Fear of 'provocation' or escalation with China should not be allowed to stymie the initiative. The South China Sea is not yet 'lost', but maintaining access will require a broad multinational effort. Canberra can help to lay the groundwork for the next phase.

Photo: Australian Defence Image Library


For years in Britain the idea of the Commonwealth looked marginal at best, eccentric at worst. It was some sort of national consolation prize for having lost the British Empire; it gave the Queen something to do; it reminded us Brits that we were an old country with, to put it mildly, an interesting past. But once we joined what evolved into the European Union in 1973, the Commonwealth – or rather, if one adds in the long-lost American colonies, the Anglosphere – became of secondary importance to Britons, as we pooled our sovereignty and made trading relationships in common with our partners in Europe.

This caused a certain amount of distaste here. Whereas our Commonwealth cousins, from Australia and elsewhere, had always had right of entry into the old Mother Country, now they had to prove a grandparent to get in. Most of us became used to meeting Australians in Britain who had, through an Italian or Greek grandparent, obtained the EU passport necessary to come into Britain at will. Such arrangements grated with those old enough to recall when Britain could not find enough Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and Indians to help defend her from German aggression in two world wars. Germans, by this stage, could waltz into the United Kingdom at will, and live and work there.

But when the campaign to leave the European Union formally organised itself about a year ago, and started to outline what life would be like if it achieved its aims and, indeed, left, the Commonwealth started to assume an importance it had not had for more than 40 years. The talk was now of trading globally: with China, and Brazil, of course, but more to the point with those nations with whom the British share ties of history, blood and language. The new British prime minister, Theresa May, appointed a Secretary of State for International Trade in her cabinet; Dr Liam Fox, who had been one of the most ardent campaigners to leave, and who had been closely associated in his earlier days with the late Lady Thatcher. Dr Fox immediately got on a plane to India, and since then has continued to travel the world to discuss possible trade deals for Britain. He is not permitted to conclude any such deals yet – that cannot happen until Britain has left the EU, which may take another two and half years – but his travels will also include the US, where he has fostered close political links for the last 20 years.

Dr Fox, like Mrs May, also met Malcolm Turnbull when he visited London recently: and Alexander Downer, the Australian High Commissioner in London, let it be known that Australian officials were already in the UK discussing potential deals, and meetings would continue to be held at least twice a year. The prospect of cheaper access to Australia’s wine, beef and dairy products, all highly popular in the UK, as well as to New Zealand lamb, Canadian grain and cheese, and South African wines, is appealing to British consumers, even those who have become increasingly used, since the 1970s, to buying French meat, Italian wines and Spanish cheese.

But the Anglosphere – as memories of those from it who died in those two world wars remind us – is about more than just trade. Britain’s place in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has institutionalised its reliance on the US for its defence: something many Britons are becoming more keenly aware of as Vladimir Putin and Russia become more capricious and unreliable. Because of shared ties of language, culture and history the Anglosphere is popular with the British public, and for now serves the function of a comfortable suit of clothes that has hung in the wardrobe unused for many years but which, on being pulled out, turns out still to fit very well. Added to the fact that millions of Britons have close family members living in those countries, all these considerations make a re-commitment to the Anglosphere popular with many Britons.

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There remains a large proportion of Britons who are angry and offended by the result of June’s referendum, and will not be reconciled to it: but they are nowhere near a majority of opinion, and they understand the benefits of good relations with America and the Commonwealth. They are not hostile to the idea of an Anglosphere, but regret that it seems to be necessary. Once the trade deals start to stack up – as they will – acceptance will grow. Barack Obama was enticed during the referendum campaign to interfere and warn Britons that they would go 'to the back of the queue' if they left the EU when it came to negotiating a trade deal with the US. It had a poor effect on British public opinion, and is credited as one reason why Britain chose to leave. Mr Obama will not be president once the time comes to do a deal, so his views are academic: and numerous other US politicians have gainsaid him, keen as they are to do a deal with the country that is America’s biggest overseas investor. It won’t happen overnight, but the Anglosphere is on its way back as the focus of British engagement with the world.

Photo by Paul Miller/Getty Images


This week former Portuguese PM Antonio Guterres was appointed UN secretary-general for a five-year term starting in January. In the first of a two-part series, Sarah Frankel examined the immediate challenges facing Guterres come 2017:

It's now Guterres' turn to tackle what many have called 'the most impossible job in the world,' and while he will be taking the helm as an insider with deep expertise in the UN and its organisational culture (unlike Ban), there are several things he should keep in mind to ensure he avoids the pitfalls that vexed his predecessor.

In part two, Frankel highlighted some steps Guterres should take in the few remaining months of 2016 to prepare for his term:

By using his transition wisely to line up a skilled senior team, prove his commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, formulate a communications strategy, and listen to the concerns of key stakeholders, he will stand a better chance of establishing his credibility and hitting the ground running.

Finally, Frankel also speculated as to where former Australian PM Kevin Rudd might end up on ‘team Guterres’: 

Rudd's chances of winning a top spot at the UN will hinge largely on his relationship with Guterres. The two men almost certainly have some sort of relationship, as Rudd's two stints as prime minister overlapped with Guterres' decade as UN refugee chief, but it's unclear how well they get along personally or if the UNHCR's criticisms of Rudd's refugee policies caused any friction between them.

Two notable deaths were marked on The Interpreter this week, the first was King Bhimibol of Thailand. Herve Lemahieu wrote:

The genuine outpouring of grief and affection for the late king speaks volumes about Bhumibol. Over seven decades he became the preeminent symbol of his country, yet he remained an enigma: a figure of stability and unity who leaves behind a profoundly divided country; a constitutional monarch with few legal powers but the status of a semi-divine ruler; a man of the people and particularly of the agrarian classes but also aloof, sober and conservative in character. So personalised was the affection and support he commanded that there are questions as to the continued viability of the monarchy, the prestige of which he helped rebuild. So powerful has become the myth of the mediating father figure, it seems the political system no longer entirely trusts itself to function in the absence of his political legitimacy.

Desmond Ball, ANU defence and security scholar, also died this week. Paul Monk:

Our esteem for Des and his academic work and his bluff, worldly, candid personality should not lapse due to short memory. He has been one of this country’s finest analysts of the outside world and of US forces and we are all indebted to him for his scholarship, his honesty, his attention to detail and the very Australian character of the liberties he took and the freedoms he cherished – here and abroad.

On Wednesday the Australian Cyber Security Centre released its 2016 Threat Report. Fergus Hanson:

The newly released Australian Cyber Security Centre Threat Report contains some fascinating tit-bits and telegraphing of messages. It's the Centre's second report but the first since the Government released its Cyber Security Strategy. Here are my takeaways:

Brendan Thomas-Noone examined what the report had to say about Australia’s information systems:

The control, security and credibility of information is central to the cyber domain. Financial markets operate smoothly because the public has confidence in the integrity of online banking information. Critical infrastructure is safe because it is difficult for terrorists to not only gain access to those networks, but also know what to do once they get there.

Information is also central to how our political system operates, to how the public is informed by the media, and to how public opinion is shaped. Information operations, as they are referred to in the military, can be used to influence decision-makers, convince the public of a particular narrative or encourage others to follow a particular course of action. 

Hugh White outlined how Australian officials should go about writing a Foreign Affairs White Paper:

In fact, there is a lot we can say, and some important decisions we can make. A Foreign Affairs White Paper could be a really valuable and important document, if done right. And at the risk of seeming partial, I’d suggest that doing it right means doing it the way we’d do a Defence White Paper – or at least the way we should do a Defence White Paper.  

It seems pointless to try picking a winner or a loser from the US presidential debate on Monday, wrote James Bowen: 

It’s more tempting to repeat a common joke from the current campaign: there was only one loser and its name was ‘America’ (given the great external interest in the campaign this could be extended to ‘the world’).

Northeast Asia faces two very different US approaches to the region following the presidential election in November, wrote Robert E Kelly: 

Hillary Clinton basically promises the status quo regarding the US role in the region. True, she has backpedalled on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and her hawkish, interventionist instincts suggest more involvement in the Middle East, which implies less attention to Asian security. But she promises no revolution...Donald Trump, of course, is much harder to predict.

Bec Strating analysed how the maritime border dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste is likely to play out from here: 

The problem with the Timorese government’s foreign policy strategy is that Timor-Leste is running out of time, and Australia knows it. The Bayu-Undan oil field will stop producing in 2022 and the $16 billion sovereign wealth fund could be depleted by 2025. From 2010 to 2015, the revenues that flowed from the Joint Petroleum Development Area furnished approximately 90% of Timor-Leste’s state budget, and 70% of total GDP. 

Timor-Leste’s bargaining vulnerabilities means it is likely that Australia will prolong boundary negotiations for as long as possible.

Last week US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Russia should be investigated for war crimes; this would be an error, argued Matthew Dal Santo:

In Russia the perception is widespread that Moscow is only entitled to the foreign policy that the West allows it to have. Whereas as Washington is empowered to dismiss and summon sovereigns, making and unmaking states from Iraq to Libya, Ukraine and Syria, Russia is not entitled to submit an opinion on the survival of an allied state. 

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for public protests outside Russia’s embassy in London – at once a puerile and understandable comment, wrote Shashank Joshi:

Johnson’s remarks need to be understood with two pieces of context in mind. The first is that his speech was in part a response to the increasingly grotesque hypocrisy of Britain’s fringe left, now in control at the top of the Labour Party … the second piece of context is Moscow’s disgraceful record on protecting foreign diplomats within its own borders.

In a part of the world where political transitions are scarce commodity, the death of Islam Karimov and the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan presents Western powers with a rare opportunity, argued Deidre Tynan and Magdalena Grono:

Since Uzbekistan's main partners in Russia and China have little interest in seeing an injection of liberalisation into the region, it is up to the US and the EU to play a more active role. For example, their ability to offer technical improvements in the farming, energy and water sectors can help decrease Uzbekistan's reliance on and frictions with neighbours. But there should be a quid pro quo that Tashkent opens up too.

Finally, Ben Wellings made the case for Australia playing it cool on a prospective FTA with a post-Brexit Britain:

Here’s the rub: no formal negotiations with the UK can begin before it leaves the EU. If they began too soon, Australia and the UK would jeopardise both sets of negotiations and harden European attitudes.

 Photo: Getty Images/Drew Angerer


The passing of an ailing octogenarian can never be truly unexpected. Yet the mood in Thailand is one of collective shock at the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Against this backdrop, the military transitional government of Prayut Chan-Ocha has begun laying out a carefully choreographed royal transition. The process must be seen to be smooth and orderly precisely, because it threatens to upend so much of Thai politics and society. 

The genuine outpouring of grief and affection for the late king speaks volumes about Bhumibol. Over seven decades he became the preeminent symbol of his country, yet he remained an enigma: a figure of stability and unity who leaves behind a profoundly divided country; a constitutional monarch with few legal powers but the status of a semi-divine ruler; a man of the people and particularly of the agrarian classes but also aloof, sober and conservative in character. So personalised was the affection and support he commanded that there are questions as to the continued viability of the monarchy, the prestige of which he helped rebuild. So powerful has become the myth of the mediating father figure, it seems the political system no longer entirely trusts itself to function in the absence of his political legitimacy.  

In this sense, the outpouring of grief also speaks volumes of the anxiety for the political vacuum now confronting the country. Prayut, above all else, is a political realist. He was quick yesterday to do two things: he confirmed that his government will recommend that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn succeed his father on the throne, thereby pre-empting any possible destabilising moves by ultra-royalists to stall the succession or propose the crown prince’s sister Princess Sirindhorn (who is viewed as more of an insider) as regent. The prime minister also declared an extended twelve-month period of official mourning. That will be crucial in buying time for further behind the scenes jockeying – in particular to reconcile the crown prince with members of the Privy Council more loyal to his late father, while focussing the public’s attention on the pomp and ceremony of the occasion. 

For now Thailand has been given time to adjust to the shifting tectonic plates in the monarchy. However, a year of official mourning could also feasibly be used as a pretext for postponing promised elections in 2017, should the military consider the stability of its newly passed constitution to be imperilled. 

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

  • A fantastic piece in the Atlantic on how social media is being weaponised around the world with the help of filtered Instragram pics, Twitter bots and hashtags.
  • Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi warns her diplomats they can't hide in the digital era and need to adjust the way they work (including by focusing on better open-source reporting) in order to represent Indonesia abroad. 
  • New research shows there has been a drastic drop in the media and propaganda operations of ISIS. 
  • An updated analysis of the Twitter networks of Ministries of Foreign Affairs finds the UK, Russia and Sweden are the A-Team of twitter diplomacy.
  • No sector is immune to digital disruption and now espionage, the world's second-oldest profession, is having to adjust its tradecraft to both keep up with and leverage technological advancements.
  • Social media, and WhatsApp in particular, is threatening Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. 
  • A big part of Canada's digital diplomacy efforts includes a $9 million investment in the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab to promote Internet freedom by developing technologies that circumvent internet firewalls in countries run by repressive regimes. So it was particularly awkward when last month the same Lab discovered a Canadian company is helping the Bahraini Government censor news and opposition sites.
  • A hilarious and bizarre Twitter battle between Denmark and Sweden over moose and the global sperm market.
  • Canberra-based UK diplomat George Morrison on the value of digital diplomacy.
  • Russia is taking cyber influencing (and twitter diplomacy) to new levels.
  • On that front, former ASIO head David Irvine shares his views on covert cyber influencing (from 12:00):



As with many of those who die of cancer, the death of Desmond Ball this week did not come as a surprise to those who knew him. He had been ill for quite some time. Still, when it occurs, the death of someone we have known and esteemed always gives us pause. So it is with Des.

In my case, having known Des for over thirty years, read his books and discussed his work both inside and outside the Australian intelligence service, his death is an occasion to reflect both on his very considerable contribution to strategic thought and intelligence analysis in this country, and on mortality itself.

As Des’s illness worsened over the past couple of years, I was fortunate in my own arm-wrestle with cancer and am now in full remission. Des did not have that good fortune. In more than the usual sense, therefore, I am led to reflect on the fact that he is gone and I am still here.

I first met Des at ANU in 1983, when I arrived to undertake a PhD in international relations. He was in his prime then. In the 1970s, he had won a national reputation and the beginnings of an international one for his probing inquiries into the nature and uses of US bases in Australia and the structure of the famous Five Eyes intelligence alliance. 

That was the Reagan era, and 1983 saw a particularly worrisome nuclear crisis, not widely reported at the time. Des’s work on nuclear strategy and the inherent flaws in nuclear war-fighting doctrine was immensely important and insightful. It has been praised by former US President Jimmy Carter as a major contribution to keeping the use of nuclear weapons in check and beginning the long process of de-escalation under the SALT treaties.

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At the end of the 1980s, having completed my PhD, I applied to work for the Department of Defence. I was initially denied security clearances and it became clear than one indirect reason was Des Ball.

The chief security officer at what was then called the Joint Intelligence Organisation (renamed the Defence Intelligence Organisation in 1990) declared to my face: ‘The biggest security threat in this country is not the KGB and it’s not the Chinese. It’s journalists and academics – and you’re an academic. Take this Des Ball, now. He is a very dangerous man!’

That was in early 1990. I was able, finally, to get my clearances and worked in DIO for some years. Once accepted, I busily cultivated contacts with as many good academics as I could, including Des. His books were by a wide margin the best and most informative sources in the public domain on the Australian intelligence system and its foreign linkages.

In 1994, I was myself on a recruitment interview panel for applicants to join DIO. One of my questions to each candidate was whether they had read any particular book that had motivated them to want to work in intelligence and, in particular, any of the books by Des Ball. I was dismayed to discover that not one of them could name any such book. They had certainly not read Des’s book on Pine Gap, or his classic (with Jeffrey Richelson) The Ties That Bind (1979).

I stayed in touch with Des after leaving DIO and, in 1998, reviewed his book Breaking the Codes, about the Venona intercepts and the discovery of the Clayton spy ring in Australia in the 1940s (which included spies inside the Department of External Affairs and the office of the Minister of External Affairs). This, from a man deemed ‘very dangerous’ by JIO only eight years earlier.

In 2000, Des asked me whether I would review his hard hitting indictment of the Whitlam and Fraser governments’ handling of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and, in particular, the deaths of five Australian-based journalists at Balibo, in October 1975: Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra. I have seldom given so much minute attention to a review as I did in that case and I pointed out a number of flaws in the argument that he and his co-author Hamish McDonald had made in the book. It was a characteristic of Des that he was in no way defensive about this.

Perhaps because of his reputation in his early years, as well as the subject matter of many of his books and the overlaps with my own interests and concerns, I have long identified Des with Midnight Oil and, as I write this I am listening, for the first time in years, to their famous songs ‘Outside World’, ‘US Forces’ and ‘Short Memory’, among others.

Our esteem for Des and his academic work and his bluff, worldly, candid personality should not lapse due to short memory. He has been one of this country’s finest analysts of the outside world and of US forces and we are all indebted to him for his scholarship, his honesty, his attention to detail and the very Australian character of the liberties he took and the freedoms he cherished – here and abroad.

I did not get to see him in his last months and am therefore prompted to call to mind at his passing away the very fine elegy by the Roman poet Catullus, who arrived back in Italy from travels in Greece too late to see his brother before the latter passed away. He wrote (I would love to quote him in the original Latin, but I fear too few would be able now to understand it, so I shall offer my own somewhat free prose translation):

I have come across whole countries and over the sea, brother, full of misgivings, to offer you the last gift to the dead and to address in vain your mute ashes. It seems that the roll of the dice has deprived us of you unjustly, luckless, brave, comrade in arms. Still, here and now, let me utter such things as are, by ancient tradition, offered up at such sad obsequies: accept my grieving, fraternal commemoration within your emptied house. Hail, brother, and forever farewell.