Lowy Institute

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.

Read More

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seemed to be some increase in openness under former President Hu Jintao, it appears that this is being systematically rescinded under President Xi Jinping.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.

Read More

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


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

5 of 8

Ken Ward is to be congratulated for a straight forward and sober analysis of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. In his own matter of fact style, Ken takes us through a complex relationship and provides unique understanding and insight.

His core point is that the Australia-Indonesia relationship has been, and will always be, punctuated by varying degrees of crisis. He argues that is something we just have to get used to and we should reset our expectations accordingly. In Ken's view, the best governments can hope to do is better understand Indonesia's point of view. Policy settings and the political narrative can be managed with those sensitivities in mind, rather than responding to a media and/or opposition driven narrative.

As Hugh White has argued in this debate, this advice is sensible enough, particularly if we are happy with the status quo and simply want to manage the current relationship more effectively. Although Hugh argues policy that is good today might not be fit for the future because the regional strategic environment is changing.

But should we even be happy with how the relationship is today? I would argue we should not. In fact our relationship is a long way short of where it ought to be in today's environment, let alone where we should aspire taking it.

Read More

The Australia-Indonesia relationship has never been more important. Nearly 70 years after Indonesia achieved independence from Dutch rule, we still don't really understand them. This was no more apparent than in the recent Lowy Institute Poll that found a staggering 66% of Australians do not regard Indonesia as a democracy, 15 years on from President Soeharto standing down. And just 42% said they 'know' of President Joko Widodo. With the Lowy thermometer hitting an 8 year low at 46 degrees, Australians put Indonesia in the same basket as Russia and Egypt.

That is not the kind of place you would like to see our closest neighbour occupy in our national psyche.

GDP growth below 3% is the new normal for Australia, yet we have on our doorstep an economy and market of 250 million people. Half of Indonesia's citizens are under 30 years old and the middle class is expected to exceed 140 million inside the next decade. Indonesia, already the 9th largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms, could become the 5th largest in the next 15 years according to PwC modelling. In 2030, the Indonesian economy could be three times bigger than ours.

Of course, implementing structural reforms, fixing infrastructure and combating corruption are very real challenges to Indonesia achieving this potential. Australia should absolutely be Indonesia's preferred partner to help solve these challenges. But we are not. One of the reasons for that is we just don't have the deep commercial ties that build understanding and trust. Our trade and investment relationship is way below par. Indonesia sits outside our top 10 partners in two-way trade and receives less than 2% of our stock of foreign direct investment.

A healthy and vibrant Indonesia is most importantly a thing good for Indonesians. But it's also good for Australia. Good in economic terms and good for our shared security interests.

There is plenty of room for Australia in Indonesia, but we have to be more ambitious in how we think about the relationship. A bipartisan approach and greater respect for the Indonesian view point is needed. Diplomacy behind closed doors and out of the media spotlight is a far more effective way to navigate these issues.

But if we want to be more than just bystanders we will have to seriously rethink our engagement model. Indonesians do not get up in the morning and look south for guidance. They look north, as we do. China, Japan, Korea, the US and Europeans are well ahead of us.

We can choose to continue down a path punctuated by the recurring crises that Ken so compellingly argues are inevitable. The alternative is to double-down on our investment. This will require courage and a healthy measure of leadership if we are to reset the relationship for the next 25 years. We can and must do better – we simply can't afford not to.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Four days ago, French President François Hollande declared his in-principle commitment to the creation of a 'euro government, with the addition of a specific budget and a parliament to ensure democratic control.' 

This is more an opening gambit in a debate about the terms of putative federalisation (a term Hollande was careful to avoid), than a statement of French commitment to it at all costs. 

If some form of federalisation comes about, it will not be because the French especially desire it, but because the logic of the Euro ultimately demands it.

There has been talk of political and fiscal union since the crisis erupted five years ago. It was one of two options for resolving the Euro crisis that the German Government seriously considered, before ultimately rejecting it in favour of the inter-state negotiations that produced the treaties creating the European Fiscal Compact and the Single Supervisory Mechanism, or banking union.

But the Greek debacle has demonstrated the limits of the inter-governmental approach. In the final resort, enforcing Eurozone rules requires a form of political control over member-states.

Read More

Germany is also in a better position to dictate the kind of federalism the Eurozone might adopt. Though German taxpayers have become more exposed to other Eurozone members' debts, Berlin has put that money to good effect, using it to extend its reach over afflicted countries' fiscal affairs. 

In Hollande's formula, the emphasis lies on 'democratic control' of the 'common budget'. For Germany, however, the aim would not be to create a European 'demos', but to gain control of (wayward) members fiscal policies.

Thus, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble – Germany's most popular politician – called a year ago for 'a European budget commissioner with powers to reject national budgets if they do not correspond to the rules … jointly agreed' and 'a 'Eurozone parliament' comprising the MEPs of Eurozone countries to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of decisions affecting the single currency bloc.'

For Berlin, then, the ideal form of European political and fiscal union would offer indirect, but reliable, control over the fiscal policies of other Eurozone members to ensure their 'competitiveness' and the euro's long-term stability, but the retention of national control over those issues that underpin Germany's position as Europe's paramount power. 

Perhaps the jurisdiction of a Eurozone parliament could be limited to questions pertaining to the shared treasury (unless, say, a bill gained a super-majority of votes). 

To make it an instrument for policies hatched in Berlin, Germany could write the rules of the 2012 Fiscal Compact into any potential Eurozone constitution that established the parliament: mandated balanced budgets, the elimination of structural deficits, maximum debt-to-GDP ceilings, etc. The same constitution could also empower a federal finance ministry to rewrite national budgets that fell short. 

In return, a common Eurozone treasury, financed by indirect taxes – a classic compromise for nascent federations (for example, the 19th century US, the German Empire after 1871, and the Australian Commonwealth before 1942) – could issue common Euro bonds to mutualise a portion of member-states' debts.

With direct taxes still collected by national governments, and with Germany remaining the biggest of those, ultimate financial firepower would remain in the hands of the Bundestag, meaning the German chancellor would remain Europe's de facto leader for long as Germany remained Europe's strongest economy. 

For the same reason, the independent European Central Bank would also be beyond the control of the Eurozone parliament, but not much less heedful of the German chancellor than today.

This might sound like an odd form of federalism (and such a Eurozone would still be more a con-federal than fully federal state). 

But Prussia's leading role within the post-1871 German Empire – an 'emphatically devolved' 'confederation of sovereign principalities' that left the sovereignty, parliaments, armies and diplomatic corps of the smaller German kingdoms and duchies intact – offers a historical model. (Since the foundation of Imperial Germany's power was the Prussian army, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was often more powerful as chancellor of Prussia than of Germany.)

The trick would be in getting the rest of the Eurozone to agree to it.

Here, Chancellor Merkel could again take a leaf out of Bismarck's book. Indeed, perhaps she already has. 

19th century Germany and federalism

In 1859, Germany was a collection of some 39 sovereign states, loosely gathered in a 'German Confederation' (like the EU, a customs union but not a state). Helped by an economic boom from 1850, Bismarck united them by demonstrating the indispensability of Prussian leadership of a nascent but disunited German nation in Europe that had never before existed as a political entity. 

In the Danish War (1864), the Austrian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870), Bismarck ensured that each crisis drew the minor German states into closer political and economic dependence on Prussia, until in 1871 a federal German Empire with Prussia as its largest state was at last proclaimed. 

By design or default Germany has followed a similar path today, using its economy – the world's fourth largest – rather than its army. 

Germany represents somewhat less than 25% of the population of the Eurozone and about one third of its economic output, making it less hegemonic than Prussia was in Imperial Germany (62% of the population). 

But it has the support of a larger block of friendly states tied more or less economically to it: the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. And as the German economy has stood firm while other big countries (France, Spain and Italy) have wilted, the 2010-15 European sovereign debt crisis has amplified Germany's political influence disproportionately. 

Indeed, when Paris emerged as Greece's defender in Brussels 10 days ago, it was partly replaying Vienna's (ultimately doomed) attempt to thwart Prussian dominance over the minor German states in the 1860s. What France was really defending was not Greek sovereignty, but its own. 

Perhaps all that stands between Germany and a Eurozone federalised on German terms is a French debt crisis – and Paris hasn't balanced a budget since the 1970s.

Nationalism, the missing ingredient

But no iron law says a federal, or more federalised, Europe must come into being. By comparison with the 19th century, the essential ingredient of nationalism is missing. 

Yet, while anti-EU sentiment has grown, what has been remarkable during the crisis are the sacrifices that European peoples have been prepared to endure in the name of the common currency. 

Greeks (so, at least, it seems for now) preferred capitulation to being cast out of the euro, partly suggesting their hard-won identity as modern 'Europeans' was dearer to them.

A majority of Germans might believe the latest bailout 'bad' or 'very bad' for Germany. But if the government will not fall over it, it's partly because Germans have learned to see their future as bound up, for better or for worse, with Europe's. The only long-term alternative to federalisation, Germany's departure from the euro, attracts little support.

Of course, learning to live in a federal Europe won't be easy for anyone. Though it would now be cloaked in the greater legitimacy of federal structures, southerners would still resent the intrusions of federal supervisors and agents. 

But they would at least feel that northern Europe finally stood behind them, come what might economically in the 21st century. Europe's 'new normal' – a chronic squabble over the redistribution of fiscal revenues that a federal state could effect without so much controversy – would be over. 

And it would be difficult, not least, for Germany. The creation of the German Empire made German, and its Prussian core, one of the world's great powers.

But as Australian historian Christopher Clark writes in his award-winning Iron Kingdom: The rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 , Prussia 'had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany.' He continues that, 'Perhaps the most striking thing about the new political order was the weakness of the central authority.' 

In the long run, even Germany might find such a federal Europe frustratingly limiting. Like every federal venture before it in history, Europe's would doubtless grow more adventurous with time. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user European People's Party.


By the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program Director, Jenny Hayward-Jones and Research Associate Philippa Brant


Lowy Institute Paper

Debating Condemned to Crisis?

4 of 8

Maybe it's just the title – Condemned to Crisis? – that gives Ken Ward's book such a downbeat despairing tone, as if the accident of geography has locked us in an unhappy marriage with Indonesia and there is not much we can do about it.

Of course we should be realistic: we won't ever have the sort of familial ties that we have with New Zealand. The intrinsic sensitivities will be more substantial than the petty sibling rivalries we have with our Kiwi brothers. But we don't have to accept serial crises as the norm.

In examining the history, we should separate the problems which were unavoidable from those which were 'unforced errors' or 'own goals'. We can avoid the latter by trying harder.

Ken spends a significant amount of time on the Bali Two. This was an intrinsic conflict-point that was never going to work out well. It was hard for Australia to run an 'in principle' argument against the death penalty, given our stance on the Bali Bombers a few years earlier. But it was an 'unforced error' to link this to the Aceh aid. Even if you knew nothing about how Indonesia might react, the fact that this argument had been put forward by Alan Jones should have been a caution.

The wider lesson here is that our politicians understandably ask themselves what the Australian public are likely to think: our politicians have less concern for the Indonesian public, who don't vote here. With a few notable exceptions, our politicians understand that there is a degree of xenophobia just below the surface in Australia (as everywhere) and the unwritten rule is that this should not be exploited just to win votes.

Is it too much to expect Australian politicians to go a little further, showing international sensitivity?

Read More

Live cattle exports produced another 'unforced error'. The ABC video was horrifying. Why didn't the live cattle industry see this coming? Once the images had been aired, the proper answer was immediate consultations with the Indonesian authorities while putting exports on temporary hold, pending arrangements to ensure that the cattle would be treated humanely, if necessary in abattoirs funded by our exporters.

Eavesdropping on the President's wife demonstrated an abysmal lack of judgment on the part of our intelligence service. Our damage-control added insult to injury. Instead of quickly saying that we wouldn't do this sort of thing again, we used SBY's desire to deal with it quickly as an excuse for changing nothing

The problem in Australian intelligence seems more systemic. It needs a more active watchdog than it has at present, and a thorough analysis of just how much of this 'intelligence' is just juicy gossip and ephemera. Let's shift resources into conventional diplomacy.

Operation Sovereign Borders also needs tougher oversight. If we are concerned about our sovereign borders, why would Indonesians (with a more fraught history) be less sensitive? A simple GPS plotter, as carried by any recreational boat that ventures onto the open sea, shows where the border is and where your boat is. You can check the coordinates yourself. It wasn't just the Indonesian public that were sceptical that a 'modern Western navy had made repeated accidental incursions'.

Thus looking back, there was nothing inevitable about these mistakes. We could have done better. But what about the future?

The first step is sensitivity training all round. Next time a government does a deal to rotate US troops through Darwin, let's chat with Jakarta before we announce it.

This sensitivity-training might involve getting to know Indonesia better. Our media editors are more interested in titillating stories about Schappelle Corby than in helping Australians understand their near neighbor. When the chief editor of the national newspaper suggests that Indonesia is 'probably the most corrupt country on earth', you can see how big the challenge is.

Upgrading understanding is hard work, but we should identify the places where our interests impinge or even coincide, and turn these into opportunities. The Australian Federal Police built a deep relationship with its Indonesian counterpart, but it took substantial resources. Specialised assets such as the ANU Indonesia Project on economics (celebrating its 50th anniversary this week) has been run on a shoe-string budget, without the resources to build more widely on its peerless Indonesian contacts, or take its accumulated knowledge to a global audience.

The obvious potential friction-point is Papua (not much discussed by Ken). There will be well-meaning Australians who are shocked by what happens there, and will want to do something – most likely protest at least. NGOs will likely want to go. For their part, Indonesians have a lot of historical colonial baggage there. Whenever we say we want Papua to remain part of Indonesia, they think 'that's what you said about Timor'. What's our plan for handling this inevitable conflict-point?

The supposed wise heads in Canberra tell us that these little tiffs in the relationship are normal and quickly forgotten. This is wrong. The relationship is like a marriage, with accumulated never-forgotten slights. We did better in the past, retaining working diplomatic relationships during Konfrontasi while simultaneously fighting Indonesia in Borneo. This diplomatic dexterity made it possible to quickly build close relations after 1966. We need to try harder, and the starting point is to recognise that this is worth doing.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.


This week the third in the Lowy Insitute Paper series, published by Penguin, was released. Condemned to Crisis?, by former ONA analyst and Indonesia specialist Ken Ward, examines the Australia-Indonesia relationship and argues that Australian governments need to be more realistic about the  prospects for the relationship with what has long been seen as Australia's most important neighbour. The Interpreter has kicked off a debate on the Paper. Aaron Connelly, the Institute's East Asia Fellow, was the first reviewer:

If Australia and Indonesia are 'condemned to crisis' and cannot reasonably aspire to a strong friendship, should Australia continue to invest time, money, and effort in a better relationship? Should its embassy in Jakarta remain its largest in the world, with a new consulate to be opened soon in Makassar? Should it continue to spend hundreds of millions in aid each year on Indonesia? Should Australians study Indonesian in school and work harder to learn more about their northern neighbour? Should Australian companies, as Julie Bishop has argued, step up investment in Indonesia and trade with Indonesia?

Hugh White also weighed in, saying that considering the changing regional security and economic order, the Indonesia relationship will only grow in importance for Australia:

These thoughts might nudge us towards some conclusions a little different from Ken's. In particular it might lead us to ask whether the relationship with Indonesia will become more important to us in future than it has been in the past, presenting both bigger risks and bigger opportunities.

If so, then perhaps we should not be as content as Ken appears to be with a relationship which is somewhat better managed but not essentially different from the troubled one we know today. In turn, that suggests Australian policymakers should put higher priority on changing the basics of the relationship rather than just managing it.

In her review, Greta Nabbs-Keller pointed to Ward's efforts to combat the 'cultural differences' argument:

Read More

Importantly, Ward dissects the 'cultural differences' argument, long assumed to be at the heart of ongoing tensions between the two countries. By comparing Indonesia's equally thorny relations with neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, two countries which share much closer cultural affinities with Indonesia, Ward demonstrates how Jakarta's acute sensitivity about its sovereignty and territorial integrity are key causal factors behind Indonesia's political differences with its neighbours. 

Robert Kelly continued his assessment of history and political issues in North East Asia:

The Korean, and Chinese, moral positions on the war and Japan's empire are correct. But a great deal of politics has enabled surprising Japanese recalcitrance. While no one expects moderation from the Chinese Communist Party, South Korea might smooth the path by rolling back some of its most maximal positions, such as points 3 and 4 above. None directly impact South Korean security or growth. All would strip the political cover from Japanese conservatives who claim 'Korea fatigue' as cause to reject concessions.

Drawing on a somewhat forgotten episode in economic history, Stephen Grenville reminded us that we can learn lessons about Greece from Indonesian debt restructuring in 1966:

This highlights the big difference between Indonesia in 1966 and Greece in 2015. In Indonesia, there was full agreement and 'buy-in' on what should be done, and the key objective was to get the economy functioning normally. There was also a realistic view of how much 'structural' reform could occur. The answer was 'not much'. Three decades later, when Indonesia got into trouble again during the Asian financial crisis, the IMF identified many still-unfixed structural faults: cronyism, inefficient state-owned enterprises, an ill-supervised banking system and of course the famous clove monopoly. But in 1966, it was enough to get the economy moving forward again at a brisk pace (7% per year for the next three decades).

The US-Australian military exercise Talisman Sabre concluded this week. Euan Graham on the new additions to the exercise this year:

The embedding of Japanese and New Zealand contingents with the US Marines and ADF respectively was the most noteworthy innovation to Talisman Sabre 2015, lending the core bilateral format a loose quadrilateral aspect. It remains to be seen how significant this is as a precursor for wider defence cooperation involving two of Washington's traditionally reticent Pacific allies. But China is likely to have taken note, regardless of whether a strategic signal was intended or not, and despite official assurances that Talisman Sabre is not aimed at third countries. 

An excellent post from Trish Nicholson on the importance of expressing and understanding narrative in aid and development:

Insisting that 'stories matter' is not simply a novelist's whim. A growing body of research shows that stories increase empathy and understanding; they affect our attitudes and judgements. Oliver Sacks' career choice was not influenced by hearing his medico parents discuss case histories at the dinner table, but by listening to them telling the human stories of those patients. His storytelling has enlightened millions of readers on the complexities of brain science. He wrote in his autobiography: 'I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition going along with our powers of language'.

What is the ultimate strategy of ISIS? Hussain Nadim says it may be to turn Western governments against their Muslim populations:

The major purpose of radicalising young Muslims in the West is to inspire attacks on Western soil. But the real target is not Western society or its people. Attacks in Western cities may on the surface appear to be targeted against Western culture and ideology, but in reality these attacks are directed at the Muslim communities living in the Western world. ISIS understands that such attacks will spur a backlash against Muslims, thus alienating and isolating them in Western societies. If Muslims living in the West are alienated by both Western governments and their people, radical anti-Western discourse will start making sense to them.

Also, with what is believed to have been an ISIS suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc last week, Lauren Williams says that Turkey may finally be forced to confront the threat on its borders:

Yet many feel that more could and should have been done to combat the group sooner, and evidence continues to emerge that Ankara has allowed ISIS to entrench itself in Turkish border areas, even given its members safe haven to the Islamists inside Turkish territory. Thousands of foreign fighters have crossed through Turkey to join ISIS over the last few years, fuelling accusations that the government is turning a blind eye. Recent reports have circulated, notably a leaked memo from Turkey's national police, that point to evidence of ISIS 'sleeper cells' at work throughout the country and along Turkey's border with Syria.

Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders changing the political debate in the US? James Bowen:

For all the weight that has been attached to the impressive crowds and polling results Trump and Sanders have attracted so far, the most likely outcome still appears to be for the primaries process to turn out two thoroughly establishment candidates, as it has reliably done in years past. Nonetheless, the concerns brought to the surface by the two outliers could still have a significant impact on the public debate and on the contest between the eventual candidates. So too could the newly empowered black rights movement.

Vanessa Newby takes us through the history of US involvement in Iran, primarily in encouraging its democratisation:

For a long time Iran turned to America to help free it from its imperial overlords, particularly Russia and Britain, until the fateful Mossadeq Affair in 1953, which constituted the initial breach of trust between the two countries. Later events hardened attitudes on both sides; Mohammed Reza Shah tried to play the Americans over oil prices, a tactic which ended in disaster when the US changed tack and began to ally more closely with the Saudis (somethingAndrew Scott Cooper details superbly in The Oil Kings). The final blow was struck during the 444 days of the American hostage crisis. Thereafter, the bitterness set in.

Roman David and Ian Holliday with an analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi's political calculus and choices in the lead up to the election in Burma later this year:

A representative survey we conducted in the final two months of 2014 in Myanmar's two main regions (Yangon and Mandalay) and three of its ethnic states (Kachin, Kayin and Shan) confirmed that her domestic support remains solid. She is trusted by almost two-thirds of respondents, building clear majorities among men and women, urban and rural dwellers, and the well and poorly educated. Across ethnic groups and in distinct parts of the country there is also trust for Suu Kyi. Moreover, the National League for Democracy (NLD; which remains her political vehicle) was selected by 52% of prospective voters, leaving far behind the governing (and military-backed) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) with 19%, as well as ethnic parties grouped together with 23%.

Jokowi may have taken a holiday at an opportune time in order to gain some control of his cabinet reshuffle, writes Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

Megawati Sukarnoputri, Jokowi's party leader, placed a sign outside her residence in Jakarta announcing that she would not host an open day on the first day of Lebaran. Nonetheless, a stream of influential people stopped by her house to pay their respects. One person of influence who was notably absent was President Jokowi, who broke tradition by leaving the capital for the holiday to celebrate in the far western province of Aceh.

Commentators saw the move as an attempt to avoid meeting with Megawati before announcing a cabinet reshuffle. The current cabinet line-up, like the rest of Jokowi's decisions as president, has been criticised as showing too much influence from Megawati. To avoid the label of being Megawati's 'puppet', Jokowi wants to show that the next cabinet will be formed at his discretion alone, observers say.

Elliot Brennan on the rise of piracy in Southeast Asia:

Many worry about an increase in insurance premiums. Lessons from Somalia indicate that we should be worried about far more than just the economics. Wealth gained from such piracy in Somalia supported increased criminality and the terrorist activities of Al Shabaab. If such activities are allowed to continue unchallenged the region may face similar problems.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.


On Tuesday, the US$100 billion BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) was opened in Shanghai by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This follows the institution's entry into force, confirmed two weeks ago at the 2015 BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia. This, along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank's (AIIB) signing ceremony on 29 June, marks a substantial month in the establishment of new additions to the multilateral development banking system.

The vibe at the NDB inauguration here in Shanghai was buoyant and optimistic, with the rhetoric focused on innovation in solving global investment problems and complementing existing institutions. The NDB was lauded as a major step forward for BRICS cooperation and for collaboration among emerging markets more broadly, as well as being seen as a rebuttal to cynics who have questioned the capacity of the BRICS forum to deliver concrete outcomes.

As my colleague Ye Yu recently noted, the NDB aims to finance investment projects and contribute to economic development in emerging market and developing economies, particularly through infrastructure and energy projects. Judging by the rhetoric invoked at the launch, it's likely that 'new' will become the watchword for the institution. Based on the concept that economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern first espoused back in 2012, the Bank will aspire to new mandates, new instruments and new practices.

The NDB's leadership team said the organisation will adhere to four defining principles: it will be professional, efficient, transparent and green. 

Read More
  • 'Professional' is to assure the international community that the NDB will operate to a standard expected from a global institution. This is particularly important given the Bank will aim for 'next practice, not best practice'. This infers that rather than the Bretton Woods 'high standards', where institutions set the minimum social and environmental criterion before they lend (even if those standards are more strenuous than national settings), the NDB's lending will be made on the basis of domestic standards and 'be flexible to local conditions'.
  • 'Efficient' refers to '21st century governance arrangements' such as a non-resident board and a leaner, flatter institutional structure and decision-making process than in the Bretton Woods institutions. On staffing, disgruntled employees at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other regional banks who have been dusting off their CVs may need to look elsewhere. Rather than drawing heavily from the established banks, the NDB will look to recruit and train bright and inexperienced young talent from BRICS countries.
  • The transparency principle will need to be laid out in detail in coming months, but will be a crucial component to operations, particularly if the bank aims for 'reasonable returns' rather than a strict profit-maximising approach. 
  • 'Green' is meant to be more than just a catch phrase. The Bank's vision is to not compromise on environmental standards. Clean energy and new technologies are seen as a key part of the NDB's business model. 

The NDB will need to hit the ground running. Its executive board will be expected to make decisions on its first tranche of loans as soon as April next year. Judging by remarks from the Bank's President, KV Kamath, the first loan could already have been identified. It will be issued under a public-private partnership and is likely to be renminbi-denominated. 

Many questions are unanswered and a lot of crucial specifics around operations need to be put in place in the short period before the first loans are determined. These questions include the acceptable level of public disclosure concerning the decisions made and the information that led to them, environmental and social safeguards policies, and locations and participants in projects.

The initial US$100 billion capital base will likely be gradually phased in over multiple installments. The NDB will need to be innovative in the way it raises and disburses funds and in how it partners with private and public institutions if it is to make a significant contribution to global investment shortfalls.

Yet innovations carry risk, particularly if under pressure of rapid processes. There will be high-profile successes and failures in this experiment. The international community will judge the effectiveness of the NDB based on results, and will compare it to the lessons that have been gleaned in the 70 years of Bretton Woods. Like the AIIB, the Bank is aware that its standards will be under a lot of scrutiny.

Photo courtesy of Official Russian Presidency of BRICS.


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

  • Chinese social media is buzzing after a horde of Western models scantily clad as Spartans and delivering salad as a publicity stunt for a Beijing restaurant were accosted and detained by police for disturbing public order.
  • This analysis balances up China's cyber and human collection capabilities in the country's new intelligence war against the US.
  • New research by Citizen Lab has found  about 1.5% of all WeChat posts are censored, including many which are harmless and contain 'outright falsehoods, tabloid gossip, and sensationalism'.
  • China's cost-conscious netizens are more likely to jump on Baidu and search for the price of a Toyota Corolla  or a crossbow than a smartphone.
  • While Uber and Didi Kuaidi battle it out for China's ride-sharing app market, reports claim Uber is struggling to find Chinese investors and expects to lose US$3 billion in the next three years. 
  • BBC's Travel Show sends a host (with no Mandarin) to navigate his way around China's tourist hot spots using only local social media networks and mobile apps.
  • China's first gay web series is attracting attention with 24 million+ views since its 2014 release. The show's producer is also the founder of Zank, one of many gay social apps fighting for supremacy in China's dating app market. (H/t Asia Digital Life Project.)
  • The Chinese Government has blocked encrypted mobile messaging app Telegram amid accusations the app aided the work of Chinese human-rights lawyers.
  • Many are watching for reactions to pop star Taylor Swift's August clothing line launch in China. The collection is peppered with 'T.S 1989' Swift's initials and album title (her year of birth), posing an awkward conundrum for state censors who have scrubbed China's internet of all references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • Some insist commerce will reign over censorship when it comes to Swift's 1989 merchandise; others have turned straight to memes (h/t @fryan): 


Source: IMB data, compiled by Elliot Brennan.

On 1 April, a Malaysia-flagged tanker was attacked and hijacked by 15 to 25 armed pirates off the coast of Borneo. The crew was held hostage at gunpoint while the pirates transferred the tanker's gas cargo to their own vessel before escaping. The incident, reported in the International Maritime Bureau's report this week on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, is just one of a growing number of hijackings and maritime robbery incidents across Southeast Asia. 

On Wednesday, the Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, released data for the first six months of the year. It shows a further escalation of a worrying trend in maritime piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia. 

According to the report, some 92 of the 134 incidents at sea in the first six months of the year occurred in Southeast Asia*. The report shows a significant increase of incidents in Southeast Asia from the same period last year, up from 66 to 92. 

Indonesia (54), Vietnam (13) and Malaysia (11) reported the most incidents of actual and attempted attacks between January and June. The report notes that 'many attacks may have gone unreported' in Indonesia. Of the ten IMB-listed ports and anchorages that recorded three or more incidents, seven were in Southeast Asia. For the region, it marks a strong and continued upward trend over the past five years.

Read More

While the majority of these attacks are opportunistic and low intensity, analysts note that hijacking incidents are increasingly characterised by greater professionalism involving a network of enablers including financiers, forgers, and phantom tankers. There is also a trend toward armed attacks and the hijacking of small coastal tankers; 11 such hijackings occurred in the first half of 2015 in Southeast Asia. 

Singapore and Malaysia were among the flag states whose vessels reported the most attacks this year, so it is not surprising that both countries have been eager to expand cooperation on maritime patrols through the Malacca Straits and around the affected areas. Joint air patrols have been established between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand under the Eyes in the Sky Initiative and through the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (see its first quarter report here).

Yet IMB figures suggest these initiatives have not contained the problem. In June, Malaysia called for cooperation to go further, asking ASEAN states to mount more joint air and sea patrols (Euan Graham explored the prospects of expanding maritime patrols here).

Recent events such as the search for MH370 and the Rohingya boat crisis have demonstrated Southeast Asian states' inability to cooperate at sea. Southeast Asia needs to to ramp up maritime cooperation and develop with the changing security environment. 

The region's capacity to conduct maritime patrols will increase in coming years as countries respond to territorial disputes in the South China Sea by increasing spending on their navies and coast guards. Yet these disputes have actually complicated the prospects for further cooperation because Southeast Asian states are loathe to provoke China by establishing multilateral maritime cooperation.

Many worry about an increase in insurance premiums. Lessons from Somalia indicate that we should be worried about far more than just the economics. Wealth gained from such piracy in Somalia supported increased criminality and the terrorist activities of Al Shabaab. If such activities are allowed to continue unchallenged the region may face similar problems.

While states hold much of the responsibility for security in their littoral zones, shipowners and operators should also boost their capacity to deter pirates. The improved vigilance of crews, and armed guards on some vessels, worked in deterring Somali pirates and may have a similar impact on deterring Southeast Asian piracy and armed robbery. 

For centuries Southeast Asia has felt the scourge of piracy. It will remain a persistent threat but cannot be allowed to further establish itself along one of the world's most important trade routes. The region must overcome its China complex and find a way to separate territorial disputes from the threat of piracy. 

*The IMB report categorises Vietnam (and the South China Sea area) as being in the 'Far East'. This article and the figures herein include data on Vietnam (and the South China Sea) in all references to Southeast Asia.


Why do people commit cruelties on their fellow human beings? Because they're politely told to:

For another recent movie trailer in the same genre, see The Stanford Prison Experiment.

NB: I posted this in haste and didn't make it clear why the themes of this movie are of interest here on The Interpreter. The basic answer is that the movie raises interesting questions about the motivations of those involved in atrocities. See the excellent Wikipedia page on Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners for another example of this type of discussion.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


The streets of Jakarta were quiet over the past week as millions left the capital to return to their hometowns for the holidays. Meanwhile, rumours grew louder over a predicted reshuffle for President Jokowi's cabinet, and police in Jakarta moved swiftly to stop radical groups from escalating tensions in Papua.

Jakartans enjoyed some relief from the usual traffic jams this week as the city emptied out for Lebaran, the longest yearly national holiday that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Police in the capital took on additional duties related to the season such as watching for burglaries in unattended homes and monitoring impromptu parades and road convoys. Another annual event that coincides with the holidays is the tradition of visiting the homes of friends and relatives to exchange greetings and ask forgiveness for any wrongdoings that may have been committed throughout the year. High-profile figures will often host an 'open house' day to let colleagues know when they are welcome to visit.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, Jokowi's party leader, placed a sign outside her residence in Jakarta announcing that she would not host an open day on the first day of Lebaran. Nonetheless, a stream of influential people stopped by her house to pay their respects. One person of influence who was notably absent was President Jokowi, who broke tradition by leaving the capital for the holiday to celebrate in the far western province of Aceh.

Commentators saw the move as an attempt to avoid meeting with Megawati before announcing a cabinet reshuffle. The current cabinet line-up, like the rest of Jokowi's decisions as president, has been criticised as showing too much influence from Megawati. To avoid the label of being Megawati's 'puppet', Jokowi wants to show that the next cabinet will be formed at his discretion alone, observers say.

Read More

However, Jokowi says his visit to Aceh was just the start of a new annual tradition of visiting the regions for the holiday, hoping to show that 'There is more to Indonesia than just Jakarta.' Aceh is often referred to in Indonesia as the 'verandah of Mecca', since it is believed to be the entrance point for the spread of Islam in the country. Jokowi on his visit expressed hope that it would also become a 'gateway of peace' and a 'seedbed for the value of humanity'. He prayed at the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, visited tsunami survivors and handed out packages of staple foods to the people. The president later visited his hometown of Surakarta, where he previously served as mayor, before returning to Jakarta. He finally met with Megawati on Tuesday along with State Secretary Pratikno, who made it clear to local media that the two leaders did not discuss a reshuffle.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the archipelago, a violent incident disrupted the Muslim holiday in the majority-Christian province of Papua.

The violence reportedly began when a group of evangelist Christians threw rocks at Muslims performing prayers at a subdistrict military command in Tolikara. According to reports, several kiosks were set on fire, which spread to a nearby Muslim prayer house. Police responded with gunfire, killing one and injuring at least six others, who all claimed to be bystanders. The National Police have taken responsibility for all shooting injuries. The response by authorities has been swift compared to other cases of violence against minority religions. Jakarta police held a discussion with Islamic groups to prevent further backlash over the incident. A leader of the extremist Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) said the discussion broadened his perspective on the incident, but threatened that his group may retaliate if law enforcement is not seen to follow through.

Photo by Flickr user carol mitchell.