Lowy Institute

A weird and wonderful short documentary here from the New York Times, on the practice by Chinese real estate agents of hiring foreigners to attend launch events for new building developments, thus lending them an 'international' glamour.

(H/t Sinocism.)


Today the Lowy Institute launched 'Australia and the 1951 Refugee Convention', a new Analysis paper from international migration expert and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Dr Khalid Koser. 

Koser argues that the implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention is failing the interests of both states and refugees, and that Australia is well-placed to lead an international effort for reform, which should include greater accountability for states that cause displacement, measures that reduce the need for long-distance asylum-seeking, and steps to reduce the burden on receiving countries.

You can read or download a copy of the Analysis here. Tomorrow on The Interpreter we will post a response to the paper from Professor Jane McAdam, Director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales.

Photo by REUTERS/stringer.


'India First'. This phrase, used liberally by the then Indian prime ministerial candidate from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, captured the imagination of many Indians because it responded to the Indian moment.

In 2013-14, Candidate Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were determined to restore a semblance of pride in a population scarred by corruption scandals and government bloopers. The national shame resulting from the ghastly rape of December 2013 destroyed brand India and darkened the national mood. And the economy, India's invincible proposition to the world for over a decade, began to head south. The nation was restless and impatient. There was a growing clamour for strong leadership. 

This was the India of just over two years ago, when #NaMo began to trend on social media. This was when Candidate Modi would have sensed that he had a fair chance of winning. This was also when the 'man of action', the new loh purush ('man of steel'), made his promises to an expectant nation and laid out his vision of a re-energised India. 

Nearly a year later, it is a good moment to reflect on that promise.

It would be fair to say that there seem to be two Modis. The first is Prime Minster Modi on the world stage, a rock star when he's abroad and when he receives foreign dignitaries. He is flamboyant in resetting the India narrative in Western capitals and closing in on lucrative partnerships in Asia. He has injected new dynamism in how India engages with its neighbourhood. He deploys slick messaging and leverages the Indian diaspora to create a sense of optimism. The US President waxes eloquent about him in TIME and even the Germans acknowledge the masterful conduct of the 'Make in India' outreach at their prestigious industrial fair.

Then there is the Prime Minister at home, with a different look and feel about him.

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He is determined at one level, as he stakes his political capital on reforming the land acquisition law, and while pushing forth a slew of new initiatives like replacing the economic planning body (the Planning Commission) with a contemporary organisation. On the other hand, you sense there are some wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. There are times when you can see him pensively watching parliamentary proceedings as the lack of majority in the upper house impedes him. There is reluctance while communicating his vision and policies, and an inability to deploy the same communication means to reach out to citizens that got him the top job in the first place.

Clearly then, as we clock in year one, there is much to be done at home for the Indian Prime Minister, if the disconnect between the external messaging and the politics at home is to be reconciled.

India's most powerful proposition to the world remains an India that offers opportunity to Indians and to others who want to engage with it. It was on this promise of hope, domestic reform and growth that Modi was elected. His election slogans held a two-fold promise: Acche din aane wale hain ('good days are about to come'), and na khaoonga, na khaane doonga ('neither will I take bribes nor will I allow others to'). These slogans alluded first to a government that delivers on its promises and is sensitive to the aspirations of youth, and second to a commitment to systemic reform, with corruption a metaphor for bad governance.

Once the scale of his victory became clear, the Prime Minister's first tweet was acche din aa gaye ('good days have come'). Implicit in this declaration was that his election was a mandate for change and that change would be rapid, not incremental. If expectations of the new government were high, it was because Modi himself led India to expect a tectonic shift.

The Modi campaign was clever in seizing upon a rare confluence of the needs of big businesses and the bottom of the pyramid. Both needed financial-sector reforms and innovation. While at one end investable capital was needed through creative instruments, at the other end basic financial inclusion, distress loans and lifeline banking were crucial.

Big businesses sought employable human capital to scale up operations, to climb global value chains and to optimise labour productivity (a fifth of China's). The bottom of the pyramid needed skilling initiatives, basic education, digital literacy and technical education that would allow them to participate in the modern economy and make their 'mom and pop' operations more profitable.

Both big business and small operations needed market access, roads, ports, energy and digital highways that would allow them to compete in the global marketplace. To deliver on these was essentially the 'Modi Promise'.

So it was not surprising that in his early days he rolled out the 'universal banking scheme' (Jan Dhan Yojana), the Digital India Initiative and the 'skilling' initiatives alongside the 'Make in India' thrust. Earlier this year, in its first full budget, the Modi Government announced schemes to support micro-enterprises, innovation start-ups and a pro-industry economic orientation that was appreciated by many. The Finance Commission recommendations on federalising tax receipts and giving more to state governments was accepted. Several social sector and welfare schemes were left to the autonomous design of state governments. India was seen to be moving towards a more decentralised system that resonated with the campaign promise of 'More Governance, Less Government.'

While the schemes and initiatives announced were on the ball, some of the tactics and processes that their success may depend upon need to be rethought and reorganised. Four in particular need attention.

First, the PM may have to oversee a more sophisticated management of parliament. BJP has to reach out to a variety of political actors in the upper house of parliament (and their own coalition partners) effectively. They are unlikely to have the numbers for a few years and the country may run out of patience before then.

The second would be to be mindful of the contradiction between seeking to expand one's political base across the country while at the same time striving to deliver economic restructuring that responds to promises and expectations. As the political expansion takes place, policy compromises may seem tempting and could dilute the 'Modi mandate'. Already the talk in some circles is that the real opposition the Prime Minister faces is within his party. The nationalist and insular component of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (the parent organisation of the ruling party) is vocal in its  opposition to a number of forward-looking measures the Government may opt for, be it issue foreign investment in certain sectors, labour reform or the reorganisation of the food and agriculture sectors.

The third is the fundamental tension between the centralisation and concentration of power within the Prime Minister's Office, and the ambition to federalise and devolve governance horizontally and vertically. The Prime Minister's Office is already under some flak for empire building, delays and inefficiency. What worked in Gujarat may not work for India.

And finally, the PM's core instinct to operate through the bureaucracy (or a select few among them) may preclude the possibility of lateral hiring of talent that many of his key initiatives do need. While the Chief Minister-civil servant duopoly served Modi well in Gujarat, the decision-making high table may well have to be enlarged if real change is to be effected in New Delhi.

The Government's honeymoon is perhaps already over and realistically it has another 6 to 12 months to start putting flesh on the bare-bone schemes and ideas announced this past year. If these do not eventuate, one may well witness emptier stadiums abroad and hear shriller voices at home. Ultimately, for PM Modi to sell the Incredible India story, he will need to make India credible.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.


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

If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region...We will be shut out—American businesses and American agriculture. That will mean a loss of U.S. jobs.


In August, Papua New Guinea's Peter O'Neill will mark three years in office as prime minister. The Australian's Rowan Callick recently described him as 'a remarkable figure' and 'the most powerful politician PNG has produced since Michael Somare'.

Yesterday I had the chance to talk with the editor of Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper, Alex Rheeney, about the O'Neill Government's performance. We also talked about economic and social conditions in PNG, and the state of media freedom in the country.


East Asia's path to industrial success is well-trodden, first by Japan, then the four tigers and now China. It combines Soviet-style financial repression and urban industrialisation with a mercantilist focus on exports and protecting home champions. Buy local, sell global. This is the formula for How Asia Works. Can South, Central and Southeast Asian nations follow the East Asian convoy?

John Lee at the Hudson Institute has his doubts, citing two awkward realities that face latecomers and laggards.

First, robotics is tilting the advantage to capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive economies. 'Premature non-industrialisation' is already here; it is becoming harder for poor countries to get rich the traditional way. The onset of peak manufacturing comes earlier now.

The second problem Lee identifies is one of simple demographic scale. In 1970, Japan, Korea and Taiwan collectively had 150 million people and exported goods to about 400 million wealthier Western consumers. Today, globalisation has reversed the balance. Lee reckons there are 1 billion affluent consumers worldwide, but 2 billion striving to serve them and that's just in East Asia alone. The field is getting more crowded as India, Latin American and African nations join the export game.

Their biggest challenge is China. It is, uniquely, both an affluent domestic consumer market and a ferociously competitive exporter. China's scale economies, eager workforce and expertise are hard for the global supply chain to escape, other than for very low-end manufacturing like textiles. As China progresses, it may be closing the industrialisation gate behind it. It is embracing automation to become the world's biggest robot importer. But Beijing naturally wants an automation industry for itself and targets an advanced domestic equipment base by 2025. When China makes the machines that make the machines that replace humans, workers of the world will unite in worry.

With such intense focus on corporate competitiveness and the interests of capital, it is not surprising that China's overseas developmental assistance is also businesslike.

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Informed Chinese experts tell me that Chinese firms expect to scoop 93-94% of the contract value of all projects funded by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) plus the Chinese unilateral initiatives (like Silk Road Fund) combined. By Goldman Sachs' calculation, local expectations for China's newly re-combined train-making monopoly assume a clean sweep at home and an heroic 55% share of all railway rolling stock bought overseas in the next five years. These firms expect a bonanza of construction in which Chinese money, materials, management and manpower can build grand overseas projects. Foreign firms will have to settle for spillover business, in the form of subcontracts.

Indonesia's development minister, for one, is relaxed. The AIIB will focus on big-ticket items like coal-fired power stations, he reckons, which complements the World Bank's work in poverty reduction and public healthcare and the Asian Development Bank's focus on irrigation and rural roads. In other words, China will build big things; other agencies will do little things. The irony is that the early breakthroughs China itself made (partly with World Bank advice) were in the 'small' stuff: democratising literacy, improving sanitation, and opening opportunity for women. Before it started pouring concrete, China got the basics right first.

No doubt the Chinese would love to sell expensive bullet trains to India, say, but if they were truly interested in assisting India's development, they should share their admirable experience in schooling girls. Would India listen? Narendra Modi does understand that his country risks being 'hollowed out' or de-industrialised unless his own 'Make in India' project succeeds. His trade deficit with China is soaring. India imports high-tech equipment while its exports to China read like the cargo manifest of a 19th century sailing ship.

China isn't alone in its single-minded pursuit of turnkey infrastructure projects. Building factories is, after all, easier than building 'institutional capabilities.' The ADB has long been accused of favouring Japanese construction firms. Russia has become a nuclear one-stop shop, financing, building and even operating nuclear power stations worldwide. Moscow is not particularly interested in transferring skills.

These are commercial transactions after all, not charity. Shen Dingli crisply explains that recent comparisons with the Marshall Plan are totally misguided. China is not granting aid nor should partner countries expect it. Instead this is a 'win-win' business arrangement. Certainly China's SOEs will win big. And shiny new highways and power plants and railways are welcome everywhere. But the bills will need to be paid.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AK Rockefeller.



While Australians are largely united in their sadness at the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there is divide over how we should respond.

For many, the over-riding sense is one of helplessness. Prominent voices on the left and right have reacted with anger and want to go beyond withdrawing our ambassador to also punish Indonesia by cutting aid. Others, such as those in the #saveourboys video, seem to think the Australian Government can just snap its fingers and force Jakarta to change.

In the last 24 hours both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have said Australia should campaign against the death penalty. How might our politicians make meaningful progress to end this practice?

The good news is that there is a long historical record of Australia being influential on the policies of its neighbours. The story of Australia's engagement with the Asia Pacific is as much one of Australia trying to change its region as it is of Australia adapting to it. As I detailed a few weeks ago, there are clear lessons from this history for how Australia could campaign for change in regional thinking about the death penalty.

First we’d need a good argument. But more than that, an argument which appeals to the existing views and concerns of those in the region who support the death penalty. Our concern is to persuade, not simply parade our views.

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Second, we need a platform on which to talk. That might include appointing an Australian ambassador to focus on this issue full time — as we have for counter-terrorism and irregular migration — as well as building coalitions and forums of those who also want to end this practice.

Third, we need to work out a strategy for creating change. Are there key countries which everyone else looks to for leadership? Are there domestic groups we could work with? And how do we ensure our views come across as genuine moral conviction and not a stereotype of the West lecturing the East?

Finally, we need to accept that this is a long, long campaign. Any serious effort will outlast the careers of current members of the Australian parliament. The campaign needs to be based on a united genuine belief and backed by serious resources, as we did with non-proliferation and trade liberalisation.

After surveying 30 years of Australian foreign policy in Asia for my book Winning the Peace, I am optimistic that Australia can have significant influence in regional policies. We should not feel helpless, but nor should we assume influence is easy. The real question is not whether we could campaign for change, but whether we are prepared to do so for not a month or year but for a decade and beyond.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.


In recent years, strategic rivalry between India and China has been evident across the Indo-Pacific, with Beijing progressively growing its diplomatic, economic and military influence on India's land and maritime periphery, and India belatedly pushing back to preserve its once privileged position in nations like Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Image courtesy of the IFRC. To donate to the Red Cross Nepal appeal, click here.

Much like Cold War era competition between the US and the Soviet Union, this dynamic has given attractive options to local governments adept enough to play the risky game of playing off one nation against the other. The most prominent example has been Sri Lanka's ability to secure Chinese assistance in facilitating one of the most brutal counterinsurgency campaigns of recent times, before pivoting back towards India earlier this year.

Nepal's massive earthquake is first and foremost a human tragedy, killing upwards of 4000 people and placing a weak and under-resourced government under overwhelming stress. But the response has also been marked by elements of the same regional competition.

India, China, and Pakistan have all rushed to offer assistance and evacuate their nationals. As part of its 'Operation Maitri', India is using 12 military transport aircraft and 18 helicopters to drop aid into Kathmandu, evacuate Indian nationals (over 2000 by air so far), and most importantly, ferry at least ten 45-strong teams of the National Disaster Response Force to assist with search and rescue, many of whom reached the worst-affected areas near the epicenter on Monday. India has also set up three field hospitals with 18 medical teams.

Indian efforts are headquartered in Kathmandu under a Major General of the Gorkha Rifles, with a high degree of coordination between the Nepalese Army and Indian units, aided by the close, longstanding ties between the two forces (28,000 Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army, with another 125,000 retired in Nepal). Indian power grid officials have traveled to Nepal to help restore power, with an Indian Oil Corporation team following.

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Nepal is a special case because of its deep and organic ties with New Delhi, the sheer heft of Indian diplomats, spies and military officers in Nepalese politics, and because of its proximity to India itself. Indian Prime Minister Modi has already visited Nepal twice since coming to power last year (for an excellent survey of India's policy dilemmas there, see this February piece by the authoritative journalist Prashant Jha). A significant part of this attention has been motivated by concern over China's growing footprint, including arms sales after India's 2005 cut-off, infrastructure projects and a close interest in 20,000 Tibetan refugees. Soutik Biswas observes that China overtook India as Nepal's largest foreign investor last year.

While China's relief efforts have been rapid, they have also been modest. The argument that 'China's involvement...could further change the balance of power in the region, challenging India and potentially putting Nepal's Tibetan exile community at risk' is greatly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, Indian policymakers would have been aware that a delayed or mishandled relief effort could have not just humanitarian but also long-term diplomatic consequences (Keith Johnson notes in Foreign Policy that Beijing's response to the 2013 Philippines typhoon 'helped further sour tensions with Manila'). One study even talks about 'disaster relief diplomacy'.

India's response also highlights its growing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capability. This was on display most recently in Yemen, where India extracted not just 4741 Indians but also nearly 2000 foreign nationals from 48 other countries, something described by one retired Indian Air Vice Marshal as 'a coming of age of our HADR system'. Many of the same capabilities were employed domestically after devastating floods in Uttarakhand and Kashmir, two northern states, in 2013 and 2014. And last year, other military assets, notably the Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, were used as part of the multinational search and rescue effort for missing flight MH370.

HADR can be a means to build ties with other armed forces. It employs the same platforms and capabilities that would be called upon for projecting hard power over long distances; the same planes that ferry relief workers and aid can carry troops and tanks, and the same aircraft hunting for a missing aircraft can look for enemy submarines. But HADR allows militaries to built interoperability with foreign counterparts in less provocative settings than joint exercises, while developing near-identical capabilities. As a CNA study proposed last year, this is exactly why it's an excellent way to develop US-India military-to-military interactions, given India's unwillingness to sign formal agreements with the US on things like logistics support and communications interoperability.

In the short term, if regional competition produces quicker and greater support for Nepal's beleaguered government, so much the better.


Just last week, a smiling President Jokowi told foreign investors that they could contact him personally about any problems they faced in Indonesia. 'Please come and invest in Indonesia,' he told the attendees of the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Jakarta. 'And if you have any problem, call me.'

But as the executions of foreign drug convicts grew closer over the weekend, the lines of communication closed. The international community was calling, but Jokowi was not answering. By Sunday, the Indonesian president was refusing to make any comments at all regarding the executions. 'I won't answer any questions about that,' he told local media on his way to the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur. 'I have given enough answers on that. I don't want to talk about it anymore.'

As Aaron Connelly observed yesterday, Jokowi's resolve on going ahead with the executions has not changed since he signed the warrants last December. The president's determination to implement the death penalty for the foreign drug traffickers appears to have been unmoved by party politics, by an ongoing crisis between the police and the anti-corruption body, and by domestic and international pressure. So what is driving this determination? And what will it cost Indonesia internationally?

One major reason why Jokowi has stuck by the death penalty is because it is a popular policy at home. Jokowi has repeatedly argued that Indonesia faces a 'drug crisis', calling for the strictest measures against those producing or trafficking drugs. Despite the faulty statistical basis for this claim, it has continued to gain popular traction and remains one of the top reasons cited in local media to justify the death penalty for drug-related offenses. Drugs kill, the logic goes, so drug dealers deserve death.

Another reason the death penalty has remained popular is because, aside from one Indonesian citizen executed in January and another scheduled for execution this week, the bulk of the cases this year have involved foreigners.

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This allows Jokowi to cast the national 'drug crisis' as the result of foreign influence, reducing the need for any serious re-evaluation of drug policy in Indonesia. It also stirs up a secondary well of emotion related to national pride and the protection of Indonesian sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a particularly sensitive element of Indonesia's national identity. As a post-colonial state, Indonesia is highly defensive of its right to enforce its own laws within its own borders. It is from this defensive standpoint that negotiating with foreign powers over the execution of their citizens is cast as a sign of weakness rather than strength. This assumption about power relations could also be the reason why the Indonesian Government sees no conflict between its hardline stance on executing foreigners and its own pleas for clemency for Indonesians on death row abroad — in both cases, Indonesia casts itself as the underdog.

This position of victimhood was evident in Jokowi's speech at the 60th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference in Jakarta last week. When newly independent Indonesia hosted the first Asia-Africa Conference in 1955, the country pioneered the concept of a developing, post-colonial, non-aligned 'Third World' focused on improving the welfare of its people via mutually supportive partnerships between Asian and African states. While much of this concept has become outdated, Jokowi took the occasion to revive the original conference's call for a world economic system that did not disadvantage the 'global south'. 

Jokowi called for 'reformasi' of global financial architecture, including institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. He also called on Asian and African nations to support an overhaul of the UN 'so that it can function as a world organisation that supports justice for all nations'.

So it's no surprise that Jokowi did not respond to an appeal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend to call off the executions. As elaborated by University of Indonesia International Law professor Hikmahanto Juwana in an interview with local media last week: 'The Indonesian[s] also have a right to ask why there was not a statement from the UN Secretary-General recently when two Indonesian domestic workers were executed in Saudi Arabia'. 

Nonetheless, there is a contrast between Jokowi's open invitation for foreign investment at the World Economic Forum and his defensive stance over perceived foreign interference. If Indonesia is ready to engage on a common platform with other states, then there is no need to take such a defensive approach to international negotiations, whether it is on the death penalty or the global economy. 

Aside from the tragic loss of human life, Jokowi's hardline stance on the death penalty has already caused damage to otherwise healthy relations with nations such as Australia, France, the Netherlands and Brazil, among others. With lines of communication closing over the incident, it could cost Indonesia foreign investment in its development.

Photo by Flickr user Eduardo MC.


As Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran spend what may be their final hours on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan, there is anguished confusion in their home country as to how an Indonesian president elected on a platform of reform could sentence so many to their deaths for so little. Ensuing efforts to explain President Joko Widodo's actions have been incomplete, attributing a malevolence to Jokowi for which there is little evidence.

The broader political context suggests instead that Jokowi is motivated by the zeal of a reformer, albeit one with a very different sense than most Australians of what constitutes reform.

The first key to understanding the presidency of Jokowi is to grasp the degree to which he has sought to define himself in opposition to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. President Jokowi has sought to be firmer, more focused, and faster.

Many Indonesians criticised Yudhoyono for pursuing a role as an international statesman, which they argued led him to curry favour by seeking accommodation with foreign powers like Australia. He was faulted for attending too many summits in an effort to build up his reputation while doing too little on behalf of Indonesian migrant workers facing difficult working conditions overseas.

In contrast, President Jokowi is a reluctant attendee at international summits, and has made consular service to Indonesian migrant workers a top priority. He pledged in the presidential campaign last year to better defend Indonesia's dignity, particularly in the case of Australia, which he singled out as a repeat offender.

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There was a sense among many Indonesians that under Yudhoyono's hands-off leadership, the state had become weaker – that corruption had flourished, drug use had soared, and laws had gone unenforced due to political considerations. By contrast, Jokowi promised in his election manifesto to 'reject the weak state' and in doing so extirpate corruption, drug trafficking, illegal fishing, and other scourges. 

While SBY appeared to many Indonesians to be peragu, a vacillator, Jokowi has always appeared to be a man of action. He has sped up infrastructure projects, sped up subsidy reform, and – tragically – sped up executions.

While capital punishment is anathema to most Australians, it enjoys broad support in Indonesia, and the decision to carry out death sentences issued over the last decade represents for most Indonesians a return to the regular order under a president who is unafraid to enforce Indonesian laws even when placed under intense pressure to offer foreigners special dispensation. To most Indonesians, this is reform.

The second key to understanding Indonesian politics today is that Jokowi is in a weaker political position than any Indonesian leader since 2001. With limited support among the elites of Indonesia's political parties, including his own, he must play them off each other if he is to have any hope of enacting a portion of his reform agenda.

In the process, he has compromised, doling out sinecures and largesse in violation of his anti-corruption pledges. He labours under the constant possibility of an elite plot to unseat him, if he would only give his detractors sufficient excuse to move against him.

Some journalists and analysts have argued that, from his weak position, a desperate Jokowi has seized upon the executions of foreigners as one area where he can project strength and score political points. Yet there is little evidence for such an extraordinary accusation. Jokowi's administration began to process the death warrants in November of last year and Jokowi signed the death warrants at the end of December, before a major scandal hit his Administration in the first week of January.

In other words, Jokowi was still on his honeymoon when he committed himself to his current course. It is possible that the politics of Jokowi's situation have held him to that course since then, but such an argument seems to confuse correlation with causation. All indications are that Jokowi has concluded that the executions are just.

It is a conclusion with which I and all opponents of capital punishment profoundly disagree. But as the Australian people and their Government contemplate the appropriate response to the execution of their fellow citizens by the Indonesian state, it is important that we accurately portray the context and mindset in which that decision has been taken.

Photo by Flickr user Kreshna Aditya 2012.


Hillary Clinton's presidential tilt is now official. It comes as little surprise for most in the US but it is sure to have some effect in Myanmar, where Clinton, as Secretary of State, threw her lot behind the opening of the country.

As Myanmar's November elections near, there is increasing worry that the country is backsliding on its reforms. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who Clinton has supported vigorously, still faces an uphill battle to even run in her country's November election. Suu Kyi is currently barred by the constitution from running for the top job, and in order to contend, she needs a referendum on changes to the constitution. With the elections six months away, that's a tall order. More likely is that a referendum will be held after or at the same time as the elections.

If Suu Kyi can't run, many will see the elections as a failure. That could cause problems for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Myanmar is a core legacy of Clinton's term as Secretary of State. How does one spin Myanmar's reform slowdown and the likely no-show of Suu Kyi on the election ticket in November?

One way is to draw further away from Suu Kyi and closer to President Thein Sein or to Myanmar generally as a country in transition. When looking at Myanmar, the tendency in international press is to think of a country with one woman, the Nobel prize winning Suu Kyi, leading the process of opening and democratisation. That's not the case. While her role has been important in getting the country to this point, her inability to navigate Myanmar's minefield of social and political issues has diminished her domestic standing.

Yet there is no denying that Clinton has associated herself closely with Suu Kyi. Read More

To great fanfare, Clinton met with Suu Kyi in 2011, in the first visit by a senior US government official to Myanmar in half a century. Clinton (and, interestingly, Laura Bush) co-chairs the Suu Foundation. To some extent, the two have been happy to cast themselves in each other's shadow: Clinton in that of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning freedom fighter and Suu Kyi in Hillary's image of a modern stateswoman.

Suu Kyi desperately needs Clinton's support. Suu Kyi's political standing has already diminished. Many of her supporters (both her strong Buddhist conservative backers and the human rights advocates) have criticised her handling of the Rohingya issue. She has wavered and remained mute on other important headline issues. Most problematic is that advocating too hard for the constitutional change that would allow her to run would make Suu Kyi look power hungry and self-interested. Yet if she doesn't advocate for the change, no one will. At some point soon, if the constitutional amendment doesn't go forward, she has to roll the dice and either boycott the elections or back another candidate while she sits on the sidelines. 

The daughter of famed independence leader General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign, like Clinton's, is marked by family dynasty. For many in the country, including some in the armed forces, her father's legacy legitimises her right to the top job. That the US is considering a female candidate for the top job could act in Suu Kyi's favour. Many in Myanmar have a love affair with the US, as seen during Obama's visit last year. A country-wide survey last year by The Asia Foundation suggested that the Myanmar people are reluctant to elect a woman to power. But if the US is doing it, this may sway fence-sitters in Myanmar to do the same. 

Given their shared interests, both women will be willing the other on.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Photo Unit.