Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

With Japan-China tensions again in the news, our debate on Japan-China relations continued into its third week. Michael Green from CSIS called for patience in attempts to de-escalate the stand-off:

The first thing to recognise is that the leadership in both Beijing and Tokyo do not see a lasting resolution to the underlying geostrategic factors driving the two countries’ confrontation. And for the next 5-10 years they will be right.

Beijing seeks to expand rather than limit its denial capabilities and eventual control over the 'Near Sea' (encompassing both the South China and East China Seas). Japan is equally determined not to lose control and has tacit or explicit backing from the other maritime states under pressure, including the Philippines and Vietnam – and Washington and Canberra (though some senior officials on the US side seem not to have read the memo and occasionally lapse into describing the problem as purely one of ecumenical crisis management).

The near-term goal should therefore be to find enough space for diplomacy to begin to take hold and confidence-building measures to come into effect.

Spying has dominated international policy reporting this week, and Australia's diplomatic posts in Indonesia have been thrown into the mix. I looked at this in the broader international context:

Let's get the pro-forma world weariness out of the way first: every country that can afford to engages in electronic eavesdropping, every country assumes it is being targeted and most countries take elaborate measures to ensure their own communications are protected. It's the way of the anarchical, self-help international system, and always will be.

That's why incidents like this are awkward, embarrassing and damaging for the country being spied upon, as well as those doing the spying. Imagine if Angela Merkel, once she had been made aware that the US was bugging her mobile phone, had been given a choice: she could either deal with the issue privately through the US Embassy (or directly to the White House), or she could hold a press conference announcing her disgust and demanding an investigation.

For Merkel, it would have been an easy decision. If you deal with it privately, you won't be publicly confronted with your own hypocrisy (Germany spies too). Plus, you have instant leverage. Instead of a media-driven diplomatic crisis which threatens to derail free trade negotiations, Germany would have had a handy card to play in order to win some concessions in the talks.

In our most popular post for the week, Andrew Selth looked the risks associated with Aung San Suu Kyi's political strategy in Burma:

It is curious that Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be counting on Thein Sein’s government being more responsive to external pressure than the former military regime. Even if the president and those around him were susceptible to such measures, the armed forces leadership is unlikely to be so, and its support is crucial not only for the continuation of the reform process but also for any amendment of the constitution.

Bear in mind too that since 2011 foreign governments and international organisations have embraced Thein Sein and publicly praised his reform program. Naturally, they have reserved the right to discuss contentious issues like the 2008 constitution. However, the same governments have been anxious not to do or say anything which might interrupt the momentum of the reform process, or reduce their newly acquired influence in Naypyidaw.

In any case, Aung San Suu Kyi has less influence on world affairs than in the past. The Burmese Government is not the only one that has changed. New administrations elsewhere are less in thrall to her iconic status, and more sensitive to accusations of interfering in Burma’s internal affairs. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been criticised for failing to speak out in support of oppressed communities in Burma such as the Muslim Rohingya and the Kachin.

Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Milton Osborne gave us two pieces on Southeast Asia. The first looked at an imminent International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the  long-running dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the 11th century Hindu temple, Preah Vihear:

 According to the Thai ambassador to The Hague, there are four possible rulings the ICJ could hand down: it could decide not to interpret the 1962 judgment; it could rule in favour of Cambodia; it could say that Thailand’s territorial claim is correct; or it could hand down a ruling clarifying aspects of the 1962 judgment.

The Cambodian and Thai governments have reached a modus vivendi for the present, agreeing to cooperate to prevent the ruling causing difficulties between them, and there are signs that the issue no longer stirs the same kind of ultra-nationalist feeling that has occurred in the past.

One such sign is the fact that the temple is now, at least in the Thai English-language press, routinely referred to by its Cambodian name, Preah Vihear, rather than the Thai usage of Phra Khao Viharn. Two prominent Thai scholars, Charnvit Kasetsiri and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, have joined with a Cambodian author, Pou Sothirak, in a recently published book calling for a peaceful settlement of disputes over territory (Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions; I should note that both Charnvit and Pou are long-standing acquaintances of mine). It is probably fair to say that this moderate tone is shared  by a large number of Thais and Cambodians of all political persuasions.

Yet despite this change in tone, it is clear that the Thai Government is concerned that the ICJ ruling could lead to serious anti-Cambodian protests that would feed into more general unrest at a time when domestic political divisions have clearly not moderated.

 Milton's second post continued his coverage of dam developments on the Mekong River:

Visiting Cambodia, Laos and Thailand over the past three weeks leaves me in no doubt that issues associated with the Mekong continue to be a subject of sharp controversy, both as a result of the Lao Government’s decision to build a dam at Don Sahongand the Cambodian Government’s decision to go ahead with the Lower Se San 2 dam on the biggest tributary flowing into the Mekong in that country.

As Laos appears set to proceed with its dam at Don Sahong, it has come under criticism from both Cambodia and Vietnam for its failure to follow proper processes through the Mekong River Commission, a replay of how it behaved in relation to the dam at Xayaburi, now under construction. The former environment minister in the Cambodian Government, Mak Moreth, has been sharply critical of Lao behaviour and this criticism has been echoed from Vietnam.

Rodger Shanahan was at his analytical best on the prospects of Syria's Bashar Assad remaining in power:

Tehran has made a strategic decision that, at the moment, Assad represents its best hope for continued influence. Backing Assad also sends a strong message to other Iranian allies (actual or putative) that Iran sticks by its friends. In addition, the longer there is hope of progress in its nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, the less Tehran feels inclined to cede any ground on Assad, likely on the basis that the nuclear issue is the main game and who rules Syria is a secondary issue.

For his part, Assad is pushing one line in particular which he believes is his trump card: that he is the only thing standing in the way of the radical Islamists in the opposition. In the rather perverse way the Syrian conflict has unfolded, the stronger the Islamists become, the better it is for Assad.

Finally, we had a thoughtful two-part essay from ANU's Jerry Nockles on the definition of terrorism. From part one:

Any discussion of a definition of terrorism relies on two key assumptions. Firstly, that terrorism is sufficiently different in nature to warrant unique treatment under law (that is to say, that terrorism is not an ordinary criminal act but rather a political-military act necessitating special laws and more severe penalties). The second, and interrelated, assumption is that the existing legal framework pertaining to the conduct of warfare and politically-motivated violence does not sufficiently incorporate the types of attacks by transnational groups which have proliferated since the 1970s. Both of these assumptions are contested and can form the basis for further discussion. However, for the purposes of this argument, I will assume both as given.

Definitions of terrorism exist across a wide range of jurisdictions. Some, like the United States Code, adopt a general approach, defining terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.’

And from part two:

By limiting the definition to civilians, we immediately exclude incidents such as the 1982 Hyde Park and Regent's Park bombings in London, the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dharan (pictured), all of which targeted non-combatant military personnel (though civilians were killed and wounded in each incident).

This is a confronting issue. Let me make it very clear: excluding these outrageous crimes from the definition of terrorism in no way legitimises or justifies them. As Margaret Thatcher said in response to the Hyde and Regent’s Park bombings: ‘These callous and cowardly crimes have been committed by evil, brutal men who know nothing of democracy. We shall not rest until they are brought to justice.’

But we are trying to produce a definition and legal framework that targets a specific use of political violence, not produce a catch phrase that adequately expresses our horror at despicable crimes or hostile acts. The targeting of non-combatants is an act that has progressively fallen outside the norms of warfare and is consequently and explicitly prohibited in international law.  We can regard it as a hostile act, an act deserving of a strong and immediate response, but not an act of terror.

Photo by Flickr user Spree2010.