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

We've had some great Pacific coverage on The Interpreter lately, so let's start there. This week Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton Cain sorted the 'knowns' from the 'unknowns' following Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to PNG:

We know that PNG has confirmed its commitment to resettle some of the asylum seekers now detained on Manus island if and when they are determined to be genuine refugees. PM O'Neill has advised that there are communities within his country which have indicated that they are willing and able to accommodate such people, but he has yet to advise which communities, and on what basis such accommodation might be effected.

We also know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe other Pacific countries should do their 'share' in resettling refugees. The Australian Government has indicated that it is in discussions with likely candidates but has not revealed who they are. Previously, both Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have declined invitations to that particular party.

We know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe the majority of asylum seekers currently detained are economic migrants and will be repatriated. We do not know what the basis for this belief is. And we know that the government of PNG has moved to put a stop to an inquiry into the Manus island processing centre by Justice David Cannings, but it is unclear to what extent the Australian Government may have influenced that decision.

There is no doubt this visit was significant. We can expect its ramifications to be many and varied. We can hope, as the various new initiatives are realised, that they will be positive for the relationship between Australia, PNG and the wider region.

We carried powerful pieces from on-the-ground observers this week, the first from Susanne Schmeidl in Kabul:

When the Taliban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996 it had a reason: to liberate the Afghan people from the terror of mujahideen rule. But where does the terror come from now? When one speaks to ordinary Afghans, both in rural and urban areas, the main terror now comes from the Taliban (and of course some also from the Afghan government and international military, which I've written about in the past). It rules by fear and not support, and it seems to no longer care about the very constituency it claims to defend – the Afghan people.

This also became apparent in some recent research in which I took part: many communities in Afghanistan are starting to question whether the Taliban is still an Islamic movement or a defender of Islam. After all, it kills those accused of spying without a trial (Sharia forbids this), denies funerals to members of Afghan National Security Forces (every Muslim has the right to a funeral) and kills and beats up mullahs who do their job, such as hold funerals for ANSF members.

And Lisa Main in the Middle East, who had observed the trail of Peter Greste up close

Greste, who was arrested along with two Al Jazeera colleagues on 29 December, is caught up in Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a trend that's gaining momentum in the Gulf states and in particular Saudi Arabia. As Qatar's neighbours move against it and its television network Al Jazeera, Peter Greste's predicament could become a little more complicated.

Proceedings inside Cairo's Tora prison are farcical. During the previous hearing earlier this month, I watched Peter cling to his cage in the dock, unable to follow the proceedings. For a second time the court did not provide a translator, despite requests.

As the judge fumbled through the evidence, three of Qatar's neighbours were making diplomatic moves to isolate the emirate. As I left the courtroom I started to hear reports that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were recalling their ambassadors from Qatar. It was an unprecedented public split between the Gulf monarchies, which usually manage their disagreements firmly behind closed doors.

Our Indonesia analysis continues in the lead-up to national elections. This week Catriona Croft-Cusworth looked at what a Jokowi presidency might mean for Australia-Indonesia relations:

President Jokowi would inherit a difficult state of affairs. Canberra is still without an Indonesian Ambassador since Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was withdrawn over the spying row last November. Then there is the matter of Operation Sovereign Borders, which aims to fortify Australia's borders but pays little respect to Indonesia's. Australia has not taken heed of Indonesian requests for an end to the operation that has led to incursions into Indonesian territory.

The combined impact of these disagreements has resulted in a freeze in Australia-Indonesia relations, predicted to last until October when a new president is sworn in. Assuming that Jokowi will be the one taking the oath for his country, how will he handle the rocky relationship?

Jokowi's domestic appeal in Indonesia is that he doesn't put on the airs of the elite. At the same time, this grassroots image has promoted the view that Jokowi is not 'worldly' enough to hold his own in international forums, with rumours suggesting that he lacks fluency in English. In what was certainly a move to dispel these perceptions, Jokowi late last year led the first meeting of the governors and mayors of ASEAN capitals, and what's more, he addressed the delegates in English.

Jokowi shared his experiences as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, roles in which he has shown a preference for using dialogue as a problem-solving technique rather than issuing top-down commands. If this approach is translated onto the international stage, it will make Indonesia an approachable neighbour for Australia.

Here's Catriona again,  discussing the power of money in Indonesia's democracy:

With corruption scandals constantly in the headlines, it's no wonder money is often assumed to be the winner in Indonesian politics. Newspapers and citizens alike decry the tactics of 'money politics' and the ill effect on Indonesia's democracy. Corruption is a very real problem in Indonesian political life. But when it comes to voting day, money is not always the winner at the ballot box.

The best-known example is the victory of Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election. On a reported campaign budget of Rp 16.1 billion ($1.6 million), Jokowi took 42.6% of the vote in the first round. Incumbent Fauzi Bowo's Rp 62.5 billion attempt to retain the governorship saw him receive only 34.05% of the first round vote.

A lesser known victory for low-budget campaigning in the Jakarta election was independent candidate Faisal Basri, who took fourth place in the ballot but still managed to beat Alex Noerdin of Golkar, the party of former president Suharto and one of the longest established parties in Indonesia. Faisal's team reportedly spent only Rp 5.1 billion on campaigning and came away with 4.98% of the first round vote, while Golkar injected a reported Rp 24.6 billion and received 4.67%.

These victories suggest another power at play besides financial capital: social capital.

Jokowi and Faisal invested less in big budget advertising and vote buying techniques, and more in interactive social media and face-to-face engagement with voters. Their investments in forging links with the people paid off on voting day and beyond, with Jokowi's campaign proving successful enough to propel him (almost two years later) to the top of popular polls for the presidency.

Melissa Conley-Tyler marked Julie Bishop's half-year anniversary as foreign minister with an exhaustive study of her speeches:

The most noticeable theme in the speeches is placing 'economic diplomacy' at the heart of Australia's foreign statecraft. Putting economic diplomacy first means using international assets to promote Australia's economic prosperity, focusing on economic reform and trade liberalisation, supporting open trade, pursuing an ambitious free trade agenda, supporting a vibrant business sector at home and abroad, and working for closer ties to Asia. In her words: 'Just as traditional diplomacy aims for peace, so economic diplomacy aims for prosperity' – not just as an end in itself but also as a vital support for peace in the region and for global peace and security.

This week Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced he will introduce the titles of 'knights' and 'dames' under the Order of Australia. The BBC's New York and UN correspondent (and regular Interpreter contributor) Nick Bryant argued that 'the long and anguished process of detaching Australia from Britain...has seemingly been put into reverse':

His intention is to celebrate Australians, of course, but he has done so by reviving a colonial relic, and bestowing what feels still like a distinctively British honour.

In some ways, the surprise move is reminiscent of Robert Menzies' audacious attempt in the 1960s to rename the Australian pound the Australian royal, a gambit met with scepticism and mockery even then. The difference this time is that, for all the jokes and guffaws, the writ of the prime minister will hold sway.

The question germane to readers of The Interpreter is 'Does this matter in the international sphere? Is it a gesture of diplomatic significance?' 

Given how few gongs will be bestowed – only four per year – an argument could be mounted that this is trivial. Nobody outside of Australia will probably even notice.

But notice they have already. Even as attention focused near myopically on the search for the missing MH370, the international media has been unable to resist the temptation to lunge at such low-hanging fruit. Globally, it has made Australia in the Asian Century look more like Australia in the British Century. It reinforces the sense that the one-time executive director of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy views his country through sepia-tinted spectacles, and prefers the world as it was rather than as is.

Former Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office John Carlson wrote on the announcement that Japan would transfer much of its plutonium and highly enriched uranium to the US:

This agreement is a major achievement for both nuclear security and non-proliferation. It will remove weapons grade material from a civil site in Japan and bring it under military-standard security in the US while it is disposed of. At the same time, the agreement decisively addresses any suspicions that the material is being retained for a nuclear weapons option. China recently expressed concern about Japan continuing to hold this material, which is sufficient to produce some 60 nuclear weapons.

Japan is to be commended for acting to eliminate this weapons grade material. However, Japan still has significant quantities of weapons grade plutonium contained in 'blanket' assemblies from its fast breeder reactor program. Japan has said this material will be reprocessed in such a way as to dilute the plutonium with lesser quality ('reactor grade') plutonium.

Other countries will take a close interest in how this material is dealt with. A similar issue arises with India, which plans to use fast breeder reactors to produce weapons grade plutonium for use in other reactors. Separation and handling of weapons grade plutonium raises regional tensions and also presents a serious terrorist risk.

 Our debate on a 'larger Australia' continues. Bates Gill and Tom Switzer from the US Studies Centre argued that the US pivot is far from dead

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the long-term US commitment to Asia than its enhanced security relationships with Indo-Pacific allies. We all know about Australia's enhanced security relations with what Menzies called 'our great and powerful friend', but we are hardly alone in looking to America. A few months ago, Washington sent six new P-8As (pictured; 'the most advanced long-range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft in the world,' according to the Pentagon) to Japan on their first overseas deployment.  In another first, numerous American Global Hawk surveillance drones will be operated out of Japan and elsewhere in the region. Add to this the landmark US-Japan defence agreements last October and it is clear that America remains strongly committed to the region.

But that commitment is more than an enhanced diplomatic and military profile. Take, for example, the US-led recovery effort in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November. Not only did the Obama Administration send an aircraft carrier and hundreds of Marines to distribute food and water to remote areas, it also pledged $22 million in assistance. (The Chinese government, by contrast, pledged only $100,000 before increasing its total contributions to a measly $1.5 million.) 

Innes Willox, Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, argued this week that large-scale immigration makes the Australian economy more dynamic:

Somewhat more than half of our current population growth comes from net migration. Indeed, given that our total fertility rate has been well below replacement levels for almost four decades, in the absence of immigration we would be looking to join the likes of Japan, Germany and Russia as countries with declining populations.

One of the impacts of strong immigration is that it injects additional mobility into our labour market. Most immigrants come with a keen eye for job opportunities. Many come with an eye on a specific job and some with a promise of a position that has not attracted local candidates. New immigrants are demonstrably more footloose than the resident population and they travel more readily to where the jobs are. This helps reduce the impact of the traditional frictions that operate in labour markets; frictions that in Australia are magnified by our vast internal distances. In the absence of this additional labour mobility, we would be less responsive to shifting opportunities.

Immigration also assists us to more rapidly replenish our workforce skills. Particularly as a result of employee-sponsored immigration, migration assists us overcome not only geographic mismatches between employees and job opportunities but also the mismatches between the skills of the resident workforce and these opportunities. Again, immigration makes us more responsive to emerging opportunities.

I don't think I need to dwell on how immigration adds to our national talent pool. Whether in the arts, business, science, sport or indeed in any area you care to nominate, we find a healthy share of migrants, and the sons or daughters of migrants, among the leading ranks. This is not simply a matter of migrants coming and excelling in areas where Australia has traditional strengths; it is also a matter of migrants breaking new ground and creating new areas of Australian excellence. There is something of a filtering process at work here, with the act of migration adding disproportionately to the adventurous and the ambitious. 

 And Paul Bourke, a former DFATer, argued that increasing the Department's budget would not alone result in a Australia having a larger influence in the world. It's also about the quality of our international engagement:

The core business of managing strategic relationships, trade negotiations and consular affairs are what every foreign ministry deals in, but there is also, without doubt, a need to broaden the conception of what modern diplomacy must address. There is, in DFAT, a paucity of long-term planning and analysis of economic and environmental trends of critical importance to Australia's national interests, issues that are domestic and international in their manifestation.

Understanding the breadth of climate change or the borderless worlds of energy policy and financial crises (to take three 21st century 'big issues') requires the application of knowledge and skills DFAT does not have. Nor does the department attempt with any real conviction to recruit people who do have the technical expertise to augment critical policy areas.

For instance, in my experience, much of the substantive work in the Japan-Australia FTA was handled by the respective agriculture ministries; DFAT added an overall framework for the formal negotiations. DFAT insists it is the lead agency for most international negotiations, yet without adding to the content of many sector- or issue-specific negotiations.

And last, Nick Bisley drew four lessons for Asia from the Ukraine crisis. The first:

Don't humiliate great powers

Putin's gambit is intimately bound up in the domestic foundations of his political apparatus. Central to this has been the way in which a sense of humiliation has been fostered by the ruling elite to justify its political program.

The principle that the humiliation of powerful states should be avoided has its origins in the Europe's concert system and was a key part of the long-running success of 19th century European diplomacy. Aggrieved great powers have the potential to destabilise the system by mobilising to right perceived wrongs. Furthermore, the humiliated power feels as if it does not have a stake in the international order. Without skin in the game, these powers have significantly lower incentives to follow the rules. While China's path to power has been quite different from the traumas of post-Soviet Russia, nonetheless a strong sense of humiliation has been an important motive force behind its rise and will remain an important part of its international engagement. 

 Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon.