Throughout the Christmas-New Year break, we feature some of The Interpreter's best pieces from 2014. More to come between now and 12 January when The Interpreter returns for 2015.
Is Burma really buying submarines?, by Andrew Selth, 29 January.
Strategic analysts often find Burma difficult to read. For example, it was once an accepted fact that China had a large military base in Burma. This later proved to be incorrect. Similarly, it was widely reported that Burma was on track to have a nuclear weapon by 2014. That was never a realistic prospect. Rumours that Naypyidaw was seeking to acquire ballistic missiles aroused scepticism at first, but now appear to be confirmed.
With all these factors in mind, reports of a secret submarine sale need to be treated carefully. Burma has always had the ability to surprise observers, but until there is conclusive evidence of an active subsurface warfare program, or corroboration of a submarine purchase from a reputable official source, a degree of caution seems warranted.
Xi Jinping in Sochi: Just how close are Russia-China ties?, by Vaughan Winterbottom, 5 February.
Xi and Putin are said to enjoy a strong personal relationship. Xi's first foreign trip as president was to Russia; Sochi will be his first foreign trip this year. Xi was even present at Putin's 61st birthday celebrations at October's APEC Summit in Bali, and clapped along to an awkward rendition of 'Happy Birthday'.
So on the surface, Sino-Russian relations appear friendly. The countries have a shared interest in redesigning the post-Cold War global political architecture to reflect a multipolar distribution of power. Both regimes find other countries' 'meddling' in their internal affairs reprehensible, and derive prestige from touting their partnership to the world. Complementarities in industry drive bilateral trade.
China makes statement as it sends naval ships off Australia’s maritime approaches, by Rory Medcalf, 7 February.
The precise strategic implications of the Chinese navy's newly-demonstrated ability to operate in Australia's northern approaches are open to debate. Neither China nor Australia wants a confrontational relationship. The idea that China might pose a direct military threat to Australia remains far from mainstream in our strategic debate. Australia has rightly sought to engage China as a security partner in recent years, for instance in disaster-relief exercises.
Even so, it is a safe bet that the voyage of the three Chinese warships Changbaishan, Wuhan and Haikou will prove far more consequential to Australia's strategic future than any number of those certain other vessels in the waters off Indonesia that have so dominated our media and political attention of late.
Australia-Fiji relations: Bishop’s game-changer, by Jenny Hayward-Jones, 17 February.
Bishop's approach restores a political element to the relationship, which at the very least gives Canberra the ability to keep talking to Bainimarama, who has the last word on whether elections go ahead or not. Australia also needs a political relationship with Fiji for other reasons: so it can pursue important regional or international policy initiatives and so it can elevate requests for the Fiji Government's assistance when Australian investors or tourists need help.
If Fiji has an election that meets even a minimum standard of freedom and fairness, Australia would have no choice but to accept the result, which may very well be an elected government of Voreqe Bainimarama. Far better that Bishop establish a relationship with him now on Australia's terms than to seek to meet him for the first time after the election, when he, not Canberra, would set the terms.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Horatio J. Kookaburra.