Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.
This week US President Barack Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address for 2015, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, with Crown Prince Salman assuming the throne. First Rodger Shanahan on Saudi Arabia after Abdullah:
The new king faces significant security challenges: ISIS on its borders in Iraq, the loosening of its grip in Yemen, plunging oil prices and a challenge for regional influence from Iran. But none of these are existential threats, and the regional situation faced by King Abdullah when he succeeded was also complex. I was in Riyadh when King Fahd died in 2005 and Saudi Arabia was in the grip of an internal security threat more serious than anything it faces now. Back then, there was a near full-scale conflict in Iraq between the US-led occupation forces and both Sunni and Shi'a insurgents, Iran had announced the resumption of uranium conversion, and shortly afterward it elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.
A few thoughts on Obama's State of the Union speech from Sam Roggeveen:
Speaking of unintended messages, what about this line: 'If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done, hire a veteran.' I wonder if John McCain smiled when he heard that. It would have made a decent campaign slogan in 2008...
I'm told Republicans regard Obama's growing informality in his successive State of the Union speeches as unbecoming because it gives the speech a campaign flavour. From an Australian perspective, I would say it gives his remarks a parliamentary tone. It's quite common here for parliamentary speakers to engage with their own side and tease the opposition. The public hates it but good parliamentarians and effective leaders know it is a crucial tool for building morale among your own MPs and undermining the opposition. Maybe Obama sees that too.
And Merriden Varrall's analysis of the Chinese media's coverage of the speech:
Firstly, it would seem that at this juncture, the Chinese leadership does not want to stir up nationalist anti-US sentiment. This may imply that the Government wants to pursue engagement and discussion with the US in the near future, and wishes to create the public policy space in which to do so.
Second and relatedly, this should not be misread as any shift in China's fundamental beliefs about what the world should look like and what roles the US and China should play. The overall narrative still paints a picture of a US naturally and inherently inclined to hegemony and unilateralism, but in inevitable decline; and China as a fair, impartial and constructive global player, doing its best in a system it didn't create, and which in time will have to adjust to the rise of new global powers with different (but not threatening) views of how the world should work.
President Obama is also off to India this week, as the guest of honour of Prime Minister Modi during India's Republic Day celebrations and parade. Shashank Joshi wrote a worthy primer on the trip:
That said, high-level political attention can enable dramatic shifts, as it did when the Bush Administration engaged with Modi's predecessor in 2005. If Obama and Modi are willing to make the effort, and see this as a priority, they can accelerate defence cooperation more quickly than is supposed. And the onus here is on India. As Ashley Tellisobserved in the Hindustan Times on Thursday, India 'needs to explain how this affiliation with Washington stacks up against the more than 30 other strategic partnerships India enjoys with countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Iran, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea'
With two Australian citizens set to be executed in Indonesia over drug charges, Elliot Brennan explored the role of the death penalty in Southeast Asia:
For law enforcement, the trade in narcotics has its upside. Extracting bribes from tourists caught taking drugs is big business. For poorly paid police, such bribes can net thousands of dollars (sometimes a year or more worth of pay). The incentives for them to crack down on drugs are therefore skewed. The threat of capital punishment exerts fear on drug offenders and therefore increases the bribes that can be extracted. Drug kingpins are seldom charged, let alone put to death. Rather it is the lowly traffickers and drug users who suffer the most grievous of punishments.
It is perhaps a strange logic, but abolishing the death penalty will go a long way to improving law enforcement and governance in Southeast Asia, thereby diminishing drug trafficking, which is the ultimate aim of governments that enforce the death penalty. If the region is serious about tackling drug trafficking it would be wise to abolish the death penalty. Tackling the scourge of drugs in Southeast Asia means tackling the death penalty.
Catriona Croft-Cusworth on how Jokowi has handled the tragedy of the AirAsia Flight 8501:
Faced with tragedy, Jokowi has been praised for showing confidence as a leader and coordinating a swift and effective response. In just over two weeks, search-and-rescue efforts have uncovered the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, which are expected to provide essential evidence on the cause of the crash. The discovery of the fuselage of the aircraft last Wednesday is also hoped to signal that the bodies of all victims can now be accounted for.
But the national response has also shown the limitations of the Indonesian navy and other elements of the armed forces.
Mike Callaghan refuted some arguments about the IMF's role in the Ebola crisis in west Africa:
These debates over the IMF are not new. The Fund is regularly criticised as being 'anti-poor', with its focus on balancing a country's books, which results in a reduction in social spending. Protests were once a regularly feature at annual IMF meetings.
But the reality is that countries usually enter into IMF programs when they have significant economic problems, including unstable public finances and excessive debts. For this reason, it has been pointed out that it is not relevant to make comparisons, such as spending on health, between countries who do and do not have IMF programs. As Tom Murphy notes, 'The reason a country would get a loan from the IMF, generally a lender of last resort, means that things are not going great'.
The Panama Canal will soon have a competitor if construction is completed on the Nicaragua Canal. Julian Snelder took a look at the China connection:
The century-old Panama Canal, which is struggling through its own US$5 billion upgrade to double its potential traffic, generates about US$2 billion in annual revenues, about half of which are retained as profits. Building parallel infrastructure in Nicaragua at huge sunk expense will provoke a knife-fight response from Panama, which has capacity to spare. Although the Nicaragua canal will allow larger-sized ships to pass, Panama should retain most of the transit share, and will slash pricing to make sure. In that case, the canals' combined annual profit pool might be much less than the US$1 billion today.
Commercially speaking, this US$50 billion gambit is courageous, if not reckless.
This week also saw China report lower than expected economic growth. Stephen Grenville tried to dispel some of the speculation:
Predictions of China economic slow-down have been routine headline stories over the past few years. Judging from this Wall Street Journal reporting, it seems to have returned with a vengeance. But it is seriously misleading.
China's 'high-growth heyday' ended in 2007, when two decades of double-digit growth were punctured by the global financial crisis. An enormous fiscal and financial stimulus in 2009 temporarily took growth over 10% again, but this was unsustainable. For the pasts three years, China's growth rate has started with a '7'.
Anyone putting much weight on the decimal figure misses the point. At the current pace, China is doubling its GDP in less than a decade, is growing at over twice the US pace and 10 times as fast as Europe.
Nick Bryant reviewed Australia's time on the UN Security Council...
The farewell receptions are taking place, featuring far superior wine than is ordinarily on offer at Turtle Bay drinks parties. The diplomats that led the Australian mission at the UN during its two-year stint on the Security Council are shipping out. Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his deputy Philippa King will be missed. So will Australia's presence at the most famous table in world diplomacy. It has been an impressive stint.
The main contribution has been a significant boost in humanitarian aid to Syria. Australia authored three separate resolutions that produced the biggest humanitarian breakthrough of the near four-year conflict: allowing aid convoys to cross over the border without the permission of the Assad regime in Damascus. Up until that point over 90% of UN-administered aid had gone to government-controlled areas. Afterwards, food and medical supplies reached besieged cities where women and children had survived by eating grass.
...while Robert Ayson laid out New Zealand's debut:
New Zealand's foray marks an early attempt to deliver on the promise McCully himself made in New York on the eve of the ballot in which Spain and Turkey were also competing for a Security Council seat. In a speech which almost read as if all of the problems in the Middle East were down to the Israel-Palestine impasse, he insisted that as a small-state member, New Zealand would stand up and demand a lot more from the Council. Yet even for a small portion of his demands to be met, perpetual and united pressure from all of the other non-permanent members, and more, will be needed.
Wellington is signaling that is has brought an independent foreign policy to Manhattan. Independent, that is, from some of its traditional partners. There is certainly no ANZUS position on this issue, and McLay was quick to challenge some rather odd speculation back home that New Zealand would be beholden for the next two years to the US.
Lastly, Bruce Hill raised an important and pressing issue, freedom of the press in the new democracy of Fiji:
Visitors to Fiji can see this for themselves. Just turn on the television and watch a news bulletin. It is regarded as a perfectly normal thing for a newsreader to simply read out, in full, a Government press release. This is the sort of thing you'd expect to happen in North Korea, Zimbabwe or Cuba, not a democratic Fiji.
There is a culture in Fiji of not answering questions from journalists that has grown since the military coup of 2006, and the attitude towards the media, both local and foreign, was not particularly friendly even before then.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tribes of the World.