South Korean protesters in Seoul after the North's nuclear test. (Getty/Chung Sung-Jun.)
Those of us who returned to work on The Interpreter this week perhaps had visions of a gentle start to the new year. North Korea ruined those plans with a surprise nuclear test.
When the event was detected on Wednesday, the media took at face value North Korea's claim that it had tested a thermonuclear weapon. Only the next day did the headlines catch up with the analysis we posted within hours by former chief of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, John Carlson, who was sceptical of the thermonuclear claim:
Successfully producing a thermonuclear weapon is a major technical challenge, and most experts doubt North Korea has this capability. Possibly North Korea has succeeded in developing a 'boosted' fission explosive, where the fission yield is increased through injecting tritium into the weapon's core. Boosted weapons are described as 'second generation' nuclear weapons, so would represent some technical advance by North Korea. This would be well short of a thermonuclear weapon but could enable North Korea to claim it had achieved a fusion device.
Conducting nuclear tests is one thing. Producing compact and reliable warheads able to be fitted on missiles and to withstand the stresses of launch and re-entry is quite another. North Korea's nuclear tests raise the level of international tensions but the country has a long way to go to establish a credible nuclear weapon capability. There is still time for the international community to dissuade North Korea from proceeding further down this path.
The Lowy Institute's Euan Graham argued that the test was not all bad news for China:
On one level, Beijing's swift expression of firm opposition underlines how the bilateral relationship has sunk to an all-time low since the death of Kim Jong Il.
On a realpolitik level, however, the distraction value of North Korea's nuclear test will make it harder for Washington to maintain policy focus on the South China Sea, at a time when the Administration's cautious conduct of freedom of navigation operations is already under fire from critics such as John McCain. North Korea is the one regional security issue where Washington consistently courts greater Chinese assertiveness. If Beijing sees this as a timely source of leverage in Sino-US relations, Pyongyang's latest nuclear escapade may not be entirely unwelcome.
Malcolm Cook said criticism of US North Korea policy is misdirected:
China's policy towards North Korea should be the focus of criticism, not that of the US. China's rhetoric on North Korean nuclearisation has certainly become less contradictory to that of the US, Japan and South Korea. Yet China willingly provides the largest gaps in attempts to isolate North Korea for its nuclear destabilisation. Isolation is still the best tool available to try to change North Korea's nuclear calculations and has the significant added benefit of imposing costs on North Korea for its destabilising behaviour and for welching on its commitments. It also sends the right message to Pyongyang: do wrong, suffer the consequences.
We covered a lot of other issues this week too, including the 75th anniversary of FDR's famous 'Four Freedoms' speech:
The members of Congress received Roosevelt's address solemnly and without the usual raucous applause; journalists noted that Republican members were largely silent. The responses of senators and congressmen ranged over the entire scale. Democratic senator Morris Sheppard of Texas thought it was 'one of the greatest deliverances of all time, not merely of American history.' On the other hand, Representative Robert F Rich of Pennsylvania thought the speech meant 'war and dictatorship in this country'; his fellow Republican, Representative George H Tinkham of Massachusetts, claimed that Roosevelt had 'declared war on the world.'
But New York Times columnist Arthur Krock thought that the sobriety of the representatives during the address 'was more eloquent than the published comment.' They had already read in the newspapers about the President's plans for Lend-Lease. Now, having been officially informed of the Administration's intentions in his speech, 'the members, while not shrinking from the consequences, were thinking of them hard. And they must have thought especially hard when Mr Roosevelt said: 'When the dictators — if the dictators — are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part.''
Here's Rodger Shanahan on Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 prisoners, including a leading Shia cleric:
Riyadh would have been well aware that its actions would draw international criticism and ratchet up regional tensions, but it acted anyway. The executions, done largely for domestic effect, are further evidence that the ruling family sees aggressive responses to real or perceived security threats as the best way to shore up domestic support. It's not a good sign for 2016.
Jennifer Hunt covered this topic too:
Both states are also self-professed guardians of the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, though much has been made of their central roles in the global Sunni and Shi'a communities, the primary concern for both states is power, not religion. In the Gulf, power is a zero-sum game. With the nuclear deal set for implementation this month, Saudi Arabia sees the lifting of financial sanctions as bolstering Tehran's tools for regional influence. As if to prove Saudi Arabia's falling favour amid the tentative restoration of ties between the US and Iran, the Obama Administration has thus far maintained a neutral stance in the political row over al-Nimr.
Stephen Grenville welcomed the new year by looking for some economic trends to worry about in 2016:
With commodity prices down (especially oil), resource investment worldwide is likely to fall over the next few years. As well, the steam has gone out of property investment. One forecaster predicts the only prospect of strong positive investment growth over the next few years will be in the high-tech sector.
Claude Rakisits examined the political implications of an audacious assault on an Indian air base by Pakistan-backed militants:
this most recent attack confirms yet again, if confirmation were required, that India and Pakistan are far from achieving 'normal' bilateral relations. And while Prime Minister Sharif may be genuinely keen to have peaceful and economically fruitful relations with India, the Pakistan army is less enthusiastic. Ultimately, it is Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, not Prime Minister Sharif (the two are not related), who calls the shots on security and foreign policy issues in Pakistan.
James Goldrick explained why China's first indigenous aircraft carrier will be based on Soviet blueprints:
The PLA Navy was able to extract eight truck loads of detailed plans of the Liaoning from the Ukrainian vendors. These will have to be the foundation of the present activity because China is now facing the same reality that has dogged the efforts of all the major navies of the last century. The greatest restraint on naval expansion in the industrial age has been neither budgets nor disarmament treaties. It has in fact been the lack of drafting expertise to translate the design concepts of naval architects into the detailed compartment-by-compartment drawings that allow the shipbuilders to do their work (arguably, this has been a key problem for Australia with the new Air Warfare Destroyers). The scale of the effort involved is demonstrated by the report that the Liaoning's documentation amounted to many tons of paper.
Sarah Frankel profiled the front-runner in Taiwan's presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen:
As Tsai transitioned from university professor to politician, she developed her own brand of political leadership based on communication and calm thinking. After admitting that her rallies lacked energy, Tsai sought advice from the leader of a Taiwanese theatre troupe on how to respond to an indifferent audience. His guidance on how performers ignore audiences prompted Tsai to stick with her own style, one that she describes as 'low-key but deeply felt passion.' In response to critics who said she wasn't enough of a schemer to survive in Taiwan's political environment during her first presidential campaign, Tsai responded firmly that in three years she had shown that 'scheming doesn't have to be a part of politics, and that trust and debate are more important.'
Tsai appears to be driven by a desire to reform an increasingly economically and socially divided Taiwan.
Catriona Croft-Cusworth's regular 'This week in Jakarta' column is back for 2016:
Jokowi spent Christmas in Kupang, West Timor, where Christians are the majority, rather than the minority as in most of Indonesia. Speaking to a crowd of thousands, the President supported the right of Indonesia's religious minorities to worship and celebrate in line with the national motto of 'Unity in Diversity'. In contrast to the previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has openly supported religious freedom, regardless of attempts during the campaign period to 'smear' his image via rumours that he is a closet Christian. While past years have seen episodes of violence, Christmas was celebrated peacefully across Indonesia in 2015.
Denise Fisher examined the results of the latest census in New Caledonia:
The censuses since 1994, including this latest one, have consistently shown an ever-increasing and more diffuse population. Those newcomers either from metropolitan France or other French territories who have not been able to vote in local elections have become increasingly vocal about being excluded, and, as shown by this census, are now far more numerous. There is therefore the potential for them to influence if not the actual vote, then the atmospherics surrounding what is already going to be a sensitive plebiscite.