Lowy Institute

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki with the newly signed constitution, 27 January 2014. (REUTERS/Anis Mili.)

The constitution of the second Tunisian Republic, adopted on 27 January, three years after the Tunisian Revolution, is considered almost a miracle: this Arab Muslim country succeeded in getting its Islamists and secularists to agree on a constitution that recognises the Tunisian state as a civil state based on citizenship, popular will and the rule of law. It recognises the role of Islam but Sharia (Islamic law) is not mentioned as a source of law.

This is the most advanced compromise in the Arab and Muslim countries between Islamists and secular modernists. And this was the will of the people expressed through their representatives in the Constituent Assembly.

In reality, the constitution is a synthesis of the conflicting demands of politics and religion in Tunisia.

It is not only a genuine compromise between the Islamist Ennahda party (the leading party in the National Constituent Assembly) and the modernist secular forces in the Assembly, but also reflects negotiations between these two trends in Tunisian society as a whole. It was not easy to reach this consensus. Negotiations within the NCA lasted two years and three months and were echoed on the streets, with hundreds of thousands of Tunisians voicing their support for a civil state and for safeguarding and promoting women's rights. Other Tunisians, mainly Imams and religious associations who thought they had popular support, resisted articles of the constitution, such as the one on freedom of conscience.

It is worth noting that the only concession made by secularists was that laws passed by parliament should not be against the objectives of Islam (the preamble recognises 'the commitment of [the] people to the teachings of Islam and its open and moderate objectives, to sublime human values and the principles of universal human rights').

What's more, the higher Islamic values of justice, equality and freedom are adopted in the constitution.

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For instance, the state guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, an unprecedented principle in the Arab world. This is a profound break with tradition which makes religion a private matter; the crime of apostasy has no place. Also, several points of the constitution reinforce equality between men and women. The state undertakes to protect the rights of women (first achieved in the 1956 Personal Status Code which eliminated polygamy, regulated divorce and defined a minimum legal age for marriage), and will work to improve them. And finally, the constitution recognises justice as a principle and provides for the independence of the judiciary.

In reality, these higher values of Islam (justice, freedom, equality) referred to in the Tunisian constitution are the same higher values of Judaism and Christianity, and they are the principles of democracy.

The new Tunisian constitution, often described as the most liberal in the Middle East and even as more progressive than some Western constitutions, has sparked interest in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Kuwait, where there is today a debate that had not previously existed. This debate is about the Tunisian example of reconciliation between secularism and Islam by avoiding the application of Sharia and focusing on the objectives of Islam.

However, Arab and Muslim public opinion is waiting to see how and to what extent the principles of the democratic and secular constitution will be implemented, and therefore whether Tunisia is really going to function as a democratic republic.

Tunisia is going through the last phase of its transition to democracy in 2014 that should lead to presidential and parliamentary elections. Tunisia will certainly go through social and economic hard times, and this makes the implementation of democracy difficult. Everything depends on the strategic assistance and economic aid that Western democracies, especially US and France, will provide.

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The Syrian Government's successful effort to re-take the Qalamoun area from opposition forces was designed with two aims in mind: to reassert government control over an area abutting Lebanon that resupplied opposition forces close to Damascus, and to maintain military momentum in advance of elections, just announced for 3 June.

On the face of it, an election in Syria appears to be both grotesque and futile given the large swathes of the country that lie outside government control, and the savage fighting still going on. To anti-government forces (whose members the election law effectively excludes), it is a provocation that will almost certainly make any non-military solution to the Syrian problem even more difficult. The Geneva talks will most likely collapse, though in any case they have achieved little of substance to date.

But despite these challenges, it appears the election will proceed.

There is of course method in Assad's apparent madness. An election that returns him to office will serve as yet another point of difference between him and the fractured opposition, and feed into the nationalist, anti-Islamic-extremist narrative he has been building all along. The narrative goes something like this:

  1. The election is a victory for the Syrian people (at least those who remain in Syria in areas under government control). By contrast, the political opposition either elect themselves or are appointed by their Gulf supporters. 
  2. The armed opposition is a combination of Western/Gulf lackeys and unreconstructed Islamist terrorists. The Syrian army's recent recapture of the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from Islamist fighters and Assad's subsequent Easter visit were designed to send a not so subtle message to religious minorities (and sections in the West) that the only person preventing an Islamist takeover of Syria is him.
  3. The Syrian people need a strong leader to counter external enemies, and Assad has stood firm these past three years in defending Syrian sovereignty against the aforementioned armed opposition and their allies. 

Of course, not many people in Syria really buy this narrative (with the exception perhaps of point 2), but that's not the point. This election is really about messaging and placing more pressure on the opposition in order to further fracture it.

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Even with every incentive to coalesce, the inability of the opposition to present a united front or an acceptable alternative leader after three years has brought it to the brink of irrelevance. The election, which looks set to reinforce the tenure of a man with whom they and their allies refuse to negotiate, presents them with a dilemma they may well be unable to solve. For Damascus, it's all about contrasting the Ba'thist regime's solidarity with the opposition's fractiousness.

Assad's Russian and Iranian allies have sunk significant strategic costs into the Syrian conflict and their support for an outcome in their favour remains strong. Given Moscow's view of itself as a resurgent power, continued support for Assad in the face of US and Western opposition fits neatly into Russia's own nationalist narrative. And Tehran knows that the Washington considers the nuclear negotiations, rather than Iranian support for Assad, as the key regional focus. A neat solution for the nuclear issue that President Obama could point to as a legacy is achievable. It's unlikely that there will be such a neat conclusion to the Syria quagmire.

Militarily, Assad has tightened his grip on Damascus, appears close to retaking the third-largest city Homs, and could expect to then concentrate his forces for a push on Aleppo in the run-up to the election, thereby claiming to have a mandate from Syria's three largest population centres. Although Assad has insufficient forces to re-establish control over the whole country, a long game suits his purposes. The Islamists, meanwhile, have suffered more setbacks: they have inflicted significant casualties on themselves through their infighting, Ayman al Zawahiri has had to issue 'guidelines' to al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria on how to operate, and on the southern front the Jordanians may be losing patience with the opposition.

The Syrian election in June will be somewhat farcical, given the ongoing civil war, the restrictive electoral law and the millions of refugees in neighbouring countries who won't vote. But this election is not about presenting a democratic process. It's about sending a simple message to the opposition and its supporters: Assad is here to stay. 

Photo by Flickr user delayed gratification

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China's state owned aerospace and defence manufacturer AVIC has just released a music video apparently marking the 65th anniversary of the PLA Navy. It looks like China's new aircraft carrier, though far from operational, is already coming in handy as a PR tool.

Now, I don't want to fall into the CNN trap of mocking foreign ways, so let's just say that, for Western media consumers who grew up with Top Gun and have since seen the visual style copied and endlessly parodied, this clip feels just a tiny bit dated.

If any readers out there can translate the lyrics of the song, please get in touch.

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Later today US President Barack Obama will begin a short tour through Asia, to Japan and South Korea in the north, and to Malaysia and the Philippines in the south. The punditry will be overwhelming and almost entirely self serving. Elites and interests of every stripe will tell Obama what to say, how to say it, how to signal resolve and credibility to China, what US trade policy should be, and so on.

So instead of suggesting yet another laundry list of to-dos, I thought I would look at how the president's trip will be instrumentalised by relevant parties to pursue their own agendas. A high profile trip like this will throw light on the intellectual struggle to define the US presence, both in Asia and Washington. Here are some predictions:

1. Hawks and neocons

Post-Crimea, there should be a fair amount of hawk hysteria that US alliances in the region are 'weakening' (watch CSIS go into overdrive here, here, and here). Obama will be cast as a dovish, dithering appeaser; his 'red-lines' around Senkaku and North Korea will be called 'pink.' Fox News will intone that regional allies do not 'trust' Obama. Vague suggestions will be made that China intends to slice off northern North Korea or snatch Senkaku by the 'Crimean model,' even though Chinese irredentism (other than the well known Taiwan issue) has never been a factor in East Asian international politics. Little empirical evidence will actually be presented for these fears, beyond generalised claims about power politics or 'Munich.'

This is think tank boilerplate with limited correspondence to the actual social science on credibility. It should instead be read as the US foreign policy community's desire to station even more forces in Asia as a marker of US hegemony, despite strong evidence that US allies are free riding and growing budgetary competition between US domestic needs and its enormous defence budget.

2. South Korea 

To read the South Korean media on the US alliance is to enter a world where the US 'needs' South Korea and the prestige captured from a direct relationship with the US is almost as important as the defence guarantee. Expect the South Korean press to push hard the notion that, because the US has parallel alliances with Japan and South Korea, South Korea is just as important to the US as Japan. The South Korean media will gush that South Korea is a 'bedrock' or 'cornerstone' of the US alliance in Asia. This in turn will be used to claim that Washington does not listen to Seoul enough but should; otherwise America's alliances in Asia might fall apart.

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That none of that is true is irrelevant. Nationalist self promotion will be ubiquitous. Competition with Japan is so deeply entrenched in Korean foreign policy thinking that the US alliance and the president's trip will almost certainly be instrumentalised for the purpose of elevating Korea against Japan. As an example, look at what happened last time the Korean media perceived the US to be tilting toward Japan over Korea.

3. China

Does it even need to be said any more that the PLA and Chinese hawks will read the trip as yet further proof of US encirclement? I would bet money that the Global Times will run one of its usual vitriolic editorials, complete with the typical line about the US facilitating a 'return of Japanese militarism.' That Japanese militarism never seems to actually return (but is always apparently in the process of doing so) does not appear to reduce the appeal of this chestnut in the Chinese media. Xi Jinping seems to be more interested in a hawkish, anti-Japanese foreign policy than his predecessors, which is in turn one of the very reasons for Obama's trip. So it would be a big surprise if the Chinese Communist Party forewent an opportunity to bemoan US 'hegemonism,' particularly during the Japan leg of the trip.

For those who fear that China and the US may slip into a downward tit-for-tat spiral toward conflict, the rhetorical sturm-und-drang of these trips is never helpful. Hawks on both sides will be heartened by all the hard talk coming soon.

4. Japan

This too will be a disappointment. Japanese conservatives particularly will use US presidential attention to deflect regional concerns about Pacific War remembrance. Why go through tough introspection when the US superpower is an ally? Why change? That Abe is prime minister only heightens the likelihood of this status-quo endorsing response. If the Japanese leg goes especially well, we may be 'lucky' enough to get yet another outburst of historical revisionism, post-Obama trip, from a major Japanese right-wing voice, perhaps along the lines of the NHK flap earlier this year.

In short, a lot of the trip is pre-scripted. It is almost as if these competing elites have assigned roles to play in a drama we have all seen fought out before. So in that sense the sociology of this drama is more interesting than anything likely be said on the trip: each group listed (and others too, presumably) are trying to capture the prestige of the US presidency to legitimise their understanding of the alliances.

Finally, two issues that will not receive the attention they should.

The issues I would bring up, were I the president, are trade liberalisation and allied burden sharing. The East Asian debate is dominated by security concerns, given China's South China Sea behaviour and the panic ignited by the Crimea annexation. But the long term structural solution to Chinese belligerence (short of extreme answers like war or revolution) is the continued tying of China into a liberal world order, and the most obvious doorway in is trade. Already China is far more politically liberal today than when it began its economic modernisation drive. 

Next, the long term security position of the US in Asia, as in Europe, is constantly strained by low allied military expenditures. US budget constraints, an ageing population, and the Tea Party's insistence on smaller government will impact the size of the US Asian footprint, regardless of elite hawk resistance (point 1 above). The Asian allies would be wise to adjust.

Photo by Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

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This item was originally published on The Drum

Neville Wran, premier of New South Wales for a decade, brought professionalism, class and wit to Australian politics. Clothed in a good suit and armed with a sharp wit, he dominated his government, the Labor Party and the state.

I first encountered Neville Wran as a little tacker. I was at the Sydney Fish Markets with my parents when the premier walked by, said hello and patted my head. Even to a child, it was obvious that he was a giant.

The obits today describe Wran's achievements in office: a strong economy, the saving of the rainforests, great public works, electoral reform, swingeing law reform and so on — and, of course, the four consecutive election victories that enabled all of this. But they don't fully capture the style of the man.

In a meeting of Cabinet or a sitting of Parliament, Wran was magnificent. There was a famous instance when a Country Party MP insisted on heckling Neville at the dispatch box. Increasingly infuriated, Neville fixed a cold eye on him and warned: 'If the honourable member does not cease to interject immediately, I shall be forced to acquaint the House with a particularly villainous act he has perpetrated in the past month.'

The opposition MP immediately became pale and silent. Afterwards one of Neville's colleagues approached him and asked the premier what he had on the recalcitrant MP. 'Nothing,' replied Neville. 'But you can be sure that a bastard like that will have done something dreadful in the past month!'

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This morning I spoke with Graham Freudenberg, Neville's speechwriter and the dean of Australian speechwriters. He told me that Wran was 'the best politician of my time in his ability to see the opportunities and pitfalls and to understand what the public would wear.'

Neville was immensely loyal to his friends, often to his cost. But Graham reminded me that he also 'enjoyed his hates'. One of these was the arch-conservative Country Party leader, Leon Punch. One day in parliament, when Punch was droning on, Wran turned to his deputy Jack Ferguson and said: 'If I go before you, and this bastard stands up in the valedictories, move the gag.'

I got to know Neville in my second year at Sydney University, when I joined the national committee of the Australian Republican Movement. The committee was chaired initially by Tom Keneally and later by Malcolm Turnbull. Apart from the UNSW student representative Lorand Bartels and me, the committee was comprised of the great and the good: Geraldine Doogue, Donald Horne, Harry Seidler, Faith Bandler, Colin Lanceley, Franca Arena and others. Neville dominated its meetings with intelligence and humour. He would usually arrive late, cut through the café talk, employ a few choice colloquialisms and bring us all to the point. He was pure crystal.

Inevitably he would make a little joke under his breath, in his hoarse voice, to the junior members of the committee. There was always a wink and a grin. As Malcolm Turnbull noted yesterday, Neville was young at heart — wickedly funny and entirely lacking in pomposity and self-importance. His loyal staffers called him 'Mr Wran' but he always introduced himself as 'Neville'.

I never saw Neville show bitterness or regret that he didn't make it to Canberra. But what a show he would have put on in the national capital! His interests were always larger than state politics. He was convinced of the merits of Paul Keating's push into Asia, and served as Australia's representative on the Eminent Persons Group of APEC. He was interested in foreign policy, and he was a regular presence in the audience at the Lowy Institute until a couple of years ago.

And, of course, Wran believed that Australia's head of state should be one of us. Famously, he danced with Diana. I'm sure he would have been pleased to dance with Kate, too. But he held to the simple proposition that the highest office under the Australian constitution should be held by an Australian — someone who had chosen to make their life with us and among us. A term at Timbertop simply did not cut it.

One of Wran's greatest strengths, Freudenberg observed to me today, was his ability to communicate his enthusiasm to others. When he was working on the plans for Darling Harbour, he would say to public servant Gerry Gleeson: 'There has to be something happening there all the time. Every time someone visits, we need to excite them!'

And in many ways this was Neville's whole approach to life. He was a giant figure — an enlarger not a straightener, according to Manning Clark's dichotomy — and a great Sydney character.

Vale the Hon NK Wran, AC, QC.

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

Last week Bates Gill and Tom Switzer argued on The Interpreter that reports of the death of  America's Pacific pivot' are being exaggerated. This week, former head of the Office of National Assessments Geoff Miller disputed this, stating that there is indeed reason to doubt the Americans commitment to the pivot, and that 'from an Australian point of view, there may be advantages in a less than whole-hearted or fully effective US pivot to Asia':

We are of course a US ally, but we also have a strategic partnership with China. Only last week, in what seems to have been a successful visit to China, Prime Minister Abbott not only put an enormous amount of national and personal effort into strengthening our trade and investment relationship, but also made important advances in the security field. According to press reports, Mr Abbott said he was 'quite confident' of building on high-level meetings and exchanges with the PLA through 'multilateral exercises in the months and years ahead'. The first such exercise will take place in July, when China for the first time joins more than 20 other nations in aspects of the RIMPAC exercises to be held off Hawaii. In that exercise, at Beijing's request, the PLA Navy will operate under Australian command and control.

Yet at almost the same time, the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris has described China as a 'destabilising influence' and accused Beijing of 'revanchist tendencies'.

The AFR's Brian Toohey, a defence specialist for many years, wrote on 5 April that 'Current US projections for a war with China envisage Australia's key contribution would be naval forces at the southern end of China's trade routes to help block the import of commodities such as Australian iron ore and natural gas'. Wouldn't be easier for us to simply not sell our resources to China, if we decided we didn't want China to have them?

But as the PM's visit showed, we do want China to have them, as we want a peaceful outcome to the re-balancing of forces in the Asia Pacific. In this context, we can welcome a US re-balancing or pivot to Asia even while we may remain somewhat sceptical about it. But we don't want the US re-balance to be over-militarised, involving alarming doctrines which have the potential to involve us through a largely unpublicised process of folding our own defence force into US military plans for the region.

Stephen Grenville this week marked a watershed moment in the global economy. Emerging and developing economies combined are now (in terms of purchasing power parity) larger than the advanced economies:

Emerging and developing economies have accounted for three-quarters of global growth since 2009 and make up two-thirds of forecast global growth.

Since mid-2011, the emerging economies in aggregate have maintained a stable pace of expansion, with minor deviations, of around 5%. The Fund forecasts this to be a touch faster during the next two years (see graph above).

Yet the Fund continues to articulate concerns about the sustainability of emerging-economy growth. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told the G20 meeting in September: 'Just as some advanced economies have begun to gather momentum, many emerging markets are slowing'. The latest WEO notes that 'downside risks to growth in emerging market economies have increased even though earlier risks have partly materialized and have already resulted in downward revisions to the baseline forecasts.'

This disconnect between the Fund's down-beat words and its actual forecast figures may be coloured by its interpretation of emerging economy evolution during the past two decades.

Pakistan has once again delayed granting 'most favoured nation' trade status to India (the latter granted MFN status to Pakistan back in 1996). Reza Khan argued that this results primarily from the influence of the military in Pakistani politics:

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Pakistan's military, which has directly ruled the country for nearly half of its existence and has always dominated (if not dictated) its foreign and security policies, has consistently prevented Pakistan from improving relations with Delhi, including on  trade. Pakistan's intelligentsia cite various reasons, mutually reinforcing, for Pakistani military opposition.

The foremost reason is the over-representation of Punjabis in the military. Punjabis are 57% of Pakistan's population while more than 80% personnel of the military are from the Punjab. The Punjab was one of the two provinces divided at the time of creation of India and Pakistan in 1947. Most of the Muslims killed during the mass migration of that time belonged to the Punjab, creating large-scale ill-will among the Pakistani Punjab against India. So, over-representation of the Punjabis in the military resulted in stringent anti-India policies by the military.

Another reason for the military opposition to free trade with India is its apprehensions that volume of the trade would be directly proportional to good relations between the two countries, which would reduce the importance of the military. Around 0.6 million active service and more than 0.5 million reserve military personnel consume a large portion of the country's budget and a good chunk of its GDP, preventing resources from being allocated to health, education and development. As the military has historically justified its huge size due to the security threat from India, Islamabad's good relations with India, the military leadership think, would raise demands for reducing the size of the military.

An allied reason for Pakistani military opposition to freer trade with India is that good relations would shift power over policy-making from the military to the democratic leadership and civil society.

Here's Tess Newton Cain on the role of the private sector in aid and development in the Pacific islands:

Is it good practice for private sector organisations to be given money from the aid budget in order to pursue 'for profit' activities in the hope that they will also deliver development outcomes?

Many Pacific island business already 'do' development. The terminology they use may differ from mainstream 'development speak', and the drivers of business may be different, but development objectives are most certainly achieved. Providing regular employment over a long period of time leads to improved livelihood for workers and their families, including increased access to education, health services and more.

However, it is hard to assess this impact either in any one country or across the Pacific island region. This is partly because the private sector is exactly that, private. In addition, the costs associated with collecting this information are high compared to the amount of data collected, owing to the small size of the formal business sector in each country.

Want to know why the G20 and IMF rebuffed the US last week? Mike Callaghan, the Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre, breaks it down:

The IMF/G20 meetings in Washington last week were not good for the US. And things may get worse.

Instead of focusing on the possibility of additional economic sanctions on Russia, which no doubt would have been the desire of the US, the headlines were 'G20 gives US ultimatum over IMF reforms'

The G20's frustration centres on US failure to ratify the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed by the G20 in 2010. While countries representing nearly 80% of IMF votes have approved the reforms, the required threshold is 85%. The US has a veto with its 16.75% shareholding and the US Congress continues to block the reforms. 

At their recent meeting, G20 finance ministers said that 'if the 2010 reforms are not ratified by year-end, we will call on the IMF to build on its existing work and develop options for next steps'. This has been interpreted as the G20 threatening to move to 'Plan B' which will by-pass the US, an approach strongly advocated by Russia

How significant are the reforms and is there a realistic 'Plan B'? Moreover, what would be the broader consequences of such a move? Or is it all a bluff?

Joe Hockey said the 2010 IMF reforms are a top priority because they would 'double the IMF's permanent resources and lead to a major realignment of voting shares'.

Our regular space analyst, Morris Jones, looks at what tensions over Ukraine mean for US-Russia space cooperation:

The Russian annexation of Crimea has brought a sharp focus on America's dependence on Russia as its only supplier of astronaut launches. Having retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA must pay hefty sums to buy seats on board Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which uses a design little changed from the 1960s.

Simply deciding not to launch astronauts is not an option, as NASA is the 'anchor tenant' in the International Space Station. For the moment, both nations seem to be working normally aboard the station, but other space projects are apparently being scaled back.

This over-dependence on Russia has highlighted another festering problem for American space flight. Nobody knows when the US will deploy another crew-carrying spacecraft, or who will do it. Rivalries between traditional US military-industrial monoliths and a new generation of start-up aerospace companies have been with us for years, but are now being elevated by geopolitical problems. The US Government has been funding the development of private cargo vehicles for the International Space Station (such as the Dragon capsule built by SpaceX, pictured above) and also hopes that private enterprise will eventually build private vehicles for astronauts. Dragon itself can be modified for this purpose (the latest launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which carries the Dragon capsule to orbit, wascancelled just hours agoand is now scheduled for 18 April).

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks look set to collapse. The mood in the West Bank city of Jenin, according to Lisa Main, is one of cynicism:

On a recent visit to Jenin Refugee Camp, I met one young man who still had shrapnel lodged in his stomach from the raid. He told me he's frustrated by the corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA), and their coordination with the Israeli army. He wants peace, but doesn't have confidence in the PA to deliver it. That's not an uncommon sentiment in the West Bank.

As we talked, a younger, more sprightly local boy approached me. Probably aged 12, he eagerly declared, 'we throw stones and molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, they are not our partners in peace'. I asked if he wanted peace. He responded quickly and firmly, 'yes'. I then asked if he was afraid of the soldiers? 'No'. Like his friend, he couldn't see past the occupation. Few people I spoken to can. For the young boy, peace talks are an abstract concept that has failed to deliver any meaningful change in his lifetime.

Exasperated by Israel's continued settlement enterprise, President Abbas has activated his plan B. By signing onto aslew of international conventions that seem to signal a new effort to secure statehood recognition at the UN, he's laying the early groundwork for a formal complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court. But as the Palestinian president looks to the international community, he may struggle with legitimacy back home. A mix of exhaustion and defeat now plague the Palestinians. If, in the next couple of weeks, Abbas succumbs to Israeli pressure and pauses his move at the UN, his leadership will be further doubted.

Claire Stewart, reporting from Iran, profiles the youth of Esfahan:

For many of the younger, educated Iranians, it feels like their government's ability to control Iran's propaganda is slipping as people see first hand what they are missing out on under the Islamic regime. Yet contrary to Western assumptions, it's not access to the 'excesses' of US culture that young Iranians want most. Almost universally, they hold fast to their religion. But they want the option to take a more moderate approach to its practice and implementation.

Crucially, they want an end to the power of the shadow government, run by the mullahs answerable to the Supreme Leader. But few are under any illusion about the prospects of that, particularly after the disastrous and bloody 2009 Green Revolution and the problems arising from the Arab Spring.

Esse is a carpet salesman and works in the popular tourist hub of Esfahan. He trained as an engineer but can't find work. It's a common problem for university graduates. Professional positions are scarce and usually require a friendly word in the ear of a government contact to seal the deal. Esse says most people are hoping that eventually, international sanctions will be lifted so the economy can be given breathing room. As it is, few expect a functioning relationship with the US (laughingly referred to as 'Big Boss'), despite moves by Iran Air to recommence direct flights from Tehran to Los Angeles, and the relative success of nuclear talks in Geneva late last year.

And still on the Middle East: it was reported this week that two Australian citizens were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen last November. Rodger Shanahan argued that this will open up a new debate in Australia:

Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be 'extrajudicial killings' and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post. 

The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.

Gretta Nabbs-Keller, citing recent comments over the Natuna Islands, asked if Indonesia is shifting its South China Sea policy:

In the post-authoritarian era, Indonesian officials, like many of their Southeast Asian counterparts, have tended to self-censor when it comes to China, avoiding public criticism while benefiting from considerable Chinese largesse. This is what makes recent public comments by senior Indonesian military officers about the vulnerability of Indonesia's South China Sea-located Natuna Islands so interesting. 

Following a February 2014 trip to Beijing, for example, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Moeldoko signaled enhanced defence measures for the Natuna Islands. 'Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI', he explained.

Then in March, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, based at Indonesia's Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, publicly stated that 'China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters'. 

In June 2013, Commodore Amarullah Octavian was even more frank. In announcing that Indonesia would host 'Exercise Komodo' he explained that 'the exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area'.

Unsurprisingly, such candid public comments by senior Indonesian military officers did not go unnoticed in the Indonesian press and scholarly community.

Matthew Linley, a professor at Nagoya University, on why Japan's most daunting challenge is population decline:

After acknowledging Japan's aging problem in his Davos speech this year, Shinzo Abe asked rhetorically, 'in such a country, where will you find those innovative and creative human resources?' He mentioned briefly how foreigners could provide 'help with housework' and 'care for the elderly' but his main argument was that more women must participate in the labour force.

But as others have argued, putting faith in a single approach will not be sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem (the report also indicated that the female population decreased by 0.15%). Nor will it address the imbalanced nature of Japan's population decline. While improving childcare and educational facilities may make working in cities more attractive to women (men too), policymakers outside urban areas must not only provide these basic facilities but also revive local economies with fewer workers and consumers.

So, along with economic reforms and dealing with a rising China, this report is a good reminder of perhaps the most daunting set of questions that Japanese policymakers face today: what will the country do to stop its precipitous population decline and how does the rest of the country compete with the bright lights of Tokyo?

Also on Japan, Anthony Fensom looked at the post-ICJ future of Japanese whaling:

In recent years, the nation's 'research' whaling expedition has conducted an annual, ritualistic battle in the Antarctic against environmentalists led by Sea Shepherd, with seemingly little scope for a breakthrough.

All that apparently changed on 31 March, when after nearly four years of deliberations, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) panel voted 12 votes to four in favour of Australia's argument that Japan's JARPA II research whaling program was illegal, as it failed to constitute scientific research. Has Japanese whaling finally broken the 'groundhog day' cycle?

The answer appears to be in the affirmative, despite claims to the contrary from Sea Shepherd and apparent bravado from the whalers.

According to a Fairfax report, Japan's whalers plan on returning to the Antarctic for a renewed 'research program' in 2015-16, and in compliance with the ICJ decision. Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson said the alleged plan by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which contradicted Japan's official statements after the decision, showed the nation's 'history of duplicity with regard to whaling'.

Yet the evidence suggests Japan's whalers have been politically harpooned, at least for the time being.

Elliot Brennan looked at communal violence in Myanmar, which threatens to undo its political progress:

While the Myanmar Government has since re-emphasised its commitment to protecting aid workers, the problem remains that Rakhine Buddhists want Rakhine Muslims to leave. Human rights groups have been murmuring about the threat of ethnic cleansing and a government policy of persecution against the Rakhine Muslims. While this is largely uncorroborated, what is worrying is the Government's unwillingness to engage on the issue. Daw Aung San Sui Kyi has been widely criticised for her silence, but other politicians have been equally mute.

A key reason for this lack of government engagement is that many people in the country support the Rakhine Buddhists. This sentiment is exacerbated by politicians positioning themselves for the 2015 election, and by a young, newly free and inflammatory media. There is also concern that any action against the Rakhine Buddhists could provoke countrywide protests and reprisal attacks against Muslims.

And finally, here's Lowy Institute research associate Brendan Thomas-Noone on why Australia needs a white paper on cyber:

China alone is estimated to have 590 million users and India a further 151 million. These numbers will continue to grow. A 2012 Boston Consultancy Group report estimated that by 2016 China will have 'nearly 800 million internet users' and that the internet economy itself will reach a value of US$4.2 trillion in the G20 nations. The internet economy will also account for a significant part of future economic growth. The same report states that emerging nations will be 'responsible for about 34% of the overall internet economy' and that same industry will be responsible for '48% of their (future) growth.'

This increase in internet users and digital connectivity is helping to drive growth in international trade. A recent report from Brookings argued that, as the internet becomes a more important 'platform for commerce', individual buyers and sellers are using it to interact across borders in ever more sophisticated ways. A study by PayPal tracked this digital commerce and its relation to trade flows, finding that in just six surveyed markets the value of cross-border commerce was estimated at US$105 billion, and by 2018 this will increase nearly '200% to $307 billion.' The internet is also allowing large amounts of data to cross borders nearly instantaneously, which is also 'underpinning global economic integration and international trade.' Trends in the diffusion of manufacturing and the growing importance of open source design will also increase the importance of digital communication in the global economy. 

As well as purely economic considerations, a cyber white paper could address the convergence of Australia's economic and strategic interests in the digital realm. 

It is undoubtedly in Australia's national interest to see economic interdependence, international trade and communication continue to grow throughout the Indo-Pacific region and between its major powers. Open lines of digital communication are essential for financial transactions and global communication.  An unhindered global commons, which includes the sea, air, space and now cyberspace, underpin a stable strategic system, something that needs to be nurtured in a region that is rife with territorial disputes and rising defence budgets.

If open sea lines of communication are critical to Australia's economy and its national security, then we need to start thinking similarly about the internet and digital communications. 

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.

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Before last week's legislative elections in Indonesia, most observers (myself included) were convinced that Islamic parties would continue their decline in the polls, dragged down by a lack of ideological distinction from secular nationalist parties, competition from the state in the provision of social welfare, and lost claims to moral superiority in the wake of damaging corruption and sex scandals. I argued that Islamic pietism would play a role in gaining voter support but that this was open to all parties, and would not guarantee success for Islamic parties over secular nationalist ones.

This assessment turned out to be about half right.

As predicted, secular nationalist parties were the clear winners in the poll, according to quick counts released last week (official results will not be available until early May), with a collective score of about 68%. However, Islamic parties actually saw a rise in support compared to previous legislative elections, taking a collective 32% of the vote compared to 29% in 2009. All Islamic parties took a bigger share of the vote than in the previous election, with the exception of the scandal-ridden Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which was punished with only a 1% decline in voter support.

Rumours are now flying about plans for the Islamic parties to form a coalition and put forward a presidential candidate, though commentators have dismissed this as unlikely, if not impossible.

Journalists and analysts in Jakarta have been scratching their heads over the result, which put the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB) in the top five, just below President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party. Some have pointed to corruption among secular nationalist parties as a reason voters looked to Islamic parties, deemed to be more morally sound. But this does not explain why parties such as the PKS were not punished more harshly.

Others saw the results as a victory for moderate Islam, with the PKB and National Mandate Party (PAN), neither of which hold an Islamist political ideology, topping the Islamic vote.

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Indonesia specialist Greg Fealy, after being interviewed by just about every media outlet in Jakarta on the matter, expanded on his analysis on an Australian National University blog, arguing that the success of Islamic parties did not signal growing support for political Islam, but instead was due to pragmatic policy and campaigning decisions made by individual parties, mostly involving a step away from Islamist ideology and toward centrist policies with broad appeal.

The best-performing Islamic party, PKB, secured broad appeal by recruiting 1970s pop singer Rhoma Irama, sometimes referred to as 'Indonesia's Elvis', as a presidential hopeful. It also had the support of Lion Air founder Rusdi Kirana, with whose help PKB launched a well-oiled campaign at the grassroots, something Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is criticised as having failed to achieve ahead of the legislative election. Perhaps most importantly, PKB improved relations with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's biggest Islamic organisation, since the last poll in 2009. The support of NU is important for PKB not only because of its significance in religious life but also for its role in the community as a provider of social welfare.

PAN, which came in just below PKB, also has strong ties at the grassroots via Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second biggest Islamic organisation. Like NU, Muhammadiyah is known as a provider of social welfare, particularly in health and education. And like PKB, PAN also invested heavily in campaigning to make its name known at the grassroots. It would appear that this combination of organisational links, provision of social welfare and investment in advertising paid off for both PAN and PKB.  Another common factor is that neither party holds an explicitly Islamist political ideology. Both are only Islamic in identity and via their connections to Islamic organisations.

Meanwhile, parties that do have an Islamist agenda, such as the PKS and the United Development Party (PPP), came in at the bottom of the scale, with the sharia-promoting Crescent Star Party (PBB) falling short of the parliamentary threshold. This would suggest that political Islam is still struggling to find support in Indonesia, though parties that are culturally Islamic can garner a broad support base, especially when they offer social services that benefit the community. A little star power and generous funding don't hurt either.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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India's election season kicked off on 7 April and will continue until 16 May. In place of my regular India Links, here is the second edition (part 1 here) of the best election-related reading of the week:

Is Modi committed to minority rights? Comparisons with fascism, often made, are too facile. India simply does not have the conditions of 1930s Germany. But will he take India towards a Sri Lankan-style majoritarianism? This is a more relevant question.

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We're about to start our Easter holiday here in Australia, so the The Interpreter will be light-on over the next few days.

We'll post a few pieces over the break, as well as our usual weekend catch-up on Saturday. Regular posting will resume on Tuesday 22 April.

Image by Flickr user Jeni Rodger.

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Each Thursday we bring you a selection of what our Pacific island experts have been reading from and about the region.

  • In Fiji, the police have confirmed that Rear Admiral Bainimarama is under investigation for allegedly breaching electoral rules.
  • Voters in Niue have returned the government of Toke Talagi after the last seat was decided by a straw poll.
  • There are heightened tensions on the border between Papua New Guinea and West Papua.
  • The IMF is concerned about levels of public debt in Samoa, but the prime minister maintains  there is no cause for alarm.
  • Vanuatu has launched its National Energy Road Map, a first in the region.
  • A 'cyber crime' policy before cabinet in Papua New Guinea has raised concerns about freedom of expression.
  • A new publication launched by the IMF captures economic data about Pacific countries: Asia & Pacific Small States Monitor.
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In Myanmar's western Rakhine State, home to several camps of internally displaced people (IDPs), tensions are running hot.

Late last month, riots and attacks on the UN and NGOs led to the relocation of 170 aid workers. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, the IDP camps that hold 140,000 people (mainly Rakhine Muslims) are already suffering from shortages of medical care, food and drinking water, so the disruption of aid work could prove deadly. Secondly, it appears the Myanmar Government is unable to calm the repeated and increasing outbreaks of violence.

On 26 and 27 March, riots which involved over 400 people targeted the offices and residences of Medicins Sans Frontier, UNHCR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Malteser International and others in the state capital Sittwe. Reports indicate that 71 aid workers were evacuated following the incident and 170 staff relocated. After some hours, local security forces arrived and aided their evacuation, firing multiple rounds into the air to disperse the rioters. An 11-year old girl was killed during these events, and the following day Naypyidaw set up an investigation committee to probe the incident and find the culprits. 

Rakhine Buddhists have protested against NGOs in the past. Protests earlier this year led to the end of Medicins Sans Frontier's operations in Rakhine State. Rakhine Buddhists see the organisations as supporting only the Muslim communities.

The riots underscore a worrying trend in Myanmar. According to government numbers, 167 people have been killed and 223 injured in the recent communal violence (as highlighted in earlier posts). Rakhine Muslims, known broadly outside the country as Rohingyas, have taken shelter in IDP camps and tens of thousands more have have fled over the border to Bangladesh or by boat.

These camps, which hold some 140,000 people, are under increasing pressure.

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As Myanmar's mercury soars, much of the country is this week celebrating the Thingyan water festival. It is a cruel reality, then, that according to humanitarian organisations, the 140,000 people in Rakhine State's IDP camps don't have enough drinking water. The UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar noted in a statement on 7 April that water availability could reach critical levels within a week in some camps. 

As a result, the UK last week summoned the Myanmar ambassador to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation and restriction of access of aid workers. The invitation led to a strong rebuke from Myanmar's presidential spokesperson, U Ye Htut, stating that the UK was interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs. 

While the Myanmar Government has since re-emphasised its commitment to protecting aid workers, the problem remains that Rakhine Buddhists want Rakhine Muslims to leave. Human rights groups have been murmuring about the threat of ethnic cleansing and a government policy of persecution against the Rakhine Muslims. While this is largely uncorroborated, what is worrying is the Government's unwillingness to engage on the issue. Daw Aung San Sui Kyi has been widely criticised for her silence, but other politicians have been equally mute.

A key reason for this lack of government engagement is that many people in the country support the Rakhine Buddhists. This sentiment is exacerbated by politicians positioning themselves for the 2015 election, and by a young, newly free and inflammatory media. There is also concern that any action against the Rakhine Buddhists could provoke countrywide protests and reprisal attacks against Muslims.

The national census, now underway, will likely return results that will suggest, incorrectly, that the Muslim population in the country has increased by up to three-fold. This will exacerbate tensions and could provoke further violence.

The Myanmar Government would be wise to act early and turn up the volume on its support for a peaceful solution to communal violence that includes greater dialogue with Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims. International support is also needed. Pressure should be applied by all international actors in Myanmar, investors included. If the Government fails to act, this issue could break the fabric of the country's transition, jettison its promised wealth and lead to a lot more bloodshed.

Photo by Flickr user European Commission.

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Evgeny Morozov has cornered the market in passionate take-downs of techno-utopian futurism in recent years, but there's always room for more. Here's Bryan Appleyard in the New Statesman:

...futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.

Why? Because there’s money in it; money and faith. I don’t just mean the few millions to be made from book sales; nor do I mean the simple geek belief in gadgetry. And I certainly don’t mean the pallid, undefined, pop-song promises of politicians trying to turn our eyes from the present – Bill Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” and Tony Blair’s “Things can only get better”. No, I mean the billions involved in corporate destinies and the yearning for salvation from our human condition.

Appleyard would probably wince at this breathless piece about what might be the world capital of techno-utopianism, Google's top secret innovation lab, known as Google X:

If there's a master plan behind X, it's that a frictional arrangement of ragtag intellects is the best hope for creating products that can solve the world's most intractable issues. Yet Google X, as Teller describes it, is an experiment in itself--an effort to reconfigure the process by which a corporate lab functions, in this case by taking incredible risks across a wide variety of technological domains, and by not hesitating to stray far from its parent company's business. We don't yet know if this will prove to be genius or folly. There's actually no historical model, no ­precedent, for what these people are doing.

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By Matthew Linley, Designated Professor at Nagoya University. Matthew holds an LLM from Nagoya University and a PhD from the ANU.

On Tuesday the Japanese Government released its annual population estimate.

Unsurprisingly, the population declined for the third year in a row, by 0.17%. The figure grabbing the greatest attention, however, is 25.1%. That's the percentage of the population over 65 years old. Not unexpected, of course, but crossing that one-in-four threshold does resonate.

Let's take a brief look at some of the data and consider some implications. As Figure 1 shows, the number of Japanese aged 30 and over overshadows those under 30. Those born five or six years after the end of World War II (the 64 and 65 year olds) make up the single largest age group. Another large cohort of people born in the early 1970s is now in their late 30s and early 40s.

Figure 1: Number of people by age in Japan, 2014.

While Japan's aging population is a familiar problem, less is said about the differences between regions. Of Japan's 47 prefectures, only 8 experienced a rise in inhabitants over the past year. Figure 2 shows the top ten growth rates by prefecture.

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Figure 2: Change in population by prefecture (top ten growth rates), 2014.

It is clear the demographic shift from rural to urban areas that began in the 19th century endures. Tokyo, despite its already enormous size, saw growth of over 0.5% while the adjoining prefectures of Saitama and Kanagawa, where many Tokyo workers live, were also boosted. The populations of Aichi (where Nagoya is located and home to Toyota) and Fukuoka expanded too. Chiba, just outside Tokyo, and Osaka made the top ten of growth rates but, showing just how dire things are, actually saw a reduction in residents.

What is salient about the current report is the pace of rural Japan's depopulation. Figure 3 shows the prefectures with the greatest rates of decline in the past year.

Figure 3: Change in population by prefecture (bottom ten growth rates), 2014.

Despite not being large to begin with, the populations of Akita and Aomori in northern Japan decreased by over 1%. These depopulation rates bring with them a host of problems for local governments that will be unlike those in urban areas. One cannot help but ponder the future of agriculture in Japan since Niigata, Fukushima, Aomori, Yamagata, and Akita are all top ten rice producers. Not only will young people subsidise their elders, but urban residents will need to provide greater support for sparsely populated rural areas as well.

Although the report notes that the number of foreigners living in Japan rose for the first time in five years, it is too bad that neither the government nor any major media outlets mentioned immigration. The government, businesses, and labour unions have deliberated over increasing the number of foreign workers required for the coming construction boom linked to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But nobody has advocated increasing long-term residents.

After acknowledging Japan's aging problem in his Davos speech this year, Shinzo Abe asked rhetorically, 'in such a country, where will you find those innovative and creative human resources?' He mentioned briefly how foreigners could provide 'help with housework' and 'care for the elderly' but his main argument was that more women must participate in the labour force.

But as others have argued, and as is confirmed by this report, putting faith in a single approach will not be sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem (the report also indicated that the female population decreased by 0.15%). Nor will it address the imbalanced nature of Japan's population decline. While improving childcare and educational facilities may make working in cities more attractive to women (men too), policymakers outside urban areas must not only provide these basic facilities but also revive local economies with fewer workers and consumers.

So, along with economic reforms and dealing with a rising China, this report is a good reminder of perhaps the most daunting set of questions that Japanese policymakers face today: what will the country do to stop its precipitous population decline and how does the rest of the country compete with the bright lights of Tokyo?

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The idea of cyberspace as a common global good has yet to find its place in Australia. 

Ensuring that sea lanes remain open for navigation throughout the Indo-Pacific was a prominent concern in the last Defence White Paper. Australia's condemnation of the Chinese ADIZ in November 2013 indicates that freedom of navigation in the air also remains a critical strategic interest for the Government. Cyberspace, however, is seen purely in security terms (cyberattack, cyberwar, cybercrime), not as a rules-based global good that is essential to the modern global economy and that demands its own strategic considerations. 

Australia lacks a comprehensive cyber or digital policy. The internet and digital connectivity are driving global trade, deepening cultural exchange and will be a central element of strategic stability in the future, within the Indo-Pacific and globally. 

The Australian Government needs to consider the critical role of global digital communication on the stability and growth of Australia's economy, and its future national security. 

Australia needs a cyber white paper.

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Previous governments have attempted to publish a distinct cyber white paper, but the idea was shuffled between federal departments and watered down before ultimately being added to an existing domestic digital infrastructure policy.

The Government needs to recognise that a comprehensive cyber and digital white paper is the best way to ensure that Australia maximises the advantages that come with being in the region with the highest number of internet users in the world. Australia's geographic position will be an advantage as e-commerce grows and more goods and services in the region head online. 

China alone is estimated to have 590 million users and India a further 151 million. These numbers will continue to grow. A 2012 Boston Consultancy Group report estimated that by 2016 China will have 'nearly 800 million internet users' and that the internet economy itself will reach a value of US$4.2 trillion in the G20 nations. The internet economy will also account for a significant part of future economic growth. The same report states that emerging nations will be 'responsible for about 34% of the overall internet economy' and that same industry will be responsible for '48% of their (future) growth.'

This increase in internet users and digital connectivity is helping to drive growth in international trade. A recent report from Brookings argued that, as the internet becomes a more important 'platform for commerce', individual buyers and sellers are using it to interact across borders in ever more sophisticated ways. A study by PayPal tracked this digital commerce and its relation to trade flows, finding that in just six surveyed markets the value of cross-border commerce was estimated at US$105 billion, and by 2018 this will increase nearly '200% to $307 billion.' The internet is also allowing large amounts of data to cross borders nearly instantaneously, which is also 'underpinning global economic integration and international trade.' Trends in the diffusion of manufacturing and the growing importance of open source design will also increase the importance of digital communication in the global economy. 

As well as purely economic considerations, a cyber white paper could address the convergence of Australia's economic and strategic interests in the digital realm. 

It is undoubtedly in Australia's national interest to see economic interdependence, international trade and communication continue to grow throughout the Indo-Pacific region and between its major powers. Open lines of digital communication are essential for financial transactions and global communication.  An unhindered global commons, which includes the sea, air, space and now cyberspace, underpin a stable strategic system, something that needs to be nurtured in a region that is rife with territorial disputes and rising defence budgets

If open sea lines of communication are critical to Australia's economy and its national security, then we need to start thinking similarly about the internet and digital communications. 

Disruption to the internet and digital communication by cyber attack within the region is a real threat, but other strategic concerns such as faltering telecommunication infrastructure development and improper regulation and tariffs on data and online commerce are also growing. These issues are also interconnected, as the development of effective broadband infrastructure in other countries allows Australian commerce and business access to those markets. 

The need to consider how the internet and digital interconnection are intersecting with the economic, security and strategic interests of Australia from a policy perspective is clear. Australia needs to start thinking comprehensively and strategically when it comes to the future of digital communication.

Photo by Flickr user pfly.

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