Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 10:16 | SYDNEY
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The Institute’s 2009–2012 Asia Security Project explored the limits of security cooperation in Asia and identified  measures to stop rivalries escalating into war. This project, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, was a precursor to two major MacArthur projects on nuclear strategic stability and maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia from 2013 onwards.



Rory Medcalf
Nonresident Fellow
James Goldrick
Nonresident Fellow

Latest publications

Shifting waters: China’s new passive assertiveness in Asian maritime security

In this Report, Ashley Townshend and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Professor Rory Medcalf examine China’s evolving maritime security conduct. They argue that China’s less confrontational but more strategically assertive behaviour has paradoxical implications for regional security, lowering the risks of unintended clashes but making it harder to prevent China from consolidating a new maritime status quo.

This Report is part of a wider research and outreach project on maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images/DigitalGlobe

Nuclear-armed submarines in Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or menace?

In this Report, Lowy Institute Research Associate Brendan Thomas-Noone and Nonresident Fellow Professor Rory Medcalf examine the implications of sea-based nuclear weapons for strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific.

This paper is part of a wider research and outreach project on nuclear stability in a changing Indo-Pacific Asia, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photo: Flickr/Royal Navy Media Archive

Ten speeches on Australia's place in the world (part 1)

As readers of The Interpreter may have heard, I've just launched a revised second edition of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches.

Most of the speeches in my book are about Australian history, culture and politics, not Australian foreign policy.

As I've argued before, foreign policy is Australia's area of speechmaking underperformance. Too often, Australian foreign policy speeches are workmanlike rather than profound. They have content but not much flair. However, the pickings are much richer if we broaden our perspective from foreign policy narrowly-defined to Australia's place in the world more broadly.

In a two-part post, I'll nominate ten great speeches about Australia's place in the world. These first five cover the period from Federation to Vietnam (transcripts for selections 1 and 2 are not online, but all of the speeches selected here are featured in the book):

1. Vida Goldstein, 'You will soon be citizens of no mean country', London, UK, 17 June 1911

Australia was in the front rank of nations when it awarded (most) women the right both to vote and to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902. In subsequent years, Australian suffragists tried to coax their British cousins down the same path: our parliament passed resolutions recommending the policy, and our activists carried the word to the UK in person. 

The most prominent of these women was Vida Goldstein, who organised an international contingent to march with 40,000 others in a 1911 suffrage procession through London. Goldstein gave a rousing speech at Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of the march, urging the Brits to follow our lead in awarding women the right to vote. 'I know that you will soon be citizens of no mean country', she concluded.

2. Billy Hughes, 'It is the duty of every citizen to defend his country', 18 September 1916

Billy Hughes was prime minister for most of the First World War, earning the affection of Australia's soldiers and the sobriquet 'The Little Digger'. In 1916 Hughes became concerned by the depletion of Australia's military strength through the appalling casualties of the Western Front, and was converted to the cause of conscripting Australians for service overseas.

His speech to a monster public meeting in Sydney in September 1916 created immense (though ultimately inadequate) momentum for the conscription cause:

Nearly three hundred thousand men have enlisted. Why should some take on their shoulders the burden that belongs to all? If life be such a sacred thing that no government or no individual has a right to lay hands upon it, why should these three hundred thousand be chosen to die, that we may live, unmolested, allowing the roll and thunder of battle to pass over us undisturbed? This war must be brought home to every man and woman in this great Commonwealth of Australia. If voluntaryism fails, the war must not fail. The interests at issue are too great. Australia must do her part. It may be that voluntaryism will save us; but if it does not, then we must still be saved.

3. John Curtin, The Battle of the Coral Sea speech, 8 May 1942 

Towards the end of a slow sitting day on 8 May 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin rose and announced to the House of Representatives that battle had been joined in the Coral Sea, to Australia's north-east, between Allied forces and a Japanese naval task force seeking to capture Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian territory of Papua. The address was short in length and spare in language, which added to the drama of the moment.

Old hands regarded this as Curtin's finest speech, especially its closing moments:

I ask the people of Australia, having regard to the grave consequences implicit in this engagement, to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation. As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have – it may be for many of them the last full measure of their devotion – to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory. In the face of such an example I feel that it is not asking too much of every citizen who today is being defended by these gallant men in that engagement, to regard himself as engaged in the second line of service to Australia. The front line needs the maximum support of every man and woman in the Commonwealth. With all the responsibility which I feel, which the government feels, and which, I am sure, the parliament as a whole shares, I put it to any man whom my words may reach, however they may reach him, that he owes it to those men, and to the future of the country, not to be stinting in what he will do now for Australia. Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first significant setback suffered by Japan and many now regard it as a turning point in the battle for Australia. It was also a turning point in our relations with the US, and underscored the prescience of Curtin's statement in the Melbourne Herald of 27 December 1941 that 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'.

4. Robert Menzies, 'A spirit, a proud memory, a confident prayer', 26 June 1950

Prime Minister Robert Menzies told a British diplomat that the purpose of this speech to the Adelaide chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was to 'restore the Commonwealth relationship to its proper place in the forefront' of Australian foreign-policy thinking. Menzies was sceptical of the UN, in which former external affairs minister HV Evatt had put such faith, preferring an interests-based approach and especially close relations with Britain and the US, Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.

The British Commonwealth is more than a group of friendly powers. It is more than a series of concerted economic interests. It is and must be a living thing – not a corpse under the knives of the constitutional dissectors. It would be the tragedy of our history if what began as a splendid adventure and grew into a proud brotherhood should end up as a lawyer's exercise. When the Commonwealth ceases to be an inner feeling as well as an external association, virtue will have gone out of it.

5. Arthur Calwell, 'I offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated', 4 May 1965

In response to Prime Minister Menzies' 1965 announcement that Australia would send an infantry battalion to Vietnam, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell laid out Labor's opposition to Australia's participation in the war in a finely argued parliamentary statement. The party politics of the Vietnam War were, in fact, strikingly similar to the party politics of the Iraq war nearly forty years later. In both cases a Coalition government sought to shrink the US-Australia alliance to the dimensions of a single conflict, while a Labor opposition argued that the war was inimical to the interests of both countries. Calwell's remarks laid out Labor's case in plain English, argument upon argument. They were anti-war without being anti-American, and were substantially vindicated by history.

Here is Calwell's rousing conclusion:

May I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security.

Middle powers in Asia: The limits of realism

In the world of international relations theory, the realist paradigm reigns supreme. In large part, this is because it has core features that exert strong appeal beyond the academy: explanatory parsimony and the use of historical analogy. Realists place great emphasis on Europe's experience of great power politics, and for those like the late Ken Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Australia's own Hugh White, 'secondary' powers have little agency in an anarchic international system. Great powers call the shots and other states have few options but to fall into line.

Yet Asia's geopolitical order, mid-way through the second decade of the 21st century, is not mirroring the realist script. The region is characterised by great-power rivalry between the US and China, to be sure, but there is little evidence non-great-powers feel under pressure to 'choose sides'. And there are few indications this will change in the future. Indeed, small and middle powers are demonstrating a degree of agency in shaping geopolitics that undermines the validity of the realist model for predicting how states in Asia will behave.

Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have resisted bandwagoning with the new rising power in Asia, but nor have they joined the US, Japan, and Australia to balance against China. Far from being pressured into choosing camps, all three have been highly adept at exploiting benefits from close relations with Beijing and Washington.

The two Koreas are showing signs of serious hedging strategies. Seoul's intimate economic relationship with Beijing has led to closer politico-strategic ties, but there are few indications that South Korea is weakening its alliance ties with Washington. For its part, Pyongyang has reasserted foreign policy autonomy in relation to Beijing by engaging in direct talks with Tokyo and effectively ignoring China's warnings about the need to exercise restraint.

The recent decision by Japan to reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution was driven more by unilateral goals than by any pressure from Washington. Tokyo's strategic repositioning has little to do with ensconcing itself further in the US camp in Asia, and everything to do with promoting greater autonomy for Japan to act independently in future. There are many Japanese nationalists who remain distrustful of the US and harbour doubts that Washington would intervene decisively if Tokyo found itself locked in armed conflict with China. Anxiety that the US and China may cut a deal that leaves Japan stranded should not be underestimated as a factor in Japanese thinking.

More generally, what evidence do we have that US-China rivalry (as distinct from China's rise per se) is actually reshaping Asia's geopolitical order? This is a question that merits more rigorous research than a single blog post can justify, but a couple of points might be worth pondering.

First, no state (apart from arguably Cambodia) has made the choice to bandwagon with China, and there is scant evidence that the overwhelming majority of Asian states are open to anything other than a US-led regional order. While Beijing has probably realised that the modern great power game is tougher than previously anticipated, many Western analysts seem to be clinging to the assumption that China's rise will be linear. One only has to look at the degree of loyalty displayed by China's 'ally' North Korea to appreciate how bumpy things will remain for Beijing.

Second, we have limited evidence of determined balancing (as distinct from hedging, which states do all the time) against China. While Australia has embraced what could be characterised as balancing measures against China (marines in Darwin, F-35 purchases), these have been pretty half-hearted. To the extent that Australia has balanced against China, it has been almost exclusively at the rhetorical level. Dressing down ambassadors over outrageous territorial claims and expressions of moral support for Tokyo in its stoushes with Beijing do not hide the fact that Australia's defence spending is essentially static. This may increase in future, but there is little appetite for real change, and Canberra will continue to free ride as much as it can on the US alliance while doing everything it can to deepen the intimacy of economic relations with China.

Photo by Flickr user futureatlas.com.


Human rights in North Korea: Ten lessons from my UN inquiry

Michael Kirby spoke about his experiences as chair of the UN commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea at the Lowy Institute on 28 May.

The UN Human Right Council (HRC) established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into alleged human rights violations in North Korea in March 2013. Myself and Sonja Biserko of Serbia were appointed as commissioners the following month. (Marzuki Darusman, the third commissioner, served ex officio as Special Rapporteur for the HRC on North Korea.) Our report was released to the world on 17 February 2014. 

The 10 principal lessons I learned in my work as chair of the COI were:

1. The importance of establishing such a COI with a strong, talented and independent secretariat of experienced and high quality officers.

2. The importance of conducting the inquiry with transparency. This was assured in the case of the COI on North Korea by the novel step of conducting public hearings, posting filmed records and transcripts on the COI's webpage, and the use of extracts from the testimony throughout the final report to illustrate our findings and conclusions. 

3. The desirability of allowing the victims of human rights abuses to speak directly to the HRC and the international community through filmed testimony and through quotations from that testimony in the COI report.

4. The engagement of the COI with international and national civil society organisations. Great assistance and support, sometimes with technical evidence, was provided by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and Korean and Japanese non-government organisations.

5. The utility of engaging with international legal and other scholars. This was demonstrated, for example, through our consideration of the definition and application of the international crime of 'genocide'.

6. Engaging with the international media: North Korea has substantially effective control of media coverage about itself, not only to its own population but to the outside world. But this strategy was shattered by COI's engagement with international media which covered closely the activities, report and follow-up to the COI report.

7. The COI report clearly demonstrated the links between North Korea's non-observance of human rights and the danger the country presents to international peace and security. The Security Council already has on its agenda the security issues presented by North Korea and its nuclear arsenal. The report of the COI demonstrates that these cannot be divorced from the conduct of the regime in respect of its own citizens, including the manner and circumstances of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, uncle of the Supreme Leader and formerly a high official in North Korea.

8. Follow-up to the COI report secured high priority both from the COI itself as well as from interested UN member states and the UN system. That follow-up is continuing, and should address the large number of specific recommendations of the COI. Most of these recommendations do not require action by the Security Council. One, the creation of a field office to continue the work of the COI in monitoring human rights allegations against North Korea, is under active review.

9. Frustrations are often experienced about operating within the UN system, and it was sometimes trying. But the UN gave the COI admirable attention and support, with UN personnel responding favourably to virtually every COI request.

10. COI demonstrates the growing internationalism of the global response to intolerable human rights conditions in particular countries. While opponents of the COI report pleaded non-interference in the 'sovereign' rights of member countries, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights create a new world order in which we are all concerned with grave human rights violations. Where member states fail to protect their citizens, a responsibility to protect devolves to the UN system. The follow-up to the report of the COI on North Korea will demonstrate the extent to which this responsibility is meaningful in practice, even where the offending state has powerful friends, including some that are permanent members of the Security Council. 

Abbott has stopped the boats, now he can reap the benefits

Although I profoundly disagree with the Government's policy on asylum seekers, the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll indicates that it has been successful in at least three ways beyond the bald statistic that no boats have arrived in Australia for over 150 days.

First, by and large Australians support the policies. Of those polled, 71% support turning back boats when it is safe to do so, 59% support offshore processing in places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the number of those who support the policy of issuing temporary protection visas is about the same as those who do not. In other words the Government is quickly winning back public confidence in asylum policy; no mean feat when you remember that just a few months ago incompetence in this area was helping bring down the last Government.

Second, the Government has begun to take the heat out of the debate. True, 48% of those polled identify asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat as a 'critical threat', ranking fifth in a list of 12 threats to Australia's vital interests. Unfortunately these results cannot be compared with earlier Lowy polls, but I bet that last year Australians would have ranked boats above Iran's nuclear program or cyber attacks, for example, both of which now rank higher. And when the percentage of those who identify these 12 threats as a 'critical threat' and an 'important but not critical threat' are combined, boats drop from fifth to last place in the list.

Third, and very importantly, the Government's asylum policy has not infected public attitudes to immigration more widely. Thus almost half of those polled think the number of immigrants coming to Australia is about right, and those who think it is too high cite jobs, not security, as their main concern.

Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Angus Campbell have been sensible in guarding against complacency; who knows when another boat will make it to Australia, or what the fallout will be from the report on the riot in the Manus Island detention centre. Still, the results of the Lowy Poll create a window of opportunity to reap the benefits of stopping the boats. The public has renewed its trust in Government policy, media and public scrutiny have died down, and immigration is firewalled. Opening this window may also help unwind some of the collateral damage of the Government's policy: a demotivated public service, a vexed judiciary, an alienated civil society sector, strained relations with critical regional neighbours, and international opprobrium.

First, the Government should make a commitment to progressively increase its quota for refugee resettlement. Second, it should redouble efforts to build the capacity to protect and assist asylum seekers and refugees in South East Asia. Third, Australia should take a lead on convening international action on responding to the prospect of 'climate change refugees'.

None of these initiatives would jeopardize current asylum policy, and neither in my opinion will they justify them. But they may combine with the current policy into a comprehensive framework to deliver sustainable positive results in Lowy polls to come.

Lessons for Australia from the Swiss referendum on immigration quotas

On Sunday, a referendum proposal to re-introduce strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries was passed in Switzerland by a tiny majority of 50.3% of voters. The Swiss constitution provides no recourse for appeal, and the Swiss Government will now need to renegotiate its agreement with the EU on the free movement of labour, which has been in place since 2007.

immigration australia asylum seeker

Care should be taken drawing lessons from the Swiss vote – Switzerland has a unique form of 'direct democracy' (only 100,000 signatures are required to force a referendum), and many of the most significant ramifications of the result of the referendum will result from Switzerland's unique 'insider-outsider' relationship with the EU.

Still, I would suggest there may be some lessons to learn for Australia, as the new government seeks to exert firmer control over immigration.

First, guard against complacency. The Swiss Government woke up far too late to the possibility that the referendum might be lost. After all, Switzerland is well accustomed to migration (almost 20% of the population are EU citizens). And unemployment – for which migrants are all too often scapegoats – is negligible in Switzerland at about 3%. Surely there was nothing to complain about?

The lesson for Canberra: don't assume that your considerable successes thus far in managing migration are understood or appreciated by the public, especially if you won't communicate the results.

Second, appreciate the gap between the polity and the public. It is true that the Swiss are used to migration and enjoy almost full employment. What they apparently resent is increasing house prices, crowded public transport and longer traffic jams, and the new experience of not being able to take for granted being front of the queue for the best education and healthcare. It's easy to celebrate globalisation in Geneva or Sydney, but less so in a pristine Swiss Alpine village or remote Australian mining town.

It would also be a mistake to assume that the public can discern between migrants. Launch an offensive on irregular migrants or asylum seekers and you risk turning the public against other migrants too.

Third, build alliances with business. In recent weeks in Switzerland, the business (and education) sector has been far more vociferous than the Government in opposing the referendum, arguing that a 'yes' vote will stymie the supply of talent and undermine competitiveness. To no avail.

While governments around the world, including in Switzerland and Australia, have made efforts to consult with civil society, there are still barriers to genuine engagement with the business sector. This is a mistake – business can make the case of migration much more convincingly than government.

Fourth, understand that probably in no other area of public policy does domestic politics project on international reputation more than immigration. For Switzerland, a renegotiation of the free movement of labour agreement opens up for negotiation all other agreements with the EU: trade, finance, security. Imagine being a Swiss diplomat at the EU in Brussels today...or an Australian diplomat trying to sell the Papua New Guinea deal to the UN in Geneva or New York.

Fifth, aggressively preserve the space for objective debate. In my experience in Switzerland and Australia, this space is shrinking quickly. If we can't engage in an honest debate about migration – what is good and what is bad, when it works and when it doesn't – don't be surprised if the public follows the media agenda or responds to the most effective scare tactics.

As an EU citizen living in Switzerland, I await to see what my future here holds. Unfortunately, I'm probably too old and unskilled to emigrate to Australia.

Photo by Flickr user stormwarning.

The Lowy Institute's own books of the year

So far, we've offered you twelve books of the year in four installments. To close this feature, a reminder that the Lowy Institute itself has had quite a remarkable publishing year, with four new books hitting the shelves. So, if you're looking for a last minute gift idea...

Rendezvous with Destiny, by Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.

Rendezvous with Destiny tells the story of how Franklin D Roosevelt and five envoys paved the way for America's entry into the Second World War. It highlights the personal diplomacy of these five men during one the most important periods in American history, one which not only helped win the war but moved the US from isolationism to the superpower status it enjoys to this day.

You can read reviews of the book on Michael's personal website,and take a look at the interview I did with Michael when the book was published. Michael also talked with then-foreign minister (and noted US history tragic) Bob Carr about this period in history. Here's video of Bob Carr's speech at the book launch.

The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jema'ah Islamiyahby Solahuddin. Translated by Dave McRae, Research Fellow, East Asia Program.

Based on a remarkable array of original sources, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia shows that the ideas and activism that led to the Bali bombings in 2002 have a long and complex history in Indonesia, stretching back to the Darul Islam revolt in the 1950s. Dave McRae's translation of the book and its publication was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Solahudin provides a dispassionate analysis of divergent terrorist ideologies in what has been described as a 'ground-breaking work' by the ANU's Greg Fealy.

Reports from a Turbulent Decade, edited by Michael Fullilove, Executive Director, and Anthony Bubalo, Research Director.

Covering topics as diverse as Iraq, the rise of China, ediplomacy, the death penalty in Indonesia and Australia's place in the region and in the world, the Lowy Institute's tenth anniversary anthology provides a flavour of the Institute’s contribution to the national and international debate.

Reports from a Turbulent Decade contains extracts from the most insightful and influential papers, speeches, op-eds and Interpreter posts from the Lowy Institute's first decade. Earlier this year I posted extracts from the book on The Interpreter.

A Few Poorly Organized Men, by Dr Dave McRae, Research Fellow.

From 1998 to 2007, Poso became the site of the most protracted inter-religious conflict in post-authoritarian Indonesia, as well as one of the most important theatres of operations for the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network.

Nine years of violent conflict between Christians and Muslims in Poso elevated a previously little known district in eastern Indonesia to national and global prominence. Drawing on a decade of research, for the most part conducted while the conflict was ongoing, this book provides the first comprehensive history of this violence. It also addresses the puzzle of why the Poso conflict was able to persist for so long in an increasingly stable democratic state.

Secrecy and stratagem: understanding Chinese strategic culture

To cope with a rising China, other powers will need a close understanding of Chinese strategic culture. This paper seeks to identify the enduring features of Chinese strategic culture, assess their role in Chinese policy and consider their implications for the future posture and responses of the People's Liberation Army. Drawing on ancient texts, modern official documents and accounts of Beijing's decision-making during crises, Secrecy and Stratagem raises important questions about the potentially risky relationship between Chinese strategic culture, misperception and miscalculation in Asia's uncertain security future.