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Pandemic democracy

Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 7 Sep 2020 13:30   0 Comments

How will Covid-19 affect electoral democracy in Australia and around the world?

The pandemic has starkly revealed two fundamental aspects of successful democracy: the extent of a given society’s trust between its citizens and their government, and the capacity of those same governments to deliver and enforce appropriate public health responses. 

Countries whose governments are both trusted and capable have seen them handle the virus relatively well, while those with neither trust nor capacity have seen it spread out of control. On this metric, Australia more resembles Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea in our relatively high levels of social compliance than the more individualistic Anglophone societies with which we tend to feel comity.

As the examples of the United Kingdom and the United States have shown, democracy itself is no guarantee of an effective response to the virus.

However, the pandemic also presents a major challenge to one element of modern democracy – the holding of mass elections. 

Election day – a forum for a mass public gathering of adult citizens across the country, and their congregation within discrete and sometimes crowded polling stations – has become more dangerous in the Covid-19 era. Even when social distancing can be enforced, this kind of activity is now inherently problematic on public health grounds.

Sanitising a voting station in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, United States (Cassandra Mullins/The National Guard/Flickr)

Delay or cancellation of elections is one response to Covid-19, and a growing concern, given the worldwide democratic recession. Local elections in Hong Kong, for example, have recently been delayed for a year using the pretext of coronavirus, but really as a response by Beijing to the growing support for pro-democracy parties.

Even in established democracies, many elections are being postponed. New Zealand’s general elections, originally scheduled for this month, have been delayed till October as a result of the Auckland outbreak. In the United Kingdom, local elections – including the London mayoral vote – have been pushed out by a full year, on advice from medical experts.

For jurisdictions within Australia such as Queensland, whose state election is constitutionally fixed for 31 October, expanded use of pre-poll voting and social distancing at polling places is the response – at least for the time being.

Another option is to hold elections over the internet. Estonia already does this, but due to well-founded security concerns, very few countries have yet taken the step to open up their elections to all voters on-line. 

Paper ballots and a paper trail are still seen as essential to election security and providing a post-election audit capacity to safeguard the integrity of results. In 2017, Finland abandoned plans to move to online voting, concluding that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Even if the virus prompts a rethink, the kinds of investments needed to provide an acceptable level of ballot security and to withstand cyber intrusion are likely to be some time in future.

Postal votes (Ian Britton/Flickr)

A third and most likely option is thus a renewed focus on voting by mail. In Australia, we have already embraced this and other forms of “convenience” voting in large numbers. At the 2019 federal election, 40% of Australians cast their ballot prior to election day, while the recent Northern Territory poll saw, for the first time, more voters casting their ballot in advance than on election day itself.

Australia and other established democracies are increasingly shifting from having a polling day to having a polling period, a change which may turn out to be irreversible.

But there is a potential downside to this shift: the loss of civic engagement and broader opportunities for democratic deliberation.

In Western Australia, postal voting was introduced for most local government elections in 2011, in order to make voting easier, particularly in rural areas. This shift increased turnout but has been criticised for making democratic engagement more superficial, particularly in passionate rural communities.

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

Given that the point of elections is to choose, the lack of widespread exposure to the election campaign and the debates on policies makes a swing towards voting by mail problematic. If voting by mail diminishes the salience of elections and makes it less likely that informed deliberation over policy alternatives takes place, it has the potential to undermine democracy itself. 

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­– which will effectively be a referendum on the Trump presidency and his handling of the pandemic – will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

With decreasing confidence in the ability of the US Postal Service to handle a surge in requests for early ballots now as well as postal votes themselves, it would be prudent to expect at the very least a degree of uncertainty and potential delays in results, akin to the 2000 Bush-Gore election. 

But there is also the potential – lesser but not trivial – for more significant problems than just delayed results. 

Voting by mail has already become an issue of major partisan division, with Democrats seeking greater voting by mail and Republicans opposing it, as part of their ongoing efforts to restrict the franchise. If this continues to November, we may be facing a high-level contest not just to see who wins the election but over the rules of the game itself.

In Yemen, a deadly concoction of arms sales, conflict and Covid-19

Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 10 Jun 2020 16:30   2 Comments

In April, the UN Security Council issued a statement endorsing the UN Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen to better enable a response to Covid-19. The Council recognised that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen made the country “exceptionally vulnerable”, and that any further military escalation would “hinder the access of humanitarian and healthcare workers and the availability of healthcare facilities”. 

The Council is right to be concerned. Thus far, Yemen has confirmed just 469 Covid-19 infections. But testing rates are among the lowest in the world, and the fatality rate – at 24% – is one of the highest, suggesting that the real caseload is much higher. The UN Secretary General said last week that there was “every reason to believe that community transmission is already underway across the country”.

Even without Covid-19, after more than five years of war, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The conflict has devastated the economy, destroyed civilian infrastructure and brought the provision of basic services to the brink of collapse. The health system has been particularly hard hit. Hospitals have been bombed, only half the country’s health facilities are fully functioning, power cuts are common, and items such as personal protective equipment and ventilators are in short supply. 

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued.

The conflict in Yemen has been fuelled by arms supplied by foreign states to the Saudi Arabian–led international coalition (or SLC), which since 2015 has been engaged in a military campaign to oust the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer. Most of its arms come from the US, followed by the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Canada. Other SLC members Egypt and the UAE are also among the world’s leading arms importers, receiving most of their weapons from the US and France.

Since 2015, arms exports to the SLC have continued despite overwhelming evidence that the SLC has been violating human rights and international humanitarian law in Yemen. Most of the civilians killed in the conflict have been killed in SLC airstrikes, many of which have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure – schools, houses, markets, farms, factories. Some of these attacks were carried out with weapons supplied by Western states. A report released by human rights organisations last year documented 27 “apparently unlawful Saudi/UAE-led Coalition attacks” on civilian homes, educational and health facilities, businesses and gatherings that appeared to have used weapons made in the US or UK.

The supply of arms to the SLC has prompted efforts to block arms sales through legislative and judicial processes. Last year the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the UK Government had acted illegally by exporting arms to Saudi Arabia without assessing whether the SLC had been violating international humanitarian law. In the US, Congress has repeatedly tried to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but every time has been overruled by presidential veto. The European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock (onscreen) briefs members of the Security Council during a video teleconference on the situation in Yemen, 16 April 2020 (UN Photo)

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued. In April, Canada lifted a moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and in May, the US approved a possible sale of thousands of armoured vehicles to the UAE. Germany has approved US$341 million in arms sales to Egypt and $8.5 million to the UAE this year alone.

In other words, members of the Security Council have called for a ceasefire while simultaneously providing arms to enable the fighting in Yemen to continue.

This is not the only irony in the Security Council’s response to the conflict. The other is that in 2014 the Council established a sanctions regime for those found to be violating international human rights and humanitarian law. It established a Panel of Experts to review the evidence and help it decide whom to impose sanctions on. Every year since 2016, the Panel of Experts has reported to the Council that all parties to the conflict in Yemen have violated human rights and international humanitarian law, and it has recommended that sanctions be imposed against individuals from all parties. The Security Council has responded by imposing sanctions and an arms embargo against Houthi-aligned individuals, while studiously ignoring the evidence regarding the SLC’s airstrikes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – that is to say: the evidence from its own Panel of Experts, which it established for the specific purpose of assisting it to designate individuals and entities to be subject to sanctions.

To be clear: states such as the US, the UK, France, Canada, Germany and others who have supplied arms to the SLC have contributed to the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure. In doing so, they have aided in the collapse of Yemen’s healthcare system, and thus increased the country’s vulnerability to Covid-19. These countries should now hold themselves responsible for enabling a response to the outbreak. This means immediately ceasing arms sales to members of the SLC, funding the humanitarian response to enable aid agencies to respond to Covid-19, and supporting a Security Council resolution that extends the existing sanctions regime to include individuals engaged in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, from all sides of the conflict.

Emergency aid amid Covid-19: Falling trust and rising obstacles

A man on a bus in Sana’a, Yemen has his temperature checked, 25 May (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
A man on a bus in Sana’a, Yemen has his temperature checked, 25 May (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 28 May 2020 16:00   0 Comments

In March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire, urging solidarity against the common threat posed by Covid-19 and stating that the “only war we should be waging is the war against Covid-19”. But while we are all focusing on this new “war”, actual wars are being ignored.

Humanitarian organisations working in conflict-affected environments have scaled back their work to do what is essential and to accommodate “social distancing” and travel restrictions. Staff who are now grounded must try to coordinate the delivery of aid via telephone, video and computer. This radical change has led to very limited contact between humanitarian workers and communities in need of aid. Working remotely has proved to be possible in some professional fields, and even advantageous in unexpected ways. But where levels of distrust and suspicion are high ­– as they often are among people in conflict-affected environments – expecting to be able to communicate freely via telecommunications is not realistic. People in such environments may fear being overheard on the telephone, revealing their identity or location, any of which could lead to harm.

A big lesson from the Ebola crisis is that without trust, effective humanitarian action is difficult, and that trust does not develop instantly, but is built or lost over a period of time.

Remote work also often particularly disadvantages the poor, rural communities and others with limited access to telephones or mobile networks. More vulnerable or marginalised members of a community might be further at risk because if they don’t have the ear of key informants, such as community leaders, whose roles have now become critical in helping humanitarian organisations to assess and respond to urgent needs. For the same reasons, the more vulnerable and marginalised, including women, children, the elderly and the disabled, might also have greater difficulty in accessing life-saving information and services.

Division and Distrust

As a result of travel restrictions, there are already reports in many countries of people being unable to access food or water. As a result of the reduction of activities to the most essential, other critical needs are overlooked, and protection concerns increase as, for instance, cases of gender-based violence escalate.

It becomes hard to adhere to the principle of “do no harm” when, for example, counselling is offered to victims of domestic violence who don’t have anywhere private to speak. These heightened risks, as a result of endeavouring to respond to humanitarian needs remotely (alongside the additional time it takes to coordinate and deliver aid remotely) can compromise responsiveness, and further increase the likelihood of distrust towards humanitarian actors.

Communities’ lack of direct contact and first-hand knowledge can also feed rumours about the motives of humanitarian actors and conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus, which impairs humanitarian work as well as efforts to prevent the spread of the virus – as was seen during the Ebola crisis. This problem is manifesting itself now in the rise in anti-foreigner sentiment in a number of conflict zones, and in cases of harassment and hate speech against foreign staff in South Sudan, Yemen, CAR, DRC and elsewhere.

This distrust is also being fed by the operating models of many humanitarian organisations, utilising remote management tools and “contactless deliveries”, especially for communities that often do not have the luxury of being able to socially distance.

Trust is further eroding as responses to Covid-19 become increasingly securitised, and security forces take tough measures to enforce curfews, including attacking journalists under the guise of enforcing such measures. Some states are taking advantage of the crisis – to repress or persecute people – while some non-state armed actors are taking advantage to make political and economic gains, perhaps assuming the world’s attention is currently elsewhere.

Rising distrust between groups has been seen previously in cases where outbreaks of infectious disease occurred in conflict zones. In the case of Ebola, this was partly the result of initial relief efforts being largely externally driven and marginalising local people, including local health workers. Distrust soon manifested itself in attacks on Ebola treatment centres and workers, including the murder of a WHO doctor, and was aggravated by armed actors, resulting in a deteriorating security situation which hampered relief efforts. Trust was further compromised, according to some, by heavy-handed responses of security forces to protests.

Volunteers in personal protective equipment disinfect themselves after burying the body of an Ebola victim in Conakry, Guinea, January 2015 (UN Photo/Flickr)

A big lesson from the Ebola crisis is that without trust, effective humanitarian action is difficult, and that trust does not develop instantly, but is built or lost over a period of time. And it is relational. At the time, feelings of being ignored had festered over years, alongside perceptions that humanitarian actors were motivated by self-interest. Lack of trust was also mutual: humanitarian organisations demonstrated little trust in communities being able to make the right decisions about their own lives or, for instance, how to respond to the threat posed by Ebola, instead imposing measures based on little or no consultation.

A related lesson to be learned from the Ebola crisis is not simply to focus on containing the outbreak – reducing suffering to statistics – but to also support affected communities and to demonstrate commitment to the people, not just to addressing one of the many problems they face.

This erosion of trust combined with the diversion of the world’s attention (and increasingly its resources) to crises “at home” will severely compromise effective humanitarian action in communities most in need. This will have devasting consequences for the people within these environments, as well as for broader international peace and security, as humanitarian needs, insecurity and fragility increase.

Covid-19 is not the biggest threat to UN peacekeeping

UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
Published 18 May 2020 17:00   0 Comments

Last year, the UN estimated that 168 million people depended on humanitarian relief as a result of conflict, violence, and disasters, and peacekeepers were deployed to 13 countries to help conflict-affected societies navigate the often-bumpy road from violence towards peace. Covid-19 has already exacerbated global humanitarian needs, and will have particularly dire consequences in displaced populations and refugee camps, and in conflict and post-conflict zones, where health systems and essential services are weak, if they exist at all.

Moreover, the pandemic may lead to the escalation of violent conflict: although Covid-19 has pushed some armed groups towards ceasefires, in other places violence has intensified, or threatens to, as the pandemic draws the world’s attention. This trend is likely to continue as countries turn inward to deal with the virus’ effects on their own populations and economies. Thus, at a time when there may be fewer resources for peacekeeping, it may be in greatest demand.

However, while Covid-19 will amplify existing challenges to peacekeeping effectiveness and global perceptions of legitimacy, it is not the biggest threat to the future of peacekeeping. At the heart of these challenges lies the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers.

That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

This year, data released by the UN showed that allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in 2019 were 43% higher than in 2018. This is not particularly surprising: every year or so, allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers ricochet around global media, shocking international audiences and leading to heartfelt statements about how such abuses will not be tolerated.

And yet, the abuses continue.

Why? At the core of the answer is the fact that the effects of sexual exploitation and abuse on peacekeeping outcomes are poorly understood and highly underestimated, as my recent book illustrated, drawing on interviews with diplomats, policymakers, peacekeepers, and others associated with peace operations. This has meant that many officials and personnel treat such misconduct as a relatively minor code of conduct issue, rather than one that strikes at the heart of peacekeeping effectiveness. Policy responses have been hamstrung and under-resourced as a result.

Research has shown how sexual exploitation affects the perceived impartiality of peace operations and contributes to the long-term entrenchment of transactional sex economies. My research, based on extensive fieldwork in Bosnia and Timor-Leste, has further documented how sexual misconduct by international interveners undermines the outcomes of individual peace operations on multiple levels.

The central goals of UN peacekeeping are five-fold: to protect civilians from armed conflict; to prevent conflicts in order to reduce human suffering and build stable and prosperous societies; to strengthen rule of law and security institutions; to protect and promote human rights; and to empower women to participate in peace processes. Sexual exploitation and abuse critically undermines each of these goals.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the Security Council on Women and peace and security, 29 October 2019 (Ryan Brown/UN Women/Flickr)

On the individual and community level, it compounds human rights abuses and poverty experienced by already vulnerable communities, sometimes resulting in victims (and children born of abuse) being thrown out of families and communities as a result of the stigma associated with sexual violence or exploitation. It contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections, puts women and children involved at risk of further abuses by police if they report their experiences, and often traps victims in cycles of abuse. It also leads to communities being less willing to “allow” women to work with international organisations and missions, for fear that they will be exploited in exchange for their jobs.

On the structural level, sexual misconduct by peacekeepers normalises sexually exploitative and abusive behaviours in post-conflict societies and institutionalises impunity for such behaviours in host-state security sectors, which peacekeepers train and mentor. It also does so among peacekeepers themselves, who export these behaviours (and impunity for them) into subsequent deployments. And it creates economies of sexual exploitation that long outlast the presence of peacekeepers, as business models adapt towards, for instance, sex trafficking and sex tourism, after peacekeepers leave.

And on the operational level, it undermines peacekeeping outcomes by diverting resources available for vital human rights and gender work towards sexual exploitation and abuse responses, seeding mistrust of interveners amongst local communities (the trust of local communities is a critical factor in peacekeeping effectiveness), and diminishing the confidence interveners themselves have in their organisation and in the international peacekeeping project. People I interviewed also recounted stories of how sexual exploitation and abuse by particular contingents within a peace operation made peacekeepers the targets of violence by local actors, and led to outright conflict with other contingents, as was the case when Australian and Jordanian peacekeepers came to blows in Timor-Leste.

These outcomes clearly undermine UN mandates around human rights, rule of law, and civilian protection, which peacekeeping doctrine holds as foundational to the establishment of lasting peace.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (left) at a rehabilitation centre for victims of sexual violence and torture in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo, 24 January 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)

Perhaps most critically, when peacekeepers perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, they contribute to a deepening of the legitimacy crisis currently facing UN peacekeeping, and the UN more broadly. The UN relies on the commitment of its staff, member states, and the general public internationally to continue its work, and yet unchecked patterns of sexual misconduct lead to staff attrition, decreased funding, mistrust between member states, and they bolster those who seek to limit their country’s participation in peacekeeping.

A great challenge facing the UN in this regard is its structure: while the Secretariat has devoted significant resources to strengthening policy and accountability mechanisms, the actual responsibility for investigating and punishing misconduct by uniformed personnel falls to member states, some of whom are less willing or able to do so than others. Moreover, with ever-increasing pressure on the UN peacekeeping budget, mission leadership is forced to make difficult choices about how to distribute resources between what are considered “core security functions” and work that address issues of gender and sexual exploitation and abuse. That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

At a time when the UN’s work is more vital than ever, and when resourcing that work will likely be harder than ever, it is critical that threats its capacity and credibility are addressed. This means taking sexual exploitation and abuse seriously as an issue that strikes at the heart of the UN’s effectiveness in peacekeeping, and leveraging political will and resources to prevent misconduct more effectively and hold perpetrators accountable.

The Taliban’s empty promises of peace

A mosque during Ramadan – and Covid-19 lockdown – in the Khair Khana neighbourhood of Kabul, 14 May (Habiburahman Rahmany/UNAMA/Flickr)
A mosque during Ramadan – and Covid-19 lockdown – in the Khair Khana neighbourhood of Kabul, 14 May (Habiburahman Rahmany/UNAMA/Flickr)
Published 14 May 2020 13:00   0 Comments

In a Covid-19 world, there is perhaps little that can still shock and surprise. Still, this week’s brutal attack by Afghan insurgents on a clinic in a hospital in Kabul’s western suburb of Dasht-e-Barchi, during the holy month of Ramadan, made for particularly horrific news, given the targets were pregnant women, children, and newborn babies. The same day, a funeral of a police commander in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar was also attacked.

The Kabul attack was a dark reminder that no one is safe in Afghanistan’s war, and no target off-limits.

The head of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar put into words what perhaps many Afghans felt.

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack at the hospital which is supported by Médecins San Frontières, but many suspect Islamic State. First, an Islamic State-associated group claimed the attack in Nangarhar province. Second, the Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood is largely home to ethnic Hazara, who have been the repeated target of Islamic State in the past. Third, Islamic State has attacked hospitals before, such as Kabul’s military hospital in 2017. There is also the matter of the regional Islamic State leader being arrested in Kabul just a day prior to these two attacks.

In response, President Ashraf Ghani ordered a resumption of the fight against all insurgent groups,including the Taliban, even though the group denied responsibility. Guilty or not in this instance, the Taliban is still being held to account, given their relentless attacks over the past weeks after they walked out of “fruitless” peace negotiations with the Afghan government in April, and in spite of having signed a preliminary agreement with the US in February paving the way for US troop withdrawals based on several conditions, including a ceasefire and curbing the aggression of other militant groups, such as Islamic State.

Afghanistan’s insurgent groups have long gotten away with making – in their minds – nearly every Afghan a legitimate target, whether for being pro-government, pro-Western, of the wrong ethno-religious group, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet a maternity hospital is still a stretch in the twisted logic of any insurgent group.

Despite the Taliban’s continued aggressive warfare, and its failure to curb violence by other militant groups, Afghans are simply supposed to have faith in the promise that “things will change” when the Taliban come back to power.

From 2013 to 2015, I worked with a local Afghan NGO trying to understand how ethnic Pashtun communities coped in insurgency-controlled or contested areas (the Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun movement). These projects explained much about how Afghanistan’s insurgency was seen through the eyes of community members. The strength of their grassroots base among Pashtun communities, in the face of questions about their “legitimacy”, was eye-opening. Some of the findings of these research projects (none of which have been made public) are worth recalling.

First, when community elders raised the issue of civilian casualties with the Taliban, the insurgents frequently avoided discussing the topic, the elders said. Most felt it was because the Taliban had no rationale as to why an insurgency with strong religious roots would target innocent civilians. The insurgents were quick to deflect blame – as the Taliban did in Tuesday’s attack on the maternity hospital – which is typical, as they often contest UN civilian casualty reports. At best, our research showed, the Taliban might consider civilians “accidental martyrs” in a holy war.

Second, according to community elders, the insurgents were fully aware it was a sin under Islamic law to kill “innocents”. Thus, the targets were called “puppets, spies, and criminals”, and rarely “civilians”. Afghanistan’s insurgents have long had a narrow definition of civilian – in stark contrast to international law, where a civilian is someone not engaged in combat. Anybody who supported (or was seen as supporting) the Afghan government and its Western backers – civilian or not – was considered a non-civilian or legitimate target. More importantly, when pressed, the Taliban narrowed the definition of “innocent” to basically women and children. This makes a maternity hospital, even by Taliban standards, a horrific crime, explaining why they were so swift to deny responsibility.

Third, when communities seemed to have legitimate grievances (and evidence) that insurgents had killed civilians, the Taliban made promises either to punish perpetrators (“rogue fighters” that the movement did not condone) or to change their fighting tactics. Seven years later, no such change is evident. UN statistics continue to show that women and children die in disproportionate numbers in Afghanistan.

In one of my own rare interviews with a former Taliban official, it took four hours over three sessions for him to admit that “errors” in their warfare were occurring, after repeatedly denying such a possibility. He simply ended the interview by saying, “This is war … When we come to power, things will change.”

This is the crux of the problem with the peace negotiations – despite the Taliban’s continued aggressive warfare, and its failure to curb violence by other militant groups, Afghans are simply supposed to have faith in the promise that “things will change” when the Taliban come back to power.

If the Taliban wants their claims of peace taken seriously, they should agree to a country-wide ceasefire – not because the UN Secretary-General has urged exactly that in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, but because it has been a consistent demand from Afghan civil society groups for years.

Covid-19 and foreign policy: What’s changed, what hasn’t

Published 13 May 2020 14:30   0 Comments

A lot of ink is flowing about the “new normal” that will prevail post-crisis. A brief look at four different international issues offers a glimpse of what this “new normal” in international cooperation might be.

The first concerns global health. Leaving aside for the moment the call by countries such as Australia to clarify where, how, and why Covid-19 started, everyone must wish for a series of actions that lead globally to control of the virus, and establishing an effective vaccine. The indications are that scientists and health professionals across the globe are prepared to collaborate on this. It’s not clear cut, but it tends to the positive.

The second issue is climate change. This long-term problem has so far received at best intermittent international cooperation, while at worst its importance has been dismissed. Now, because of the lockdowns imposed around the world (about 3 billion people affected), New Delhi has clear skies, China’s pollution indexes have dropped, and there are dolphins back in the lagoons of Venice. One would think that this might give some impetus to greater work on controlling human destruction of the climate. But the climate talks known as the COP26 conference set for Glasgow later this year will not take place (and, ironically, the conference centre itself has been converted into a temporary Covid-19 hospital).

Economic priorities, including investment in large scale infrastructure to provide jobs, will have to be balanced against environmental policies set in balmier days. The world oil price has collapsed, putting pressure on energy policies. Public transport systems have to deal with the risks of handling large numbers of passengers in confined spaces, and the skies are empty of aircraft causing economic havoc. National reactions will differ on how to respond and international consensus much harder to obtain.

Vancouver International Airport (GoToVan/Flickr)

The third area is migration. One of the most important components of globalisation has been the movement of people, particularly in the labour market. Look at the examples, including South Asian workers in the Middle East, highly skilled from all over the world heading to the US and Western Europe, Pacific Islanders coming to Australia and New Zealand, or students to Western Europe, the US, Canada, and Australasia. Right now, that model has collapsed.

With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery.

Is it going to get back up again? Certainly not in the next year or two, or longer. The implications for the developing world are staggering because of the importance of remittances to their economies. Remittances to Tonga, for instance, comprise 37% of total GDP. Policy decisions in the migration field will be made again largely at a national level, against a framework of need for labour versus severe domestic unemployment. Not to mention the backlash against foreigners which seems likely.

The fourth area is foreign investment. Again, a key to globalisation and a key to economic growth that has supported economies around the globe. With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery. Already we are seeing that a first reaction is to control inbound foreign investment more tightly. The European Union, the US, Japan, and Australia, among other governments, have already tightened their regimes. Part of this is a reaction to China. Part of it is because the Covid-19 crisis has led governments to believe that they have to have national controls of certain industries.

Most of current regional trade agreements have an investment component allowing foreign investment to flow more easily. Will they change? Will governments want to renounce some of their obligations to their trading partners? Not encouraging so far, and more will certainly come.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The announcement that certain World Trade Organisation members, including the EU and China, but not the US and Japan, have agreed to establish an interim arbitration arrangement is good news.

And to put some life into tourism, the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand have endorsed the concept of allowing travel between the two countries when both can be sure of mastering the health issues involved. It is desperately sought after by the industries on both sides of the Tasman. But it is not for tomorrow, encouraging as the idea is. It may eventually provide some economic stimulus also to the South Pacific, if the bubble is extended to include them.

For Australia, a testing friendship

Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2020 16:30   0 Comments

It’s got nothing to do with Covid-19, but a fascinating short passage in Malcolm Turnbull’s new memoir is illustrative of the challenges Scott Morrison faces in dealing with US President Donald Trump, and how much Australia can rely on the US as it squares off in an increasingly sharp rhetorical fight with China over coronavirus.

Turnbull reflects on calls made while he was prime minister to dispatch Australian warships to probe inside the 12 nautical mile zone around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, as the US Navy had done. But Turnbull resisted, concerned Beijing could escalate by ramming and disabling an Australian ship. He writes:

If the Americans backed us in, then the Chinese would back off. But if Washington hesitated or, for whatever reasons, decided not to or was unable immediately to intervene, then China would have achieved an enormous propaganda win, exposing the USA as a paper tiger not to be relied on by its allies.

I’ve written an article for the Council of Foreign Relations that explores this question about how much Australia can rely on the US in the context of Covid-19. It’s the type of question that tends to get subsumed in the political realm by all the talk of “mateship” and alliance with a capital A, yet Turnbull’s logic makes clear that every prime minister must ask it. I’ve deliberately begun my piece from the premise that managing relations with the US is the most testing issue in Australia’s foreign policy ­­­­– a characterisation I suspect is most usually applied these days to relations with China. But it is important to recognise that for all the tetchiness of dealing with Beijing, the demands and opportunities drawn from Washington of years in war and peace are greater. Sometimes friends can be hard work.

Speaking of, Morrison made clear when Turnbull was promoting his book that he wasn’t eager for advice from the man he had unseated in an intra-party challenge less than two years before. There is no doubt that Turnbull branding Trump a “bully” alongside China was a complication Morrison didn’t really need, particularly given the coincidence that the PM happened to speak to Trump by telephone on the day Turnbull’s book as formally launched ­– and we know what a penchant the President has for books that involve him, and his at-times demanding phone manner, which Turnbull and Morrison have both experienced.

Then–Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, 2 June 2017 (Dominique Pineiro/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr)

Yet political autobiographies are too often discounted as an exercise in score-settling and self-justification, or are read only for gossipy detail. Turnbull’s reflections are worth close examination as a guide to understanding the challenges that Australia’s leadership confronts in dealing with major powers, particularly the United States. As much as any autobiography will paint its principal subject in the kindest light, contemporaneous accounts of this type are instructive about the key debates and various sources of official advice on the big issues – themes that last well beyond the time in office of any one leader.

Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

Turnbull reveals that Canberra had commissioned official psychological analysis of Trump, as every foreign capital would have, which recommended flattery to appeal to the narcissist. Australia’s diplomats also proposed concessions in a tax treaty in a bid to smooth over tensions, an idea Turnbull rejected. Having watched at close quarters Trump push around Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

But it was the same principle he adopted with China. “I knew, from years of experience of dealing with bullies, that if you take a strong position on something and then back down under pressure, you’ll be mightily diminished,” Turnbull writes.

“We also knew, from first-hand experience,” he noted elsewhere, “that China’s policy towards other countries was thoroughly integrated. If a foreign nation disappointed China – for instance by criticising its conduct in some manner ­– then it could expect both criticism and economic consequences. Ministerial visits would be stopped … Chinese tourism would drop off, foreign business in China would be boycotted.”

And Morrison faces that very challenge, with recent threats of a consumer backlash followed by news today Beijing has slapped a ban on meat imports from four Australian abattoirs. It will invariabily been seen as retaliation, though Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has cautioned “we certainly don’t see any relationship and we would expect that no other counterpart country should see a relationship between those factors”.

“Sometimes”, Turnbull writes, “when a Chinese Customs official says an Australian exporter’s papers ‘are not in order’, they are, in fact, not in order”. Other times, he notes, this can very much be a political decision.

Either way, Morrison will be weighing just how much he can rely on friends.

Can Covid-19 response be a model for climate action?

An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
Published 11 May 2020 06:00   1 Comments

In 2020, the world will see the largest annual drop in carbon dioxide emissions in history. The havoc wreaked by the coronavirus and its accompanying lockdowns has seen fleets of planes grounded and factories shudder to a halt. Levels of mobility in the world’s largest cities have fallen below 10% of usual traffic. The International Energy Agency predicts that Covid-19 could wipe out international demand for coal, oil, and gas, with only renewable energy showing resilience.

The preliminary data from some of the world’s biggest economies shows that global emissions are in for a sharp, if temporary, decline. Early numbers from Europe suggest that the continent could see a 24% drop in EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) emissions for the whole year. Global emissions will likely only fall by 5% – a reminder that most of the world’s emissions do not come from transportation.

But economies around the world are lifting their lockdowns. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, saw a 25% decrease in emissions over its four-week lockdown. Factories in China are back online, and as in previous economic disruptions, stimulus packages and increased targets could outweigh the short-term impacts on energy and emissions.

With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long.

Publics recognise the challenge ahead. In China, 87% say that climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 in the long term. While the number in Australia is much lower, the majority – 59% – agree. Given the significant personal and economic sacrifices many publics have made to combat Covid-19, will these concerns finally translate into real progress in addressing climate change, once the current crisis has subsided?

The prospects look good. Covid-19 has put science front and centre. With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice – whether about sending children to school or the need for onerous social-distancing guidelines. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long – an ability to make effective socioeconomic policy arguments on the basis of sound scientific modeling.

And COVID-19 has been met with a resurgence in bipartisanship and political function in many parts of the world, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. There are conservative governments instituting utilitarian, Keynesian economic measures that social democrats like Bernie Sanders are praising. Spending bills of historic proportions are passing through legislatures as if they were uncontentious, everyday appropriation bills.

Finally, this pandemic has energised society into acting with consideration for greater public good. Despite the tragic but relatively low numbers of infections and deaths in Australia, the public has galvanised to comply with otherwise illiberal stay-at-home orders, out of recognition for public good.

Science, bipartisanship, and public will: we’re going to need all three to crest the climate crisis. It will need deep, complex engagement with genuinely difficult policy decisions based off rigorous scientific advice, paired with commitments from all political camps to rise above meaningless “gotcha” point-scoring, and acceptance from all members of society to incur relatively small costs today to avoid far greater ones tomorrow.

However, as has been the case in the past few years, this may be too much to ask in a post-coronavirus world. The 1918 flu pandemic has undoubtedly been the most frequently used historical analogy this year. However, it did not receive this much attention in its immediate aftermath. Gina Kolata, in Flu, writes, “… the flu was expunged from newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and society’s collective memory. … the epidemic simply was so dreadful and so rolled up in people’s minds with the horrors of the war that most people did not want to think about it or write about it once the terrible year of 1918 was over.”

It is entirely possible that after the present pandemic is over, society will want to forget about it as quickly as possible. It is a perfectly understandable reaction. Already, a healthy appetite for escapism exists to distract us from the banality of every day.

So we may forget the overriding public good that we are all so diligently considering in our day-to-day behaviours. There may be antipathy towards wide-scale social mobilisation or aversion to governments calling upon society to incur even more costs for greater public good.

Furthermore, the low price of fossil fuels may see countries revert to less sustainable methods of energy generation to jump-start their economies, relegating the climate crisis to the bench in the name of economic restoration.

Nonetheless, Covid-19 will likely lead to permanent changes, whether in tax policy, the arts industry or the nature of work. Will the post-Covid world see our rekindled respect for scientific fact, bipartisanship, and a more robust social contract help us confront climate change? Or will crippling economic burdens and hard borders see more isolationism and environmental destruction for short-term economic benefit?

Some governments are already flagging the need to alter environmental standards to boost economic activity. But business groups are suggesting that the rebuilding of virus-rattled economies can be done hand-in-hand with the transition to net-zero emissions. Perhaps climate policy – historically relegated to the “too-hard” basket – stands a chance in the new world.

Malaysia needs a shadow cabinet to check an amateurish government

A soldier in Kuala Lumpur guarding a cordoned-off area (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
A soldier in Kuala Lumpur guarding a cordoned-off area (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 8 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

In the name of containing Covid-19, the Malaysian parliament will be convened for one day later this month, on 18 May. It’s a cynical move, much more about power struggles than containing the virus. The aim is to protect the three-month-old National Alliance (PN) government from scrutiny and a vote of no-confidence.

In February, the the “Alliance of Hope (PH)” government of Mahathir Mohamad was toppled, taken down by dramatic and complex machinations that have flourished in Malaysian politics. But the new opposition – the rump of Mahathir’s ousted coalition – has called for a normal two-week parliamentary session in first half of the year. However, they also have the chance to pressure the new alliance government with a potential game-changer that no previous opposition had seriously tried: a shadow cabinet.

Muhyiddin Yassin, who replaced Mahathir as prime minister in March, succeeded in drawing 31 government MPs to form a new government. Muhyiddin assembled a fragile majority of 113 (51%) in the 222-member parliament by dishing out appointments to be ministers, minister-level envoys, and deputy ministers to 65 (29%) parliamentarians.

Despite a bloated administration to win support, Muhyiddin’s power is insecure because the division of spoils is uneven.

This share of the payroll vote was significantly higher than the ousted administration’s proportion of 23%, or 50 frontbenchers from the Lower House.

Yet despite a bloated administration to win support, Muhyiddin’s power is insecure because the division of spoils is uneven. Malaysia’s long-time ruling party UMNO has the most MPs (39) in the new government, closely followed by a recent splinter party, Muhyiddin’s PPBM, with 31. But UNMO was only given a 25% share in the frontbench, whereas PPBM’s bloc has almost 40%.

UMNO has declared that PN is only an alliance of parliamentarians, implying no guaranteed support for Muhyiddin on confidence and supply.

Hence the importance of parliamentary sittings.

To avoid a no-confidence vote, the parliament has already been postponed once from its original date, 9 March. Whatever the concerns about coronavirus, further postponement is not viable, as the parliament will constitutionally stand dissolved if not convened latest by 5 June, six months from the date it last adjourned.

Muhyiddin wants parliament to adjourn on the same day it is convened, allowing only the Crown’s speech and other government businesses.

No parliamentary questions. No motions. No tabling of Muhyiddin’s three stimulus packages in response to Covid-19, totalling RM 261 billion (A$94 billion), including reliefs for tax, utility costs, and rentals.

There is talk of appointing every government backbencher to state enterprises or government agencies, an idea even the government’s main Malay-Muslim constituency criticised as going too far.

Muhyiddin Yassin addresses the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on coronavirus, 15 April (ASEAN Secretariat)

For now, Muhyiddin’s cynical move has brought the fragmented new opposition together.

Mahathir, who leads a dissident faction of five PPBM parliamentarians, his abandoned heir-apparent Anwar Ibrahim, the rump of the PH coalition with 92 MPs, and their allies have jointly demanded a normal two-week parliamentary session, a call which Muhyiddin is expected to ignore.

Yet the curtailed parliament is only a symptom of what ails Malaysian party politics, dominated as it is by intercommunal insecurities and distrust, personality cults, and clientelism. This habit of securing parliamentary support with executive appointments regardless of competence has cost Malaysia dearly amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

Across portfolios from health, home affairs, housing, and women, government ministers have faced ridicule for missteps during the crisis.

The curve of infection rates has flattened in Malaysia under lockdown, no doubt. Yet Muhyiddin has responded by announcing a hasty lifting of restrictions, days ahead of the original plan, a move seen as dominated by political considerations to preserve his fragile alliance. It also seems odd that parliamentarians can only meet for one day when the economy returns to normalcy.

Unprecedented in a highly centralised federation, nine out of Malaysia’s 13 states – including five ruled by Muhyiddin’s allies – have fully or partially resisted the move to open the country.

The cracks in support have fuelled speculation about yet another change in government, either through a fresh election or reverse defections to reinstate Mahathir and/or his erstwhile allies.

Yet even should the old coalition return, it is doubtful this would improve standards of governance. Malaysian politics has shown itself depressingly susceptible to the lure of self-interest for powerful jobs to assemble a parliamentary majority. Any new government will be similarly hamstrung.

What Malaysia really needs is a shadow cabinet, a line-up of opposition frontbenchers to offer policy alternatives, not just criticism of ministers for incompetence. For example, if Muhyiddin’s exit plan from the lockdown is ill-prepared, what is the alternative?

Mahathir Mohamad, when prime minister in 2019 (Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)

Parties in Malaysia’s opposition have never seriously embraced shadow cabinets for two reasons.

First, they fear a line-up of alternative ministers would expose them to external attacks and infighting over the allocation of portfolios between coalition partners.

Second, they dislike separating their MPs into first and second leagues, which is nonetheless necessary to incentivise professionalisation and competition through promotion and relegation between the leagues (think professional football).

The present opposition has two additional reasons for resistance. First, they can avoid naming a “shadow prime minister” ­– as Mahathir and Anwar are yet to reach any new power-sharing agreement, if such a deal is even in prospect. Second, by not naming shadow ministers, they may lure government backbenchers with ministerial ambitions to defect.

Yet the fear that a shadow cabinet would tie the opposition’s hands is misplaced.

Reshuffles allow a shadow cabinet to easily accommodate new alignments, such as a make-up between Mahathir and Anwar. It can professionalise opposition politics with flexibility. And more than ever, Malaysia now needs a competent opposition when its government regularly appears amateurish.

Under cover of Covid-19, conflict in Myanmar goes unchecked

A volunteer spreads lime on a road as a preventive measure against Covid-19, Yangon, 22 April (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty)
A volunteer spreads lime on a road as a preventive measure against Covid-19, Yangon, 22 April (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty)
Published 8 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

For Myanmar, the onset of Covid-19 has sparked a renewed crackdown in Rakhine and Chin states. These developments may not capture widespread attention – particularly as relations with China become increasingly fraught – yet they cannot be ignored, and must be recognised as a serious threat to regional security by Australia and others. If anything, the Rohingya refugee crisis of recent years should be a reminder of the enormous potential for regional consequences of such conflicts.

Conflict escalated in January 2019, when the Arakan Army (AA) – an armed group seeking an independent Rakhine state – attacked four police posts, killing 13 officers. In the months that followed, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, sought to crush the separatist group with its “Four Cuts” strategy—targeting food, funds, intelligence, and recruiting with a military campaign totalling 15,000–25,000 troops, coordinated air strikes, and the largest ever active-duty deployment of the Myanmar Navy.

As recently as February this year, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre, under chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, has sought a bilateral ceasefire agreement. Yet as travel restrictions postponed peace talks, violence in Rakhine state intensified, and on 23 March – the day of Myanmar’s first recorded case of Covid-19 – AA was declared a terrorist group.

What has followed is the displacement of over 157,000 people and hundreds of civilian deaths, in a military advance that UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee decried as “systematically violating the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law”. Lee leaves her role at the end of a six-year post dominated by anti-Rohingya violence, with an open investigation into Tatmadaw crimes at the International Criminal Court and protective measures ordered by the International Court of Justice. Yet as a new crisis takes centre stage in northern Rakhine, the tragic irony of her departure is that the international community’s commitment to accountability appears to be waning.

Ongoing Tatmadaw operations risk a self-fulfulling cycle of disenfranchisement, one where elections are postponed to prevent violence that is, in part, a by-product of electoral disaffection.

With free movement suspended, other liberties are at risk. In a blow to press freedom, Voice of Myanmar’s editor-in-chief was jailed after publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson, and other journalists remain in hiding, threatened under Myanmar’s counter-terrorism laws. Simultaneously, an internet blackout first imposed on Rakhine state in June 2019 has been extended, with telecom providers compelled to block 221 websites – including multiple Rakhine-based news agencies – in a move Myanmar’s Digital Rights Forum alleges is a deliberate subversion of powers invoked to suppress Covid-19 misinformation. A concession by the President’s Office on 3 May  suggests mobile restrictions could be eased, but even under this reversal, mobile users in the majority of townships would be limited to public health updates via SMS.

These are the actions of a government acting with impunity, and although Australia’s diplomatic resources have been stretched by a historically unprecedented repatriation campaign, security interests demand greater action.

As a starting point, Australia should take steps to strengthen international oversight and place increased political pressure on leaders in Nay Pyi Taw. Quickly re-establishing a full diplomatic presence in Yangon should be supported by an active campaign to pressure the Tatmadaw into adopting a previously-rejected ceasefire, better securing humanitarian workers and Covid-19 responders.

A second step would be to coordinate renewed international commitments to deterrence. As lapsed state contributions trigger a “liquidity crisis” in the UN’s core agencies, Australia should use the final months of its term on the Human Rights Council to buttress the OHCHR’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Although constrained by the pandemic and the Council’s distant seat in Geneva, its evidence-gathering function is a key link to pursuing individual criminal responsibility. Its broad mandate – to gather evidence of all serious international crimes in Myanmar since 2011 – encourages restraint generally, not only against the Rohingya, for which it was initially formed.

Pursuing transparency and accountability through international institutions will be equally important for November’s general elections, the first since Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s historic victory in 2016. Then, the NLD’s decision to nominate its candidate as Chief Minister for Rakhine overrode a majority result in favour of the Arakan National Party and inflamed separatist anger. Now, in a process already fraught with complex conflict dynamics, ongoing Tatmadaw operations risk a self-fulfulling cycle of disenfranchisement, one where elections are postponed to prevent violence that is, in part, a by-product of electoral disaffection. DFAT’s Australia Assists program, with its focus on the Rohingya crisis and its operational expertise in humanitarian coordination and electoral integrity, would be a model intermediary. 

For Australian interests, it is not the fact of violence that is most concerning, nor the effect of displacement on regional stability. More than this, it is in the normalisation of hostility against dissenting ethnic voices and the threat posed by a military unchecked by international sanction.

Placating the interests of armed separatists is an outcome Australia should avoid. Yet in a region where the dominant power continues to flout international norms and pursue the aims of an ethnically dominant party state, curbing the rise of authoritarianism is a strategic priority. Even with the distractions of Chinese obstruction and a global pandemic, Myanmar and the violence in Rakhine state is a crisis Australia cannot afford to ignore.

Samoa’s constitutional crisis: Undermining rule of law

Government Building in Apia, Samoa (Wikimedia Commons)
Government Building in Apia, Samoa (Wikimedia Commons)
Published 8 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

While the global community struggles to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, Samoa is embroiled in a constitutional crisis. The South Pacific nation is frequently lauded for its good governance and regional leadership. The current crisis, however, has exposed fault lines around race and identity that could significantly undermine Samoa’s democratic institutions and future development.

Immediately prior to declaring the country’s Covid-19 State of Emergency on 20 March, Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, introduced into Parliament the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Judicature Bill 2020, and Lands and Titles Bill 2020. These bills bring about major constitutional changes that would undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, with significant implications for human rights.

The changes would potentially empower the executive to dismiss judges without grounds or due process. Currently, judges may only be removed via two-thirds vote of Parliament on grounds of misbehaviour or mental impairment. The parliamentary process would thus be replaced by an unlimited dismissal power exercised by the Judicial Services Commission, the majority of whose members would be appointed by the executive. Such changes would fundamentally alter the carefully calibrated relationship between the arms of government, removing the judiciary’s role as an independent check on abuses of power.

Common law and equity, which guide judicial decision-making across Commonwealth courts, would be expressly excluded from Lands and Titles Court rulings.

The amendments would reshape Samoa’s courts by elevating the specialised Lands and Titles Court (LTC) into a stand-alone judiciary coequal to the Supreme Court. Creating a second judicial branch of government is unprecedented in a modern democracy. The lack of an apex court to resolve differences between courts creates significant potential for legal uncertainty and conflict.

The LTC exercises jurisdiction over Samoan customary land and matai (chiefly) titles. As in other Pacific nations, these issues are deeply cultural and often highly contentious. LTC cases are presided over by lay judges who are accomplished in Samoan custom. The two-tiered LTC currently has its own appeal court, with the Supreme Court exercising supervisory jurisdiction for breaches of fundamental human rights. These rights, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair hearing, have been enshrined in Samoa’s constitution since independence in 1962.

The bills would give the LTC “supreme authority” over Samoan customary matters, and it would apply only “customary law”. Common law and equity, which guide judicial decision-making across Commonwealth courts, would be expressly excluded from LTC rulings. The impact of these changes is far-reaching: 80% of the country is designated customary land, and all Samoan extended families exercise collective responsibility for their land and chiefly titles as their measina (precious inheritance).

By removing the Supreme Court’s supervisory jurisdiction, the proposed changes would abolish the application of fundamental human rights from customary matters. Instead, the LTC would apply undefined “communal rights”, which the bill’s explanatory memorandum essentially equates to decisions of the village fono (chiefly council). In the past, certain actions claimed to be taken on behalf of the community, such as beatings or house burnings, have been declared by the Supreme Court to violate fundamental rights. The removal of Supreme Court oversight of the LTC would effectively leave village fono with decision-making power unfettered by human rights considerations.

The notion of pitting individual human rights against traditional communal values is rejected by eminent Samoans. Professor Malama Meleisea has shot down the false dichotomy of individual versus traditional communal rights, illustrating that when individual rights are protected, the community is protected. A landmark 2015 report by Samoa’s Ombudsman, Maiava Iulai Toma, highlighted that human rights are not foreign ideals, but in fact have their roots in Samoan cultural values, and that the two taken together make a more harmonious society.

The LTC has been the subject of long-standing criticism of its competence and judicial conduct. After an extensive consultative process, a 2016 parliamentary inquiry recommended various administrative changes to improve the LTC’s resources and capacity. Importantly, this review recommended the retention of the Supreme Court’s supervisory jurisdiction.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly, September 2019 (Cia Pak/UN Photo)

In October 2019, however, Cabinet assigned the Samoa Law Reform Commission (SLRC) to review the recognition of Samoan custom within the constitution and the establishment of the LTC as an autonomous court. The resulting legislation came as a surprise to many, as it was not subject to the usual public consultation required by SLRC’s mandate and established government policy. Immediately after their introduction, the bills were referred to a parliamentary committee. The media has been excluded from the committee’s public hearings, even though state-of-emergency limits on public gatherings have been eased. The changes are also being considered at a time when the offices of attorney general and chief justice are vacant.

Opposition to the bills has grown steadily. In a letter obtained by the media, the entire Supreme and District Court judiciary voiced their wide-ranging concerns to the SLRC. In the absence of an organised parliamentary opposition, public dissent has been led by lawyers and the media. The Samoa Law Society has undertaken an extensive public education program across media platforms, with community leaders and academics adding to the voices of dissent. International scrutiny is growing, with the New Zealand Law Society issuing a statement in support of the Samoan judiciary and lawyers and eminent international jurists expressing their serious concerns.

Government has responded by publicly criticising Supreme Court judges for their palagi (white person) thinking. Other opponents of the change have similarly been described as not sufficiently Samoan. After the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that Samoa’s founding fathers did not understand the palagi-drafted constitution, traditional leaders have strongly and publicly defended their forebears. Ironically, it was the current government that ratified Samoa’s membership of the UN’s foundational human rights treaties only 12 years ago.

In an already tense environment struggling with the impact of Covid-19 and the recent measles epidemic, this style of identity politics fans existing racial resentments. Samoa is often lauded for its political stability under the Human Rights Protection Party, which has ruled for almost 40 years. However, critics have noted the long-term deconstruction of Samoan democracy via the gradual erosion of the constitution and government systems. This has seen the accumulation of power in the executive, and more particularly a dominated Cabinet. The judiciary is the final frontier.

* Fiona Ey is a lawyer practising at the Samoan Bar. Her husband is a judge of the Supreme Court of Samoa, and her business partner is President of the Samoa Law Society. The views expressed in this article are her own.

Beyond Covid, might China overreach?

The trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage will outlast the virus (Mark Ralston via Getty Images)
The trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage will outlast the virus (Mark Ralston via Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 15:00   0 Comments

A major disruption and the emergence of a global threat in the shape of a pandemic may have been expected to foster closer global cooperation. While this may momentarily be true, as countries cooperate to strengthen their healthcare infrastructure and in seeking effective cures and vaccines, there is also the parallel discourse of mutual acrimony and blame between the US and China.

It has not helped that China has conducted itself in a less than transparent manner, and as the source of the second major pandemic in recent years, somewhat tarnished the reputation of its healthcare system. The growing mistrust and disapproval of China’s global Covid-19 response will impact negatively on its efforts to enhance its soft power as it projects itself as a major actor on the global stage.

In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, exploiting the United States’ preoccupation with its economy at home and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China took advantage of the “period of strategic opportunity” through its territorial assertions and its Belt and Road Initiative megaproject in order to expand its influence along its periphery. The world witnessed China flexing its economic and military muscle seeking to establish itself as the Asian hegemon and to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia.

Might China perceive the United States to be weaker than it really is and accelerate its push for global dominance, thereby increasing the risk of miscalculation?

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis China must likely see the confusion and inadequacy of the US response in contrast to its own resolute and drastic measures that were successful in bringing the outbreak under control. The question that comes to mind is, might China perceive the United States to be weaker than it really is and accelerate its push for global dominance, thereby increasing the risk of miscalculation?

China’s assertiveness since the GFC was followed by the pushback from the US. In the political and security sphere this manifested itself in the strengthening of US alliances and partnerships and in the economic sphere, in what has been described as the US-China “trade war”. The growing mistrust between the United States and China will likely lead to an accelerated pushback that may reinforce the trend towards the “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies. There are other compelling reasons why this likely. The rise in wages in China and US tariffs were already contributing to this trend. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the dangers of economic over dependence upon one country – China, and will reinforce the trend towards diversifying the location of production chains.

In 2011 China became the world’s second largest economy. In 2013 Xi Jinping replaced the “Century of Humiliation” narrative of China’s exploitation by imperial powers with his vision of the “China Dream”. Perhaps, the central leadership under Xi Jinping felt that the country needed a foreign policy approach commensurate with its enhanced economic status. The “China Dream” narrative stemmed out of this realisation that China was a great power and needed to display the attitude of a great power.

China perceived an inward looking and externally preoccupied United States as a declining power at its weakest moment, and sought to pursue an assertive policy of expansion. The world was indeed witnessing the emergence of a bipolar system. This may disappoint those wedded to a multipolar vision of the world, but we can take solace from the fact that historically, multipolar systems have been notoriously unstable, while bipolar systems have been relatively stable. While Covid-19 has bled China and the United States, it has left no country unscathed. It is therefore unlikely to disrupt the trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage.

The United States has often criticised multilateral institutions and the United Nations, and on occasion undermined them. The World Health Organisation has been the latest victim of US ire. The US has accused it of bias towards China and failing in the proper execution of its mandate. However, when it comes to supporting the multilateral order, China’s record is equally dismal. The image this conjures up in one’s mind is of China and the United States tearing up different ends of the multilateral rules-based order – with the United States undermining the WHO and the World Trade Organisation before it, and China degrading the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and pushing for a new Sino-centric Asia.

Covid-19 has posed a common threat to humanity. It should contribute to habits of cooperation on a global scale. As people encroach upon forests and animal habitats the emergence of such disease threats in the future is a distinct possibility. As we search for vaccines and cures we should encourage collaboration across borders.

What is a more likely scenario, however, is that while Covid-19 has disrupted the global economy, once the epidemic is effectively managed, and no longer poses a global threat, old habits of competition and conflict will survive.

Thailand: Killings of insurgents ends southern separatist ceasefire

Narathiwat, southern Thailand, during the Covid-19 lockdown, 1 May (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Narathiwat, southern Thailand, during the Covid-19 lockdown, 1 May (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Insurgents have resumed attacks in Thailand’s south after Thai security forces killed three rebels during a ceasefire declared unilaterally by the main separatist group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The raid bodes ill for a quick political solution. But insurgents will stay focussed on hurting security forces and, less frequently, Thai economic targets: foreigners and foreign interests almost certainly won’t be in their sights.

As noted previously, BRN announced on 3 April that it was suspending hostilities against the Thai state so that the people in the ethnic-Malay dominated southern border region could better deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. It made clear the halt in violence depended on Thai security forces not attacking BRN operatives. In response, the military said it would continue to “enforce laws on those who perpetrate against both officials and innocents”, not ruling out anti-rebel operations.

Although BRN cited humanitarian grounds for its ceasefire, practical considerations may also have played a part. It has been harder for its operatives to move freely, as the government restricts internal travel and clamps down on cross-border movement with Malaysia in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. And any bombings targeting officials that inadvertently hit health workers would have been a public relations disaster for the group, particularly during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which this year runs from 24 April – 22 May.

While BRN leaders are signalling that they want to leave open a path for peace with the Thai state, the fighters in the field appear to view the struggle more viscerally, and tend to meet like with like.

The BRN ceasefire held until 30 April, when security forces killed three BRN members in a house raid. The military’s initial assertion that the three were planning an attack during Ramadan seems implausible, given the BRN ceasefire and given the army later walked back its claim, saying merely the three had warrants out for previous attacks. The timing of the security forces’ swoop, coinciding with the Muslim evening fast-breaking, may have made sense tactically. But it will probably alienate further those who believe that Thai officials look down on the region’s Malays, whose culture, language and religion marks them apart from other Thai citizens.

The BRN’s Central Secretariat was swift to condemn the raid on its fighters, though it publicly renewed its call for security forces to join its unilateral ceasefire. But some insurgents on the ground were less forgiving: two paramilitary soldiers were shot three days later, the latest victims in a conflict that has lasted 16 years and claimed more than 7,000 lives. And therein lies the rub. While BRN leaders are signalling that they want to leave open a path for peace with the Thai state, the fighters in the field appear to view the struggle more viscerally, and tend to meet like with like. Nevertheless, it is possible the shootings were a tit-for-tat response to the insurgent killings, and do not herald the start of a renewed campaign.

The resumption of violence does not pose a direct threat to foreigners in Thailand. The insurgents are not attracted to international jihad: the Thai state is their enemy. But, infrequently, insurgents do conduct bombings outside their southern border province theatre of operations (see list below).

So far, the perpetrators appear to have tried to minimise casualties, particularly foreigners, through their targeting and devices used. However, further out-of-area bombings seem inevitable and, with it, the risk of unintended foreign casualties.

Recent attacks outside the southern border provinces

  • May 2007: six coordinated bomb attacks in the southern city of Had Yai injured nine
  • October 2007: police found five inert small bombs outside a Had Yai university
  • August 2008: two bombs exploded in Had Yai
  • December 2013: an apparently inert car bomb found outside a Phuket police station
  • May 2014: two bombs in Had Yai wounded ten
  • April 2015: a car bomb in an underground shopping centre car park on the tourist resort island of Samui, injured seven, including an Italian national
  • August 2016: a series of 13 bomb and four arson attacks across seven southern provinces killed four and injured 35
  • March 2019: ten pipe bombs in the southern provinces of Satun and Phatthalung
  • August 2019: six small bombs and six incendiary devices go off in Bangkok, coinciding with an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ summit with foreign counterparts

Discontinued: America’s Continuous Bomber Presence

Two B-52 Stratofortresses take off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, 18 March 2019 (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)
Two B-52 Stratofortresses take off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, 18 March 2019 (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)
Published 6 May 2020 12:00   1 Comments

Since 2004, the US Air Force has rotated heavy bombers through the Western Pacific island of Guam. But no more. The Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP), which started in President George W. Bush’s first term and continued through President Barack Obama’s two terms, has now been abruptly terminated in this fourth year of President Donald Trump. The world hasn’t changed – the US has. This appears another step in its withdrawal from the world in general, and the Western Pacific in particular.

For the last 16 years, B-52, and more recently B-1 and B-2, bombers have been deployed to Guam to undertake the descriptively titled Bomber Assurance and Deterrence mission (BAAD). “Assurance” in the sense of reassuring worried allies, partners and friends that the US is firmly committed to the Western Pacific region. “Deterrence” in the sense of being well-positioned to be able to quickly take swift retaliatory action if any nation decided to attack a US ally, partner or friend. The threat of such USAF bomber strikes would hopefully deter any aggressor from military adventurism. Having the bombers at Guam, deep in the Western Pacific region, was a highly visible reminder to all about American abilities to apply considerable military power at short notice, to both reassure and deter.

The symbolism of the Chinese sending their brand-new aircraft carrier to exercise in the South China Sea while the US simultaneously returns its only long-range bombers in the Pacific to America is striking.

Various rationales are advanced for the bombers’ sudden withdrawal, most based on then–US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s 2018 National Defence Strategy. The rationales draw attention to this document’s direction that US force deployments must be “operationally unpredictable” to “challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavourable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions”. The dense military doctrinal language highlights that this guidance is really meant for the tactical and operational levels of war, not the strategic level. The guidance arguably is being misused.

The rationales given are excuses rather than reasons. When he was Defense Secretary (2017–2018), Mattis did not withdraw the bombers, even though he had ample time to do so. Indeed, the use now made of the phrase “operationally unpredictable” appears out of context. Using the full sentence “Be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable ” highlights that it refers to behaving differently at the strategic level and at the tactical and operational levels.

In the BAAD acronym, the first half of the bomber’s strategic mission was “assurance” – to reassure everyone about America’s commitment to the region. Suddenly withdrawing the bombers sends the opposite message. The unilateral ending of the CBP without replacement is telling US allies, partners, and friends that it is strategically unpredictable. They may now be left in the lurch at a moment’s notice.

This message is made worse by RAND’s and other US analysts’ arguments that America is withdrawing the bombers because Guam has become overly vulnerable to Chinese military power. This suggests China is now regionally superior and is forcing US combat forces out of the Western Pacific. The US, instead of investing in defending Guam, is going home. The problem is that allies, partners, and friends can’t just leave – their home is the Western Pacific.

The move is also unusual in terms of BAAD’s second strategic mission “deterrence”, convincing potential aggressors not to attack friendly regional nations on threat of swift retaliatory punishment. The official statement implies the bombers might come back for short periods to deter potential regional aggressors at some time in the future if needed. It is here where the impacts of ending CBP become really apparent.

The distance from the bombers’ Midwestern American airbases to Guam is about 11–13,000 kilometres, some 13–16 hours flying time and requiring support from KC-135 tanker aircraft en route. Under CBP there were bomber maintenance personnel in Guam to provide support, but now these will need to be flown in separately, adding time and complexity. Realistically, to return bombers to Guam and commence combat operations would take about a week. An aggressor would by then be in place and waiting for the bombers.

A B-1B Lancer deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as part of US Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence operations receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Pacific Ocean, March 2017 (US Air Force/Flickr)

Such constraints highlight that in the future, USAF bombers exercising with regional air forces and patrolling trouble spots like the East or South China Sea will become rare. The costs of deploying to Guam to just get them into the region to start beginning one-off exercises and patrols will be prohibitive. Missions flown from the Midwest and recovering back there are more publicity stunts than operationally realistic. The recent 32-hour round-trip mission flown by two B-1s with KC-135 tanker support is an example. Under CBP, multiple exercises and patrols were carried out each time a new bomber detachment was in situ, thus maximising the operational training value while minimising deployment costs.

For bombers, Guam is a most useful central location. For example, bombers from Guam used to exercise regularly with Australia, flying into and out of Darwin only 3300 km away (about 4-5 hours flying time) and as such not requiring tanker support. Singapore (4700km from Guam) and Japan (3300km) are similarly easily accessible. The South China Sea is less than 4000km. However, if you have to first fly from the Midwest to Guam, this makes regional training and patrol missions impractical and unreasonable.

Perhaps the worst aspect of ending CBP is the remarkably poor timing of the announcement. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, China is increasingly flexing its geopolitical muscle in the Western Pacific, into the South China Sea, and now rather worryingly around Taiwan. The symbolism of the Chinese sending their brand-new aircraft carrier to exercise in the South China Sea while the US simultaneously returns its only long-range bombers in the Pacific to America is striking.

The public withdrawal of the bombers seems to have been regrettably timed to reinforce regional perceptions of a rising China and a withdrawing America. The US now appears not to be competing with China, but rather declining to race.

The end of CBP will be well received in Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang. In contrast, the CBP’s demise sends a clear strategic message to US Pacific allies. Bit by bit, little by little, America is leaving.

Who would Beijing prefer wins in November?

Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be Xi Jinping facing his US counterpart (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be Xi Jinping facing his US counterpart (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 5 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

The 2020 US presidential election may well go down in history as the “China election”. Indeed, if the past month has been any indication, the narratives around this race for the White House will heavily feature how each candidate plans to manage the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.

Trump and his campaign have aggressively attempted to promote him as the “tough on China” President, even going as far as to label his putative rival with the moniker “Beijing Biden” in a recent attack ad. Yet team around former vice president Joe Biden seems comfortable using China as the playing field for political mudslinging, responding with an ad accusing Trump of being too trusting of Xi Jinping, and failing to adequately protect the American people from the Covid-19 outbreak.

But as each side of politics attempts to position itself as the one most able and willing to take on China, it is not yet entirely clear who Beijing views as its preferred candidate.

It seems safe to assume that any alternative to a presidency as globally unpopular as Trump’s will improve America’s standing in the world.

Precedent offers little indication. While traditionally hesitant to outspokenly support one party or another, China’s leaders have historically seemed to display a degree of greater ease when dealing with Republicans. It was the Nixon administration which famously established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Henry Kissinger and Hank Paulson, both former cabinet officials in Republican administrations, appear to have achieved degrees of trust and success with Beijing’s Party establishment that is extremely rare among America’s political elite. In the years of China’s reform and opening up, the pro-globalisation economic policies championed most loudly by the Reagan and post-Reagan Republican party were beneficial for corporate America and exporters alike.

Whether as a result of active decision-making or of sheer luck and circumstance, the fondness expressed in Beijing for certain prominent Republicans doesn’t seem to have a clear parallel among Democrats. Hillary Clinton, for example, has a track record with China’s rulers that could at best be described as “complicated”. Her reputation as an outspoken critic of human rights-violating regimes around the world understandably makes China’s Communist Party officials uncomfortable, and many Chinese associate her with a tendency for self-righteous preachiness of the United States that they perceive and resent.

It’s partly for these reasons that support for Trump in the 2016 election was a common sentiment in China. His deal-making attitude as a “businessman” led many to believe that he could be easier to negotiate with than more ideological American presidents of the past. Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy offered opportunities for China to expand its global influence as the US focused inward. And although perhaps driven less by interests-based strategy than simple human emotion, many simply would be happy for any instance which would knock the US’s global prestige down a few pegs.

Trump during a 2017 visit to Beijing (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)


China and the Trump presidency

Regardless of the degree to which Beijing may or may not have preferred Trump to Clinton, it appears fair to say that they, like much of the world, have found the decision-making of the current President difficult to predict. Despite Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric towards China, Xi and his fellow top leaders do seem to have been taken by surprise by how aggressively the tough talk was followed through on. “Prior to 2016, Beijing’s assumption has been that there was a default template for politicians’ strategies during a campaign and after the campaign,” explains Rui Zhong, China analyst for the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

While on the trail, American politicians tended to stick to being tough on states (like China) that the US was competing with, and then moderate that position after getting into office.

Yet rather than moderate its position, the Trump administration has doubled down. In a cabinet that has seen record-setting amounts of staff turnover, fierce “China hawks” have consistently had the ear of the president. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Robert Lighthizer, Peter Navarro, and Matthew Pottinger have played prominent roles the administration’s approach to China, one that has only intensified in its antagonism. Under Trump, US-China relations have reached their worst point in nearly half a century, as a trade war, tech tensions, and a series of nasty spats over global influence leave very little room for cooperation between the two superpowers.

Unlike previous Republican administrations, this presidency has done little to gain the support of the pro-China corporate elite, but instead courted the populist right far less interested in China’s massive market and far more concerned about the threat of Chinese economic and military power.

Is Biden Beijing’s candidate?

Considering Trump’s confrontation with China, it’s tempting to conclude that Beijing would welcome a Biden victory in November. Indeed, there are some indications that this is the case. The former Delaware senator has for decades supported the “China engagement” doctrine, including throwing his support behind the granting of Most Favored Nation trade status in 2001. Biden is a known commodity for Xi, having met with him on a number of occasions in his capacity as Vice President. What’s more, the pro-globalisation corporate lobby that has lost some influence in Trump’s Republican party may be finding more of a home – and more influence – as “Biden Democrats.”

Op-eds in China’s state-run media have also indicated that the relative predictability of a likely center-left Biden White House would be more comfortable for Beijing than the current state of affairs. Other Chinese commentators have somewhat-cynically theorised that the liberal idealism of the American left offers opportunities for exploitation by the PRC that the hawkishness of the right does not.

A 2012 visit by Xi and Biden to the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, Calafornia (Photo by Tim Rue/Corbis via Getty Images)

Yet although some in Beijing may feel more comfortable working with a hypothetical Biden-led America, there’s a strong case to be made that four more years of Trump is in their best interests. Any hopes of a “return to normal” post-Trump appear increasingly fanciful as the presidential race goes on. In his long career in Washington Biden has been known to change his positions, but one thing has remained consistent: he has always had a sharp sense of the current consensus in both Washington and the Democratic Party, and has rarely strayed far from it. Currently, that consensus is that China is not a friend to the United States.

As a bipartisan tide in Washington turns against China, the areas in which a Biden administration’s posture towards China could differ from Trump’s are limited. However, there are a number of areas where a shift away from Trump-style foreign policy could hurt Beijing. As a state with few formal allies but tremendous economic might, the withdrawal of the US from many of its global leadership roles under Trump has provided an opportunity for China to reorient its global diplomatic presence.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be Xi Jinping who will be calling the shots from Beijing, and he will be doing so indefinitely.

In 2019, Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahathir Mohamed expressed this bluntly. “Well, it depends on how they behave,” he said when asked if his country would take sides in a US-China trade war. “Currently the US is very unpredictable as to the things they do.”

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has also distanced himself from the US and cozied up to China, to the point of tearing up a status of forces agreement, effectively ending the country’s longstanding alliance with the American military.

Even among close allies, the US has struggled to form a united front, as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have all been very reluctant to ban Chinese telecoms equipment firm Huawei from providing their 5G network infrastructure.

It seems safe to assume that any alternative to a presidency as globally unpopular as Trump’s will improve America’s standing in the world. Yet while Trump attracts the lion’s share of the attention, there are many broader trends which transcend him. China’s power relative to the US has grown steadily over decades, and their interests are diverging in a number of ways. The era of US hegemony is coming to an end, and global power is becoming increasingly multipolar. This is unlikely to change, regardless of who is in the White House.

But … what matters, to the one person who matters most?

Yet as much as analysts may enjoy speculating how the two potential presidential scenarios could affect the geopolitical chess board, there is one constant that is highly unlikely to change: barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be Xi Jinping who will be calling the shots from Beijing, and he will be doing so indefinitely.

In his eight years so far in power his words and actions have displayed a consistent worldview. He is by nearly all accounts obsessed with maintaining internal control. He has ruthlessly and effectively consolidated power. Xi is a student of the fall of the Soviet Union, which he believes was largely a result of Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms. Whether in response to unrest in Xinjiang, protest movements in Hong Kong, online dissent, official corruption, or even a pandemic, Xi has used a number of tactics but has maintained one single strategy and direction: crack down, stifle, and take further control.

Xi appears quite willing to sacrifice international relations in the name of centralising his domestic authority. He has encouraged a nationalistic fervor both at home and abroad, embodied in a combative “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy that rallies China’s online mobs but severely harms their relationships with their most important trading partners. Considering his leadership priorities, this does make some sense. An open China, friendly and interconnected with the rest of the world leads to a population with many different interests, goals, philosophies, and yes, even leaders. A closed China that views the outside world as a threat has little choice but to rally around their leader.

There may be many people in China, its government, and the Communist Party that would rather deal with a Biden presidency, while others may prefer another four years of Trump. Yet at this moment, there only seems to be one person whose opinion really matters. And it appears his preference is perpetually whoever and whatever allows him to gain and maintain domestic control.

Debating constitutional change in Samoa

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)
Published 5 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Proposed changes to Samoa’s Constitution have provoked fierce debate. The views of the Prime Minister, the former Head of State, the judiciary, chiefly leaders, current and former government officials, the Samoa Law Society, and many others have been widely reported in the Samoan media. At the heart of the debate are questions about the authorship and ownership of the Constitution, and whether it can express Samoan custom or, in Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi’s words, only palagi or foreign thinking.

What changes are proposed?

The main proposal is to divide the judicial system into two parallel courts of equal standing, one to deal with criminal and civil matters, the other with customary land and titles.

Under current arrangements, the Land and Titles Court, composed of lay judges expert in Samoan custom, has exclusive jurisdiction over customary land and matai (chiefly) titles. Its decisions on custom are final, but they can be appealed to the Supreme Court if constitutional rights are affected.

Under the proposed amendments, the Land and Titles Court system would be entrenched in the Constitution, gain a new appellate court, and have “supreme authority over the subject of Samoan customs and usages”.  The possibility of appeal to the Supreme Court, even on constitutional grounds, would be removed.

Other amendments would require all Samoan courts to take account of custom; require the Court of Appeal to be composed of two Samoan judges and one “overseas non-Samoan” judge and increase the size of the Cabinet from a maximum of 12 to 14 Ministers.

Waiting for the bus in front of a dress shop in Apia, Samoa (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

What is the motivation for the change?

Although the Samoan government has been accused of pushing these amendments under the cover of Covid-19, the proposals have a longer history as two reform projects combined.

In 2016, a Special Committee of Parliament reported many problems in the Land and Titles Court, including lengthy delays and concerns about the performance of the judges. A previous bill to establish a new three tier Land and Titles Court and impose time limits on the court’s decision making has now been revised as part of these constitutional amendments.

In 2019, the Land and Titles Court reforms became embedded in a review of how Samoan custom could be recognised and protected under the Constitution and the Land and Titles Court could be autonomous from other courts. This review, led by three justice agencies, reported that Samoan custom and usage was under-recognised in the Samoan constitution and legislation, and that court decisions followed the Constitution in favouring Western laws and principles over customary values. It also recommended a return to the original position of the Land and Titles Court as autonomous and its decisions not subject to review.

Some objections

Concerns about the amendments fall into four broad categories.

First, there is concern about the effect on constitutionalism and the protection of rights. The intention is that there will be two separate courts each responsible interpreting and applying the constitution, one from the “Western” legal perspective in civil and criminal matters, the other from the customary perspective in land and titles matters. There are concerns that individual rights, and in particular the right to a fair trial, will be unprotected. There is also the risk that the two courts will generate inconsistent interpretations of the constitution, leading to legal uncertainty.

The amendments are a response to the feeling that the constitution, legislation and the courts emphasise western laws and institutions and marginalise custom.

A second concern relates to the position of the new Land and Titles Court in the system of government. It has been labelled a “fourth branch of government”. Its role seems mainly judicial, but it cannot review legislation and it lacks the independence of the judiciary. In particular, the judges of the new Land and Titles Court would not have guaranteed tenure and would be subject to removal without cause.

Third, there are criticisms of the workability of the new system. Constitutional change alone will not fix the administrative problems of under-resourcing and capacity identified in the 2016 review of the Land and Titles Court. While the desire for Samoan judges to sit on the Court of Appeal in both judiciaries is understandable, there is a real question whether Samoa yet has a sufficient number of local judges to fill these positions.

Finally, many are concerned about the lack of public consultation on such fundamental constitutional changes. The government has pointed to the 2016 parliamentary inquiry, and following the second reading all amendments were referred to another parliamentary committee. However, as the government holds more than enough parliamentary seats to pass the amendments, there is a concern that public consultation so late in the process will have limited effect. It has been largely left to the Samoa Law Society and the media to raise public awareness of the issues.

Custom and constitutions

These are serious concerns that should be addressed. In doing so, however, it is important not to lose sight of the purpose of the amendments, which is to elevate custom as a source of law and integral part of the constitutional system of Samoa. The amendments are a response to the feeling that the constitution, legislation and the courts emphasise Western laws and institutions and marginalise custom.

The Prime Minister’s comments that the matai who made the Constitution did not understand what the palagi put in it has been strongly criticised. While his comment certainly underestimates the founders of Samoa’s Constitution, the records of the working committee do show that the Constitution was written with an eye to the approval of the outside world and in particular the need to convince the colonial authorities in New Zealand and the United Nations that Samoa was ready to be “admitted” as a sovereign nation. This is perhaps one reason why Samoa’s Constitution did not directly incorporate customary institutions and laws, but rather left them to the unwritten customary constitution.

The proposed amendments, and the debate they have sparked, show that the difficulties reflecting legal pluralism in written constitutions continue long after independence from colonial rule. It is a pressing problem for polities across the Pacific, and with no easy solution Samoa’s current efforts in constitutional reform deserve careful attention.

Gwadar Port: New Dubai or pie in the sky?

Gwadar Port in south-western Pakistan (Getty Images)
Gwadar Port in south-western Pakistan (Getty Images)
Published 1 May 2020 16:30   1 Comments

The small port town of Gwadar, in the south-west of Pakistan, is the centre stage of the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, the Pakistan component of ther Belt and Road Initiative. Under CPEC, Gwadar is to be developed into a smart port city, and will be not only a major commercial port but also a developed urban centre in its own right.

In February, Shahzeb Khan Kakar, director-general of the Gwadar Development Authority (GDA), told an association of builders in Karachi that Gwadar’s new masterplan had been approved and the port city would become the Singapore of Pakistan. He called Gwadar, which has a current population of 85,000 people, “the safest city in Pakistan”, and encouraged builders to invest.

Under the GDA-approved masterplan of Gwadar, the city will be divided into 11 functional zones and a special economic district, and the population is projected to reach 2 million by 2050. Moreover, as per the masterplan, the GDP of Gwadar will increase to $30 billion by 2050 and produce 1.2 million jobs.

“Think Dubai but on a much larger scale and in a quicker time frame,” one report read. “The master plan details how Gwadar will become the economic hub of not only Pakistan but the entire South Asian region.”

As part of the media hubbub around the project, some outlets reported that a $10 billion artificial island would be built near Gwadar, per the masterplan, sparking great excitement among investors and the public. “Think Dubai but on a much larger scale and in a quicker time frame,” one report read. “The master plan details how Gwadar will become the economic hub of not only Pakistan but the entire South Asian region.”

However, GDA soon came forward to contradict the rumour about the Island and asked investors to focus on other things offered by the masterplan.

At a time when the project was facing a downturn, the approval of the Gwadar masterplan was very promising news for CPEC. Yet despite all the tempting prospects the plan offers to investors, there are three main reasons it’s not feasible.

Firstly, the crude fact is that Pakistan does not have the cash required to pay to implement this masterplan. Even according to conservative estimates, it would take more than $750 million to finance the basic infrastructure of Gwadar. Even before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, Pakistan’s economy has been in doldrums, and it is relying on the International Monetary Fund to meet the deficit in its balance of payments. Pakistan recently reached another staff-level agreement with IMF which will result in disbursement of $450 million to Pakistan for budgetary support. Under these circumstances, it is inconceivable Pakistan will get the funds to develop its dream city in Gwadar. It’s important to note that CPEC itself does not have any funding provisions for implementation of the entire masterplan.

Secondly, Pakistan lacks the conditions which Dubai and Singapore had before they developed into major port cities. The rulers of Dubai had plenty of oil money at their disposal, which they used to develop basic infrastructure. Pakistan is in no such a position. Furthermore, Dubai and to some extent  Singapore had authoritarian governments which made possible such large-scale development. On the contrary, Pakistan has a polarising democracy and a wide range of power players with opposing interests. It is nearly impossible to implement a plan of such scale without conflicts.

As an example, the 300-megawatt power plant in Gwadar, part of CPEC, took the provincial government of Balochistan more than three years to approve construction on, even when Gwadar was facing severe power cuts.

Thirdly, the success of CPEC in general and the Gwadar plan in particular depends on the climate of Pakistan-China relations. Although strategic relations have improved in the last  decades, economic relations often have ups and downs. If Pakistan takes a decision against the interests of China, Beijing can easily pull the plug on CPEC. In that case, Gwadar wouldn’t even get its highways and new international airport promised under CPEC. Pakistan imposed a ban on the arrival of Chinese personnel in Gwadar from China due to the coronavirus outbreak, and if the situation unfolds in a way unfavourable to China, Pakistan has to be ready for a harsh response from Beijing.

In light of these factors, the Gwadar masterplan is tantamount to building castles in the sky. Policymakers in Islamabad are not so naive as to believe differently. That’s why the approval of the masterplan and all the media hype can be seen as a public relations exercise. This masterplan has reignited the interest of the investors in Gwadar, and also pumped life into CPEC, which had slowed down in 2019. So for the moment, the masterplan achieved its intended targets, and those making decisions in Pakistan will not be around in 2050 to explain why it could not be implemented.

Governments, not pandemics, stop access to reproductive health

Demonstrators in Poland protest further curbs on reproductive rights amid coronavirus lockdown (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Poland protest further curbs on reproductive rights amid coronavirus lockdown (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 1 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Prescription limits on contraceptives, closures of specialist sexual and reproductive health clinics, halts on comprehensive sexual education, and tightened access to safe abortion. Each of these phenomena occurs in times of health crises and states of emergency, and each is happening in the world right now in response to Covid-19. What is not widely known, however, is that each is also driven by political choices made by governments.

In response to the current pandemic, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recommended that states adopt three strategic priorities: provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to sexual and reproductive health care workers so clinics can remain open; continuation of services for gender-based violence as a first response health measure (to supply morning-after pills and treatment of STDs); and prioritising of contraceptive and reproductive health supplies. In short, the UNFPA is asking states to help sexual and reproductive clinics remain open and ensure that they are safe, legal spaces for women to access.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has conducted a survey with its national members on the impact of Covid-19. Their findings show that states are already failing to meet the UNFPA priorities. Across 64 countries, thousands of static and mobile clinics and community-based care outlets have already closed as a result of the pandemic. Shortages of contraceptive supplies, scaled-down prioritisation of HIV testing, reduced access to abortion care, and lockdown restrictions have all had a collective effect.

Governments who understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health see it more as an issue to be manipulated than an enabler of women to lead healthy lives.

Limits on sexual and reproductive healthcare during such states of emergency are often explained away as secondary concerns, non-essential and therefore easy to side-line, while health workers, resources, supply chains, and pharmacists are left to focus on the fallout. At policy level, this suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of sex and reproduction in people’s everyday lives, and even less awareness of how this can change during pandemic responses.

This appears to be the case at present in the Netherlands where a single mother, who was unable to leave her house due to a Covid-19 infected child, was denied access to urgent medical abortion treatment by mail, the court ruling that she must visit a clinic. Such incidents highlight the knowledge gap between provision of services during a health emergency and their importance, value, and necessity in everyday life.

The other possible explanation for such a disconnection between policy and practice is that governments who understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health see it more as an issue to be manipulated than an enabler of women to lead healthy lives. This no-man’s land emerges when states vacillate over whether to relax access to safe abortion during health emergencies or not. In the United Kingdom, the government has recently made a number of reversals on a public health decision that eventually permitted women access to at-home medical abortion. The concern was that emergency measures would become a Trojan horse for the relaxation of wider laws once the pandemic ends.

Indeed, evidence from previous health emergencies, and early indications from the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, suggests that states are more likely to restrict rather than relax regulations around sexual and reproductive health during times of crisis. This, in turn, becomes the norm post-emergency. This is certainly the case in Poland, where the government is proposing a “Stop Abortion” law in the midst of the current state of emergency. The move has significant implications for the wellbeing of women during the pandemic, including immediate issues of unwanted pregnancy and longer term implications regarding the reversal of previous advancements made on access to sexual and reproductive health.

These examples are a potent reminder that pandemics do not pose a threat to sexual and reproductive health, rather the danger comes from governments who make decisions during these crises. As we’ve argued in a recent article in International Studies Quarterly, “as long as state monopoly over reproductive security remains unchallenged, the state continues to determine when women’s lives can and should be secured from preventable death and injury”. We need a new understanding of reproductive health that shifts the balance, which positions the issue as a security threat when access is denied, defunded and rescinded.

Pandemics have the power to undermine and invalidate advancements in access to sexual and reproductive health. States have the tools to stop it.

Winds of change: Rethinking disaster relief after Cyclone Harold

Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 30 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Wind speeds over 215 kilometres per hour, more than 180,000 people affected, communities and their infrastructure hit hard, and countries in lockdown – Cyclone Harold is the most recent climate-fuelled calamity to wreak havoc in the Pacific islands. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, this recovery will be one of the most challenging for the region.

It is not the first, nor will it be the last, of these devastating Category 5 cyclones. The difference this time is that external humanitarian “saviours” will be scarce on the ground, but perhaps the current situation will create a space for more locally driven and flexible responses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050.

The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, acknowledged the devastation, but also the possibilities to reshape disaster relief operations, stating that “the pandemic offers an opportunity to consider climate-smart response and recovery measures”. Following every major environmental disaster, performance assessments have highlighted the need for better coordination, stronger local engagement, and “building back better”. Now is a good time to deliver on those ambitions and elevate the role and recognition of local systems.

In the 2019 IPCC Report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050. The human, economic, and social costs of future events will be high and pressure on community responses elevated. It has been estimated, for example, that the impact of Fiji’s 2015 Tropical Cyclone Winston will be felt until 2025, with a substantial hit to its economy – one fifth of its 2014 GDP.

The risk to communities will be even greater following Cyclone Harold if local networks and assets are not better leveraged. Post-disaster assessments have highlighted that after immediate humanitarian needs are addressed, efforts must be geared first toward vulnerable people, then focus on shelter, livelihoods, and infrastructure. Priorities are place-dependent – but if no one asks local people, no one knows.

Unfortunately, these questions are not always posed. Humanitarian assistance often ends up being supply-driven rather than demand-driven. During Cyclones Winston and Pam, a notable proportion of aid went to waste because it did not meet local needs and, more concerning, overwhelmed supply chains and deliveries of needed goods. Basic aid did not reach several communities simply because lack of visibility or legal recognition existed in the formal system. Consequently, densely populated peri-urban settlements suffered.

Most Pacific island countries now take a sector-based approach to disaster response, which in many cases leads to siloed interventions. Those in charge of shelter delivery do not always speak productively to those providing water, health care, or protection services. As the UN gender adviser Aleta Miller noted following Cyclone Winston, “a lack of coordination between the wide range of actors involved in responses can cause even more harm … if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. 

In response, area-based approaches (ABAs) have been developed and widely adopted by the humanitarian aid community for more effective post-disaster recovery. As the name suggests, the idea is to focus on specific locations, and within them provide coordinated, cross-sectoral responses, such as linking water aid with shelter and food production aid.

Satellite images of tropical Cyclone Harold near Vanuatu (NASA/Artyom Tadzhibaev via Flickr)

Following Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, a summary of lessons learned highlighted the need to ensure connectivity between national and community responses. Of note was the need for key information to be delivered via trusted communication channels, such as radio stations, churches and traditional leaders. In addition, the report called for a tighter fit between National Disaster Management Offices (NDMOs) and local emergency operation centres, along with more thorough consultations with vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Recently, the Pacific Islands Forum announced their commitment to a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19. Details are scant, but presumably such a pathway will be collaborative and inclusive. Working from the top down in the Pacific is difficult given the limited reach of many national and regional agencies. The ABAs, championed in other parts of the world as effective for their post-disaster recovery, might be just what is required with their ground up approach to engage communities and local leadership. Robert Dodds, Pacific Regional Shelter Manager at International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) explains, “we need to engage with local communities and local government first and foremost. It’s about them being in the driving seat”.

ABAs have strong appeal in the Pacific islands and are becoming the preferred approach for leading actors, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Global Shelter Cluster (GSC). However, they will only work if implementing organisations take the time to forge local partnerships and prioritise genuine needs.

From the field, we know that ABAs are difficult to enact, slow to deliver, and involve rounds of negotiations between invested parties. They do not fit the project management tools and modes of operation most often used by aid organisations, and they need adaptive delivery approaches that do not always suit agencies’ short timeframes. Yet, when done well, they respond to pressing needs and enable those on the ground to lead, which is vital to sustainable outcomes, especially in these unprecedented times that risk becoming “the new normal”.

Troubled waters: China’s sovereign ambition in the shadows of Covid-19

Protesters burn a mock Chinese flag with a map of the South China sea outside the Chinese consulate in Manila last year (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters burn a mock Chinese flag with a map of the South China sea outside the Chinese consulate in Manila last year (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 27 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

Around midnight on 2 April, a Vietnamese fishing vessel sank in the disputed waters in the South China Sea after allegedly being rammed by the Chinese coastguard. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded swiftly, stating that the act had violated its country’s sovereignty. A similar incident had occurred in March 2019 near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands. In the most recent case, Beijing rejected the allegation, claiming that it was the wooden fishing vessel that had rammed the steel-hulled ship, thereby sinking itself.

Beijing’s claim inevitably drew criticism. The US condemned the incident, calling it “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea”. Among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines was the first to support Vietnam, calling China’s historical claims over the nine-dash line in the South China Sea “fictional”. It cited another incident in June 2019 when 22 Filipino fishermen had to be rescued after a Chinese vessel sank their boat at Reed Bank. This rare flash of solidarity between Vietnam and the Philippines illustrates just how seriously these provocations are being taken by Beijing’s friends in the region.

Some experts suspect that the recent sinking was in retaliation for the note verbale sent last month by Vietnam to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which referenced a 2016 decision by a UN arbitration tribunal to invalidate the legal basis of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese experts worry that this move is a pretext for more aggressive action, including the possibility of military intervention.

On 18 April, Beijing caused further animosity in the region by announcing the establishment of two new administrative districts that take in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The new Xisha and Nansha districts fall under the control of Sansha City, which administers islands and reefs currently occupied by Vietnamese citizens and military. China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs released “official” names and coordinates for 80 of the islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, many of which lie underwater at high tide. The last time China issued such a list was in 1983 when it named 287 geographical features across the disputed waters. With China again using its domestic institutions and legal frameworks to pursue its claims in the South China Sea, some Vietnamese experts worry that this move is a pretext for more aggressive action, including the possibility of military intervention.

Vietnam is not the only target of China’s recent offensive. On 16 April, Beijing sent the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 to waters within Malaysia’s economic exclusion zone. The same vessel infamously engaged in a month-long standoff in Vietnamese waters in July 2019. This time, the boat was reportedly tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company, Petronas. However, evidence suggests that the Chinese ship may have itself been exploring for oil. This month, the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta joined three US warships in the area to carry out joint exercises, the manoeuvres coinciding with US calls for China to stop its “bullying behaviour” in the South China Sea.

The Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate HMAS Parramatta, left, on 18 April during exercises with the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS America, guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, and guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)

The Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece of Beijing, had two weeks earlier claimed that Covid-19 had “significantly lowered the US Navy’s warship deployment capability in the Asia-Pacific region”. This sentiment reflects a common perception that the current pandemic is allowing Beijing the rare opportunity to flex its muscle, particularly while other major powers are busy at home. It is also no coincidence that along with renewed aggression in the South China Sea, Beijing is stirring the water in the Taiwan Strait, and intensifying its crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

These recent moves are in line with Beijing’s policy of exploiting opportunities to advance its interests, perhaps including a post-pandemic expansionary strategy. However, the US is unlikely to allow any revision of the status quo, even while it is dealing with the worst of the Covid-19 fallout. In a response to recent developments in the South China Sea, the US State Department warned Beijing to “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims”.

Arguably, the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat earlier this month may well prove to be counterproductive at a time when China wants to accelerate the establishment of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Indeed, the Philippines stated the need for such incidents to be avoided and that differences should “be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust”. Current events will only hamper efforts that Beijing has made in recent years regarding COC discussions.

Ultimately, China’s opportunism may serve to further isolate itself in the region. It may be that ASEAN countries, along with South Korea and Japan, come together and act collectively to prevent future threats from Beijing in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

ISIS looks to prosper in a world distracted by the virus

Closed shops in the Shorja market in central Baghdad earlier this month (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Closed shops in the Shorja market in central Baghdad earlier this month (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 24 Apr 2020 13:00   0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the heart of Europe. The severity of the virus has forced policymakers to shift their priorities almost exclusively to the home front. As a result, international security concerns, particularly the fight against the remnants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which had until recently been at the core of European security policy, has receded into the background.

The terrorist group has also been swift to issue early instructions to its cadres to internalise good hygiene habits – washing hands and covering up coughs and sneezes.

Several European countries have withdrawn their troops from Iraq with coalition and NATO training missions suspended to prevent the spread of Covid-19. France’s Emmanuel Macron has redeployed 200 French troops from Operation Chammal, as the French support in the fight against ISIS is known, back to mainland France assist public services. Spain has also withdrawn between 150–200 soldiers, while Germany and the Netherlands have also withdrawn their training forces from Iraq.

The United States has also last month withdrawn from frontline operating bases at Mosul, Al-Qaim, Qayyarah, Kirkuk, and Taqaddum. Some of the relocation is to US bases with newly installed US missile defence systems following the Soleimani assassination and subsequent Iranian rocket attack in January. Yet with Donald Trump running for re-election in November, it is likely he will continue to push for the withdrawal of US troops, especially if the virus spreads in the vicinity of their military bases.

France suspended the activities of soldiers from Operation Chammal stationed in Baghdad and repatriated personnel (Ministère de la Défense)

ISIS is seeking to profit from the pandemic, which is expected to overwhelm Iraq’s national healthcare system. The concern for policymakers will be that the pandemic provides the terrorist organisation renewed hope and the opportunity to reconstitute. After its military defeat, ISIS has had to adapt, operating in remote and isolated locations – a tactic that might in the current context have the unintended benefit of social distancing. Indeed, the leadership has also been swift to issue early instructions to its cadres to internalise good hygiene habits – washing hands and covering up coughs and sneezes.

For authorities in Bagdad and Erbil, ISIS sleeper cells, especially in the Garmiyan, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Nineveh provinces are of major concern. The departure of coalition forces has left an intelligence and coordination void. It appears the terrorist organisation can boast anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 fighters in these provinces. 

Numerous clashes have taken place, notably on 7 April 7, in which ISIS snipers killed two peshmerga fighers in Kolajo, Garmiyan province. Several attacks against police and the Iraqi army have also been conducted. 

If left unchecked, successful insurgent operations will enhance the terrorist group’s tactical potency and ability to coordinate. This can in turn help foster a sense of psychological dominance, encouraging ISIS to pursue more widespread operations across Iraq.

All this should concern Western policymakers.

French figher jets as part of Operation Barkhane (Ministère de la Défense)

The International Crisis Group has shown ISIS still wants it followers to pursue attacks in Western democracies. Amid the ongoing health crisis in Europe, it is important that Europe be on high alert for the added danger of ISIS-inspired threats. Already this month a man was stabbed in the commune of Romans-sur-Isère , with French counterterrorism prosecutors launching an investigation into the attack. 

European capitals cannot afford to see an incremental increase in ISIS attacks at the continent’s doors. It was only a few years ago that savage rampages in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in 2016 highlighted ability of the terrorist organisation to coordinate attacks from the Middle East through its Emni unit.

Aggressive surveillance combined with counterterror raids are essential to limiting a terrorist resurgence. The French Air Force (L’Armée de l’Air) has a military base at Al-Dharfa in the United Arab Emirates, where French Rafale fighter jets are stationed and can be used to carry out air aids in Iraq. These fighter jets, under “Operation Barkhane” have already played a key role in efforts to destroy terrorist infrastructure in Africa’s Sahel.

Considering that 1000 French sailors have been recently infected by Covid-19 on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, it would be understandable if French policymakers, or policymakers anywhere for that matter, became consumed by the demands of tackling the virus. Yet it is of paramount importance that countries are not at the same time distracted from the continuing threat of ISIS.

105 years on, a digital commemoration marks a very different Anzac Day

A poppy grows next to the British and Allied memorial at Cape Helles, Gallipoli (Defence Department)
A poppy grows next to the British and Allied memorial at Cape Helles, Gallipoli (Defence Department)
Published 24 Apr 2020 09:00   0 Comments

This year, Anzac Day is different. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the enforcement of measures to keep people physically apart and the cancelling of public gatherings and events, including Anzac Day services and marches. This leaves Australians and residents who had planned to attend Anzac Day events at loss.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) has been resolute in its commitment to ensure that people can experience Anzac Day. AWM director Matt Anderson declared that the pandemic makes commemorations the more important because at the heart sits an acknowledgement of the resilience and fortitude demonstrated by the Anzacs.

People will have to craft their own personal Anzac experience, which will be a test to the continued relevance and importance of Anzac Day in contemporary Australian society.

A nationally broadcast commemorative service will take place at the AWM in Canberra on 25 April. The service will not be open to the public and will include only a limited number of guests who will adhere to safety measures of physical distance.

The AWM has also launched an engagement campaign called Anzac Day 2020, At Home, We Remember. This offers a series of digital activities and websites that people can engage with for Anzac Day, including placing a virtual poppy (the red flower that has become a symbol of remembrance), uploading a short video reciting The Ode to social media with the hashtag #ForTheFallen, or posting online a photo wearing a uniform and medals with the hashtag #ShowYourMedals. Other activities include Anzac-themed cooking and online resources for sports fans, history aficionados, and children.

All this means that, in 2020, Anzac Day will be commemorated digitally. Digital commemoration encompasses all those rituals that bring people together online and help them grieve and remember collective traumas. It has been gaining traction in recent years facilitated by the development of social media platforms, hashtag communication, and an increasingly busy and atomised lifestyle. In the past decade, we have witnessed the proliferation of online rituals of commemoration, especially revolving around terrorist attacks. As sociologist Natalie Pitimson explains, digital commemoration provides quick and temporally confined ways to express grief.

As part of Anzac Day commemorations, an Australian Army slouch hat sits in front of a light armoured vehicle at RAAF Base Edinburgh (Defence Department)

Researchers have also pointed to the innovative and creative potentials of digital commemoration, suggesting that it inevitably affects how people experience and connect with history. Breaking away from heavily structured rituals, digital commemoration allows for a personalised experience whereby individuals can express themselves and connect with what matters to them.

Digital commemoration in Australia is not unprecedented. Online activities and commemorative participation have been fostered for years. Digital technology and archives have been used to reanimate the past with vivid colours, interactivity, and immediate emotional connection. A striking example of this is the project AnzacLive which used social media platforms to post diary entries from real historical figures with whom users could have a one-on-one conversation.

Until this year, digital commemoration complemented and integrated offline activities and rituals. However, with current circumstances making traditional celebrations impossible, Australians and residents are left to their own devices. While the AWM provides guidance, ultimately people will have to craft their own personal Anzac experience, which will be a test to the continued relevance and importance of Anzac Day in contemporary Australian society.

Anzac Day has historically been an important instrument of nation-building. It originated in the First World War from the private need to commemorate family members who did not return. It was a requiem in the hands of private citizens and churches that bonded people together in their suffering and need to grieve. Since the 1990s, politicians have become more involved, invested in funding Anzac Day and popularising the Anzac legend as a means to promote civic values and national unity. Anzac Day is a primary carrier of national values and is invoked to provide civic guidance. For example, inclusion of women, indigenous Australians, and migrant community members in Anzac Day services has been flagged to promote gender equality, reconciliation, and multiculturalism. References to the Anzacs have been used to justify the involvement of Australia in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to prise those who sacrifice themselves for the country including firefighters, police officers, and civil defence forces.

Anzac Day digital commemoration allows people to remain connected with the tradition and its civic bonding functions. For example, the social media posts that are currently available reflect social diversity as a way of emphasising inclusion and multiculturalism. These posts are mainly from official institutions, such as the AWM and Department of Veteran Affairs.

However, as posts from individual private citizens and residents start to populate the hashtags created, we will have a better sense of who feels represented and included in rituals of war commemoration, and ultimately in the nation.

Digital commemoration removes two crucial aspects that have made rituals of war commemoration pillars of nation-building: the experience of physical proximity between people who otherwise would unlikely come together, and a structured ritual that people can follow to reproduce the nation. Ultimately, digital commemoration is an individualised experience that can poorly substitute for the atmosphere of national unity intended by war commemoration.

Scotland: False note to cry freedom​​​​​​​

The Laird of Oldham/Flickr
The Laird of Oldham/Flickr
Published 22 Apr 2020 10:00   1 Comments

The Scottish National Party (SNP) was founded in 1934, and for most of the 20th century was a gathering of eccentrics, writers and Anglophobes (characteristics often combined in one member). Yet now, nearly a century on, it has a majority in the Scottish parliament and formed the government since 2007.

In 2019, and at the beginning of this year, the SNP believed it had the best chance ever to win a referendum on independence, reversing the 55:45 per cent vote against secession in 2014. The new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, could easily be caricatured as a posh, Eton-educated snob. In the vote on membership of the European Union, Scotland had voted heavily to remain: England and Wales, narrowly, to leave – a choice forced on Scotland because of England’s much larger population. Boris and Brexit: two recruiting sergeants for independence.

If that is correct, and independence succeeds, it will destroy the British state. More, it would put new life into other secessionists movements – in Spain’s Catalonia, France’s Corsica, Italy’s Veneto, and Belgium’s Flanders.

The UK has preserved its relative prominence in world affairs, in part through a demonstration that it can successfully integrate disparate nations in one state: a claim Scots secession and Irish unity would explode.

Once democratic politics replaces pandemic authoritarianism, the SNP will, like other parties, return to the business of quotidian governance. It has striven to run the devolved government efficiently, but has, in education and in parts of health provision, failed. Governance has often been swamped by the pursuit of its prime goal – independence or, as its more robust spirits would shout in imitation of Mel Gibson (as William Wallace) in Braveheart – “Freedom!”

And like other parties everywhere, the SNP will face a new world as, together with the UK government, it takes Scotland out of lockdown to an existence where fear will still be high, money will be very short, and the Kingdom will still be United, and run from Westminster.

Secession would reduce the UK to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the UK would cease to exist: it is properly called “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” – and Great Britain was formed in 1707, with the political union of England and Wales with Scotland – the latter losing its parliament, and gaining a voice, often powerful, in London. With Scotland gone, Britain could be Great no more.

Wales (population 3.2 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million) lack the industrial or services infrastructure to survive independently without massive cuts in their living standards. But Northern Ireland is an unstable element – as much as is Scotland, though for different reasons. In the 2019 UK general election, the nationalist parties – Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the more moderate nationalist party, won more seats in the province than the main unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Though the combined Unionist vote was higher than the nationalist one, the relative decline of the DUP shocked the unionist community, and  re-animated a partially dormant hope among nationalists that, in a future not too distant, the two parts of Ireland could be united. It’s a hope abetted by the strong showing of Sinn Fein (which runs for election in both parts of Ireland) in the 2020 Irish general election, when it took a popular vote of 24.5%, more than either of the traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. They have now agreed on a coalition, in part to keep Sinn Fein out.

The SNP’s existence as a nationalist party is to achieve Freedom! through secession: Sinn Fein’s is Freedom! through unification. If both achieve the Freedom! they crave, the Great and the United would have to be binned, and England and Wales left alone.

A 2014 demonstation in support of Catalaonian and Scottish independence (byronv2/Flickr)

Heady times for nationalists. Real life is rarely so exalted – and these horizons may not be reached, or not soon. The SNP is likely, come the post Covid-19 era, to be consumed with a civil war between the followers of former leader Alex Salmond and those of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond, who walked free from an Edinburgh court last month after being found not guilty of a dozen charges of more or less serious sexual assaults, reportedly believes Sturgeon had set him up. He has positioned himself as one determined to achieve independence now, whatever it takes: several generations of Brave-Hearted party members – young middle-aged and old – see him as their leader once more, set to make a dream the reality.

Yet were Scotland to be  independent after the pandemic eases, it would plunge into a cold world order - with an untested currency, a loss of the largest market in the rest of the UK, and an end to the annual subsidies from the Treasury – a bad choice, even nationalist-inclined Scots might think.

In Northern Ireland, the resistance of the Unionists to Irish unity, less adamantine than before, is still strong enough to create a barrier. In the south, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael will wish to take on the burden of a rebellious province with an expensive health service, much more all-embracing, and thus expensive, than its own.

But in both nations, the nationalist imperative runs strongly, and the old parties – especially, in the UK, the Labour Party – have been given clear signs that they are increasingly judged irrelevant. The UK has preserved its relative prominence in world affairs, in part through a demonstration that it can successfully integrate disparate nations in one state: a claim Scots secession and Irish unity would explode.

The West is in relative decline, but the UK would be in still faster decline, and would struggle to keep its place on the UN Security Council, and as head of the Commonwealth. It would no longer, as the comforting default phrase has it, punch above its weight. It would be reduced: having become disunited, it would be doomed to find a new role. And a new flag: the Jack could no longer fly for a Union.

John Lloyd’s new book is Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence (Polity)

The complex consequences of a plunging oil price

Sven Hoppe via Getty Images
Sven Hoppe via Getty Images
Published 21 Apr 2020 12:30   0 Comments

Oil made headlines around the world again today, with US oil prices falling below zero for the first time. So what does it mean?

Three perspectives can help to make sense of the headlines.

First, from an economic perspective it’s quite simple – the supply of oil has outstripped demand and prices have fallen accordingly. As Covid-19 has brought the global economy to a standstill, with planes sitting on runways and cars idle in the garage, demand for oil has plunged.

But it is not easy for oil producers to turn off the tap, so they need somewhere to store it until they can find a buyer. The problem is there is very little storage left so producers are literally paying buyers to take it off their hands, hence the negative prices we witnessed today in the US. But don’t expect to be paid instead the next time you fill up your car at the petrol station – as explained here.

Sustained low oil prices threatens to send some US shale producers to the wall, which could hamper the US oil sector and limit the geopolitical leverage of the United States.

However, if we view oil from a security lens, the picture looks quite different. For many nations energy security has been defined in terms of access to reliable and affordable oil and gas. So low prices are generally good for big consumers, such as China, and bad for big producers such as Saudi Arabia, or more lately the United States.

Security scholars have argued that the US shale revolution – the technology breakthroughs that have allowed producers to access the vast onshore oil and gas reserves and turn the US into the largest producer in the world – will boost American power and transform energy politics in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to America’s advantage.

However, sustained low oil prices threatens to send some US shale producers to the wall, which could hamper the US oil sector and limit the geopolitical leverage of the US in these regions – although Donald Trump is doing a pretty good job of that himself.


Finally, rather than focussing on markets as economists do, or energy security as security scholars do, we can also ask an entirely different question: who is governing global oil markets? This is an important one because it draws our attention to the various international organisations and multinational oil companies that also govern oil at the global level.

For example,  two weeks ago we saw the G20 – the informal forum of world leaders of which Australia is a member, and which coincidentally is hosted by Saudi Arabia this year – establish a short-term “Focus Group” on the issue, calling upon international energy organisations, such as the International Energy Agency, to help stabilise global oil markets.

Which organisations dominate this process, and how effective they prove to be, for example, in brokering agreements between producers and consumers could play a big role in determining the oil outlook over the coming months.

Predicting future oil prices is a mug’s game but one thing is for sure – the consequences of what is taking place are never as simple as one perspective would have you believe.

New crackdown will deepen dividing lines in Hong Kong

A protester waves a
A protester waves a "Liberate Hong Kong" flag during demonstrations in December (Willie Siau via Getty Images)
Published 21 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Whoever first said that “you should never waste a good crisis”, the Chinese government appears to be listening. At least when it comes to Hong Kong. With the city and the world’s attention on Covid-19, Hong Kong police swooped at the weekend to arrest 15 veteran activists on allegations of illegal assembly, among them 81-year-old “grandfather of democracy” Martin Lee.

The arrests earned condemnations from senior US, UK, Australian and European Union officials. But, more importantly, the raids came after a week in which the Chinese government’s revamped office in Hong Kong, given new hard-line leadership by President Xi Jinping, started to show its muscle. It called for a long-delayed national security law to be implemented urgently, and brazenly asserted its right to supervise Hong Kong affairs, unilaterally re-interpreting the city’s mini-constitution. The brief, coronavirus-assisted lull that followed the rolling mass protests and clashes with police last year is clearly over.

It was inevitable that Beijing would look to teach the city a lesson after the humiliations of 2019 – a year when democracy activists pushed back against the authorities with unprecedented unity, tenacity and violence on the streets, while also trouncing pro-Beijing parties in local council elections. Luo Huining, the disciplinarian new head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, appears to have taken to his job with relish.

The recent arrests could foreshadow a broader crackdown on the democracy movement, to prevent it from repeating its ballot-box success in this year’s elections for the Legislative Council. But, however many democratic candidates Beijing disqualifies, the renewed crackdown is likely to deepen existing dividing lines in Hong Kong, rather than prompt any breakthroughs.

Pro-democracy activist Martin Lee talks to the media at the weekend after being arrested and accused of organising and taking part in an unlawful assembly in August (Issac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images) 

Hong Kong has been descending into a spiral of political conflict for a decade, with a rapid acceleration over the last few years. Beijing has always seen the One Country, Two Systems arrangement as a messy compromise to smooth the handover from British rule in 1997 rather than a long-term basis for political freedoms and autonomy for Hong Kong. In the last 10 years, and especially since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, it has intensified efforts to assert control over Hong Kong’s politics, economy and society.

But Beijing’s repression has prompted regular backlashes, from the 2014 Occupy movement to last year’s protests against the extradition bill. The more it squeezes, the more it forces the democratic opposition to solidify and, ultimately, push back. As the famous slogan from last year’s invasion of the Legislative Council stated: “It was you who taught us that peaceful protest doesn’t work.”

By pushing so hard, the authorities risk intensifying the very nemesis of political violence that they claim to be opposing.

The Hong Kong government, which now speaks almost as one with Beijing, has begun to accuse protesters of committing “terrorism”. Some front-liners did use violence to fight the police last year. But, while there was unease about this in the democracy camp, there was a widespread sense that the police had triggered the backlash through their own excessive use of force.

A failure to prosecute any police officers for these abuses has deepened the feeling of injustice, and the lack of trust in the authorities. Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 protesters have been arrested since last year and more than 1,000 charged, a generation of political prisoners-in-waiting for Hong Kong’s jails. By pushing so hard, the authorities risk intensifying the very nemesis of political violence that they claim to be opposing.

Ultimately, Beijing will not be deterred by criticism from foreign governments, who it has accused of “condoning evil”. But neither will it be deterred by the fact that its actions are likely to make the problem worse in the foreseeable future.

Both the Chinese Communist Party and the Hong Kong democracy movement are settling in for a long and painful struggle. Beijing seems to genuinely believe it can prevail eventually by arresting trouble-makers, closing down the space for opposition, neutralising hostile foreign forces, co-opting the business community, and indoctrinating a new generation to be loyal to the motherland.

For their part, democracy activists well understand that the current leadership in Beijing will never respect their rights, autonomy, and identity. They are, in truth, fighting a rear-guard action to disrupt the authorities while hoping to keep the flame of resistance alight until something dramatic changes in Beijing.

In the US, a campaign with no trail

The Wisconsin primary, 7 April (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
The Wisconsin primary, 7 April (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Published 16 Apr 2020 07:00   0 Comments

In the midst of a public health pandemic, the 2020 presidential election has receded into the background of American political life. Candidates have been forced off the campaign trail. There are no rallies for the press to cover and fundraising efforts are stalled. Most states with near-term primaries postponed voting. And the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is not in a position to directly contribute to the pandemic response.

Biden’s initial efforts to break through the news cycle have been mixed. The former Vice President is not known as a crisis guru. But he’s well briefed, and has close relationships with many of the Obama administration officials involved in responding to other public health crises such as Ebola and H1N1. Biden recently published a detailed op-ed in the New York Times that outlined what he believed to be the next steps in responding to the crisis.

When Senator Bernie Sanders announced the suspension of his campaign last week Biden responded graciously via video. Biden also called President Donald Trump to discuss the pandemic, and both camps confirmed that the two men had a friendly chat. This move brought Biden into the news cycle and likely benefited him because his bipartisan approach to governing is well established.

Campaigning under quarantine (Photo via YouTube)

But it’s possible that Biden doesn’t need to do much of anything because the 2020 election will be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the crisis, and thus far, Trump’s weaknesses have been amplified by the performance of state-based politicians.  

A saving grace in this crisis has been that politicians far more competent and empathetic than Trump are making and explaining decisions around the coronavirus response.

A month ago, Trump stopped downplaying the pandemic and became the chief communicator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which holds daily briefings covered by all the major news networks. Trump is still prone to spreading misinformation and picking fights with reporters, but the briefings also feature public health experts who provide Americans with fact-based information, advice, and reassurance. 

The President received a bump in his approval numbers in mid-March when he first took on a commanding role at the briefings. However, the rise in his approval numbers was lower than that of previous presidents managing a crisis, and not as significant as the boost seen among other democratic leaders and state governors. 

More recent polls found that roughly 65% of Americans believe the federal government has done a bad job of preventing the spread of the virus. At least seven in 10 Americans believe the federal government should be doing more to address medical supply shortages. At the same time Americans are expressing widespread support for their state governors throughout the country (72% average).

Daily briefings on the coronavirus response (White House/Flickr)

In a crisis situation the White House has the capacity to play a critical role in clearing up bottlenecks within the system and acting decisively to ensure those affected get what they need as quickly as possible. The president also traditionally plays the role of comforter, consoler, and teacher.

A saving grace in this crisis has been that politicians far more competent and empathetic than Trump are making and explaining decisions around the coronavirus response. This dynamic is partly a function of federalism in the US, but it is also a reflection of Trump’s mercurial nature and disinterest in the grind of governing.

When Trump finally acknowledged the severity of the public health pandemic, he was resistant to fully employing his power to coordinate the production and distribution of medical supplies. He has acted inconsistently toward the states, at times pledging his support to governors and then telling them they’re on their own and second-guessing their resource requirements.  Further, Trump frequently overstates the number of coronavirus tests available.

The most striking contrast with Trump is fellow New Yorker, Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press conferences serve as a masterclass on how to lead people through a tough time. Cuomo is a seasoned Democratic politician and technocrat who speaks with specific resource numbers at his fingertips. He mixes inspirational quotes and stories into his press conferences, and explains his decisions in terms of a moral centre (i.e., we will not trade one life for the economy) that resonates with people.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a seasoned Democratic politician and technocrat (New York National Guard/Flickr)

The contrast between Trump and other elected officials also extends to Republican governors. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland moved aggressively on closures in their states while Trump equivocated. They have been careful to avoid direct confrontations with the President but are critical of federal inaction.

In past emergency management crises, the strength of the relationship between the White House and the governor(s) has been critical to recovery efforts. As the number of projected deaths in the US has been revised downwards, and hardest hit New York State appears to have reached its apex, the President is agitating to reopen the economy and claims that he’s operating under terrible strain the make the right decision.

But this is made for television drama. The Trump administration established voluntary social distancing guidelines, but Governors (and in some cases Mayors) issued the shelter in place orders and they will decide when to lift them. The President could be influential in how the reopening occurs but that would require him to be decisive and to partner with the governors.

If the past few months serve as a guide, the reopening of the economy will be the result of a series of difficult decisions made on a state by state basis by people other than Trump.

Covid-19 ceasefire unlikely to hasten peace in Thailand’s south

Police enforcing a nationwide night curfew in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus (Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images)
Police enforcing a nationwide night curfew in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus (Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 14 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

The main insurgent group in Thailand’s south is stopping attacks to allow a stronger response to Covid-19 in the area. But it’s unlikely to bring political settlement closer unless security forces reciprocate — something they have been loath to do in the past.

On 3 April, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (Malay for the National Revolutionary Front) – better known by its acronym “BRN” ­– declared it would “cease all activities” on humanitarian grounds to help the inhabitants in this ethnic-Malay dominated region deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. The cessation of activities will last for as long as Thai security forces do not attack the BRN. Perhaps significantly, BRN made the declaration the day that UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for warring parties worldwide to “silence their guns” to help health authorities respond to Covid-19 — it may be seeking UN attention and possible buy-in.

The declaration comes after secret discussions in Indonesia and Germany between BRN and Thai agencies, and after BRN’s military wing and Thai officials announced in January that they had started direct talks with Malaysian facilitation. And it follows BRN’s call on 27 March for residents in the ethnic Malay dominated region to cooperate with health officials, clerics, and local communities to stem the epidemic.

BRN, like many Malays in the south, remains deeply suspicious of Thai security forces and the Thai state more generally.

Although there were some promising signs at the January meeting — for example, the Thais allowed international observers, a longstanding BRN demand, for the first time — the two sides remain far apart. BRN, like many Malays in the south, remains deeply suspicious of Thai security forces and the Thai state more generally.

In its 3 April announcement, BRN was careful to avoid using the terms “ceasefire” or “cessation of hostilities”. In their press release following the January talks with Thai authorities, BRN used the terms “Patani,” (referring to the territory of the former Sultanate of Patani, which lost its independence when the Thais annexed it in 1902), “armed conflict” and “political resolution.” Bangkok, which wants to avoid losing what it has come to regard as its inalienable territory, uses terms such as “the southern border provinces” rather than “Patani”, and “peaceful solutions” instead of “political resolution”.

Although Thai security forces have not conducted any operations against insurgents since the BRN declaration, this can’t be ruled out. Following BRN’s declaration, military spokesman Colonel Pramote Prom-in said security forces would “keep internal peace duly under the authority of laws and enforce laws on those who perpetrate against both officials and innocents”. His statement didn’t rule out operations that could entail capturing or killing insurgents.

It’s too soon to say whether this pause is a de facto cease fire. The tempo of violence in the southern border provinces has been falling over the past seven years (as is clear from the Deep South Watch graph here). And in recent months, Thai military and paramilitary forces have launched operations against insurgents infrequently. Thai security forces broke a previous ceasefire in 2013, when BRN and the Thai government agreed to reduce violence for the 40 days from 10 July–18 August, covering the Muslim fasting month Ramadan.

That ceasefire started promisingly. But an separatist sympathiser said that insurgent attacks arced up again after Thai security forces raided suspected separatist hide-outs, shot a suspected militant and killed a Muslim religious teacher.

Coronavirus will not dominate elections in South Korea this week

Early voting at a polling station in Seoul on 10 April ahead of next week's parliamentary elections (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)
Early voting at a polling station in Seoul on 10 April ahead of next week's parliamentary elections (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 13 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

On Wednesday 15 April, South Korea will hold legislative elections. South Korea’s parliament, the National Assembly, is elected every four* years. Composed of 300 members, it has 253 single-member district seats and 47 proportional representation seats.

The Landscape

The left currently holds a slim majority, but the distribution of power is fluid. South Korea’s political party landscape is fragmented. Fifty-one parties are running for office in this election. Most of them are minor, of course, but the proportional representation seats are a constant temptation for the formation of off-shoot and splinter parties. There are enough proportional representation seats to inhibit the “natural” outcome of Duverger’s Law: South Korea has a rough two-party system, but it has never durably congealed. Small parties continue to crop up and get elected.

Further, those parties in the legislature do not cooperate especially well. South Korea’s leftist president, Moon Jae-in, has not been able to rely on a firm center-left coalition. As in typical in presidential systems, where the legislature is elected independently of the executive, legislators are loath to simply line up behind the executive as in a parliamentary system. The South Korean left is traditionally fractious.

Moon Jae-in’s party is riding high in responding to coronavirus but that tells little of policy plans for the coming term (KoreaNet/Flickr) 

A splintering of the South Korean right has added yet more alignment problems. Normally more disciplined, the right-wing bloc shattered over the impeachment of South Korea’s previous president, Park Geun-Hye. Park, a conservative, remains a divisive topic. Dead-enders refuse to accept her removal as constitutionally proper – a common theme in far-right discourse here is that she was pushed out in a semi-coup. The main right-wing party has changed its name for the fourth time in 10 years in an effort to move on from Park.

The upshot is that both right and left are fractured. Each side has one large-ish party aspiring, and failing, to be a big-tent party – the Democratic Party on the left, and United Future Party on the right. Scattered around them are splinter parties who refuse to formally adjoin to the aspiring big tent leader. These dynamics do not appear to be changing in this election. Moon will likely not emerge with a clear, coherent bloc at his back, but will also likely not face a united opposition.

The “corona election”

The big issue of the election is obviously coronavirus, but not as much as you would think, thankfully. And here is a lesson for other democracies as they struggle to reconcile Covid-19 with elections: if you can get your outbreak under control – South Korea has been a world leader in this – it need not take over the entire political agenda, nor need it make the physical act of voting treacherous.

Here the world’s oldest democracy particularly has a lot to learn. This is a presidential election year in the US. There are both primary elections in the spring and a general election in the autumn months. There is a wide-ranging debate in the US now about how to conduct those elections. Should they be postposed? Is that even legal? Should citizens vote by mail to avoid standing in line and contaminating each other? Because the US has responded so poorly to the virus, Covid-19 is now overwhelming the voting process itself.

It is also clear in the US that coronavirus will be the dominant issue of the campaign. US President Donald Trump will be measured by how this unfolds, particularly by the state of economy in the latter months of the year, the duration of the lock-downs, and continuing fatalities. The sluggish US response elevated Covid-19, and the response to it, to the foremost political issue of the election.

South Korea – quite impressively, it must be said – forestalled both of these outcomes. There is nothing at all here like the debacle in the US state Wisconsin, where the US Supreme Court refused to permit overdue mail-in ballots, forcing voters to wait in line to vote and violate social distancing rules. And while it will obviously be the “corona election” in South Korea too, other issues have received attention, too. Normal concerns, such as the economy or North Korea, have not been completely driven from the media debate.

A “walk-through” screening center at Namyangju City Hall, Namyangju-si, Gyeonggi-do (Kim sun joo/KoreaNet/Flickr)

The outcome

The polls have given Moon’s Democrats a pretty solid lead. This is almost certainly because of the superb response to the virus. South Korea’s daily new case load is now below 50. One can already see widespread signs of de-constriction. My son’s kindergarten has re-opened. High schools are scheduled to re-open this week and universities by the end of the month. Compared to the rest of the world, especially the US, this is simply remarkable. Moon deserves enormous credit for this, and it will likely power a leftist victory.

There is a political or ideological problem here though. A vigorous response to coronavirus is not a policy proposal in the traditional sense, so the Democrats’ likely win will tell us little about what they will do. The answer is almost certainly a continuation of Moon’s previous policies – an expansion of the welfare state, more social spending, and most importantly, continued outreach to North Korea. But this is not really what the voters are voting for in affirming Moon’s excellent handling of the outbreak.

Another missing referendum on North Korea detente

North Korea policy strikes me as particularly troublesome in this regard. This will be second election involving Moon where North Korea is scarcely an issue, even though it has come to dominate Moon’s presidency. Moon has also balked at sending his various joint statements with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the National Assembly for any kind of vote. (Moon’s administration has argued that these are not treaties and therefore are exempt.)

My own hope had been that his election would be a referendum on North Korea détente. 2017 was not that, as Moon scarcely mentioned it, nor has the National Assembly been given a chance to vote on anything regarding the policy. And now coronavirus will again change the subject.

This is slippery. Moon won election in 2017 on the back of popular disgust with the right over the Park impeachment. Unsurprisingly, Moon campaigned back then on transparency, accountability, inequality, strengthening democracy, and so on. And while he has pursued a fairly standard social democratic economic line at home, he also initiated a wide-ranging détente with North Korea, far deeper than anything tried by his predecessors. Moon did not campaign on this, and this outreach has been, unsurprisingly, hugely controversial. Worse, Moon has not solicited South Korean right about this in any serious way, and the result has been sharp polarisation. Conspiracy theories are rampant on the right here that Moon is a Marxist in league with Kim Jong-un.

My own hope had been that his election would be a referendum on North Korea détente. 2017 was not that, as Moon scarcely mentioned it, nor has the National Assembly been given a chance to vote on anything regarding the policy. And now coronavirus will again change the subject.

There will still be no definitive vote on whether the country really wants this controversial course. This was entirely unpredictable of course. But it remains an obvious disjuncture that the most important and controversial Moon policy project has never been exposed to a proper vote.

* An earlier version mistakenly said five year terms, rather than four for the legislature.

US regional leadership: A shot across the bow

(Kusuma Pandu Wijaya/ASEAN Secretariat)
(Kusuma Pandu Wijaya/ASEAN Secretariat)
Published 7 Apr 2020 10:30   0 Comments

For years at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the pre-eminent meeting of defence ministers held in Singapore, successive secretaries of defence from the United States have repeated ad nauseam that Washington is a “resident power” in the region.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken the measure of United States leadership in the region ­– and found it to be wanting. Indeed, the “resident power” of the Asia-Pacific is nowhere to be seen.

Last week, the US announced that it would dole out $18 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance to Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states. This looks paltry, compared to the $274 million being dished out to 64 countries around the world.

In fact, it has been reported that the US State Department has instructed its diplomats to tap governments and businesses in Eastern Europe and Eurasia for aid in securing medical equipment and protective gear, to shore up deficiencies at home.

Washington has shunned a leadership role in fighting the coronavirus. Even coordination with America’s partners in Europe is lacking.

One can only rue how far Uncle Sam has fallen. In 2004, Washington rallied a coalition of states to provide aid to Indonesia, then stricken by the Boxing Day tsunami. During the 2014–15 Ebola crisis, Washington put together another coalition to counter the spread of the disease. As Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi note, Washington has shunned a leadership role in fighting the coronavirus. Even coordination with America’s partners in Europe is lacking, as Washington failed to notify European countries before a ban on travellers from the continent.

On the other hand, China – the other resident power in the Asia Pacific – has cranked up its aid and propaganda machine as it emerges from the darkest phase of its battle with the pandemic. China has announced aid assistance packages to 82 countries. This includes many countries in the region, such as Laos, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.

Indonesia has flown its military transport aircraft to Shanghai to collect a shipment of masks, protective equipment and thermometers. Philippines president Duterte summed it up aptly:

Xi Jinping, for all of his goodness to us, wrote me a letter and said that he is willing to help. All we have to do is to ask.

In ASEAN, where half the battle is won by showing up, China has not been tardy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with ASEAN foreign ministers in February to sketch out common responses to the coronavirus.

ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr

Note that as the US battles the virus at home, and manages the outbreak of the virus aboard the Nimitz-class Theodore Roosevelt – that paragon of US military power – it has been business-as-usual for China.

China landed a Y-8 military transport on Fiery Cross Reef on 28 March, and recently opened two research stations on Fiery Cross and Subi Reef. A Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea on 31 March. On 3 April, a Chinese vessel sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracels, detained its crew, and another two Vietnamese fishing boats that sought to come to the rescue of the first boat.

But China was already gaining ground on the United States before the pandemic began. In November, US-ASEAN relations hit a low, when US President Donald Trump failed to attend the East Asia Summit meetings in Bangkok. A damage-limitation move to hold a US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas also failed, purportedly due to the coronavirus.

In January, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Southeast Asian Survey of 1,308 respondents showed that China had already eclipsed the US as the most important strategic and political player in the region. This trend will only accelerate as economically distressed countries seek a jumpstart. China will waste no time selling its $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
A defence attache from an ASEAN country told me recently that he worried China might exploit its increased soft power in the aftermath of Covid-19, using it as a pretext to press the advantage in the region at the expense of the US.

Singapore is a case in point. The Republic balances between China and the US adroitly, with close ties to both powers. But if one tracks what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said in the past 10 months, alarm bells should be ringing in Washington.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2019, Lee called for an accommodation between China and the US to integrate China’s aspirations within the “current system of rules and norms”.

Speaking to CNN on 29 March, Lee called on the United States to marshal its vast resources, influence and soft power for the “greater good” of other countries. For decades, the world “greatly benefited” from American leadership in such situations, Lee added. But if “America is in a different mode, well, we will get by and I think other configurations will eventually work out but it would be a loss.”

Like Australia, Singapore is one of Washington’s most dependable strategic partners in Asia. If Lee’s comments are not a shot across America’s bow, I do not know what is.

Beyond Covid, Australia’s big stake in India’s military reorganisation

Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 1 Apr 2020 14:30   2 Comments

Covid-19 will no doubt have many long-term consequences for our region that we can now only begin to imagine. One consequence that is easy to imagine in the face of a distracted and internally focused United States will be Australia’s greater reliance on regional security partners, such as Japan and India. This includes an ever-greater stake in the effectiveness of the Indian military, and especially its Navy.

India has just started to reorganise its outdated and highly inefficient structures. There have been positive developments, but a lot of problems ahead. Rhetoric aside, Australia will need a sober understanding of India’s likely future abilities to act as a regional security provider across our shared oceanic space.

First the good news. Last December, after decades of inaction, the Modi government appointed General Bipin Rawat as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, theoretically bringing India’s three armed services under unified command for the first time. The CDS supposedly provides a single point of advisor to the government on military affairs. But Rawat will still only be regarded as the “first among equals” with the other service chiefs and the extent of his powers is not yet clear.

India has just started to reorganise its outdated and highly inefficient structures. There have been positive developments, but a lot of problems ahead.

The CDS replaces an organisational model for India’s armed forces that was put in place as a temporary measure by the British in 1947. Importantly, this appointment is just the first step in what may become the most significant military reorganisation ever undertaken by India.

From Independence, Nehru and the Congress Party kept the military divided, siloed and deeply subordinated to the civilian bureaucrats of the Defence Ministry. As a result, the military has often been only at the periphery of governmental decision-making about defence issues.

Tight civilian control of India’s military has ensured that it stayed well clear of politics. Unlike many post-colonial states, India has not suffered from coups or the hijacking of resources or foreign policy by the military.

Even today, the idea of a single chief of armed forces remains somewhat controversial. Fears of militarism and military coups likely still exist within the opposition Congress Party.

But the system also comes with significant costs to military effectiveness. Indian armed forces are highly disjointed with each of the services doing its own strategy, war planning and capability planning. The Army would, for example, have little if any input into the Navy’s strategy or doctrine and vice versa.

Operational command was also separated. The Army and Air Force each maintain their own Western, Central, and Eastern Commands, but they are all located in different places, making joint operations difficult.

INS Airavat (L24) during drills with the US Navy in the Bay of Bengal in November (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

One Rawat’s first acts on his appointment as CDS was to propose the reorganisation of the Indian armed forces into unified theatre commands, in addition to tri-service commands for Cyber, Space and Special Forces. This has the long-term potential to transform India’s armed forces into a modern joint military and considerably enhance its effectiveness.

Indeed, the Navy, the only service with a strong power projection mentality, has been among the strongest supporters of joint commands. The Navy currently runs India’s only theatre command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, seen by some as important to India’s ability to project power into the Pacific. The Indian Navy, which inherited the British Royal Navy’s global perspectives, sees its role as protecting India’s interests wherever they may be, primarily between Hormuz and Singapore, but also potentially much further afield.

But the Navy might find that the proposed reorganisation will actually be restrictive. Rawat has also proposed merging the Navy’s Eastern and Western Commands, headquartered on India’s east and west coasts, into a single new “Peninsular Command”. This smacks of continentalist thinking, positioning the Navy as principally a coastal defence force whose main job is to defend India’s maritime borders.

There are also real concerns about India’s defence (and, particularly, naval) spending. Growth in spending has largely stalled in the face of a weak economy, and we should assume that there will likely be major cuts in defence spending in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

That could hit India’s military modernisation plans hard. Its bloated ground force of 1.2 million regular troops and 960,000 reserves means that the Army swallows up most of the defence budget. There may be little left to spend on modernisation.

The Indian Navy has long been the “Cinderella Service” with the smallest budget. In recent years, its share of the defence budget has fallen further, from 18% in 2012–13 to 13% in 2019-20. To put this in context, Australia probably spends considerably more overall than India on maritime security (although Australia’s maritime spending is split between navy and air force).

Budget cuts have already hit the Indian Navy’s plans. Its total planned ships by 2027 have now been reduced from 200 to 175. Future acquisitions of P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft may be reduced. As foreshadowed by this author in 2018, General Rawat is also questioning whether the Navy should go ahead with its planned third aircraft carrier, suggesting instead that it make greater use of airfields on India’s island territories. The Navy argues that this would not be an acceptable substitute.

These developments contrast with China’s military modernisation program. This included the establishment of five fully integrated theatre commands in 2016, bringing together the army, air force, navy and rocket forces. China’s PLA troop numbers are also steadily being reduced, freeing up money for modernisation and naval spending.

Australia has a big stake in the ability of the Indian military, and particularly its Navy, to deliver effective outcomes right across our shared maritime domain. We need to ask some hard questions about India’s capabilities as a regional security provider in the Indian Ocean in coming decades.

This piece was produced as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.

A political impasse in Timor-Leste as coronavirus looms

A policeman in Dili asks motorists to carry only one person per bike to ensure social distancing amid Covid-19 concerns (Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman in Dili asks motorists to carry only one person per bike to ensure social distancing amid Covid-19 concerns (Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 31 Mar 2020 16:00   0 Comments

In late January, Timor-Leste’s governing alliance collapsed after the largest coalition party, Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, abstained on the government budget, leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak. By late February Gusmão revealed a new 34-seat majority coalition, which included six parliamentary parties: the exceptions being Ruak’s PLP, and the opposition Fretilin. Yet the PM’s resignation is not effective until accepted by the President, Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres ­– a senior figure from the Fretilin opposition. So despite the manoeuvring, Ruak remains in the top job, which likewise leaves his government in place for now as an interim administration.

One month later, the political situation remains at an impasse, and potentially far more complicated as the threat of coronavirus hits neighbouring countries such as Indonesia hard. So far, Timor-Leste’s relative isolation from international circulation has forestalled any outbreak, with just one confirmed case and 800 people in self-quarantine, with another 215 having completed their 14 days.

In political developments this month, the 34- seat alliance announced that Gusmão himself would be their Prime Minister designate. The President required all six parties to the alliance to fulfil legal requirements for party conventions endorsing the coalition. The other main development was a publicly announced “platform of understanding” between Fretlin and PLP, which together control 31 seats: two short of a majority. The announcement largely concerned parliamentary support for the interim administration, but could form the basis of an electoral partnership in future. In a sign of the times, the announcement took place in masks, with attendees socially distanced in another room connected by video link.

Timor-Leste confronts the pandemic as a developing society with an under-resourced health system.

Initially expected in March, Guterres’ response to the newly formed majority alliance is still awaited as circumstances shift. The President has publicly advised the CNRT to “think twice” before proposing the same rejected Ministers, and is clearly in no hurry to install the new alliance.

One alternative solution to break the impasse – an early election – now seems off the table in light of the pandemic. For its part, the new 34-seat majority has not taken the step of a no-confidence motion in parliament, a move which would definitely place the Prime Minister in caretaker mode, and in normal circumstances could lead to a new poll.

Yet these are no longer normal times. This unresolved debate, hotly contested by partisans in Timor-Leste’s political circles, may now be on temporary hold under the weight of necessity. With the threat from coronavirus growing, a government of national unity might be desirable right now, but such a prospect seems remote, with cross-party parliamentary support for the interim’s government emergency measures perhaps the more achievable goal.

Positively in this regard, a government request for urgent consideration of emergency budget measures received unanimous parliamentary support last week, boding well for the vote this week to authorise $250 million in general expenditures and $150 million for coronavirus preparations.   The latter measures will be used for medical equipment including respirators (assuming they can be sourced internationally), credit lines to smaller businesses, and direct financial support for citizens. Parliamentary support for these measures will be essential given the lack of a national budget, and the clearly restricted legitimacy of the interim government.

Despite the political impasse, preparations by the interim government and President have been systematic and reassuring. Following parliamentary approval the President issued a state of emergency decree lasting from 28 March to 26 April. The measures prohibit the entry of all foreigners unless specifically authorised, and require 14 days self-isolation for all arrivals. Schooling and higher education is suspended for the duration of the decree, and Timor-Leste’s bustling “microlet” public transport is suspended. Vendors and streets stalls can operate, provided social distancing and hand sanitation guidelines are followed. The decree also enables authorities to restrict freedom of movement and assembly inside the territory if deemed necessary, leading to supportive but cautious reminders from civil society of the need to respect human rights for the duration. An interministerial commission led by the PM has been formed.

Low tide at Adarai, Timor Leste (WorldFish/Flickr)

Timor-Leste confronts the pandemic as a developing society with an under-resourced health system. On the positive, Cuban medical teams, who have trained up hundreds of East Timorese doctors, remain in place, as do Chinese doctors, and some Australian volunteers. The Menzies School of Health Research from Darwin has greatly advanced Timor-Leste’s national pathology and lab facilities over the last year. The Australian government’s recent assistance with Covid-19 testing has been particularly welcome. The World Health Organization remains on the ground, although several aid agencies and contractors have withdrawn staff. Timor-Leste also receives fewer incoming visitors than most countries, facilitating the tracing and testing of recent arrivals and returnees.

Fear of an outbreak has many locals worried, and there are some examples of blaming foreigners for the virus. Political leaders have so far been effective in quelling panic, and will also be called upon to actively model social distancing. As for the public, local reports suggest they have taken to the new measures with gusto, in excess of new requirements, with many leaving Dili for the perceived safety of their home villages. Early signs that police had misinterpreted aspects of the decree by closing down certain shops will hopefully prove to be teething problems only.

In another positive political sign, there has been a notable decline in inflammatory rhetoric between the parties in the last week. But key questions remain. Despite the likely passage of emergency budget measures, the lack of a national budget raises concerns over the ability of the government to manoeuvre quickly. The reserve “duodecimal” budget system, which limits the state to one-twelfth of the 2019 budget each month, is relatively strict for 2020, and there are doubts that proposed amendments to make it more flexible will receive parliamentary endorsement. Likewise, having “interim” Ministers in key portfolios like Health and Finance is far from ideal.

The pandemic has already had a major impact on the current balance of Timor-Leste’s Petroleum fund, a percentage of which was altered a few years ago to a higher risk, higher return profile. The collapse in international stock and oil prices has already brought a US$1.8 billion reduction to the balance, with some projections suggesting it could go as high at US$2.5 billion. This volatility highlights the fragility of Timor-Leste’s sovereign wealth funds, adding to the sense of high stakes in ambitious plans for onshore oil and gas processing.

These wider questions, and the entrenched elite divisions, will continue in Timor-Leste, but may go on-hold for the near future as preparations for the coronavirus ramp up. As long-time observers know, once politically united, no one should underestimate the capacity of the East Timorese people to mobilise collectively in common purpose.


In the shadow of a pandemic, political calamity grips Afghanistan

Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the peace deal signed in Doha between the US and the Taliban, Laghman province, Afghanistan, 2 March (Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the peace deal signed in Doha between the US and the Taliban, Laghman province, Afghanistan, 2 March (Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 26 Mar 2020 11:00   0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has been dominating international news and monopolising the time of governments across the world as they scramble to respond and prepare. In the midst of this it was striking that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo found the time for a flying visit to Afghanistan this week in a bid to shore up a fragile peace deal and settle the political storm that is brewing in the country.

Pompeo met with the two men who claim to be Afghanistan’s rightful and constitutional President – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah – following a months-long dispute over last year’s Presidential election. “The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” Pompeo said in a scolding statement, warning their failure to strike a compromise “dishonours those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

Coronavirus looms as yet another challenge for an Afghanistan already victim to decades of war. While the pandemic has not had a debilitating impact on the country yet, the worrying developments in neighbouring Iran pose a potential danger.

Coronavirus looms as yet another challenge for an Afghanistan already victim to decades of war. While the pandemic has not had a debilitating impact on the country yet, the worrying developments in neighbouring Iran pose a potential danger, especially as Tehran continues to refuse treatment to Afghan refugees, compelling them to cross over into Afghanistan. With its medical infrastructure in shambles, Afghanistan is not at all equipped to handle a pandemic outbreak, which, at its peak, may affect 16 million people in the country.

Yet bitter politics stand in the way. Avoiding a second run-off only by a small margin, Ghani was declared the winner with 50.64% of the votes over Abdullah who captured 39.52% of the vote share. Alleging the ballot was rigged in favour of Ghani, Abdullah, as he did the last time, refused to accept the verdict. But unlike the previous time, he did not wait for American mediation. The Americans, he knew, were already busy elsewhere. So on 9 March, Abdullah installed himself as the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, just when Ghani was also being administered a constitutional oath and sworn in.

Domestically, confusion remains about who is in charge. Internationally, the reception of this political polycephaly has been divided, ranging from criticism and concern to withholding of funds. Among the major donor countries, only the EU and India, have so far made their stance clear by congratulating Ghani on his re-election. The US, on the other hand, appears to be hedging its bet on both “presidents”. Pompeo saw both men on his visit, separately and then together. Although the presence of US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony and the American opposition to the establishment of the parallel government can be understood as tangential support to Ghani, the US is yet to make its preference clear. In truth, the US cannot extricate itself from this political drama, nor can Afghanistan make do without its biggest donor.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Kabul, 29 February (NATO/Flickr)

In all this political pandemonium, the only side that appears to have gained anything is the Taliban. Having already managed to extract a deal from the US – which was previously reluctant even to acknowledge the role of Taliban as a stakeholder in the conflict – the group has managed to hoist itself as a legitimate player on Afghanistan’s political landscape. Although it also remains divided between those in favour of its negotiations with the Americans and those opposed to a conditional withdrawal, the Taliban has still shown its ability to operate under a united command.

The Taliban has also continued its offensive against “Kabul administration foes”, mounting attacks on security installations this month, while an insider attack in Zabul on 20 March, claimed to have been the Taliban’s doing, left 40 members of the Afghan forces dead.

While the strikes directed against the Kabul administration continue unabated, the Taliban has been holding parallel discussions over the release of prisoners with the Ghani government. It has demanded that unless 5000 members of the group are released from custody (“100 or 200 more or less does not matter,” a spokesman said), it will neither participate in the intra-Afghan peace process nor release the 1500 prisoners it has its captivity. Citing a combination of reasons including the pandemic scare and the clauses in the Doha agreement, the Taliban has forewarned both the US and the Ghani government to fulfil their primary obligation before the situation “prompts a major catastrophe”. The Taliban is watching the global disaster unfold and has called it a moment of “admonitory tribulation” and has vowed not to attack any healthcare workers.

For now, the Ghani government, in what looked like a quid pro quo, has extracted a token endorsement of its constitutional validity in return for discussing prisoner exchange with the Taliban on Skype. Yet the coronavirus threatens to make the technicalities of this prisoner exchange moot. All the players need to recognise the gravity of the situation at hand.

Coronavirus and the Hong Kong protest movement

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hong Kong residents protest setting up a quarantine area in their neighbourhood (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hong Kong residents protest setting up a quarantine area in their neighbourhood (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 23 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

For authorities in both Hong Kong and in Beijing, there must be, in some circles, something of a sense of relief. The pro-democracy protests that defined 2019 had become a deadly hydra that was exhausting the resources and credibility of both governments. The enforced shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic looks to have solved a pressing political problem, at least in the immediate term. But assuming it’s all over would be premature at best, and complacency may well come back to bite those leaders in the near future.

From conversations with a number of protesters in Hong Kong, via encrypted chat, it is clear that this is not over, at least for them.

Andy is a volunteer who helps coordinate communications for the Hong Kong protest movement. He says the “spare time” has given activists a chance to regroup and to prepare for another wave of street action.

He notes coronavirus-enforced hiatus has seen new trade unions sprouting up, for instance, and has allowed more background work and structural developments on the ground.

To some in Hong Kong, the “Wuhan approach” rolled out in authoritarian fashion by Beijing – epitomized by the attempts to reconfigure local clinics for coronavirus treatment – is both inappropriate and ineffective in more liberal Hong Kong.

“The effect on the movement itself [of Covid-19] is surprisingly low to me, perhaps because the ‘brain’ of the movement hasn't been on the ground for months already – people have already adapted to movement online.

“People who are planning things are still planning things online.”

Even so, Hong Kong’s coronavirus measures have drawn many onto the streets. Attempts to convert local clinics into specialized coronavirus treatment centres has been met with widespread anger. Protesters consider the move ill-conceived and claim it may be risking the health of adjacent neighbourhoods.

Local attempts to stop the developments have been met with the kind of heavy-handed police treatment that marked the 2019 demonstrations. For instance, the Hong Kong Free Press reported protesters seeking to stop a coronavirus centre at the Tai Po Jockey Club General Clinic on 8 March were pepper-sprayed and arrested by police.

Beijing’s refusal to close the border between mainland China and Hong Kong, even as the coronavirus uptake in China turned sharply upwards, has also caused concern among Hongkongers. As such, the initial reactions of the Chinese government and Hong Kong administrators to the outbreak have only served to harden the sense among many that Hong Kong’s leadership has adopted a “Hong Kong-will-do-whatever-China-wants” approach. Among the chants heard at the Tai Po protests was “Five demands not one less”, an echo of a prominent street-march slogan from 2019, and a sign that momentum behind those actions remains.

Andy told me that many activists like him were currently focusing on volunteer work in the interests of public health at the community level, where government authorities have less reach and, in some cases, less authority. This work includes sourcing face masks and other supplies and disseminating news on the virus, especially information that has been “suppressed by international organisations, China and Hong Kong Governments.”

The strong counterculture in Hong Kong, which existed previously has been emboldened by the coronavirus outbreak and government responses to it. Andy highlighted “efforts by civilians … along the same lines of ‘if government can't govern, then we (will) do it ourselves’”. To some in Hong Kong, the “Wuhan approach” rolled out in authoritarian fashion by Beijing – epitomized by the attempts to reconfigure local clinics for coronavirus treatment – is both inappropriate and ineffective in more liberal Hong Kong.

Cases of confirmed, locally contracted coronavirus have flattened in Hong Kong*, and it is worth considering whether this is actually due to the government’s actions or to the grassroots work done by activist groups and others.

Meanwhile, many of those involved in the 2019 (and 2014) protests are far from idle. 

Local police recently revealed evidence of numerous bomb factories that were found in residential areas, and graphically warned of the dangers of such practices. According to authorities, the extent of the activity is “almost unprecedented.” They say 17 people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in three bomb plots.

As was evident during the height of the 2019 protests, violence is not widely supported among the broad protest movement, and most are planning for more peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.

Moku (not her real name) is a 23-year-old student who escaped from the infamous Poly U siege in November 2019. Via an online discussion, she said there have been “important protests” recently at Prince Edward Station and in Yuen Long district, both important points on the map during the street protests last year.

Activists, she adds, still mark the 21st and 31st of each month by taking to the streets, albeit in much smaller numbers than last year, to commemorate events known as 721 and 831, turning points in the protests last July and August

Moku believes the protests will start again soon. “In the atmosphere now, I think everyone would believe that the protest will continue and boost back to the previous scale after the virus, especially in the summer, when most students will be free from school.”

For now, the dreaded coronavirus may be putting a stopper on actual street demonstration in Hong Kong. But no one should assume the protest movement has gone away.

*As of 22 March, the recent spike in cases appears to have been largely due to “imported cases”, which may be the result of people fleeing European Covid-19 hotspots.

Is Singapore feeling safe enough to go to the polls?

A couple walking past a temperature screening check at Changi International Airport in Singapore, 27 February 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
A couple walking past a temperature screening check at Changi International Airport in Singapore, 27 February 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 19 Mar 2020 15:30   0 Comments

As news of a global pandemic dominated headlines and pushed most other news off the agenda, another breaking news bomb was casually dropped in Singapore on 13 March: the release of new electoral boundaries for the upcoming election.

Based on past experience, the release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee’s (EBRC) report is taken as a clear indicator that an election is near. Under Singaporean law, it’s up to the prime minister to decide on the timing of an election, as long as it doesn’t go beyond a five-year term. Given Singapore’s extremely short election period – there are only nine days of campaigning – the issue of when an election might be called is a matter of widespread speculation and interest. Singapore must hold an election before 21 April 2021.

It’s no surprise that opposition parties would be so opposed to an election at this point in time. Apart from the public health issue, potential mitigation measures could make it even more of an uphill climb for these smaller, under-resourced parties.

Parliament has usually been dissolved within two months of the EBRC’s report, suggesting that Singaporeans could be heading to the polls within the first half of this year. But the country is still in the throes of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a rising number of cases as the virus runs rampant in multiple countries. At the time of writing, Singapore has confirmed 313 cases, although there have fortunately been no deaths so far.

In his comments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept his options open. “We have two choices. Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances – but we have no certainty of that,” he wrote in a Facebook post, continuing:

Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand… Which way to go, and the elections date, will depend on what will best see Singapore through this major crisis.

From a logistical and public safety point of view, holding an election in the middle of an outbreak – when people are meant to be practising social distancing and staying home – would be an absolute nightmare. Lee Hsien Loong’s own administration has brought in stepped up measures to combatting the virus, including the cancellation or deferring of cultural, sporting, and entertainment events involving 250 or more people. It’s also unclear how Singaporeans who have been served stay-home or quarantine orders would be able to vote – or even if people would be willing to head out to polling centres at all.

Given this backdrop, a regular election campaigning period, with all the obligatory walkabouts, house visits, and nightly rallies, seems not only unfeasible, but highly undesirable.

A “COVID-19 election”, though, could give the ruling party even more of a strategic advantage than usual. Singapore’s international reputation is currently riding extremely high, as the government’s response to the outbreak is praised far and wide, reinforcing the People’s Action Party’s narrative as being the most effective party with the best track record in Singapore.



This narrative is, in a way, an accurate one, given that the People’s Action Party is the only existing party with a track record of governing Singapore, having been voted into power in 1959, six years before the island actually became an independent country. If given a choice in this time of crisis and anxiety, it’s highly unlikely that Singaporeans will pick now, of all times, to rock the boat by voting in opposition parties.

With a year to go before the current term has to officially end, not everyone is convinced by Lee’s reasoning, particularly since the number of new cases detected in Singapore is going up again. On Wednesday evening, the government reported 47 new cases. Although most of the cases had been imported, the number was still a new single-day high for the country.

“The new coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary situation. I have not come across people wondering about the current administration’s mandate until Mr Lee raised the issue,” says political scientist Ian Chong. He adds:

There ought to be opportunities to learn about how to better handle the situation and even hold elections under pandemic situations during the months in between [now and April 2021]. I note that some cabinet-level officials too indicated that their focus is on managing the pandemic rather than campaigning.

Many of the country’s alternative parties have chimed in on the issue. The Workers’ Party – the only other party to currently have seats in Parliament – called on Lee Hsien Loong’s administration to “take caution and exercise judiciousness” in choosing when to call an election.

“We are exposing more than 2.6 million voters to the virus on Polling Day because voting is compulsory and everyone must go to the polling stations to cast their vote,” said Progress Singapore Party leader Tan Cheng Bock. “Is this a risk we want to take?”

“We hope that the PAP will not capitalise on the crisis by holding the GE at this time as it will take away valuable resources needed to combat the virus outbreak and jeopardise the public's health and well-being,” the Singapore Democratic Party said in a statement.

In response to questions, Ariffin Sha, assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party, pointed out that while challenges long faced by opposition parties — such as the constantly shifting electoral boundaries — are still present, the situation with coronavirus presents new difficulties.

Commuters wear face masks on the Mass Rapid Transit train in Singapore, 18 March 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, we will need to take precautions and adopt measures that are unprecedented. Therefore, we will need to adapt and conduct a campaign in responsible manner,” he says. “This may hinder opposition parties as there may be no opportunity for rallies and large-scale walkabouts as there will be lesser opportunities to reach out to Singaporeans.”

It’s no surprise that opposition parties would be so opposed to an election at this point in time. Apart from the public health issue, potential mitigation measures could make it even more of an uphill climb for these smaller, under-resourced parties.

Chong points to different levels of access to and coverage of political parties in the country: “Parties that wish to do walkabouts, mass rallies, or large events during a time when a contagious disease outbreak is ongoing are simply not being responsible. This means that a lot of the campaigning may have to take place online. How people can have equal access to the various political parties under such circumstances is less clear.”

Parties with more resources or enjoy more positive coverage by the mainstream press are likely to have a distinct advantage. Those that are not covered or receive negative coverage are likely to be at an even greater disadvantage.

The potential loss of rallies would be a serious blow to alternative parties in particular. While PAP rallies tend to be modestly attended, some opposition rallies draw huge crowds as people take advantage of a rare opportunity to gather and hear directly from the opposition. These mass events are also incredibly important for these parties to muster supporters, raise funds through the sale of merchandise, and generate emotional impact and momentum.

The signs – from the release of the electoral boundaries report, to the emergence of politicians eager to meet-and-greet constituents in hawker centres and housing estates – are all pointing to a looming election, but nothing is official so far. Lee Hsien Loong could simply still be testing the waters to get a sense of how an election would be received at this moment. While the victory of his party has never been much in doubt even without the coronavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen how far the party might be willing to go to secure the largest margin they can.

What a difference six weeks and a viral outbreak make for Donald Trump

From riding high, Donald Trump’s political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days (White House/Flickr)
From riding high, Donald Trump’s political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days (White House/Flickr)
Published 12 Mar 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Donald Trump doesn’t pretend to care about things he’s not interested in. 

When Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services brought him warnings about the spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 in China in early 2020, the President readily agreed to institute travel bans, and then proceeded to minimise the crisis, treating the pandemic as a foreign threat best addressed by closing borders.

Trump opined about the small number of the cases in the US without acknowledging how few people had been tested. He failed to react to rising levels of concern across the country as events were cancelled, hundreds of schools were closed, Washington State announced a state of emergency, and a large cluster of cases was discovered in a suburb just outside of New York City.

However, on Monday morning this week the US stock market dropped 7% within the first five minutes of trading, and those losses jolted Trump into showing an interest in governing through this crisis.

At this moment, Trump’s chances of being re-elected are seriously threatened by the prospect of a severe economic downturn and public perceptions that he has mismanaged this pandemic.

On Tuesday Trump went to Capitol Hill to discuss legislative approaches to protecting the American economy with Republican lawmakers. They discussed payroll tax relief, help for hourly wage workers, small business loans, and affordable testing and treatment options. Significant disagreements remain between Trump and the Congress, and between Republican and Democratic members of Congress, but a government-wide commitment to tackling the crisis was on display on Tuesday.

Monday’s stock market losses reflected a set of interrelated concerns about the Trump administration’s non-response to the crisis, the global economic impact of Covid-19, and Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the oil market. But talk of legislative action appeared to temporarily restore confidence in the market. Wall Street recovered half of its losses from Monday on Tuesday.

On the day before the markets reflected panic about the economic threat posed by coronavirus, New York Times political reporter Peter Baker asked Trump whether he regretted eliminating the global health unit of the National Security Council (NSC) – set up by the Obama administration to deal with novel infectious disease crises like COVID-19. Trump reflected:

I just think this is something Peter that you can never really think is going to happen. I’ve heard all about this could be a big deal, you know, before it happened … But who would have thought, how long ago was it – six, seven, eight weeks ago – who would have thought we’d even be having this subject? We were going to hit 30,000 in the Dow like it was clockwork, right?

Members of the disbanded NSC global health unit rightly take issue with Trump’s characterisation of Covid-19 as an event that could not be anticipated. The likelihood that future administrations would confront a novel infectious disease crisis led the Obama administration to not only create the global health unit but to include a pandemic exercise in the official presidential transition process.

But Trump’s comments to Peter Baker also reflected the extent to which his political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days. Just six weeks ago, it appeared that Trump’s unorthodox approach to the presidency had won over the domestic and international audiences he cared about. 

On the international front, Trump received a warm welcome at the World Economic Forum in January. The relative strength of the US economy appeared to minimise concerns within the international business community about Trump’s protectionist trade policies and challenges to democratic norms. Fareed Zakaria, the academic/journalist, who is a regular at the World Economic Forum, noted that the mood in Davos this year was that Trump would get re-elected, and that “the issue of the American economy outperforming everyone else has overridden concerns that American democracy may be underperforming in some sense”.

On the domestic front six weeks ago, Trump had beaten back efforts to impeach him. And without encountering much resistance from his party, was freely taking revenge on those who had opposed him over the course of the Ukraine and the Mueller investigations. Perhaps most importantly, it was seemed likely six weeks ago that enough voters were willing to give Trump a second term, given the performance of their retirement investments on the stock market.

Six weeks ago, the Democratic Party was attempting to pick up the pieces from the Iowa caucuses, and the Republican Party was energized by the prospect of running a general election campaign against a Democratic Socialist. 

Within the past two weeks, however, another politician, the moderate and well-liked former Vice President Joe Biden, experienced a meaningful reversal of fortunes. Biden emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and his message about being a safe harbour – decent, competent, and stable – in the midst of a storm contrasts sharply with perceptions of Trump.        

On Wednesday (US time), the World Health Organization declared that Covid-19 was a global pandemic, and Wall Street tumbled into a bear market, with the Dow closing at a loss of nearly 6%. At this moment, Trump’s chances of being re-elected are seriously threatened by the prospect of a severe economic downturn and public perceptions that he has mismanaged this pandemic.

Side effects: Covid-19 allows India a chance to lend Myanmar a hand

A guard at Indira Gandhi International Airport following the evacuation from Wuhan province in China (Amal KS/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
A guard at Indira Gandhi International Airport following the evacuation from Wuhan province in China (Amal KS/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
Published 5 Mar 2020 13:30   0 Comments

The Indian Air Force last week evacuated 112 people stranded in Wuhan, one of several operations by India to the the Chinese city at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. But while India is one of many countries to help its citizens in need, what was also striking about this particular mission was that 36 people in this group were foreign nationals, primarily from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Maldives.

The evacuation was somewhat overshadowed by the intense media coverage of US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to India, as well as attention on the outbreak of communal violence in the country. But while India’s evacuations of not just its own citizens but also those belonging to neighbouring countries was mainly a humanitarian mission, it did have significant political ramifications reflecting India’s regional diplomacy.

The evacuation was in keeping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first policy” – a point that was certainly not lost in local news media coverage in Myanmar. India appeared to be making sure to capitalise on the chance to strengthen friendships in the region. The evacuation was closely followed by a state visit by Myanmar’s President U Win Myint to New Delhi to deepen bilateral ties. The Indian Navy chief of staff also made a visit to Myanmar last week – not long after China’s President Xi Jinping also visited the country.

Such developments are important to note for at least two reasons.

The international airport in Mandalay, Myanmar (AFP/Getty Images)

First, the Indo-Chinese rivalry in Myanmar has increased as India has stepped up its “Act East” policy. Myanmar is of special importance to India not only because it acts as a bridge to the larger Southeast Asia region, but also because India competes directly with China in creating strategic ties. Beijing is seeking to establish a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor under its Belt and Road Initiative, while India is facilitating the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which would connect the port of Kolkata in India to Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

The second reason to pay attention here is that Myanmar is expanding its efforts to seek regional support in the face of pressure internationally over its treatment of the Rohingyas, and is increasingly looking to India for help. Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for perpetrating genocidal acts against the Rohingya, and slow progress on the safe return of thousands of Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh since 2017 have halted the flow of foreign aid into the country. In addition, the Trump administration placed immigration and travel bans on Myanmar in January, citing national security reasons. This has prompted Myanmar to seek regional support.

Myanmar will not break off its relations with China … nevertheless, with the coronavirus outbreak, India is fast emerging as a counterweight for Myanmar’s strategic relations in the region.

While Myanmar had readily turned to China, marked by Xi’s visit to the country in January, the first by a Chinese President in 19 years, the outbreak of coronavirus has badly weakened Myanmar’s trade with China. Moreover, the spread of coronavirus is being seen as a major health threat to Myanmar. The two countries share large border areas, and tourism brings many Chinese travellers.

In light of the health risk, Myanmar has suspended visas for Chinese travellers as well as asking tour companies to suspend services to Chinese travellers temporarily. A flight full of passengers from Guangzhou was returned on arrival over coronavirus fears. It was a big step for Myanmar, however, to impose such harsh restrictions against China, as it could impact Myanmar’s relations.

Under these circumstances, Naypyidaw is also turning to New Delhi. Indeed, the foundations of such a move were laid last year, when the two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in a bid to boost military cooperation. Importantly, during President U Win Myint’s visit last week, India and Myanmar signed ten memoranda of understanding focussing on development projects with India’s assistance, particularly in Rakhine state, which has witnessed notorious violence as the Rohingyas fled persecution.

Myanmar will not break off its relations with China, as evident by its provision of humanitarian assistance to Beijing to fight the coronavirus and other recent announcements such as a commitment to cooperate against the illegal wildlife trade. Nevertheless, with the coronavirus outbreak, India is fast emerging as a counterweight for Myanmar’s strategic relations in the region.

India has a chance to sustain this momentum in the deepening of India-Myanmar relations. But it can only do so by providing a serious alternative model of economic cooperation. In the current climate of the economic slowdown and domestic unrest in India, this might seem unlikely. Yet if Modi is serious about putting the neighbourhood first, now is the chance.