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Weekend catch-up: Abbott in Asia, Islamic votes in Indonesia, next-gen jihad and more

Weekend catch-up: Abbott in Asia, Islamic votes in Indonesia, next-gen jihad and more
Published 5 Apr 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

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

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to visit Japan, South Korea and China next week. Rory Medcalf laid out some of the challenges Mr Abbott will face:

Much has been made of Mr Abbott's fresh focus on Japan as a security partner, not quite an ally but seemingly not far from it. This at a time when Japan, under Shinzo Abe, is taking steps to 'normalise' its defence policies, including in allowing defence exports, expanding scope for military cooperation with others and slightly increasing defence spending.

Some commentators are warning that Prime Minister Abbott could let his judgment be swayed by sentiment rather than diplomatic reason. After all, he has called Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'. (Mind you, one of those commentators, Hugh White, has previously called Japan something not entirely dissimilar, Australia's 'most successful relationship' in Asia.)

Contrary to some perceptions, Australia has not taken sides on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands maritime dispute between China and Japan.

Australia is right not to recognise one country's territorial claims over another's. But Australia is also right to support the principle that differences should be settled by means other than force. That, in my view, was the underlying reason for the Abbott Government's decisions in late 2013 to state its opposition to coercive efforts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and, in particular, China's new air defence identification zone.

That said, there is no question China has been seriously unhappy with Australia's stance on these issues. So the forthcoming visit to Bejing is a vital opportunity to signal that Australia's foreign and security policies towards the Asian powers are based on principles, interests and mutual respect.

Robert Kelly provided us with three reasons why North Korea continues to provoke. Here's the first:

1. North Korean incidents are often tied to some event they dislike

Missile tests, nuclear tests, Yellow Sea incidents, arrests of tourists and so on often seem to occur as a response to a discrete event. Usually these are related to the Americans. So when President Obama met with President Park last week, missiles were tested. When George Bush placed North Korea on the 'axis of evil', the Northern nuclear program went into overdrive. When the South Korean navy outperformed its northern counterpart in a 2009 Yellow Sea clash, the North struck back the following year by sinking a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. When South Korea and the US conduct annual training exercises, the North almost always pulls some stunt in response to US 'imperialism', and so on.

This is a dangerous way to express geopolitical displeasure, but North Korea is so badly isolated that mini-aggressions like these may serve a curious purpose. North Korea lacks a serious diplomatic corps. It lacks formal diplomatic recognition with many important states, particularly South Korea, the US, and Japan, its major proximate adversaries.

This may then be a way for the North to 'talk' with the outside world. And while this seems quite risky, in the context of the world's most militarised state governed by a cornered, paranoid elite (see the next point), there is a (disturbing) logic to it.

On the Pacific, Bal Karma looked at a milestone in the anti-corruption cause in PNG: the sentencing of a former minister and current parliamentarian to nine years in prison: [fold]

It was the most severe penalty any PNG court has ever given to a convicted corrupt public official since PNG's independence. In his judgment, Deputy Chief Justice Salika was adamant that 'misappropriation of public funds by public officials in positions of trust is a serious crime.'

Tiensten was first elected to parliament in 2002 and up until last week, he had been in political office for over a decade. Tiensten was regarded as one of the most senior ministers in Sir Michael Somare's National Alliance government, successively holding ministries of Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, and National Planning. Tiensten was a member of Somare's infamous 'kitchen cabinet.' 

No stranger to controversy, Tiensten, while serving as the foreign minister, was implicated in the Taiwanese diplomatic scandal, a charge he strongly denied. Tiensten initially fled to Australia to avoid investigation of the current case, accusing Task Force Sweep (TFS) of a political 'witch-hunt.' TFS is a multi-agency anti-corruption task force set up by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

And here's Tess Newton Cain on the recent flurry of electoral activity in Fiji. Tess' conclusion:

Needless to say, all of this activity has generated a great deal of comment both within Fiji and elsewhere. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop welcomed Friday's announcements. She also referenced the significance of two Australian officials operating at very senior levels within the Electoral Commission  as deputy supervisor and director of operations.

The governments of Australia and New Zealand also subsequently lifted their remaining travel bans. This is a continuation of the assertive approach Bishop has followed since taking up her position. While some have warmly welcomed the move, it is not without risk. If the elections do not go ahead or if there are blatant abuses of process, including denial of constitutional and other human rights, Australia may be exposed. Of course, having put the arrow of travel bans back into the sling, it will be available for re-use.

It is useful to take a wider perspective on what is happening in Fiji. It is not the first country to transition from military rule to democratic government. What history tells us is that democracy is a process, not a product. The September elections are part of this transition process but they are only the beginning.

Paul Buchanan has looked at how this process has played out elsewhere. It commences with an election in which a former military leader achieves formal legitimacy by winning a contest which he had very little chance of losing. It is only at the next election, or possibly the one after that, when democracy has become more meaningfully (re)-established and there is a real possibility of power changing hands, that individual and institutional commitments are truly tested.

Peter Layton argued this week that Australia's strategy toward the disputes in the East and South China Seas is clearly not working:

Australia's current strategy includes encouraging the America to pivotbefriend the Japanese, do some hedging anddecry Chinese assertiveness. Our underlying logic, and that of others, seems to be that by reinforcing the balance of power and so demonstrating resolve, China will realise it cannot achieve its objectives by force and thus be deterred. This is all good realist stuff, but it plays to China's strengths: global economic power and, nearer the Chinese mainland, military might.

The problem is that the Chinese are clearly not deterred. The clever use of Coastguard ships has kept the perceived level of violence down. The Chinese have generally kept the disputes bilateral, thus maximising their power against each interlocutor. Moreover, the Chinese Government often simultaneously offers economic carrots, such as free trade agreements, which deters firm responses to Chinese territorial moves.

And really, are these barren islands and coral atolls worth imperiling regional peace and global stability over? The US and its allies do have some war-fighting concepts to use in extremis, but these involve inflicting so much economic and financial pain on ourselves that the plans are effectively self-deterring.

Stephen Grenville with a report card on Abenomics:

Today the Japanese value-added tax (VAT: what Australians call the GST) rises from 5% to 8%. This seemingly mundane event is a key part of the 'Abenomics' program, the effort to shake Japan out of its decades-long economic lethargy. So how does Abenomics look after 15 months?

Exhibit 1 is the sharp rise in GDP growth. Comparing the fourth quarter of 2013 with a year before, GDP is 2.6% higher, a break-neck pace by recent Japanese standards. But was this a temporary boost reflecting a belated recovery from the 9% fall in GDP in the 2008 crisis and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or is it a trend-breaking reflection of a new growth-enhancing policy regime? 

 On Southeast Asia, our most popular post for the week asked why Islamic political parties don't do well in Indonesian elections:

Almost 90% of Indonesians identify as Muslim, with millions not only practicing Islam in their personal lives but joining Muslim mass organisations as well. 'Aspirational pietism' is a growth industry in Indonesia, producing a boom in Muslim fashion, banking and media.

But when it comes to voting, the support for Islam-based parties is surprisingly low.

Candidates from parties that are Islamist in policy or identity do not feature among the frontrunners for president, with Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo from the secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) well in front in most polls, followed by candidates from secular parties such as Gerindra, Golkar and the Democratic Party. However, the absence of Islam-based parties among the top contenders does not mean Islam is absent entirely from Indonesian politics.

In his first week as an official presidential candidate, Jokowi paid his respects to Indonesia's two biggest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. NU, with an estimated membership of around 40 million, is a traditionalist group known to incorporate syncretic Javanese beliefs of the type Jokowi is rumoured to hold. Muhammadiyah, which claims around 30 million members, is a modernist group that discourages syncretism and promotes a more conservative interpretation of Islamic texts.

 On Myanmar, Trevor Wilson looked at the legacy of President Thein Sein:

Thein Sein's performance as president has probably exceeded most expectations.

Thein Sein's inaugural speech on 30 March 2011 was important in setting the aspirational direction for the country, which Myanmar's people and the international community both wanted. From economic policy to political reforms, it set a reformist tone and high goals, transcending short-term political objectives.

Subsequently, Thein Sein has shown firm leadership, and has generally proved a credible and popular leader. He has been decisive at times, and responded to domestic opinion in a manner not previously seen in Myanmar. And he has publicly advocated a strategic national agenda.

Thein Sein was in many respects working from a blank canvas, but has engaged constructively in a contest for authority with the new parliament, including in introducing mechanisms to improve checks and balances in Myanmar's fledgling democracy. He was able to set up effective working relationships with parliamentary members of the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party, which he previously headed, as well as with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Heading west, we also had a few excellent posts on the Middle East this week. Here's Rodger Shanahan on the Pakistanis serving in some of the Persian Gulf militaries:

When I worked as a Defence Attaché in the Gulf, my local military driver was often not who I thought he was. Resplendent in his dishdasha and with excellent Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he was a Pakistani Baluch. When I asked my interlocutors how many Pakistanis there were in Gulf military forces, the stock answer was always that, while this was common in the past, nowadays nearly all personnel were citizens.

Pakistanis have indeed played important roles in Arab states in the past: a former Pakistani president, Zia ul Haq, commanded a Jordanian formation during the fight against Palestinian groups in 1970 that came to be known as Black September; and thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to Saudi Arabia following both the Iranian revolution and the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Far from being a thing of the past, it would appear that Pakistani links to Gulf security forces remain strong. Reports last week indicated that Bahrain employs 10,000 Pakistanis in its security forces, including 20% of its air force. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif denied Pakistan was providing troops, but the article said Pakistan provided security personnel to help quell the 2011 sectarian protests. Not officially, mind you, because they had been recruited through two of Pakistan's military welfare organisations.

Lisa Main looked at Egyptian presidential hopeful (and coup leader) Abdel Fattah al Sisi:

Since that dramatic moment last July, Sisi has been the central figure of Egypt's military-backed interim government. His persona among the masses has reached fever pitch. In that time, at least 2500 Egyptians have been killed in demonstrations and at least 19,000 have been arrested for affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood or for participating in pro-Morsi protests. Last week an Egyptian court shocked the world when it sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death.

This is the new Egypt.

A career soldier, Sisi remains a bit of a mystery. Few know much about him.

The softly spoken Field Marshal is a devout Muslim from a conservative family. His wife wares the niqab, a full-face veil. In 2006 Sisi traveled to the US to study a master's degree at the Army War College. In a research paper on the impact of democratising the Middle East, Sisi discussed the role of Islam, arguing 'the practice of Islam and democracy can coexist'. He addressed the problems of media censorship and those created by a wealthy elite ruling the poor.

But his conciliatory tone in the essay jars with much of his recent track record.

Some in Egypt suspect his religious leanings were the reason President Morsi appointed him commander-in-chief. And at times Sisi has been questioned over his loyalties. In June 2012, talk show host Tawfiq Okasha, described as the Glenn Beck of Egypt, accused Sisi of being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) promptly denied the claim. Yet during Morsi's short rule Sisi let the Brotherhood think he was their man while simultaneously assuring the military he was protecting their interests.

And last but not least, Anthony Bubalo launched a new research paper this week on 'next-gen jihad in the Middle East'. This, on Egypt, is from the accompanying Interpreter post: 

 At the heart of the problem in Egypt is the conflict between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military and the security services – or at least the most hard-line elements in each – seem to genuinely believe they can wipe the Brotherhood out. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is more than happy to play the role of martyr to win back public support after its brief and incompetent rule.

But neither of these things is going to happen any time soon. And until Egypt's most important national institution reaches an accommodation with its largest opposition movement, there will violence, instability and radicalisation.

There are two main dangers. First, that the conflict will radicalise elements of the Brotherhood and other young Egyptians unhappy with the military crackdown. Some in the Brotherhood are already debating the wisdom of sticking to a non-violent approach to politics.

Second, that the turmoil will be exploited by more extreme jihadist groups which are already fighting a serious insurgency in the Sinai and since the coup have been mounting more attacks in the rest of Egypt.

Photo by Flickr user Maddie.

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