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Weekend catch-up: Boris Johnson’s Lowy Lecture, Chinese intelligence, NAFTA and more

A Chinese naval asset surveils Talisman Saber, results from Timor-Leste's parliamentary elections, Boris Johnson's Lowy Lecture and more.

Photo: Getty Images/Brook Mitchell
Photo: Getty Images/Brook Mitchell
Published 29 Jul 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

After visiting Japan and New Zealand, the UK's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson delivered the annual Lowy Lecture at Sydney Town Hall on Thursday. Johnson articulated a vision of a truly global Britain, unshackled by the foibles of EU bureaucracy and inspired by the historic economic momentum of a trading bloc-less Australia, still playing a crucial role in the international politics of Europe but sailing aircraft carriers through the Malacca Straits and developing relations with ASEAN halfway around the world. Johnson clearly has a soft spot for Australia, wrote Richard Alston:

It was a speech chock full of Australianisms, plenty of memorable one liners, and a paean of praise for Australia and its strong sense of national political and cultural identity. Despite his patrician background, Johnson's jokey and anti pompous demeanour has enabled him to lead forthright debates at home and engage with a wide variety of major players abroad. His enlightenment ethos and his unequivocal commitment to the Western alliance, and its key partners such as Australia, shine through.

Last weekend the ABC broke the story that a Chinese intelligence gathering ship was spotted near Australia-US Talisman Saber naval exercises off the Queensland coast. Euan Graham:

Does this constitute an unfriendly act? In legal terms, China was doing nothing illegitimate. Ocean-going navies have long collected intelligence on one another’s capabilities through overt and covert means. Military professionals on both sides understood this as a fact of life during the Cold War. But we are not in another Cold War with China, at least not yet. That makes for a potentially jarring contrast, in terms of public perceptions, with Australia’s investment of time and resources in building defence engagement with China, including a recent 'goodwill' visit by a high-ranking PLA political commissar, and a three-ship visit to Sydney by a PLA surface group designed to 'build trust'.

James Goldrick elaborated further:

The vessel’s deployment is significant in that it shows that the PLA-N has a choice between breathtaking (and unsustainable) hypocrisy and accepting that China’s attitude to intelligence gathering operations in its own Exclusive Economic Zone must change. The PLA-N with regional and global ambitions cannot afford the restrictions on its own operating envelope that holding to China’s existing interpretation of the Law of the Sea would mean. The more extensive its operations, the more that an international chorus pointing out the contradiction will be heard. This is just the sort of background noise that China could do without.

Some of the domestic reaction to the Chinese presence demonstrated the lack of empathy for China in Australia's security debate, argued Iain Henry:

Considering the world from Beijing’s perspective doesn’t mean that one must approve of China’s authoritarian political system, abysmal human rights record, illiberal restrictions on press freedoms, harsh repression of religious groups, etc. It is possible to both condemn China’s political system, but also accept it as an incipient great power with legitimate security concerns. Empathising does not mean rolling over at the first sign of aggression, but appreciating China’s fears could help to secure bargains, lower tensions and avoid war. The US did this, at times, with the USSR. We should encourage the same approach towards China today.

It's no wonder China was taking notice, wrote Greg Colton – the exercises were a demonstration of Australia's fully realised strategic goals:

For the first time in three decades, Australia now has the military capability to back up its stated defence strategy. It is little wonder the Chinese have taken notice.

The Interpreter continued its coverage of the home affairs and intelligence review announcements, with Allan Gyngell weighing in on Australia's intelligence tradition:

Australia’s intelligence structures have drawn on strong historic links with Britain and the United States, but they have unique indigenous characteristics ... They include a focus on the national interest, a sharp demarcation between the roles of intelligence and policy-making, clear accountability, and strong democratic oversight. L’Estrange and Merchant aptly describe this as an ‘indispensable legacy’.

As the government works through the details of the Review’s important and necessary changes, it needs to reflect as deeply on the strengths of Australia’s own intelligence traditions as it does on any British or American models.

While Alan Dupont argued that by announcing current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton as the new Home Affairs Minister, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was wringing the maximum political benefit from a decision primarily driven by actual policy:

As to the argument that the Home Affairs idea should have been subject to extensive consultation within government, why would you risk leaving its fate to be determined by ministers and agency heads predisposed to rejecting any change that could threaten their power and influence?

The broader Five Eyes intelligence community of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada should coordinate on the issue of Chinese foreign tech investment, argued John Hemmings:

MERICS research suggests China's state owned enterprises (SOEs) accounted for more than 60% of China FDI in Europe in 2015. While this is not as high as it has been, the trend is upward, which adds to the argument that much of the investment surge is strategic in nature.

Michael Leach analysed the results from Timor-Leste's parliamentary elections:

With final votes tallied in the Timor-Leste parliamentary elections overnight, the results in Dili suggest a reframed power-sharing government will emerge, showing some continuity with the previous government but with a different flavour.

Timor-Leste's elections represent a significant democratic milestone, argued Georgina Downer:

For a nation that only won its hard-fought battle for independence 15 years ago, Timor-Leste has travelled a long way fast.

Earlier this month China announced it had begun commercial production of the CH-5 Rainbow, an armed drone modelled on the US MQ 9 Reaper. Jennifer Hunt on why a drone arms race is likely in nobody's interest – save those with a sales quota to fill:

The proliferation of these weapons presents challenges. A 2014 Foreign Affairs article by Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko argued that armed drones could increase the possibility of 'military conflicts in disputed areas where the slightest provocation could lead to strife'. These risks only increase when armed drones are used by an increasing number of states, particularly in the same conflict theatre.

Earlier this month the Lowy Institute released Nicholas Farrelly's paper on the 'triple threat' endangering Thailand's future as a stable and predictable partner in both politics and commerce. In response, Greg Raymond made the case for optimism:

Thailand has had an educated workforce, both in its bureaucracies and its private sector. Many workers carry multiple degrees from overseas universities, and are experts in technical fields like banking, engineering and agriculture. It is this quiet diligent workforce which continues to stabilise the country through the interminable and noisy turbulence and theatre of its politics. Can they do this forever?

Finally, Stephen Grenville on what a renegotiation of NAFTA might mean for Australia:

NAFTA is more than two decades old, so it is not surprising that it could benefit from revisiting and tweaking. The world has changed over those two decades, and there are elements in subsequent trade negotiations (particularly the unfulfilled negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership) which justify up-dating NAFTA. The aspects which are of special interest to Australia are:

1. The emphasis on bilateral trade deficits, rather than on a county’s overall multilateral balance.

2. Strengthening intellectual property rights

3. Reinforcing US overseas investment rights.


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