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Weekend catch-up: Budget, drones, climate migration, the pivot and more

Weekend catch-up: Budget, drones, climate migration, the pivot and more
Published 17 May 2014   Follow @SamRoggeveen

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

This was budget week in Australia, and Alex Oliver looked at the implications for Australia's representation abroad:

The aid budget has been dramatically shaved. We knew this was coming, and there will be more on this later in the week from development experts, but the top line is that Government will save $7.6 billion over five years 'by maintaining official development assistance (ODA) at its nominal 2013-14 level of $5.0 billion in each of 2014-15 and 2015-16'. From then, it will be pegged to CPI, as foreshadowed by the Minister early this year. This will cut particularly deeply in 2017-18, where the savings will amount to more than $3.5 billion. These are deeper cuts than previously  thought.
As expected, the Australia Network, Australia's international broadcasting service to the region, has been axed, saving $196.8 million (or around $22-23 million a year for the remainder of the contract made by the previous government). There goes a significant contributor to Australia's voice to the region, leaving Radio Australia to struggle on manfully, shouldering the burden of providing a broadcasting service and source of independent news in a region severely starved of it (and that means the Pacific, including some of the world's most impoverished nations, and not just the Chinese cash-box to our north). It is not, according to the Government, a 'cost effective vehicle for advancing Australia's broad and enduring interests in the Indo-Pacific region'. It remains to be seen what the Government thinks will replace it as a vehicle for Australia's soft power, for engaging with the diverse populations in our region and building enduring relationships.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be subjected to even further efficiency demands. Having endured over 20 years the euphemistically-named efficiency 'dividends', there will be further savings of $397 million over four years, flowing from the absorption of AusAID into DFAT and finding more efficiencies, including in the administration of Australian aid.

Also on the budget, Nick Bryant criticised the Government's decision to shut down the Australia Network:

The Australia Network, in conjunction with Radio Australia, was also part of a broader public diplomacy mission. 'These Australian services are a sign to our regional neighbours in Asia and the Pacific of our determination to engage with them', he argued in 2010.' But they are also a sign of something larger, of how Australia lives up to the promise of freedom of expression, of an open, democratic way of life'. That was underscored by the editorial independence of the ABC.

Even though Radio Australia was founded in 1939, while Robert Menzies was prime minister, and ABC Asia Pacific, the forerunner of the Australia Network, was created during the Howard years, the Abbott Government has decided to pull the plug.

Julian Snelder gave us two great posts again this week. The first wondered why Hong Kong is so unhappy:

Frictions with mainlanders are mostly petty, whereas the political discourse is fundamental, even ideological. But actually the two issues are intimately entwined, and the tensions within and between them are the root of much unhappiness here. Identity issues and political problems have fused to create a crisis of political identity. Who are we, exactly?

Julian's second piece was a fantastic review of Rebalancing US Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific: [fold]

The prologue of Rebalancing US Forces, a new book edited by US Naval War College professors Carnes Lord and Andrew Erickson, opens with Barack Obama's speech in to the Australian parliament on 17 November 2011. That single clue should alert Australian readers to their country's importance in America's Pacific policy.

There are a staggering 660 American overseas military sites in 38 foreign countries, so why is Australia highlighted? Lord and Erickson's essay collection will be a must-read for the entire Asian security establishment. But any Australian layperson interested in current affairs should read Rebalancing and ponder its meaning. For despite questions about America's staying power and reliability, Rebalancing's contributors describe in gritty detail a decisive, deliberate shift of US attention to the region. 

Robert Kelly threw cold water on The Economist's fears that the US was losing its foreign policy credibility:

That interventionist logic of credibility — that the US must fight everywhere so as to bolster deterrence everywhere — was famously Robert McNamara's rationale for Vietnam, where it failed spectacularly. More recently, decades of US intervention in the Middle East have not deterred Islamists, Iran, Israel, or even Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki from going their own way. The driver behind the Chinese challenge to Japan over Senkaku, or the Russian intervention in its 'near abroad,' is not US rhetoric, or Obama being a wimp. To think that is to succumb the imperial mindset of hegemonic Washington: that all foreigners' geopolitical choices revolve around the US presidency.

Sarah Graham looked at Manmohan Singh's extraordinary economic legacy in India:

The need to shift the Indian economy away from the import substitution model of development had been recognised by a number of key political leaders in the late 1970s and 1980s, but previous attempts at economic reform were stymied by opposition from unions, the Indian intelligentsia, and most notably from opponents within the governing Congress Party itself. Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984 calling for import liberalisation and the privatisation of inefficient public enterprises, but his plans quickly foundered.

By the late 1980s, the obvious political difficulties involved in changing India's economic course left it in the unenviable position of case study par excellence on how democratic politics obstruct reform in developing economies.

Singh and Rao's major achievement in the early 1990s was thus in constructing a political opportunity for such far-reaching restructuring, and with a minority government no less.

We're always proud to feature Andrew Selth's Burma analysis. Here he is on whether Burma's army should enter the peacekeeping business:

Although activists remain sceptical, there are many within Burma's police and armed forces who wish to see democratic reform. Members of both institutions want to be better trained, better equipped, more professional and more respected. Participation in PKOs would assist in this process and give them a greater investment in positive change.

Burma will experience serious problems for years to come. It would be naive to expect otherwise. The international community thus continues to face the same question that it has struggled with since 1988: is progress more likely by isolating and punishing Naypyidaw, or by trying to encourage reform through constructive dialogue and positive action?

If the answer is the latter, then inviting Burmese soldiers and police to participate in UN peacekeeping operations would seem an option worth taking seriously.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth analysed what the decision to ban the video-sharing website 'Vimeo' means for the new sense of freedom of expression in Indonesia:

The outraged public response to the Vimeo ban suggests Indonesians will not easily give up the freedom of expression they have discovered online. Media freedom in Indonesia has vastly improved since the fall of Suharto, but traditional media remains in the hands of New Order-era moguls with their own political and business interests. Online, Indonesians can make themselves heard by those in power.

In an election year, efforts to curtail internet freedom will reflect badly on the Minister's party, PKS, and whichever side it chooses to back in the presidential race. At present, the party appears to be close to forming a coalition with presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto's party, the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra). Indonesia's netizens will be watching closely to see how conservative elements such as the PKS are accommodated.

Here's me commenting on Australia's potential acquisition of armed drones:

The US has made some dreadful mistakes in its use of drones, resulting in civilian casualties. And there are legitimate questions about the use of such systems in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the US is not at war. Because drones are capable and relatively cheap and risk-free, they increase the temptation to use force in such circumstances. They offer a simple technological fix to problems that would otherwise need to be solved by slower and messier methods such as law enforcement, international diplomacy and intelligence cooperation. The temptation to take a short cut by using drones to eradicate terrorists (or drug kingpins, weapons smugglers, leaders of groups committing atrocities in ungoverned spaces and others operating in the 'transnational' realm) could erode domestic and international norms around assassinations and due process.

Nevertheless, Air Marshal Brown pushes back hard on the question of drones and civilian casulaties, as he should. Despite their reputation, the use of armed drones rather than crewed combat aircraft may actually reduce civilian casualties because drones offer greater 'persistence'; they can stay on station longer, observing targets for longer and thus giving decision-makers on the ground better information with which to make targeting decisions. Those decision-makers can also consult more widely, and they don't suffer the stress of flying a plane and having to avoid getting shot down while they are trying to decide how to deal with a target.

 Roger Shanahan looked at the implications of the Syrian rebels' retreat from the city of Homs:

There has been some talk of Homs simply being the latest in a series of localised ceasefires that may build some kind of momentum for more and allow a breathing space for meaningful negotiations. On the face of it, this makes sense as a way of stopping the fighting without either side having to concede defeat. But such an arrangement only ever favours the regime and normally comes after the government has battered the local residents and fighters into submission. The opposition realises this, and is aware of the risk that they could be 'defeated in detail' if localised truces were to become more widespread. It would allow the Syrian Government to concentrate its forces in far fewer areas. Once again, the opposition only has itself to blame for this predicament. The Assad regime has maintained a unity that has eluded the opposition, and without centralised control of truce arrangements, government forces are able to exploit local conditions to establish agreements that suit their purposes.

Homs is unlikely to presage a broader move towards negotiated ceasefires. It has however provided the Assad regime with a symbolic victory, and will undoubtedly be featured heavily in Syrian media during the 3 June election as an example of a return to normalcy. In reality, however, normalcy is very much a distant memory.

 Finally, a provocative post from Albert Palazzo on climate migration and its relation to the international order:

As the effects of climate change continue to be felt they will reduce the resources available to meet human needs in many parts of the world. Humans have maximised their access to resources by harmonising production methods with their environment. Changes to rainfall patterns, the melting of glaciers, and the warming of coastal waters will affect the environmental systems on which humanity depends. Barring rapid adaptation, the risk is an uncoupling of production from its synchronisation with the environment. The effect of this in many parts of the world will be a widening of the gap between resource requirement and availability.

In the past, when deficits occurred the international community responded by shifting resources to regions in need. This acted as a safety valve that helped to provide stability and reduce conflict and social unrest. However, two developing challenges threaten to overwhelm the international system. The first is climate change, whose effect will reduce the availability of the resources that humanity requires. The second is that the existing international system is under threat from rising challenges to the dominance of the US and the superpower's own perception of its place in the world. 

Photo by Flickr user Bryan.

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