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Weekend catch-up: Chinese influence in Vanuatu, Syrian crisis, and trade woes

The week that was on The Interpreter.

Outrigger canoe on Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu (Photo: Getty)
Outrigger canoe on Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu (Photo: Getty)
Published 14 Apr 2018 

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered a major speech in Melbourne on Wednesday. Nick Bisley:

The speech and discussion that followed highlighted key themes of the White Paper: an optimism about the future; a recognition of the risks entailed by the way economic prosperity is changing the region’s status quo; and, of course, an active embrace of the Indo-Pacific construct as the country’s principal strategic point of reference. But beyond ensuring those key messages were sent, there was also a bit of colour and movement.

Allan Gyngell on the Australia–New Zealand relationship:

It’s time to undertake a more fundamental review of the trans-Tasman relationship. One objective would be to ensure that we have a narrative that acknowledges both our differences and the value of the relationship to each of us.

Alexandra Wake on press freedom in Southeast Asia:

News organisations are struggling with tightened government regulations and new laws, some of which are specifically aimed at ‘fake news’. Individual journalists and bloggers have found themselves labelled effectively ‘enemies of the state’.

China and Vanuatu reportedly discussed the establishment of a military presence by China’s People’s Liberation Army in the Pacific nation. Rory Medcalf:

There is nothing between Vanuatu and Australia except the Coral Sea, a point historians of the Second World War will be quick to note. Of course, it is important to distinguish between Imperial Japan and today’s China. The PRC is currently not a source of direct military threat to Australia. But defence planners have to consider worst-case scenarios, and China is a source of risk – a potential threat if it chose to be, and if regional strategic dynamics were to keep deteriorating.

Nauru terminated its 1976 arrangement that saw the Australian High Court serve as the final appellate court for Nauru. Erin Harris:

The timing of the decision appears to have been designed to block the avenue of appeal for 19 citizens (several former Nauruan MPs among them) charged over a 2015 protest outside the Parliament of Nauru. However, it has also served to further erode the rights of hundreds of asylum seekers, including dozens of children, currently in Nauru.

His confidence buoyed by North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons arsenal, Kim Jong-un has refocused on a charm offensive. Khang Vu:

A history of North Korean diplomacy suggests that Kim’s activities, regardless of provocation or engagement, have been aimed mainly at decoupling the US and South Korea, not at peaceful denuclearisation.

The prospect of a trade war between the US and China seemed closer than ever with President Donald Trump’s continued aggressive rhetoric on trade. Roland Rajah:

Trump’s unorthodox and unpredictable style make it difficult to take anything at face value. The hope remains that this is all just negotiation bluster and that a deal will be struck that limits the damage.

China’s President Xi Jinping rhetorically defended global trade and economic openness in his speech at the Boao Forum for Asia. Richard McGregor:

China’s cheek is something to behold, given that they are building a new international order alongside the one they pledged to leave undisturbed, and the fact that Beijing is pursuing an aggressive import-substitution plan even as it promises to open its market wider to foreign goods.

Meanwhile, Xi is overseeing the restructuring of Beijing’s bureaucracy. Camille Boullenois:

These reforms arguably constitute the most ambitious overhaul of Chinese administration in decades and will be a dominant theme of Xi’s second term.

The Vietnamese authorities have intensified their crackdown on dissent in the past two years. Hunter Marston:

It is ironic that as Vietnam seeks external partners to balance against China (perceived as the country’s top security threat), its willingness to employ more sweeping internal repression makes the Communist Party’s tactics resemble Xi Jinping’s style of Chinese authoritarianism more closely.

Rideshare apps are big business in Southeast Asia, but the trusty Bajaj won’t be run off the road in Jakarta. Erin Cook:

The Bajaj drivers, playing the long-game, have proved to be the winners in Jakarta. Through a combination of updated vehicles and recognition by successive local governments of the importance of the Indian-made autorickshaws as an icon of the city, the humble Bajaj has become app-resistant.

An oil spill off the coast of Borneo is threatening health and livelihoods in Indonesia. Kate Walton:

President Joko Widodo said in 2016 that ‘it is our responsibility as citizens of the world to preserve the oceans’; however, WALHI (Indonesia’s largest environmental organisation) claims that this is not the first oil spill to occur in Balikpapan Bay – an earlier spill in May 2017 received little attention.

The leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey held a summit to discuss the future of the seven-year-old Syrian civil war. Wayne McLean:

The takeaway from the Ankara meeting and Trump’s rhetoric is that the regional security order around Syria is in flux, and that US efforts are likely to be replaced by a zone of anti-Western influence stretching from Beirut through to the Caspian Sea.

And Trump called out Russia while threatening a military response to Syrian regime’s chemical attacks in Douma. Lydia Khalil:

Only US–Russian collusion, pushing for a negotiated settlement through Russian political pressure and US military action, will have any hope of changing Assad’s current mindset. This is the only way to put an end to the terrible violence that has already killed 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Erin Watson-Lynn on her meeting with a delegation of women from Sri Lanka who hold high political office as ministers or cabinet ministers:

Politics requires time, it requires a thick skin, and it requires incredible commitment. But whether you’re in Sri Lanka or Australia, it also requires navigating a male-dominated environment.  

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was returned to power in Sunday’s Hungarian election, illustrating a trend. David Ritchie:

In all European countries nationalist/populist parties are reshaping the political environment and forcing traditional parties to confront the issues they raise, and to look for new coalitions.

Stephen Grenville on the unwinding of quantitative easing in the United States:

Now that normalisation is underway, what is the likely impact?

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