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Weekend catch-up: Choosing Openness, Kurdistan, Jolie's film and more

Angela Merkel's return to power, Shinzo Abe's snap election, buffer states in Asia and more.

Photo: Flickr/Cotaro
Photo: Flickr/Cotaro
Published 30 Sep 2017 

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

This week we launched Andrew Leigh's Lowy Institute Paper Choosing Openness: Why Global Engagement is Best for Australia, and along with it an Interpreter debate to discuss Leigh's arguments. The first cab off the rank was Richard Holden:

 In the final chapter, Leigh outlines a range of specific ideas to help re-slice the pie and keep Australia open. From tying skilled migration to labour-market needs to reviewing thresholds for foreign investment, Leigh has a policy tweak for seemingly every problem.

If I have a criticism of Leigh’s brilliant monograph, it is here. He wants to tinker. A little less of this, a little more of that. An adjustment here, an adjustment there.

Perhaps that’s the right answer, but I suspect it will take more.

Next Stephen Grenville weighed in:

What a relief to have a politician talking serious economics without spin and point-scoring! Andrew Leigh’s Choosing Openness makes the case for openness in a world in which globalisation is getting bad press.

Last weekend Angela Merkel was swept back to power in the German election, albeit without her 'grand coalition' partners the Social Democrats by her side. The Social Democrats moving to become the formal opposition denies the opportunity to Alternative für Deutschland, now the third-largest party in the Bundestag. Marcus Colla:

This was not a 'normal' election result, but it does not necessarily reflect an abnormal world. Germany is not in crisis, and its political system is not broken. The success of the minor parties and the collapse of the major parties last night represent less a failure of government than a failure of opposition. 'Grand coalitions' erode democracy and breed contempt, as cultures of consensus silence and suppress the real divisions that exist in any society. But even for Merkel, this was a hollow victory.

In Iraq, the Kurdish independence referendum delivered a resounding affirmative result. Lydia Khalil on the allure of an independent Kurdistan:

When it comes to Kurdish independence, the geopolitics remain as treacherous as ever; the security situation as precarious as ever; and the economic viability of a new Kurdish state, amputated off of a hobbled Iraqi state, as fragile as ever. Even as the democratic arguments for Kurdish independence remain self-evident, so too do the daunting geopolitical risks. It is this conundrum that has constantly vexed the Kurdish people in their struggle for a nationhood.

And in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a snap election in October off the back of his approval ratings jumping back up. He's gambling that the electorate is not yet sick of his tricks, writes Greg Earl:

Japan's economy is doing quite well at the moment, which should give Abe confidence about his decision. But there is also an emerging view among economists that while his Abenomics stimulus policy has been good for Japan, it is now hitting a point of diminishing returns. And the Tokyo city result added weight to the idea that voters have become cynical about Abe's well-honed political routine of pursuing his personal nationalistic priorities until the voters lose patience, at which point he switches back to bread-and-butter economic issues.

Simon Heffer on UK Prime Minister Theresa May's weak retribution for Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's 4200-word alternative vision of Brexit (and Johnson's weak acceptance of that retribution):

Hard-line Brexiteers, in whose number Johnson supposedly included himself, professed their distress at what they considered to be her lack of leadership in discharging the democratic will of the British people. Johnson, though, immediately expressed his voluble agreement with what the Prime Minister had said, even though what she said appeared to contradict much of what Johnson had written the previous weekend. If there had been a showdown, it appeared that Johnson had come out the worse.

As Australia and New Zealand face down systemic influence activities from the Chinese Communist Party, it's worth remembering our own magic weapons, writes Anne-Marie Brady:

As former colonies of the UK and close partners with the US, both New Zealand and Australia are proud to espouse an independent foreign policy. But an independent foreign policy should not mean falling into the arms of another dominant power. Now is the time to use democracy's magic weapons to protect our societies against foreign influence and interference in our politics, from all states. Australia is tightening its laws around this issue and has engaged in in-depth investigations into the extent of China's influence activities. So too should New Zealand, and many other nations.

Sam Roggeveen on the notion of US 'buffer states' in Asia:

The buffer model only works if the US is prepared to take on a more distant role in the regional power balance. Yet there is little evidence that the Washington political establishment is prepared to accept such a status.

Saudi Arabia's economic reforms have hit turbulent political waters – but they are critical if the House of Saud is to survive, writes John Edwards:

Vision 2030 cannot be financed at the scale intended without opening Saudi Aramco's books to the untiring scrutiny of global markets and of Saudi citizens, enhancing the authority of its professional management and raising endless questions about quite how the revenues are spent. The plan's objective is to shift Saudi employees more rapidly from the public sector to the private sector, a transition already straining the goodwill of younger Saudis observing older generations enjoying benefits denied to them. The plan imagines new taxes and fewer subsidies, and requires central control over ministers and ministries accustomed to running their own shows.

As Beijing prepares for the 19th National Congress, the city (and its residents) are undergoing a few structural changes. Merriden Varrall:

As yet more gleaming architectural marvels are being unveiled, other parts of the city are being cleaned out and 'tidied up', with buildings being knocked down or bricked in. Many have been affected by the roughshod approach, but the resilience of Beijingers is something to be admired.

Varrall also wrote on why one shouldn't read too much into China's order for North Korean businesses operating within its borders to close:

This is should not be seen as a shift in China's approach to North Korea. Rather, it is a tactical manoeuvre – China's goals and interests regarding the Peninsula remain the same.

Khalid Koser and Lilla Schumicky-Logan on defusing the situation in Bangladesh:

Cox's Bazar will be a testing ground for the UN Secretary-General's 'Prevention Agenda', for the concept of preventing violent extremism, and for the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund. Let us hope we have not done too little too late to defuse the ticking time bomb.

As the Asian Development Bank turns 50, it may be tempting to diffuse its efforts into a wider variety of programs, but Asia's traditional needs are still vast, argues Peter McCawley:

Poverty, inequality, aging, and the need for basic services like water and sanitation for poor people, remain urgent. As the Bank draws up the Vision 2030 plan for its work in the decade ahead, there is clearly a need to consider new approaches. But the huge amount of unfinished work across Asia should remain a priority as well.

Mike Kelly and Susan Hutchinson on why Australia should take a proactive approach to sexual violence in conflict:

Now is the time for Australia to step up, take leadership, and end impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict. We must investigate and prosecute our own citizens who have perpetrated sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. We must provide the resources for the investigative authorities to undertake the investigations and to cooperate with their international colleagues to gather evidence and record these crimes.

And finally, Elliot Brennan on Angelina Jolie's great new film on the Khmer Rouge (and why it may inadvertently help out Prime Minister Hun Sen):

The release of First They Killed My Father, which debuted on 23 screens in Phnom Penh and Siam Riep this month, is well-timed to advance fears of a return to the past. 

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