Earlier this week the Lowy Institute launched the Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive web tool that maps, tracks and catalogues the diplomatic networks of the G20 and OECD nations. Alex Oliver, author of the Index, should be very proud of the successful launch of the useful and unique tool. Sam Roggeveen wrote on some of the surprising finds from the Index:

The diplomatic networks of small nations such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Greece are more extensive than those of Australia, despite having far smaller economies and populations. Canada has more than twice the population and GDP of the Netherlands, but the two countries have the same sized diplomatic networks. Spain has 40 more diplomatic missions than India, despite an economy two-thirds the size and a fraction of the population. Belgium, a tiny nation that can rely on its membership of NATO and the EU for security as well as diplomatic and economic ballast, has a larger network than Australia, which has no such backing.

Among the significant news this week was Russia's stated 'withdrawal' of its military forces from Syria. Glenn Diesen talked about whether Moscow had achieved its goals and how it sees itself as a great power:

Ample evidence suggests that great power status was initially rejected by Moscow and only re-emerged after it became evident that Russia would not be part of the new ‘Europe’. As warned by Andrei Kozyrev, the profoundly pro-Western first Foreign Minister of Russia under Yeltsin, the reluctance of the US to accept Russia as an equal stakeholder in the international system ‘doomed’ Russia to remain a Great Power. By definition, a great power wields power globally and must be included in order to resolve the world’s most pressing security challenges. In a similar vein, Kissinger argued last year that 'if we treat Russia seriously as a great power, we need at an early stage to determine whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities'.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, in her last post as Director of the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, wrote on the challenges ahead for Papua New Guinea's young leaders, and called for support:

Australia, which has enduring interests in Papua New Guinea, can help not just with official aid but targeted private sector investments and civil society partnerships. Investing in young people can help emerging leaders implement their ideas now, rather than waiting 15 to 20 years for them to obtain senior leadership roles. The next generation of PNG’s leaders is certainly capable of implementing meaningful change that could put their country on a much more positive trajectory. They deserve support.

What of the bilateral relationship between China and Thailand? Sasiwan Chingchit:

The two countries have since exchanged frequent high-level visits and strengthened and enhanced cooperation in every domain. On a visit last April, the new Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha thanked China for itsselfless assistance. Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn expressed his love of China and the Chinese foreign minister at ASEAN's Annual Defense Minister's Meeting Plus last year. In his opinion, the relationship goes back more than a thousand years, is closer than friendship and more like family.

Yet China is not the most important, closest, or largest benefactor of Thailand in matters of defence, economics or development.

Malaysia's Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is facing increasing opposition, says Greg Lopez:

Splits among UMNO's ruling elites are nothing new. The party has experienced at least five leadership challengessince it began in 1946. Almost always, the ousted leaders would form a new political party and/or collaborate with the opposition during elections. UMNO always prevails. Those who challenge and fail have generally been absorbed back into the fold (after having sufficiently repented and/or been penalised). The few who have remained outside UMNO have generally faded into oblivion.

Is Pakistan experiencing a revolution in its thinking about security? Hussain Nadim wrote from there:

Given the challenging economic conditions Pakistan faces, the changing geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East, the threat of ISIS in the region and the influx of Chinese investment, Pakistan has drastically shifted its focus. This has allowed it to work and cooperate closely with the US, reduce tensions with India, push for peace in Afghanistan, and importantly, cut down on the extremist elements in the country under the National Action Plan through which major extremist Islamic seminaries and hate mongers have been arrested and prosecuted. 

Alastair Davis wrote on the relief efforts in Fiji:

Reactions to the quick succession of Cyclones Pam (which hit Vanuatu one year ago), and Winston have demonstrated a regional kinship that recalls the Pacific’s unity in advocating for strong action on climate change. In Pacific Island capitals, the increasing severity of tropical storms and climate change are inextricably linked. Leaders of Pacific Island countries have been vocal in citing climate change as a causal factor in the increase of storms that threaten their populations. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a strong regional advocate for more action on climate change from the developed world, has been particularly critical of Australia for its weak climate stance.

Emma Connors, with her regular column on the US election, talked about the potential for a contested GOP convention:

The trigger for a contested event would be the failure of any candidate to win 1237 delegates ahead of the Convention. If that happens, there will be run-off ballots to decide the issue. Most delegates are 'pledged' or bound to vote according to the outcome of their state' s primary in the first ballot, but there are some un-pledged delegates whose votes could get the front runner over the line in that first ballot. If not, political mayhem would break loose as growing numbers of the 2500-odd delegates become unpledged in successive ballots. This could see the front runner's advantage melt away. The outcome would be almost impossible to predict due to the myriad different arrangements the states have which bind delegates to differing degrees.

With two more posts on his continuing series about the Middle East in 2016, Anthony Bubalo wrote on Egypt. Part 3, on the growing economic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, can be found here:

There is a view that another uprising in Egypt is unlikely in the short term. This may be true. Egyptians may be growing less supportive of Sisi's promises but they are probably still wary of any return to revolutionary tumult. Nevertheless, we will probably see growing violent tensions between state and society this year. Indeed, one of the consequences of the regime's hyper-repression is that the fuse to violent confrontation is now much shorter than it used to be. And there is a lot of tinder lying around. The spark might be one of the regular protests or strikes, if it is repressed particularly harshly by the security forces; or it might be the rough treatment of an activist that becomes a cause celebre. But this time, rather than igniting the largely peaceful protest that Egypt witnessed in 2011, something far more ugly and violent could erupt.

Is North Korea a mafia state? Robert Kelly:

If this interpretation is correct, ideology, or victory over South Korea, is less important to the North's elites than simply staying alive and enjoying the gangsterish good life. The glue of the regime, then, is what I have called the 'Songbun Bargain': goodies for elites in exchange for stable Kimist leadership. Should the funds to maintain the court economy dry up, elites might well set on each other over a declining budgetary pie. If the mafia's primary interest is money, then financial or secondary sanctions are the most powerful weapon we have against the North.

Leon Berkelmans pointed out some possible deficiencies when it comes to the TPP and capital controls:

As far as I can tell, there is nothing in Article 11.11 to allow for capital controls for this reason. And so I worry that we will not have the flexibility to deal with a crisis. If the Global Financial Crisis showed us anything, it was that the unthinkable can happen. Our policy framework should respect that fact.

Are embassies useful anymore? Ric Smith thinks they are:

Good ambassadors, in short, will have a much more comprehensive picture of the whole and of how the parts fit together — and will thus be best placed to advise their government of the implications for one part of the national interest of an action being contemplated in another part, or indeed of the consequences for the whole of action on any of the parts. Presumably, for instance, our embassy in Jakarta was telling the government of the day that to cut off our cattle exports to Indonesia would have ramifications much beyond the cattle trade itself. It's then of course for the government to accept this advice or not.

Rodger Shanahan covered the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's trip to Australia

The visit to Australia was the last leg of a six-nation Asian and Australasian trip. It is not unreasonable to believe that Australia and New Zealand were included in recognition of the fact that, among the 'Five Eyes' community, they are the only two which have maintained unbroken diplomatic representation in the Islamic Republic. No mean feat given the diplomatic travails and likely something that has been noted in Tehran.

Ride-sharing apps have taken off in Indonesia after Jokowi reversed an initial ban, says Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

As construction work continues on a mass rapid transit (MRT) system optimistically due to open mid next year, worsening traffic conditions have driven commuters to embrace a growing selection of app-based services, including those offering door-to-door transport, shopping, food delivery and even beauty treatments. Innovations like these have been welcomed by the city government, keen to keep business growing and a daytime population of more than 20 million people on the move. A short-lived ban in December by the Transportation Ministry on ride-hailing apps lasted for less than 24 hours, as public outrage prompted President Jokowi to reverse the ban in support of Indonesia's growing mobile app industry.

Finally, Ben Ho Wan Beng on the growing strategic importance of Djibouti:

Going forward, it will be worth watching the interplay between the various powers in Djibouti. Russia had reportedly approached the African nation for basing rights, but was rebuffed due to a potential conflict of interest with the West. However, China's setting up shop in Djibouti is a break from precedent; could Moscow take heart from this development and try asking for basing rights again? Will more powers be attracted by the strategic utility of Djibouti? How far will the small African nation go in being a pawn for great power rivalry and what are the implications? These are but some of the pressing issues that analysts should bear in mind as developments unfold in one of the world's most geostrategically important regions.