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


Plenty of great stuff published on The Interpreter this week, so let's get stuck in.

On Friday alone we had Tess Newton Cain's primer on the Melanesia Spearhead Group, acting UK High Commissioner to Canberra Tony Brennan on the 'farcical' Crimea referendum, and an interview with military expert John Stillion on hypersonic weapons.

Earlier in the week, Vaughan Winterbottom gave us a run-down on last week's National People's Congress in Beijing. Here's Vaughan's take on President Xi's anti-corruption campaign:

President Xi Jinping's 'tigers and flies' anti-corruption campaign (some would say 'purge') against the top echelons of the Communist Party (some would say 'Xi's enemies') is drawing to a close. A valid case could be made that bolder reforms will only be instituted when all Xi's tigers have been rounded up.

One is still at large: former member of China's Politburo standing committee and security kingpin Zhou Yongkang, long rumoured to be the target of a corruption investigation, is Xi's last and biggest scalp. In a press conference on 1 March, a senior official hinted for the first time that an announcement on an investigation against Zhou could come soon. If the announcement isn't forthcoming, Xi's standing within the party will take a big hit and his power to take on anti-reform interest groups could wane.

But nabbing Zhou may just have got a little bit harder: the Kunming knife attack on 1 March may reinvigorate the prestige of Communist Party security hardliners, among whom Zhou's standing is high.

Sticking with China, Gary Hogan wrote on the prospects and implications of a China-Australia FTA, arguing that  'ready or not, a Free Trade Agreement with China is coming soon':

An Australia-China Free Trade Agreement has been on the cards for some years. An impressive body of work has already been completed to scope its implications and how Australian exporters should prepare themselves.

Until now, however, this has all been conjecture. In the words of the Chinese proverb, 'ten thousand things change, in the end nothing changes.' But an agreement will become reality in the life of our current federal government, because signing it is now more in China's national interest than our own.

There is yeoman's work ahead of us to rebuild our ports and infrastructure, to reform our regulations, to rethink our customs and quarantine procedures, to reinvigorate our declining cooperative model for penetrating China markets and to differentiate our brands and products in line with rapidly evolving Chinese middle class tastes. In what will be a race to the swift, some states have already burst through the barrier, while others are still under starter's orders.

Very soon, ten thousand things will change. In the end, little will stay the same. Freeing up bilateral trade with 1.3 billion people will do that. For its own reasons, Beijing means business. We should understand and prepare for that now as best we can.

Heading south, we featured two great pieces on Thailand this week. David Camroux from the University of Paris looked at the chances of constitutional reform in a country seemingly unable to escape from recurring political crises:

Thai constitutions have been drafted, discarded and redrafted to serve the interests of competing political elites. This was not always the case.

I remember vividly in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai in 1997 sensing the excitement of electing a Constituent Assembly and then the enthusiasm with which the People's Constitution of that year was greeted. With its multiple safeguard clauses, the 1997 constitution was designed to encourage programmatic party politics, as opposed to the clan-based neo-patrimonial politics of the past, and put in place an elected Senate to reduce the power of Bangkok. Alas, it led to the populist political party of Thaksin Shinawatra, with its power base in the north and north-east, receiving in 2001 an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament, for the first time in Thai history.

When there can be no agreement on a fundamental constitutional document and, above all, on the social contract it expresses, then the parameters of political action and political debate are lacking. 

And Elliot Brennan gave us another eye-witness account of the protests in Bangkok, this time in the protest camp in Lumpini Park: 

It's just over a week since Suthep Thaungsuban cleared protest sites in Bangkok's streets and consolidated his protesters in central Bangkok's Lumpini Park. Determined that it's not a retreat, Suthep expects victory to come with the support of the courts, where the real battle is now playing out.

The move has freed up the traffic congestion of the capital (now its back to its normal cluttered state) and improved the security of protesters, who have been subject to grenade and IED attacks in recent months.

The park is blockaded. The sandbagged entrances are manned by Suthep's 'VIP Security' outfit – a hardened mob, many moustachioed, wearing fatigues, cowboy hats, balaclavas and scarves to hide their identity. Half a dozen army 'stations' occupy strategic locations around the park. Inside, the park has the atmosphere, as many joke in Bangkok, of a school camp. 

Still in Southeast Asia, here's Catriona Croft-Cusworth on why Megawati Sukarnoputri has yet to support Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo as the Democratic Party of Struggle candidate for Indonesia's upcoming presidential election:

A common conclusion is that Megawati still wants to run for president herself. She had a taste of the top job between 2001-2004 but was never popularly elected, having been installed by legislators after President Abdurrahman Wahid was dismissed. She failed to retain the presidency in 2004 and lost again in 2009, both times to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At 67 years of age, this may be her last chance to run for president in Indonesia's five-year election cycle.

Then there is the matter of family background. The daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, Megawati is said to view the presidency as her birthright. Even if she doesn't see it that way, plenty of Sukarno loyalists do. Ties to the nation's founding father constitute a strong pulling point for Megawati's party. The 'Struggle' in the party name is in reference to Sukarno's role in the fight for Indonesian independence.

In what could be one of her strongest endorsements for Jokowi as a candidate, she told the press last year that he has a 'Sukarno vibe', a compliment she immediately downplayed by adding that 'other potential young members also have a similar capacity' to continue her father's legacy.

As the 9 April legislative elections approach, Megawati's evasion of the Jokowi question is beginning to rile PDI-P members who want to tie their legislative tickets to the Jakarta governor's soaring popularity. But Megawati has continued to keep her cards close to her chest, hinting that the announcement will be made soon after the April elections.

It's possible that Megawati, who is simultaneously an establishment figure and a symbol of the reform era, simply cannot comprehend the Jokowi phenomenon. On a recent trip to Surabaya to smooth out a party dispute involving city mayor Tri 'Risma' Rismaharini, Megawati defended the controversial installment of deputy mayor Wisnu Sakti Buana by saying, 'I regard Wisnu as my own son because I've known him since he was a child'.

Heading west, Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Rodger Shanahan gave us a two-part series on security concerns among the Arab Gulf states. The first was on the recent spat among Gulf monarchies over Qatari support for Islamist groups, which led to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha:

Last week's Saudi-Qatari  spat is, on the face of it, not unusual.This excellent backgroundershows the fractious nature of Qatari relations with its much larger neighbour, even if it predicts a rosy future for Qatar-GCC cooperation out to the 2022 World Cup. Yet this most recent diplomatic imbroglio is potentially more important than those in the past, for two reasons.

Firstly, it wasn't just the Saudis who recalled their ambassador, but UAE and Bahrain too.Egypt followed suit a few days later. This shows the depth of feeling against what is seen as Qatar's ill-considered support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

Two other GCC members (Kuwait and Oman) chose to retain their diplomatic representation in Doha. Oman has always had a slightly different view of the GCC to the other members, needing to balance its good relations with Iran with its geographic and ethnic realities. That is part of the reason it has remained aloof from theSaudi plan to make the GCC more of a union.Kuwait has not joined in the diplomatic embargo either, likely realising that someone will have to play the role of GCC mediator. 

Secondly, besides highlighting the internal disagreements within the GCC, the withdrawal touched on an issue that is most centrally important to the Gulf states: internal security.

It is no coincidence that two days after the withdrawal,Saudi Arabia formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. It was also no coincidence that the day prior to the announcement, the UAE sentenced aQatari doctor to seven years' prisonfor supporting al Islah, a reformist political group that UAE authorities claim is closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks the overthrow of the regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood has few friends among the leadership in the region, so Qatar’s actions in supporting it in Egypt is somewhat puzzling.

Rodger's second post looked at two other sources of tension in the Gulf, Iraq and Bahrain:

Claims that Iraq has begun buying weapons from Iran have done little to assuage fears that Maliki is too beholden to Iranian interests. Of course, Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to appoint a resident ambassador to Baghdad or undertake significant financial investments in Iraq gives them little sway in that country and opens the door for its rivals.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Gulf, the single deadliest incident for security forces in Bahrain since the latest round of anti-government protests began in 2011 resulted in the deaths of three police officers in a bomb blast. The attack came after demonstrations arising from the funeral procession for a detainee who had died in hospital. Two more police officers were wounded in a separate incident earlier this week.

Adding to the significance of the deadly blast: one of the dead was a UAE police officer. The UAE and Saudi Arabia sent military and police to Bahrain in 2011, allegedly to help protect public buildings and infrastructure. They werenot sent there to take an active part against protests, which raises the question of what the UAE officer was doing at the protest site.

Amid all of this strife and accusations of internal interference, the thousand-pound gorilla is Iran. There is a fear in the Gulf that Iran may inch its way into the international community and dominate its increasingly fractious Gulf neighbours economically, diplomatically and militarily. 

 Finally, and partially related to Michael Fullilove's address to the national press club this week, here's Melissa Conley Tyler on what she calls Australia's 'she'll be right' attitude to international affairs:

Even if you accept the stereotype, this is not to say Australians don't want to make the world a better place; they do. On the whole, though, Australians seem to accept that any improvements in international affairs will take time and persistence and will, all things considered, probably not go exactly according to plan. It's an attitude described memorably by JDB Miller as 'dogged low-gear idealism.' And certainly a level-headed approach can be helpful for a state that is always likely to have to respond to, rather than dictate, international conditions.

Of course there are negatives to a 'she'll be right' approach in international affairs, such as when Australia upsets another country and then compounds the offence by asking what the fuss is all about. Or where there is something we all should genuinely be worried about (such as climate change) but we may passively hope that 'something will come along' to solve it for us.

At its core, though, Australians have grasped an important point: it is in the nature of international affairs to disappoint. Institutions we build will show promise and then fail. In negotiations, you won't get all you want. But hopefully the predictions of doom will also disappoint; we'll probably find a way to muddle through. At the heart of the national optimism lies a fatalism that liberates. She'll be right.

Photo by Flickr user Martin Kliehm.