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Weekend catch-up: Khaled Sharrouf, rugby diplomacy, South China Sea and more

Highlights from The Interpreter this week.

Weekend catch-up: Khaled Sharrouf, rugby diplomacy, South China Sea and more
Published 19 Aug 2017 

After a false report in 2015, this week Australian authorities reported once again that Khaled Sharrouf has been killed in Syria. If the reports are true, Sharrouf will not have died as an Australian terrorist, wrote Rodger Shanahan:

He was stripped of his Australian citizenship early this year. This doesn’t represent any material difference, but there is at least symbolic significance that the country he betrayed was able to divest itself of its links to him before he met his death.

This week Australia-New Zealand relations were inexplicably strained over accusations of collusion between the Australian Labor Party and the New Zealand Labour Party by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and other government figures. John Gooding:

Sacrificing foreign policy for the sake of domestic politics is hardly rare...but this time it’s doubtful New Zealand Labour (not to mention the New Zealand public) have been riled in the service of good politicking. 

Rugby tragic Rodger Shanahan saw a different agenda behind the revalations about New Zealand's entanglement in Australian politics:

... when you're talking trans-Tasman relations, you know nothing if you don’t know rugby. And I’ve stuck my head in enough rucks and mauls to recognise a rugby conspiracy when I see one. My colleagues here all think the Barnaby Joyce citizenship issue is about politics but if you have a keen understanding of the New Zealand rugby mindset you’ll understand that this is all about sport.

Yesterday, the Lowy Institute's Euan Graham highlighted a new Chinese provocation in the South China Sea:

Something significant is happening in the South China Sea. Philippine media has reported that, over the past week, a flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by PLA Navy frigates and Chinese Coast Guard vessels, have maintained a presence very close to Thitu (which Manila calls 'Pagasa'), the largest feature occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.

Earlier in the week, Andrew Chubb wrote that the Trump Administration seems to be using FONOPs in the South China Sea as a tool to leverage China on its North Korea policy:

The latest American foray into the Spratly Islands certainly confirms the increased regularity of US patrolling flagged in recent media reports. There have now been three such operations in as many months: on 25 May, 2 July, and now 10 August. By contrast, in the first four months of the Trump Administration there were none. In fact, the US Pacific Command’s proposals to conduct such operations were knocked back on at least three occasions over that period. There are rumours the destroyer may have been accompanied by a military surveillance plane, which would be a significant strengthening of the FONOP program as it has existed thus far.

Clearly, then, there has been an abrupt change in this important aspect of Trump’s policy towards the South China Sea. But the timing of the policy shift suggests the White House regards the FONOPs as leverage in its attempt to induce Chinese concessions on the North Korean nuclear weapons issue. This is not what these patrols are designed for, and it is a purpose for which they are ill suited.

Euan Graham also wrote about Australia's obligations in the event North Korea invaded the south, disagreeing with former defence minsiter Kim Beazley:

The Armistice agreement itself says nothing about responding to renewed North Korean aggression with force. It commits only to resolving ceasefire violations 'through negotiations', via the Military Armistice Commission. It is worth remembering South Korea itself did not sign the Armistice, because then-President Rhee Syngman wanted to continue the war. Moreover, the US subsequently and unilaterally abrogated one of the key clauses (13.d) of the Armistice, over the objections of its UN allies, circumscribing signatories from admitting major new capabilities into the Peninsula. Thus, the US maintained nuclear weapons on the Peninsula until 1991. The North Koreans, for their part, have repeatedly repudiated the Armistice.

Also on North Korea, here's Andrew O'Neil on Pyongyang's dangerously rudimentary nuclear command and control systems:

History shows that states in the process of building up their nuclear forces see themselves as vulnerable to preventive or pre-emptive first strikes because of the incipient nature of their command and control systems, coupled with the small size of their nuclear inventories. Yet instead of inducing caution, this vulnerability can encourage risk taking. Notably, the Soviet Union’s propensity to take risks during crises was strongest in the 1950s and 1960s when it was most susceptible to a disarming US first strike.

Samir Saran and S Paul Kapur advocate for a joint US-Indian approach to the Indo-Pacific:

None of these measures will be easy to implement; they will face resource constraints, political opposition, and strategic competition. But the stakes – who gets to construct the legal, economic, and military architecture of an integrated Indo-Pacific region – are enormous. Without bold policy from the US and India, the answer will be China.

A speech from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Suva may indicate Australia's Pacific approach is coming into focus. James Batley:

The latest speech isn’t memorable so much for specific announcements (although there are some of these, and some significant hints at future announcements), rather for setting out an agenda for relations between Australia and the countries in the Pacific, and for the way in which this is expressed.

Continuing his series on Papua New Guinea's election, Sean Dorney looked at the seemingly endless vote count, and analysed the poor state of the electoral roll:

The PNG Electoral Commission was never allocated the funds it needed to conduct a thorough updating and revising of the roll. The PNG Government did launch a national identity card registration system in 2014 but, although millions of Kina went into the exercise, fewer than 200,000 people have been registered.

As political negotiations break down between Fretilin and CRNT in Timor-Leste, the nation faces a crucial window to join ASEAN, argued Bec Strating:

This is a critical time for Timor-Leste's accession. This year, Philippines is the ASEAN chair, and it has been publicly supportive of Timor-Leste's bid for membership. Next year, however, the chair turns to Singapore, who has been publicly reluctant to permit Timor-Leste entry into ASEAN. Should Timor-Leste not become the 11th member by the end of 2017, momentum may be lost and Timor-Leste's accession indefinitely delayed.

Anthony Kleven on Malaysia's economy as the nation celebrates its 60th anniversary:

The story was far different two years ago, when Malaysia's economy was viewed as one of the strongest in ASEAN, recording robust GDP growth, an expanding account surplus, and surging private investment. The government raised domestic and international expectations even further by making lofty promises to exceed its targets for growth, infrastructure development, and high-income status. However, despite promising initial results, the economy is floundering, as targets pass by unmet and as the 1MDB scandal continues to cast a long shadow over Malaysia's government and financial institutions.

Annmaree O'Keefe wrote about Yemen's cholera epidemic:

So why is Yemen a record-breaking cholera epicentre? The International Committee of the Red Cross is blunt in its assessment. ICRC President Peter Maurer issued a statement after a visit at the end of July that made clear his view this outbreak is manmade. He described the outbreak as 'a direct consequence of more than two years of warfare. The health care system has collapsed, with people dying from easily-treatable chronic diseases.' He said the parties to conflict had to stop the attacks on hospitals, and electricity and water plants. 'Otherwise, more tragedy will ensue.'

Stephen Grenville on how to tax increasingly mobile capital:

Instead of lowering the company tax rate for everyone, why not give the foreign shareholders the benefit of imputation, allowing them a credit against any income tax they might pay in Australia? After all, the core logic of imputation is that the company structure is just a legal veil: to tax both the company and the shareholders amounts to double taxation. In practice this would be complicated and probably few of them pay Australian tax anyway.

Is the old idea of the Kra Canal making a comeback? David Brewster:

The project would involve carving a US$28 billion, 135km canal through the Thai isthmus between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, cutting some 1200km (or two to three days) off journeys between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. It would be the Asian equivalent of the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal, and would be substantially more difficult to build.

The idea has been around for a long time. A really long time. The British and French looked at it in the nineteenth century. They decided it was too hard, but the British still extracted a promise from the King of Siam that no-one else would be allowed to do it. In the 1930s, there was a scare about Japanese plans to build it, which would have allowed the Japanese fleet to bypass the British base at Singapore.

Anas Iqtait says the Saudi-Qatar dispute is getting longer and deeper:

Meantime, with no political agreement in sight to mimic that of 2014, a regional environment battered by antagonisms and petty  personal quarrels, Iran and Turkey pursuing opportunistic political and economic point-scoring, and an international community distracted by more-pressing domestic and international disputes, the Saudi-Qatar dispute is increasingly becoming characteristic of a new regional normalcy.

As the crisis drags on, far from dragging Qatar into the fold as intended, the rift between Qatar and its neighbours is likely to continue to expand.

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Evans.

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