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Weekend catch-up: Nuclear tests, Timor-Leste, media bests and more

What are the chances of war on the Korean Peninsula, the upcoming Lowy Institute Media Award, Assad's momentum in Syria and more.

Chinese Ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi speaks with his team during an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss North Korea's nuclear test, September 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Stephanie Keith)
Chinese Ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi speaks with his team during an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss North Korea's nuclear test, September 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Stephanie Keith)
Published 8 Sep 2017 

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

Last Sunday, seismic activity on the Korean Peninsula heralded North Korea's sixth nuclear test (catching out-of-office analysts unawares). While the test has ratcheted up international tensions significantly, talks are still the best option, argued John Carlson:

North Korea's belief that it is still in a state of war is generally not understood. The 1953 armistice did not end the Korean war – it only suspended it. In looking for a circuit breaker to the current crisis (ie, identifying what North Korea could gain that would induce it to change its behaviour), an obvious direction to explore is replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.

The key question is whether Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons and missiles for deterrence, primarily against the US, or for aggression. North Korea's intentions can only be tested by initiating talks. If the motivation is deterrence, this provides a basis for a negotiated solution.

Crispin Rovere on US President Donald Trump's terrible binary choice:

Now, after the abject policy failure of successive US administrations, President Trump is faced with a binary choice: accept mutual nuclear vulnerability with North Korea or embark on a major war on the Korean peninsula. There is no third option.

But while the test may have sent Western anxiety into overdrive, life south of the DMZ continued basically as normal. Robert E Kelly:

South Koreans are obviously paying attention. But there have been no runs on the supermarket; no one is building bomb shelters; civil defence is, unfortunately, still treated as an afterthought; my students still have not the slightest idea what to do if Busan is nuked and continue to be amazed that I give them advice (‘go uphill to escape ambient radiation’), and so on. But at least American 'preppers' are getting ready for a North Korean nuclear strike on the US.

In a follow-up post, Rovere criticised Kelly's argument that 'no Korea analyst of any stature has argued for war':

There are analysts discounting the possibility of war, but based on shallow reasoning: North Korea has nuclear weapons, nuclear war is unthinkable, therefore there will be no war. They have drawn the conclusion that mutual vulnerability is the least-worst option yet failed to assess the risks and benefits of this course of action, and failed to realise that not acting to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons is itself a decision carrying profound consequences.

But the Pentagon and US Pacific Command are not saddled with this deficiency. They have thought this out deeply, which is why in the wake of North Korea's latest nuclear test Defense Secretary James Mattis announced 'we have many military options and the President wanted to be briefed on each one of them'. These briefings are not just empty pages.

Last Monday, the final edition (at least for now) of The Cambodia Daily went to print, as government officials pursue a dubious $6.3 million tax bill. Opposition Leader Kem Sokha was also detained by police after his arrest on Sunday, having allegedly committed treason by plotting with foreign powers to overthrow Hun Sen's government.

With Myanmar's Rohingya, North Korean belligerence and Islamic State all on the global radar, it must be tempting for the international community to downgrade the significance of events in Cambodia. They shouldn't, argued Elliot Brennan:

For the US and the EU, Cambodia’s descent into dictatorship should be seen as a result of the loss of confidence in Western commitment to the region. If Cambodia democracy is allowed to fall without a whimper from the West, the contagion of despotism will be hard to contain in Southeast Asia. 

The time for appeasement is finished in Cambodia. A more coercive diplomacy is needed.

Aaron Connelly spoke with former Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow and world-leading historian of Cambodian politics Milton Osborne about these developments:

Osborne also reviewed Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, by Michael Vatikiotis:

The author concludes with a downbeat observation, asking whether Cambodia's position as the region's most corrupt state presages the fate of the Southeast Asian region as a whole: a cycle of relentless tragedy; partial recovery; then relapse. This is surely too apocalyptic a vision, but in asking the question Vatikiotis has marshaled his facts and arguments in such a way that this book deserves to be read by all with an interest in the region.

In Myanmar, the military is turning back to the 'four cuts' doctrine in responding to attacks by Rohingya, wrote Andray Abrahamian:

Pya Ley Pyaor the 'four cuts', was a doctrine adopted in 1968 after the Tatmadaw had had a chance to study British strategies during the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency, during which the colonial power gradually choked off a communist insurgency as a prelude to Malaysian independence. The four cuts was a doctrine designed to sever insurgents from their key inputs: funding, food, intelligence, and recruits. It was prosecuted against the Karen rebellion first, before being rolled out to deal with insurgencies.

Last Friday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration announced that Timor-Leste and Australia had reached an agreement over their maritime boundary dispute. While the announcement was light on details, a breakthrough is a good sign, wrote Bec Strating:

It's clear Timor-Leste has compromised on its eastern lateral boundary claims. What this means for the division of resources and the development plans of Timor-Leste remains unknown. A significant question mark hangs over the future of Timor-Leste's planned pipeline to the south coast and its mega-development project, Tasi Mane. More information should come to light in October following the finalisation of the agreement and consultation with various stakeholders.

The Australian economy, for so long seen as exceptional to the world's other advanced economies, may now be coming back to reality. John Edwards:

A good deal of what we now take to be the consequence of the end of the mining boom seems to be more closely related to the global impact of the 2008 financial crisis. It did not savage the Australian financial system as it did those of the US, Europe and the UK, but the impact of confidence and expectations has been deep and long lasting.

In his economic diplomacy brief, Greg Earl covered a conference run by The Economist that posed the question, 'Asia had a burning appetite for Australia’s ores but will it have the same appetite for its ideas?':

A common thread in the discussions was concern about the relatively paltry levels of interaction between Australian academic and commercial research sectors and the low numbers of people moving in and out of academia.

Technology entrepreneur Daniel Petre says: 'Large business spends very little on true R&D outside mining and meditech. We often blame unis (for poor commercial innovation) but that’s not fair, a lot of the fault lies with big business.'

Woodside chief executive Peter Coleman, who sits astride the country’s putative next largest export industry in gas, had a quite challenging observation for those who believe China is destined for economic stagnation due to lack of true innovation. He says Chinese companies are much better at searching academic research for ideas that can be commercialised than Australian companies.

And with this month marking ten years since the depositors' run on Northern Rock (which ultimately sank), are we safe from another global financial crisis? Perhaps – but that doesn't mean we're safe full stop, argued Stephen Grenville:

Memories of the post-crisis trauma are a powerful antidote against a repeat, strengthening the hand of prudential supervisors and restraining the risk-takers...Memory, however, offers limited protection against new crises with different characteristics (perhaps beginning with China's over-extended financial sector or Japan's huge government debt). It won't be like 2007-08, but the tirelessly ingenious financial sector will find new ways of getting into trouble.

In Syria, the breaking of Islamic State's siege of Dier az-Zour is the latest sign that the Syrian regime has momentum on its side. Rodger Shanahan on what that means for the country's future:

There's still a long way to go in getting a resolution to the Syrian morass, but the government certainly has momentum. And right now that counts for a lot.

Next month, the Australian government plans on shutting down the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. The ultimate failure of an offshore processing regime was clear from the 1970s, wrote Claire Higgins:

In 1978, when responding to Vietnamese boat arrivals, the then-Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Secretary Lou Engledow concluded that a detention facility would create 'a political problem', and 'will not stop boat arrival nor will it produce in itself a final answer'.

Finally, ahead of the Lowy Institute Media Award's presentation later this month in Sydney, Board Director Mark Ryan wrote on the what the Lowy Institute hopes to encourage with the award (and its rather considerable prize money):

I'm proud that the Lowy Institute makes this Award possible. In its modest way it seeks to nurture the same spirit Moorehead inspired in many young Australians of his time, people like Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James.

As Thornton McCamish notes in his Alan Moorehead biography: 'Perhaps his most enduring legacy lies in those driven by his example to go out into the world in search of astonishing stories.'

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