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Weekend catch-up: PMs in PNG and Pakistan, DFAT at 30, the NBN and more

The future of Polish politics, a new Defence Secretary, the North Korean travel ban and more.

The NBN rolling out in Broome, July 2017 (Photo; Flickr/Yaruman)
The NBN rolling out in Broome, July 2017 (Photo; Flickr/Yaruman)
Published 5 Aug 2017 

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

On Wednesday, Peter O'Neill was re-elected as Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister by a 60-46 parliamentary vote. Addressing the failings of this year's electoral process, prosecuting his political agenda in such dire financial straits, and preparing for the APEC summit in 2018 will not be easy, wrote Jonathan Pryke:

 The returning Prime Minister will have many questions to answer for the general conduct of this year’s elections, the ninth in our nearest neighbour’s short history. The election has been marred by violence, numerous allegations of malfeasance, an attempted kidnapping, and comical court proceedings.

Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's current Chief of Staff Greg Moriarty was named as the new Department of Defence Secretary, over ASPI's Peter Jennings, DIBP's Michael Pezzullo and Brendan Sargeant, currently the Associate Secretary at Defence. While Moriarty's choice may have raised a few eyebrows, Moriarty's varied background will serve him well, argued John Blaxland

As the Turnbull Government looks to place greater emphasis on security and economic challenges closer to home, it is Moriarty’s experience as Ambassador to Indonesia that is perhaps the most significant qualification he brings to his new appointment. Moriarty was Ambassador during one of the most contentious periods in bilateral diplomatic relations, witnessing a string of challenges.

In Pakistan, the Supreme Court last week disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from sitting in parliament, rendering his tenure as PM over. While there may be room for cautious optimism, there's plenty of reasons to be nervous about the future of Pakistan's democracy, wrote Emanuel Sarfraz:

The forced exit of Nawaz Sharif has left Pakistan at a crossroads. The tensions between the military establishment and civil leadership that had become a feature of Sharif's third term as Prime Minister are likely to worsen.

Andray Abrahamian sounded off on a very different threat to Myanmar's democracy – Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act:

Article 66(d) is a clause that allows up to three years in prison for 'extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network'. Since it was passed, and with much of Myanmar now hooked on Facebook, it has been used to prosecute over 70 individuals for defamation – but only seven of these cases took place between 2013 and 2015. Since the National League for Democracy came to power in April 2016, there has been an explosion of defamation lawsuits.

Last month was the 30th anniversary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's merger, which occurred alongside other restructurings that brought the number of departments down from 28 to 18. Lowy Institute Board Member Joanna Hewitt on the only mega-department from that era to still retain almost all of its 1987 functions:

One of the reasons DFAT pulled together effectively almost from the outset was there was already plenty of momentum for what would prove to be a highly energetic and creative period for Australian economic diplomacy. The cracking pace of our economic reforms of the 1980s (broadly supported across the political spectrum) opened Australia to the global economy. It was also the right time for more vigorous pursuit of engagement in our own region. Deepening trade and investment links based on obvious economic complementarities presented a practical way of drawing closer to our neighbours, supporting regional growth and prosperity, and reducing the risk of instability that could be exploited by competing external powers.

A perhaps unexpected challenge now facing the contemporary DFAT is the state of the National Broadband Network – Alex Oliver on the reputational risks at hand:

Like many other developed economies (and developing ones, for that matter), Australia is focusing on innovation to drive growth. ‘Innovation nation’ is the catchphrase, and the idea has flowed through to Australia’s international policy with initiatives such as DFAT’s innovation Xchange and our new ‘landing pads’ in Berlin, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore and Tel Aviv. These are intended to provide ‘market-ready Australian startups with access to some of the world’s most renowned innovation and startup ecosystems’.

If businesses and other aspiring innovators have inadequate connectivity to global communication systems, these innovation initiatives are dead on arrival. The dream of the ‘Innovation nation’ becomes a nightmare, Australia the accidental laggard.

The death of Otto Warmbier after an extended period in North Korean detention prompted a US travel ban – as of this month, most US citizens are barred from visiting the country. While the reaction is understandable and perhaps necessary, an important cultural conduit from the West has been cut off, argued Robert E Kelly:

American tourism into North Korea was the last, only way for regular, non-elite Americans and North Koreans to interact. Yes, it was all highly staged. Yes, it was perverted for ideological purposes by the regime. But there still was some people-to-people contact removed from the high politics of distrustful elites. North Koreans in stores, at parks, on the street, and so on could see, at least a little bit, regular Americans talking, laughing, asking to buy lunch or where to find a bathroom like everyone else in the world. And vice versa. It was not much, but at least it was something to humanise the other side.

Following his Lowy Lecture last week, Euan Graham analysed UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's comments on bringing UK naval assets to the South China Sea:

If the UK did intend to perform a FONOP within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, an aircraft carrier would be an unwieldy and unlikely choice for the mission. The US Navy has exclusively used its Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers to conduct all six FONOPs in the South China Sea since October 2015. The US has presumably settled on destroyers for its South China Sea FONOPs because they combine speed, maneuverability and self-defence capability, without appearing overly provocative to China.

Yet as the evening of the Lowy Lecture wore on, it was all too clear that Johnson knew he’d wandered off-piste on the FONOPs point. As Peter Hartcher has noted, in the question and answer segment following the lecture, the Foreign Secretary went 'wobbly', confiding that 'we haven’t yet quite decided to do that'; (1:00:40), while noting a preference for the more 'easy-going' Australia modus operandi on freedom of navigation. Oh dear.

Our ongoing debate between Hugh White and Ely Ratner over the US-China competition continued, with Ratner arguing that Chinese military and political predominance is no necessary guarantee of Chinese belligerence in the region:

The task for US policymakers is therefore to devise a set of consequences and incentives for China (at acceptable cost to the United States) such that tactical Chinese military success in the South China Sea would be a Pyrrhic victory for China's economy, security, and standing in the world. That's an entirely different exercise than solving for the problem Hugh highlights of a potential asymmetry of willingness to go to war over who owns the Spratly islands. To be more concrete, you don't have to be willing to blockade Scarborough Reef to stop China from building a military base there.

Sam Bateman critiqued the Defence statement following reports of a Chinese surveillance ship being present at naval exercises off the coast of Queensland, and argued that the ship's presence doesn't necessarily 'green light' Australian freedom of navigation operations:

The Defence statement that ‘Australia respects the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance with international law’ was not a good statement for the Australian Department of Defence to make. ‘International waters’ is not an expression used in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and Australia’s EEZ should not be referred to as ‘international waters’.

The exercises themselves were a successful integration of Australian, New Zealand and US forces, and augur well for any future co-deployment, wrote Greg Colton

The most likely deployment of an amphibious force would be within the South Pacific or along the maritime trade routes on which both Australia and New Zealand rely. Combining the capabilities of Australia, New Zealand and the US would make political as well as military sense. Therefore, the question should not be whether Australia or New Zealand are punching to their weight, but whether a renewed tripartite ANZUS alliance would be able to. Talisman Sabre 17 would suggest the answer is yes.

Responding to a different article by Colton, Nic Maclellan emphasised the need for Australian naval readiness to respond to future natural disasters (intensified by the onset of climate change):

Last year, HMAS Canberra played a valuable role after Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji – the ship’s first operational deployment since being commissioned in November 2014. In March 2016, Operation Fiji Assist saw Canberra’s helicopters and landing craft ferry crucial relief supplies ashore, as the Fiji government drew on financial support from Australia, New Zealand, China, Indonesia and other nations...

This disaster is a sign of things to come in our region. However, if Cyclone Winston had hit in 2017 instead of 2016, neither HMAS Adelaide nor HMAS Canberra would have been seaworthy to respond.

In the US, unemployment has been south of 5% for over a year. So why is the mood so morose? Stephen Grenville on why full employment may no longer be enough:

 The key issue is that the United States has reached ‘full employment’ but this hasn’t created satisfactory jobs for a significant part of the work force. The conventional discussion of the prospective slow growth - in terms of secular stagnation, demography and productivity – doesn’t answer the grievances of the Trump voters. The deep social divisions described in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their Own Land need to be part of the debate. The 'deaths of despair' that reflect the rising mortality among white men without college education are hard to ignore. Add to this the news that deaths from drug overdose (mainly of prescribed medicines) may now be accounting for much the same number of deaths as the combined effect of road accidents and guns (both homicide and suicide).

John Edwards on the shifting relationship between growth and inflation:

With all of the focus on interest rates, sometimes fundamental assumptions underpinning monetary policy are overlooked in the commentary. At times like this, when there are tentative but unmistakeable signs of possible change in those fundamentals, it’s worth stepping back to look at the big picture.

And finally, Chelsea C Michta unpacked the proposed (and then vetoed) judicial reforms in Poland, a country rent by two distinct political visions of how to construct its post-communist identity and democracy:

One postulates staying the course of a 'soft landing' from communism, while the other demands a clean break with the past and the elimination from the country's political life of the last traces of that era, including the sidelining of people tainted by the previous regime. This is a serious and long-delayed debate, which nonetheless does not justify rash solutions. In order to address this fundamental question, Poland needs fewer fireworks and more reasoned conversation. How this argument will be resolved (through compromise or an all-out confrontation) will define the country's politics for years to come.

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