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Weekend catch-up: Sam stands down, Islam in Indonesia, our favourites from 2017 and more

The week that was on The Interpreter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, December 2017 (Photo:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, December 2017 (Photo:
Published 16 Dec 2017 

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

This week Labor's Sam Dastyari announced his resignation from the Senate under a murky cloud of alleged Chinese state influence, with Immigration Minister and slated Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton characterising him as a 'double agent'Mark Harrison on how Dastyari's resignation represents a deep shift in how Australian commentators and policymakers discuss China:

Dastyari’s resignation marks the breakdown of this complacent and inward-looking approach to China. It shows the PRC party-state as a real and unavoidable part of everything China is, rather than simply a metaphor for Australian economic policy or aspirational cosmopolitanism.

The party-state itself has clearly understood the implications of this event for its interests. The vitriolic comments by the Chinese media and government, characterising the controversy over influence as anti-Chinese, are an attempt to contain discussion of China within its place as a metaphor for Australia’s preoccupations. A number of Australian commentators have attempted the same move.

Hugh White's new Quarterly Essay argues that the demise of America's presence in Asia is happening more rapidly than anyone predicted. Sam Roggeveen:

With the luck of timing, Hugh White's new Quarterly Essay, Without America: Australia in the New Asia, was released last month at almost exactly the same time as the launch of the Foreign Policy White Paper. It was a striking moment: just when the foreign-policy orthodoxy seemed to be catching up with him, White was upending it again.

Speaking of Hugh White, he was also in The Interpreter's pages this week, arguing for a clearer Australian policy on any plans for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea by the US, after a report from Gideon Rachman noted the reticence of Australian officials to commit:

Is the view of these officials shared by the Prime Minister? If so, is that because he thinks a pre-emptive attack it would be a mistake? If so, why? Has his reasoning been unambiguously communicated to Washington, or have our allies been left to read about it in the FT? Perhaps most importantly, if Australia’s government does think a pre-emptive attack would be a mistake, then would it not be wise to say so officially and publicly?

Rod Ayson on why White's proposal is not so simple a matter for Turnbull:

Does the Prime Minister not only have to rule out Australia's participation in the shooting part of a preventive campaign against North Korea? Does he also need to indicate that as soon as the Australian government is aware the US is preparing for preventive action, Canberra will limit its security cooperation with the US in areas that directly enable the coming use of force on the peninsula? 

In balancing China and America, there might be something Australia could learn from the experience of Thailand over the decades, note John Blaxland and Greg Raymond:

Nick Bisley recently wrote in The Interpreter that mistrust between China and Australia is increasing. Could strategic trust between China and Australia improve if the two countries were to work together to solve a serious security problem?

As Xi Jinping solidifies his rule over the Chinese party-state, Isabel Hilton argues that it's worth examining how he might go about addressing climate change from such a perch:

As the year drew to a close, Xi, in his domestic capacity as chairman of everything, appeared to consolidate his leadership of Party, army and state into an unassailable, long-term dominance. It is worth asking, then, what Xi Jinping means by his commitment to globalisation and to tackling climate change, and, in what way China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, might fill the leadership vacuum created by the absence of the United States.

Twenty years after the Kyoto Protocol, Daniel Hurst takes a look back on the formulation of that agreement, and what its process might teach us about the modern struggle to engineer a global solution on climate change:

The Kyoto Protocol was a true landmark agreement, the first when developed countries committed to tangible reductions in their greenhouse gas output. But looking back, the problems that have since beset international climate negotiations were evident then. Remembering the lessons learned two decades ago might help negotiators in the present era, still grappling with an effective international response to global warming.

The Foreign Policy White Paper is more optimistic about business opportunities in Asia than pessimistic about geopolitical uncertainties in the region – Greg Earl takes a look at three reports on Asia's businesses environment:

The economic diplomacy challenges involved in reaping that promised opportunity are highlighted in three quite diverse pieces of analytical work on the business environment, published since the White Paper's launch.

Rodger Shanahan on the Russia's retreat that wasn't in Syria:

Essentially, it’s not a withdrawal. The naval and air base require significant force elements to protect and operate. And there will be an ongoing Russian requirement to advise and assist Syrian forces that pre-dates the war, as well as a need to monitor and verify the ‘de-escalation’ zones that have been negotiated. So while some Russian forces will return home, it is only too easy to hide overall force levels by highlighting outgoing units while remaining silent about incoming units.

Bobby Anderson on the future of political Islam in Indonesia:

While aspects of Sunni Islam are increasingly persecutorial in Indonesia, the link between this intolerance and the Islamic State's brutal millenarian nihilism is, for now, tenuous. While many young radicals who began persecuting Ahmadiyah have gone on to kill police or travel to Syria, nearly all do not.

The perceived decoupling of GDP and wellbeing is an indication that government's need to look beyond just that measure in constructing more 'human' policy, argued Richard Yetsenga:

Underpinning the primacy of GDP as a policy target is a presumption that this measure of growth is the most effective way to deliver the greatest benefit to the greatest number – particularly when supported by a conventional, neo-liberal economic policy that emphasises competition and globalisation. This approach has lifted millions out of poverty. But it is also clear economic growth no longer resonates as a policy target.

After addressing monetary policy, Stephen Grenville turned to how the modern era has reshaped thinking on fiscal policy:

My recent post on rethinking macro-economics argued that monetary policy did all it could (and maybe was overstretched) during the weak recovery from the 2007-2008 crisis. The blame for the failure to achieve a robust recovery lies elsewhere, mainly with fiscal policy.

This week Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors hae been running a series of reviews on their favourite books, articles, TV shows or movies this year. First, Lydia Khalil on Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott Clark's nonfiction book The Exile:

By humanising – not excusing – al Qaeda and the bin Laden family, the book also gives another layer of understanding the motivations, dedications and truly warped vision of al Qaeda.

Matthew Busch on James Meek's London Review of Books article 'Somerdale to Skarbimierz':

Meek explores both ends of a Cadbury chocolate factory (owned now by Kraft Foods) relocated from Bristol in the United Kingdom to Silesia, Poland. More than a trope about crestfallen workers and the greedy corporate outsourcing, Meek explores how the commercial and political rituals of globalisation have also forged a peculiar connection between otherwise completely disparate communities.

Nick Bisley on Omar El Akkad's novel American War

While readers may quibble with the overall plot and the dialogue can be clunky, as an account of a horrifyingly plausible future, the book had no peer this year.

And Bec Strating on the TV show The Handmaid's Tale:

Surely no other TV show captured the political zeitgeist more accurately than the eight-episode adaption of Margaret Atwood's book.

Finally, Aaron Connelly interviewed Mu Sochua, deputy leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, about the state of democracy in Cambodia and how Australia can best help the situation improve:

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