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

There hasn't been much good news on the regional security front lately, but we posted some this week. Malcolm Cook reported on moves towards a peaceful resolution of a long-running maritime border dispute between Indonesia and the Philippines:

As reflected by the extremely minimal coverage of this story even within the Philippine press, regional and global attention is focused on the disputes in the South China Sea between China and Southeast Asian states.

Yet relations between maritime Southeast Asian states and ASEAN's ability to speak with one voice on the disputes between China and ASEAN members in the South China Sea have long been constrained by the large number of intra-mural maritime territorial disputes. Finding political solutions to these disputes would remove both constraints. The Philippines and Indonesia have made a good start.

On the flip side, indications that the US is hardening its position on China's 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea. Scott Bentley looked at some new evidence that China is seizing maritime rights of neighbours, and how the US Administration is responding

In January 2013, senior US Navy intelligence officer Captain James Fanell described China's maritime strategy and ambitions as 'hegemonic' and aggressive, and said China 'bullies adversaries'. This unusually blunt assessment made news around the world. Sam Roggeveen, who broke the story for The Interpreter, described Fanell's comments as 'bracing.' 

While it did not receive quite as much media attention, Captain Fanell gave another presentation at the same conference this year, beginning with an admission that his previous comments were 'provocative, even controversial in January 2013.' Rather than concede the point, however, Fanell goes on to state that in light of recent developments, the previous year's assessment 'now seems obvious, even conservative...It sounded so aggressive then to simply state the facts. What a difference a year makes.'

There may be disagreement on whether to categorise Fanell's position as 'conservative', particularly amid reports that the Pentagon has distanced itself from other recent comments he has made.

But this should not overshadow the fact that the core of Fanell's assessments regarding developments in the South China Sea over the last several years are now reflected in statements by senior US civilian officials, quoted by Fanell in this year's speech. 

Furthermore, evidence to support his argument is readily provided by the Chinese themselves in publications funded and approved by the Communist Party, as part of what Fanell described as 'a $6.6 billion project to increase China's propaganda footprint around the world.' 

Two more pieces on the maritime theme. Firstly, Sam Bateman described the accidental incursions of Australian ships into Indonesian territorial waters as a national indictment:

For a maritime country with a huge area of maritime jurisdiction, there should be a higher level of maritime awareness in government agencies, especially regarding fundamental issues of maritime jurisdiction. Commanding officers of all our maritime enforcement vessels should have a clear understanding of the law of the sea, including how it relates to our close neighbours, most of which are archipelagic states. Responsible authorities ashore should ensure this is the case. All departments and agencies in Canberra concerned with managing the maritime domain, particularly law enforcement aspects, should have the requisite maritime knowledge and awareness.

And Peter Layton said the three most influential theories for how the US and its allies should fight a war against China need urgent re-assessment:

Just before World War I there was a significant financial system meltdown as bankers realised what was about to happen and panicked. Stock and financial markets closed and did not reopen for almost five months. Over time, solvent nations became insolvent, neutral nations such as Holland, Denmark and the US made extraordinary profits in running the British blockade and countries moved sharply towards self sufficiency and autarky.

For Australia, the results were dire. It had become rich through close integration in the global trading system. It now had to remake itself in a de-globalising world and fight a protracted war. During World War I, Australia's GDP declined almost 10% while per capita income fell 16%. In the modern era, with deeper globalisation, the impact may well be markedly worse. Waging air-sea battle, offshore control, and blockade will all make Australia noticeably poorer.

This week we concluded our first-rate series on Indonesia's emerging middle class. The final post in the series focused on the development of the Islamic fashion industry in Indonesia:

'Busana Muslim' (Muslim fashion) is booming, part of a larger trend toward 'aspirational pietism' that has fueled the growth of Muslim lifestyle magazines, Islamic banking products, tourism and devotional media. Two decades ago, it was still relatively uncommon to see women in Islamic dress, but today personal expressions of Islamic faith are much more conspicuous and part of everyday life. But while a new generation is choosing to don the veil, it is adapting to it on its own terms.

Restu Anggriani is interested in providing fashion 'solutions' that allow her customers to make their own choices about how far they want to go. Looking through her latest collection, her husband explains, 'If you look at this dress, it's actually quite form fitting. But then we add these accessories, like jackets and cardigans, to cover the shape of the body. We say to our customers, it's up to you. There might be young people for whom this is Muslim clothing, but a bit rebellious. But if you add (a jacket, for example) it's more syariah.'

Sticking with Indonesia, the popular mayor of Surabaya Tri 'Risma' Rismaharini recently made national headlines after she broke down on an Indonesian talk show. Risma is part of the so-called new breed of Indonesian politicians, and Catriona Croft-Cusworth looked at the lessons this episode might offer another of the 'new breed', presidential hopeful Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo:

'I have already given the best I can to the people of Surabaya', Risma said. 'I have given everything that I have. I have nothing left to give.'

Risma's emotional display of dedication to the people over business or political interests has triggered an outpouring of support on social media. The hashtag #SaveRisma is still trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, the PDI-P has denied putting pressure on Risma over the project or that a rift exists between her and her deputy, urging her to stay put as mayor.

The Surabaya mayor's reported struggle as a clean bureaucrat dogged by vested interests is a lesson for others in the so-called new breed of politicians. While the public preference for non-establishment candidates in the upcoming elections is clear, at least among Indonesia's middle class, the establishment remains in power.

For a figure like Jokowi, who has not yet been named a presidential candidate by the PDI-P but is still topping polls on a wave of popular optimism, Risma's case shows that it takes more than the people's support to effect change in Indonesia's democracy.

Elliot Brennan is in Myanmar at the moment, and this week he outlined the concerns surrounding that country's upcoming census

In its current form, the census will comprise 41 questions, including some on religion and ethnicity. Needless to say, these are delicate topics in one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations, which has for decades witnessed dozens of conflicts between the Tatmadaw (the military) and armed ethnic groups. 

Ethnicity has long been a volatile issue in Myanmar. This was perhaps most evident in the policy of ethnic assimilation by U Nu, Myanmar's first prime minister ('one race, one language, one religion'). It was also demonstrated in the eviction of hundreds of thousands of Indians from the country when the military junta, under General Ne Win, seized power in 1962. This has been buttressed by long campaigns fought by the Tatmadaw against groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Armies and United Wa State Army, to name but a few.

Annmaree O'Keefe  wrote for us on the decision by the PNG Government to end the practice of granting Australians visas on arrival, arguing that this can only harm PNG's interests:

This decision will make PNG the only Pacific Island country where Australians need a physical pre-departure visa. And the reason? Pure retaliation.

If you don't believe me, read the public notice posted by the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority on its website. It states clearly that the decision to ban Australians from the PNG Visa on Arrival Facility was made by the National Executive Council in December. But the PNG Government held off invoking the ban to give Australia an opportunity to re-consider its refusal to reciprocate the visa-on-arrival facility for Papua New Guineans traveling to Australia. When Australia didn't budge, the PNG Government decided to enforce the ban.

To misquote Oliver Hardy, this is another bilateral mess we're in and at the worst possible time.

As both countries are pre-occupied with the tragedy that is the Manus Island asylum seeker centre and all it implies, this on-arrival visa ban by PNG is a distraction that does not serve either country well.

Clearly the PNG Government is frustrated with Australia's long-standing refusal to loosen its visa requirements for Papua New Guineans traveling to Australia. PNG no doubt feels there should be some recognition of the depth of the relationship through easier entry requirements. It seems Australia's immigration authorities don't agree. It is sticking with the status quo which requires Papua New Guineans to apply either online or at a commercially-run visa application centre.

Our most popular post for the week was on Ukraine and the supposed democratic gains there over the last few weeks. Matthew Sussex of the University of Tasmania argued that viewing these events as a democratic triumph is hopelessly naïve:

Yanukovych will doubtless be judged harshly. But it is a stretch to describe the events of the last few months as a democratic revolution with overwhelming popular support. Ukrainians are split almost down the middle on choosing between the West and Russia. And Yulia Tymoshenko, the newly released ex-prime minister, now becomes a potential rival to leaders of the alliance of convenience that ousted the president.

Past events suggest the prospects for Ukraine are bleak. In 25 years of independence it has been hopelessly mismanaged, riven by infighting, and teetered close to bankruptcy. Each side in Ukraine's complex political elite has conducted shady deals that enriched a small kleptocracy. Its currency is artificially overvalued, the economy has stagnated, and nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. It came in at 144 out of 177 nations inTransparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, and its GDP per capita in 2012 was about US$3866 (Australia’s, by contrast, was over $67,000). 

Finally, Robert E Kelly summed up South Korean President Park Geun-Hye's first year in office, suggesting that while she has done well in the realm of foreign policy, she's had some serious stumbles in the domestic scene:

On the upside, her handling of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) expansion was great. She was tough without being provocative. Her retaliatory expansion of Korea's ADIZ to include Socotra Rock was well managed, as she was able to prevent Japan from counter-expanding its ADIZ to cover the Liancourt Rocks. That was very important, and she deserves real credit. More generally, her much-rumoured 'Sinophilia' is not blinding her to China's growing bullying in east Asia, even if China is bullying Japan, which many Koreans probably secretly approve of. Similarly, she has maintained the good-enough status quo with the US, despite regular popular resentment over the highly asymmetric character of the alliance.

Most importantly on the upside though, she has handled North Korea well. She dealt well with the spring 2013 war crisis. She sounded tough but restrained and did not give in to the bullying for aid.

Beyond that, simply managing North Korea without too much trouble is an achievement in itself. I never thought 'trustpolitik' was much more than a catchy slogan. Because really, who trusts North Korea? Grand schemes like this from the US and RoK to deal with North Korea always crash and burn. The best she can do is deal with the bizarre ups-and-down of the relationship and manage them as best she can. And she is doing that.

 Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon