Sunday, December 21, 2014

Shinzo Abe’s New Mandate


Abe’s win at the polls signals a democracy in disarray and a shift to a neo-nationalist agenda.

Shinzo Abe is back. Last month, the day after Japan slid into a technical recession, the Prime Minister called snap elections to renew his claim to rule. The bet could not have been safer. The timing gave opposition parties only two weeks pull together a campaign, and with the Democratic Party of Japan, thrown from power in 2012, polling only 11 percent, Abe had little to worry about.

He billed the vote as a plebiscite on Abenomics, his neoliberal cocktail of one part fiscal stimulus, one part monetary easing, and one part structural reform. The heady blend is supposed to jolt the Japanese economy – still the third largest in the world – out of the coma it fell into in 1990. The result so far has been good for classic export giants, which are again posting profits as the yen falls against the dollar. The stock market, which tracks currency exchange rates more than productivity, is up too. But as was the case with the program’s American namesake, none of this is trickling down. Workers have seen their paychecks shrink by 2.8 percent, while they pay 3 percent more in consumption tax at the till. Continued labor market deregulation in the country once known for “lifetime employment” has shifted nearly 40 percent of workers onto limited-term contracts with poor provisions. The bigger picture is also grim. GDP is 1.6 percent lower than it was a year ago, and Moody’s recently downgraded Japan’s credit rating, placing greater pressure on the government to tame its growing deficit. Still 25 years of stagnant growth have left many voters ready to accept anything as long as it’s change. Abe laid out the options for them in his ominous TINA campaign slogan: “There is no other way to economic recovery.”

The Liberal Democratic Party is hailing the victory as a landslide. With its coalition partner, New Komeito, it controls more than the two-thirds of seats in the House of Representatives. But trumpeting the supermajority diverts attention from its shaky popularity. Abe’s party not only fell short of its goal to secure 300 out of 480 positions in the lower house, it actually lost three seats. Snap elections typically draw voters to the polls, but this one saw them staying home in record numbers. Compared to the last general elections, about ten million fewer people thought their voice would make a difference, and the 52 percent turnout was the lowest in Japan’s postwar history. The real winner of widespread dissatisfaction with business as usual was the Japanese Communist Party – the only group to offer an alternative platform with consistency – which nearly trebled its seats to 21.

Beyond the JCP, however, the opposition is in disarray. The Democratic Party of Japan, which controlled the government from 2009 to 2012, picked up a few seats, but its total win of 72 fell far short of its goal to secure 100, and its own party leader, Banri Kaieda, failed to win re-election. The result is a blow for those who hoped that electoral reform would bring about a two-party system. Instead, we see a return to the default predominance of the LDP in the absence of alternatives. Even if the party has controlled the government for 55 years out of the last 59, it’s not terribly well liked, and hasn’t claimed a simple majority in the popular vote in over half a century.

But this matters little in a system where seat bonuses are divvied out to the party that secures the largest number of ballots. The result is a commanding position for Abe. The LDP, with its coalition sidekick, holds the supermajority in the House of Representatives needed to pass legislation over the heads of other parties. The duo also holds a simple majority in the House of Councillors, which will hamper the veto of legislation passed in the lower house. What will Abe do with this great power and a renewed mandate? With the election results coming in, he hinted at the program ahead in a press conference where he told the media that it is his “ardent desire” to revise the Constitution.

Like Denmark, Japan has never amended its founding document, but current LDP proposals call for a comprehensive overhaul that would transform nearly all of its 103 Articles, beginning with the Preamble. In place of its hymns to universal human rights and personal liberty would come solemn declarations of Japan’s long history and unique culture. The emperor, relegated to symbolic status following imperial defeat in 1945, would be upgraded to the position of Head of State. Throughout the document, the revisions would emphasize the importance of maintaining public order over protecting individual rights, such as free speech. Eroding the position of the individual yet further, the family would replace the person as the basic unit of society. And, crucially, Article 9, which – read according to the letter – rejects war as a sovereign right, would be rewritten to legalize a full-fledged army. If the “Peace Article” has been reinterpreted over the years to allow a National Police Reserve then a National Safety Force, and now a Self Defence Force, it nonetheless occupies a hallowed position within the national imaginary, and most Japanese will proudly declaim that their country is the only one to have given up war. The transformation of Article 9 would mark the end of an era.

Will Abe succeed? At the moment, it’s hard to tell as the procedural hurdles for amending the Constitution are high. The prime minister will need two-thirds support in both the upper and lower houses to carry his agenda forward, and the only issue on which his coalition partner doesn’t line up obediently with the master is constitutional revision. Thus he is likely to begin by changing Article 96, which specifies the conditions for altering the Constitution, to require a simple majority in both houses, as well as in a popular referendum. Once this hurdle is lowered, he can sprint ahead with other reforms. Of course, none of this is a done deal. But even if Abe’s “ardent wish” to overhaul the country’s founding charter is not fulfilled, he may proceed to implement his neo-nationalist agenda with the alternative methods he has employed since he entered office. Free speech can be circumscribed through other means, and on December 10, his State Secrets Law took effect. This anti-whistle blower act threatens journalists with five years in prison, and their sources with ten, for reporting on a poorly defined range of issues deemed critical to state security. Rewriting Article 9 to allow a national defence force would only clarify what has already become practice. In July Abe’s Cabinet Legislation Bureau decided that the Article’s wording – “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the treat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” – doesn’t actually mean quite what it says, and that the Self Defence Forces could indeed use force if an international dispute involved Japan. Similar creative problem-solving could be applied to implement other elements of his neo-nationalist agenda. Whether by hook or crook it looks as though the red sun is growing larger in Japan’s future.

Kristin Surak is a Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The US And Japan Should Help Taiwan Acquire Modern Submarines

‘As long as it appears that Taiwan has strong backers, cross-Strait peace is more likely.’

After waiting more than thirteen years for the U.S. to meet its offer to update Taiwan’s aged submarine force, Taipei recently announced plans to develop its own submarines locally. Taiwan’s willingness to assume a greater share of its defense is laudable. But Taipei has no experience building these complex vessels, and it is falling further behind China’s growing military power. It should thus acquire them sooner and more cheaply from Tokyo, with Washington openly contributing to blunt Beijing’s retaliation. If the U.S. and Japan refuse to strengthen Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, China will infer that its willingness to take Taiwan outweighs other nations’ readiness to stop it. That calculus would heighten the risk of a cross-Strait conflict, and raise doubts about Washington’s willingness to defend its other regional partners as China presses them in the East and South China Seas.

Submarines are valuable to Taiwan, even if they will not swing the China-Taiwan military balance in its favor. China, only 100 miles from Taiwan, threatens forcible unification. Modern Taiwanese submarines offer an asymmetric response, particularly because China’s anti-submarine capabilities are deficient. For instance, these vessels could contest a Chinese maritime blockade and attack Beijing’s amphibious vessels if China tries to invade the island by sea. Yet Taiwan fields a small, antiquated submarine force: two were acquired from the Netherlands in the 1980s and its remaining pair (used solely for training) was built in the 1940s.

Taipei has long-requested international assistance to modernize its submarines. In 2001, Washington authorized its purchase of eight diesel submarines. But that agreement remains unfulfilled because the U.S. stopped constructing such vessels in the 1950s (it uses nuclear-powered models) and had ceased operating them by 1990. That left Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands with the required expertise. Until this past April, however, Tokyo followed a self-imposed ban on exporting its weapons. And the Europeans balked for fear of sparking Chinese retaliation, as occurred after the Dutch sold Taiwan submarines in the 1980s.

Lacking international support and facing an increasingly powerful and assertive China, Taiwan recently announced plans to domestically design and build four to eight diesel submarines. This move would create jobs in Taiwan and reduce its dependence on foreign arms suppliers subject to Chinese pressure to limit their defense ties to Taipei.

Still, if Taiwan is set on acquiring submarines (some argue that its budget constraints necessitate other weapon purchases), it should secure them abroad. Because Taiwan has never built a submarine, constructing its own will likely cost more ($820 million per submarine), take substantially longer to complete (a prototype may be finished by 2024, with a few more years needed beyond that to commission a boat), limit interoperability with other countries’ militaries, and yield inferior vessels compared to procuring them from an experienced source (for example, Japan can build its most advanced diesel submarine in four years for about $500 million). Given that Beijing’s military spending far exceeds Taipei’s and Taiwan estimates that within six years, China will be able to invade it while repelling a U.S. intervention, Taiwan cannot afford to waste money or time while beefing up its defenses.

The Japan Option

Japan should build Taiwan’s submarines, which will deepen their growing ties and benefit both countries. Tokyo has extensive experience constructing some of the world’s best diesel submarines, which Japan can now export. Indeed, Australia will likely purchase up to ten diesel submarines from it. Although Tokyo would have to sell Taipei less advanced models because Beijing regularly steals Taipei’s military secrets, Taiwan could potentially benefit from the economies of scale created by a combined Australian-Taiwanese order of similar submarines. Building the Taiwanese units would help boost Japan’s sagging economy and could bolster domestic support for Tokyo’s military normalization efforts. And because China and Japan are competitors, Tokyo’s strategic interests favor strengthening Taiwan so it does not become a Chinese foothold only 65 miles from Japan and near sea lanes through which Japan’s trade and energy imports pass.

Japan may hesitate to help Taiwan. At least cosmetically, the Chinese-Japanese rivalry has cooled of late, and more improvements are planned. But the proposed submarine sale would almost certainly reverse this progress. Moreover, Beijing is Tokyo’s largest trade partner, and their trade is projected to grow for the first time in three years. Japan’s weakened economy thus makes it keen to avoid Chinese countermeasures. The danger of Beijing waging economic warfare against Tokyo is real. For example, in 2010, following Japan’s detention of a Chinese fisherman caught in disputed waters, Beijing cut Japan’s rare earth exports – elements that China almost wholly controls and which are used in most cutting-edge technology. And after Japan nationalized islands in 2012 that are also claimed by China, its exports to China dropped nearly 14 percent the following year due to a Chinese boycott of Japanese goods.

Washington must therefore openly participate in Taipei’s submarine procurement, such as by subsidizing the purchases or providing the vessels’ weapons and radar. Beijing is more likely to limit its reprisal if the targets are its most serious military rivals and two of its largest trading partners and sources of foreign direct investment. Indeed, China’s leaders maintain domestic control by improving their citizens’ living standards. But the Chinese economy has slowed and may continue to do so, making Beijing wary of conflicts that could further stymie its wealth creation.

Additionally, China may curb its response for fear of encouraging presidential and legislative election victories in 2016 for Taiwan’s chief opposition party (the DPP), which opposes unification more strongly than the island’s ruling party (the KMT). Beijing is already sensitive to this risk given that Taiwan’s pro-China president has low approval ratings, the KMT just suffered heavy losses in municipal elections, including in longtime strongholds Taipei and Taichung, with the DPP securing the most victories, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese recently protested against a trade deal with China, and Taipei has closely studied Beijing curtailing Hong Kong’s democracy.

But even if China will not temper its response (because, for instance, the nationalist backlash there would be too great), the proposed submarine sale should still go ahead. If Taipei is left to develop its own vessels, conflict in the Taiwan Strait will be more likely. China views weapons sales to Taiwan as a test of the U.S.-led security order in Asia. After all, if the U.S. and its partners will not bolster Taiwan’s lagging defensive capabilities for fear of upsetting China, they appear unlikely to stand by Taipei in a battle with Beijing. China would read this outcome as confirming its growing ability to diminish America’s other regional defense guarantees and reflecting limitations on Japan’s nascent military normalization efforts. A weaker Taiwan ostensibly backed by wavering partners will thus invite Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait and beyond.

Unfortunately, China reasonably doubts American resolve. America’s willingness to defend Taiwan if China attacks it is cloaked in strategic ambiguity. Moreover, the U.S. legally committed itself in 1979 to arming Taiwan so that it “maintain[s] a sufficient self-defense capability.” Three years later, Washington assured Taipei that it would not consult with Beijing before making such weapons transfers. But Taiwan’s requests for updated defensive military equipment, such as antimissile systems and submarines, have been ignored due to Chinese protests. Indeed, Washington last publicly transferred arms to Taipei in September 2011 – the longest period of inactivity since 1990. And compared to 2004-2007, the U.S. cut by nearly 33 percent the value of weapons it delivered to Taiwan the following three years. (These reduced arms sales have not ameliorated U.S.-Chinese military competition, because additional issues underlie their rivalry.)

More broadly, China will have noted America’s willingness to let domestic lobbyists’ narrow interests stall a free trade agreement that would empower China’s rivals, failure to enforce threats made against Syria’s president, conflict-fatigued voters, defense cuts, inability to disengage from the crisis-plagued Middle East, and reliance on largely symbolic punishments for Chinese and Russian power grabs. It now questions whether the U.S. can and will maintain a meaningful global force posture and employ it (plus non-military tools like the Trans-Pacific Partnership) decisively when necessary. Absent such American support, China would deem its neighbors more compliant and extending its control easier.

As long as it appears that Taiwan has strong backers, cross-Strait peace is more likely. Washington and Tokyo must therefore help Taipei acquire modern submarines. Inaction will increase Beijing’s confidence that it can both keep Washington sidelined as it grows stronger and more assertive and convince its neighbors that American security guarantees are empty.

Paul J. Leaf worked on defense issues for a think tank. He is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and an attorney at an international law firm.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Maritime Southeast Asia: A Game of Go?

How much does the ancient game of Go, or weiqi, reveal about Chinese military strategy?

Over at The National Interest last week, Asia-Pacific Center professor Alexander Vuving ran a nifty longish essay explaining China’s grand strategy in the South China Sea in terms of the Japanese game Go, or weiqi as the Chinese call it. It’s well worth your time. Read the whole thing.

Explaining strategic behavior in terms of the games inhabitants of a civilization play is a cottage industry. Henry Kissinger, to name just one major figure, has drawn the parallel between Go and China’s deportment around its periphery.

For Alex, insisting that Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea are trivial is misguided. That’s thinking inspired by chess. Pawns as largely expendable, strategy largely linear in character. Yet by deploying seaborne counterparts to the pawn — white-hulled coast-guard ships, the fishing fleet, reclaimed islands and reefs — China encircles and exerts influence if not control over swathes of sea and sky where it bills itself as the rightful sovereign. Sovereignty means physical control of territory within certain boundaries on the map. Pawns backed by more powerful forces bring about control over time.

The geospatial thinking of a Go master, then, may be on display in maritime Southeast Asia. This supplies Beijing a psychological advantage. What looks unimportant to Westerners steeped in chess constitutes steady, incremental progress toward permanent control of territory that Beijing has pronounced an inalienable part of the motherland. It also represents steady erosion of freedom of the seas in the China seas — a process that could discredit the principle of freedom of the seas across the globe, with unknowable but certainly baneful results. Unless, that is, you think surrendering a principle on which the liberal system of trade and commerce is built is a price worth paying to appease Asia’s big brother.

But — and you knew a but was coming — I would affix an asterisk to Alex’s commentary. People are not cultural automatons. The games they play may influence how they think, but they do not determine their actions. Or, if they do, it verges on impossible to demonstrate how such factors shape conduct in the real world. If policymakers, executors of policy, or ordinary people report that Go, or chess, inspired them to do this or that, then fine. That’s about as close as it gets to proving causation. Short of that, tracing the impact of strategic culture is largely a matter of conjecture. We know culture exists, and we know it’s important. Measuring it or forecasting its effects is an elusive task, fraught with ambiguity. Hence the asterisk.

It’s also crucial not to oversimplify. Cultural influence isn’t uniform within a given mass of people. I’m virtually sure, to name one Western example I know well, that chess — linear strategy employing cost/benefit logic and pieces with varying capabilities — exerts zero influence on what I say and do. The Naval Diplomat has played little chess, has no talent for it, and — perhaps not coincidentally — has no interest in it. That would nullify Alex’s analysis if — heaven forfend — I ever attained high office. One doubts, moreover, that Go is that all-pervasive among the Chinese that it overrides ordinary cost/benefit logic, Confucianism, the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, and on and on. Go is not all-important. In short, let’s not oversell the social and cultural dimension of strategy.

And lastly, even if you assume Go or chess do provide thumb rules for appraising Eastern or Western behavior, there are countervailing strands of culture within any society. Culture is a mélange, not a simple list of traits or influences. Asians like surrounding and controlling territory? Sure they do. But they have also proved receptive to the Western strategic canon, in particular the writings of Carl von Clausewitz. Mao quotes Clausewitz repeatedly. And Clausewitz was a thinker and martial practitioner who urged statesmen and commanders to subordinate the chaotic, nonlinear world of armed conflict to rational — linear — logic.

Do Westerners prefer the linear approach? Sure, I suppose you can say that. But they also like to encircle and crush opponents. The Battle of Cannae, where Carthaginian forces surrounded and annihilated a Roman army, became a metaphor for European strategists that endured into the twentieth century. That’s rather Go-like. Westerners are direct? Sure, but the figure of Odysseus, who embodied craft, guile, and cunning, also runs through Western strategic thought. Deception has its place in Western warmaking and diplomacy.

And so forth. It’s helpful to think of civilizations as possessing dominant and recessive characteristics. Policymakers or strategists may have certain strategic preferences — Asians for the geospatial approach and gradualism, Westerners for punching opponents in the mouth — but certain situations can bring forth the recessive traits. Trying to discern what action will summon forth what response from an antagonist is more enlightening, and informative, than projecting behavior solely from the games people play.

That is all.

James Holmes for The Diplomat

The foundations of Australia’s nationhood - solvency and security - are under challenge at the same time.

This week, events called Australia's political leaders to grow up and get serious.

On Monday, the Treasury laid bare the political system's betrayal of Australia's younger generation. Successive governments have bungled the nation's longest boom. They have delivered a big, intractable deficit. The legacy of a 23-year boom and a once-in-a-century mining bonanza is a mounting debt.

In truth, Australia remains on a trajectory of unending deficit and generational betrayal. 

And the Treasury midyear report on the budget showed that the problem is worsening. A change of government was not enough to fix it.

On Tuesday, an act of violent hatred in our biggest city imposed a test on our maturity and national unity. 


Terrorists have killed and maimed Australians and Australia's interests abroad for a dozen years now. But this week a terrorist penetrated the systems of homeland defence to kill civilians at will in Australia's main commercial precinct.

These events challenge national solvency and national security. In other words, they test Australia's very sovereignty. Can we meet the challenge?

Not if we persist with politics as it is now conducted. It has been an indulgence of petty squabbles, ideological excesses, and straight-out betrayals of the national interest in pursuit of political advantage. It has favoured stoushes over solutions.

Both sides and all parties are guilty. The central urge has been to "game" the system for partisan advantage, not to use the system for national advance. "China's rise gave Australia a lot of protection through the commodities boom," the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama tells me.

A close student of Australia for 15 years, the author best known for The End of History says: "It made it easier for Australia to balance the budget and work in a more consensual way." 

More consensual? It looked frantically fractious here, but Fukuyama means that it has been more consensual than in the US. In his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, he  argues that the US has entered a stage of political decay.

It is an object warning for Australia and for other democracies too. Australian political parties and leaders have mimicked US political tricks and trends for years. Are we heading for the same outcome?

Symptoms of American decay include the fact that Congress cannot pass budgets without a rolling series of crises and near-shutdowns of government, a frantic partisanship, an extreme concentration of wealth, and a paralysis of government that Fukuyama calls "vetocracy". 

It's not just that one branch of government vetoes any action by the other but that rich lobby groups have the power to exercise veto over the US government as well.

The "capture" of government isn't limited to the success of rich lobbies and powerful industries, says Fukuyama, but also capture by tribalism and ideology. "It's an intellectual rigidity," he says, which prevents adherents from clearly seeing reality. For instance, conservatives refuse to see that deregulation of the financial sector was a key cause of the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The result: "The financial sector is more concentrated than ever and we're just as vulnerable as we were."

Politics and governance, Fukuyama warns, "is an area where you do not want to emulate us".

Australia's institutions are designed differently to those of the US government is inherently more manageable in a Westminster system. And compulsory voting gives Australia a greater protection against the extreme fragmentation that the US suffers, Fukuyama says.

But some parallels seem clear. The Abbott government brought perhaps the most ideological approach to the  budget that Australia has seen. John Howard certainly didn't attempt to deregulate universities or introduce a Medicare co-payment. The attempt to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a pure ideological indulgence.

Each time it has launched Australia onto an ideological course, it has got itself into trouble as public opinion has pulled it up short through the mechanism of the Senate. 

If the Coalition is "captured" by ideology, Labor is captured by its tribalism with the trade union movement in an increasing grotesque dislocation from the mainstream of the workforce. Gough Whitlam, much lauded in eulogy, first had to break the union monopoly over Labor to make it electable before he could achieve anything. 

But Bill Shorten is content to allow an ever-shrinking and publicly disgraced union movement to retain its veto over the Labor Party.

And powerful special interests have exercised veto over both Coalition and Labor alike. Regardless of what you think of the policies involved, it's undeniable that the ACTU campaign against Work Choices vetoed the Howard government and helped bring it down.

And that the mining campaign against the mining tax vetoed the Rudd government and helped bring it down.

"The Americanisation of politics around the world is something to worry about," says Fukuyama. In Australia's case, he foresees that "if now you have declining government revenues and more painful choices" with the collapse of the mining boom, "you are likely to have less consensual politics". In other words, a risk of going from bad to worse.

In one of the conclusions of the second of his two-volume treatise on political order since prehuman times, he writes: "No one living in an established liberal democracy should therefore be complacent about the inevitability of its survival.

"There is no automatic historical mechanism that makes progress inevitable, or that prevents decay and backsliding. Democracies exist and survive only because people want and are willing to fight for them; leadership, organisational ability, and oftentimes sheer good luck are needed for them to prevail."

If the tendency to follow the US towards political decay has been the direction in Australian politics, the sobering news this week give our country a chance to arrest it.

Events are calling Australia to end its era of indulgence. We have entered an era of consequences.

We can't say we hadn't been warned. It was four years ago that the  Counter-Terrorism White Paper said that the terrorist threat had become a "persistent and permanent feature of Australia's security environment".

Even before the so-called Islamic State existed, the white paper it warned that an attack "could occur at any time".

Of course, the attacks and the plots have been under way continuously. Terrorists of Jemaah Islamiah bombed nightclubs in Bali in 2002. They killed 202 people including 88 Australians. The Australians were not an incidental target but a central one. 

JI bombed the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004. They killed 11 people including four embassy staff.

In the interim, Australian courts have jailed 26 locals for terrorism-related crimes in the last decade. They include Melbourne's Benbrika ring for plotting to attack an AFL grand final and to assassinate a prime minister.

This year a gang of Sunni barbarians has sought to strike back at a gang of Shiite thugs in Iraq. It calls itself Islamic State. Its sudden success in this extremist civil war has roiled Muslim communities worldwide, including in Australia.

It's estimated that between 70 and 250 Australians have travelled to Iraq to join the killing. ASIO says that about 20 have died there, and another 20 or so have returned. The domestic spy agency says that it has advised the government to cancel some 100 passports to prevent more Australians joining the bloodletting.

The Australian people understood the danger. In the Lowy poll this year, 65 per cent of respondents saw international terrorism as the foremost threat to Australia's vital interests in the next 10 years, with 65 per cent seeing it as a critical threat.

In September the federal government raised the threat level warning from medium to high. This signalled that a terrorist attack was "likely". Yet the country still seemed unprepared for the success of an attack at home.  The enemies of Australia and the enemies of civilisation can take some satisfaction from the hyperventilation over the event and divisive recrimination over its causes.

Similarly, we had been extensively warned by experts for a decade that the federal budget, temporarily boosted by the mining boom, was in structural disrepair and that economic reform was fatally sclerotic.

The Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, had pointed out that the boom was temporary yet Australia was behaving as if it were permanent. The eminent economist Ross Garnaut had warned in his book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom that political dysfunction and policy sclerosis was leading inevitably to many years of painful falls in national income. 

Any number of fiscal experts, notably Saul Eslake and Stephen Anthony, have been warning from as far back as the Howard years that the government was spending recklessly the fruits of a temporary boom.

These warnings have now become our reality. When Kevin Rudd helped ward off recession with Australia's big fiscal stimulus, he promised that net government debt would peak at 7 per cent of GDP then taper off. This week Treasury's midyear report projected that net debt would peak at 17 per cent of GDP before tapering off. In truth, Australia remains on a trajectory of unending deficit and generational betrayal.

Can Australia's political leadership grow up and confront an era of consequences?

The Abbott government so far is failing to adjust to the budget realities. It needs a more fairly based program to address deficits. And Labor is being plain irresponsible. 

But the terrorist attack has brought forth a better side of Australian political character from the leadership. 

A few months ago Abbott was playing pathetic political games of division, singling out women wearing burqas as some sort of social ill. But after the Martin Place terrorist murders, Abbott has grown up. Playing divisiveness no more, he defended Islam as a religion of peace and stood as a leader of national unity This is a hopeful development in Abbott, prime minister. Shorten, too, has acted for national unity and not sought advantage.

If this is the template for Australian politics from now on, our country can dare to hope. 

Peter Hartcher is the political editor for SMH


Crossroads for Terror in South Asia

Burdwan in West Bengal, a city about 150 kilometers from Kolkata, was the location in early October of a blast inside a house which resulted in the death of two men, Shakil Ahmed and Swapan Mondal. Another man injured in the blast was later detained with with two women who were also present at the time of the blast and reportedly disclosed that those present at the time were all members of the terrorist outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuM-B/JMB) - and were planning to carry out attacks across Bangladesh.

Subsequent investigations revealed disturbing plans for a large terror scheme, with the JMB operating out of India to attack targets in Bangladesh and possibly even in India.

One scheme, apparently in the works for months, involved making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to be sent to Bangladesh and Assam to perpetrate acts of terror, as well as carrying out recruitment and fund-raising drives - with senior JMB operatives frequently visiting at least seven madrassas across three districts (Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia) near the Bangladesh border in West Bengal.

The authorities allegedly found around 50 grenades, gelatin sticks, chemicals and five cellphones with 50 SIM cards at the house in Burdwan where the blast took place on October 2, with intelligence sources claiming that at least 50 IEDs manufactured in JMB hideouts such as the Burdwan house may have already found their way into Bangladesh.

The presence of this purported resurgent terror network operating from West Bengal and Assam has found further credence as authorities discovered another two-dozen abandoned IEDs on October 17 at a desolate location in the Malda district. In the following days, six other supposed JMB sleeper-cell operatives were arrested in Assam, and leaflets and other propaganda material was discovered.

The JMB terror threat took center stage in 2005 when the group carried out a series of almost 500 synchronized blasts in 63 of the 64 districts in Bangladesh to support an agenda to do away with democracy and establish Sharia rule. The JMB is vehemently against the idea of democracy in Bangladesh and any regional cooperation between Dhaka and New Delhi.

While the JMB has not attacked India, the group has been known to provide arms and training to separatist elements operating in northeastern parts of the country. The JMB also has had a long history of cooperating with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and is even reputed to have ties to al-Qaeda.

A recent revelation by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, is of vital importance. The day after leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s pronouncement that al-Qaeda has a dedicated South Asia wing, Gogoi revealed how his government had intelligence on al-Qaeda’s attempts to set up a base in the state and how the group had allegedly entered into a "tacit understanding" with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

If validated, these signs certainly wouldn't paint a very positive picture, for India and its neighbors. A resurgent JMB, with LeT and local northeastern separatists, and a ULFA-supported al-Qaeda presence, could create new safe havens for terrorist/insurgent groups across a region comprising Bangladesh and parts of the surrounding Indian border states of Assam and West Bengal.

The recurring rhetoric for the past few decades has been rising concern over Bangladesh turning into a safe haven for extremist elements looking to target India. However, given recent events in Assam and West Bengal, the government in New Delhi and respective state governments need to have a comprehensive and honest re-examination of the factors that have led to the current situation at the periphery.

While India claims to have established a closer relationship with Bangladesh on issues related to regional terrorism, facts seem to point in the opposite direction and India at times lacks the necessary will to act on information received from intelligence services across its borders. For instance, four years ago, Bangladesh pushed for the extradition of an alleged terrorist who had been reportedly operating from one of the seven madrassas recently targeted for use by the JMB leadership.

A foreign ministry official had claimed in an unofficial report that the state government at the time was reluctant to help. On another occasion, efforts by then-Indian intelligence services chief K C Verma to get the central government to act on Bangladesh’s request for extradition of a supposed JMB operative failed because then-Home Minister P Chidambaram was unable to coordinate with the West Bengal government.

A fresh wave of extremism in Bangladesh can dent the still-developing democratic structure of the country, something which is bound to have repercussions for India and New Delhi's efforts for regional safety. In that regard - and in countering the overall menace of terrorism in South Asia - New Delhi needs consciously and seriously to take regional leadership and promote an integrated regional approach.

Most importantly, that includes a focus on developing the right infrastructure and other socio-economic tools to ensure a conducive and safe social environment for youths and various minorities in the region; successfully countering negative ideologies is a more holistic solution to the prevalent and gravely rising threat of parts of these states turning into terrorist hubs.

Only a firm hand in dealing with the state governments on these issues, along with greater dialogue, bilateral involvement and trust with Bangladesh over issues of border security and intelligence, and indirectly through supporting democracy, can dispel these imminent internal and regional threats.

Uday Deshwal is an MA graduate in South Asia & Global Security from the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and currently is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India.


The landmark Australia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) will enter into force on 15 January 2015.


JAEPA is by far the most ambitious trade deal that Japan has ever concluded, particularly in agriculture.  It allows for two tariff cuts in quick succession: one on entry into force and one on 1 April 2015.


Subsequent phased tariff reductions will also occur on 1 April each year.


More than 97 per cent of Australia's exports to Japan will receive preferential access or enter duty-free when the Agreement is fully implemented.  There will be a rapid tariff reduction for our largest agriculture export beef, worth $1.4 billion, and there are strong outcomes across horticulture, wine, seafood and processed foods.  All Australia's current resources, energy and manufacturing exports will enter Japan duty-free entry within ten years.


The Agreement guarantees broad access to the significant and well-developed Japanese services market for Australian suppliers.  It also provides enhanced protections and certainty for Australian investors in Japan.  It sends a clear message to Japanese investors that Australia is open for business.


While Australia will have the strong early advantage of striking a deal ahead of our competitors, we are also continuing to push for additional outcomes in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.


JAEPA is one of three bilateral trade agreements the Government has concluded with our North Asian trading partners which will provide major market access gains for Australian exporters.  The Korea FTA entered into force on 12 December 2014, and Australia and China announced the conclusion of FTA negotiations on 17 November 2014.


The full text of the agreement is available on the DFAT website

( together with a range of fact sheets and explanatory materials.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

New Advance Review Title Release 'We All Have Secrets'

New Advance Review Title Release
“We All Have Secrets”
Australian Fiction
Author: Bradley, Elsie
RRP $24.95
     1-925230-89-9   978-1-925230-89-5  We All Have Secrets