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ABC bureaux closures: sacrificing the bang for the bucks?

by Alex Oliver

The latest news from the ABC bunker is that while Lateline may survive the latest round of cuts, the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi may be shut down.

The ABC Board met yesterday, reportedly to decide on measures to achieve efficiencies of up to $100m following the Budget and the Lewis Review, and in the wake of the Australia Network axing

Many have been shocked by ABC management's post-Budget decisions. The slashing of Asia Pacific News Centre and Radio Australia services, as Jenny Hayward-Jones outlined back in July, has resulted in the decimation of news coverage in and from the region and the exit of veteran international correspondents and journalists such as Sean Dorney, Catherine McGrath and Jim Middleton.

The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, insists that the requisite efficiencies can be met through administrative and back-office cuts. Others are less confident and hugely concerned at ABC management tactics.  

The Minister has a deep and abiding respect for international journalism and an understanding of its importance for Australia. Below are some extracts from his speech here at the Lowy Institute in August, at the Institute's annual media awards for foreign policy journalism (you can read or listen to the full speech here):

Only the ABC now has a substantial international presence with twenty Australian and 35 locally engaged staff overseas; a good example of what a public broadcaster should do in my view. It is, of course, much cheaper to fly in teams to cover specific stories on an on-needs basis. A study by the Media Standards Trust in the U.K. found this has become much more attractive for news organisations to cover locations when there is a specific event or crisis - such as, say, Ukraine. But this comes at the expense of a deep knowledge of the country and the contacts needed to develop stories in depth.


Media companies on digital platforms tend to chase two things to get clicks: cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets. As I have said before, it often feels like the ‘news cycle’ has been replaced by the ‘outrage cycle’.

But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes -- they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger describes the new media world as enshrining the ‘dumbbell model’ of journalism -- all the weight has now shifted to the two ends of journalism, leaving not much in the middle.

And while management in media corporations might chase audiences through this 'dumbbell model', there is evidence that the audience itself values genuine foreign affairs coverage:

As one very senior journalist in Canberra’s press gallery told me: ‘There has been a huge amount of complacency, a growing lack of media interest in policy, [and] a function of that is a most conspicuous lack of interest in what other countries are doing in a policy sense, and this is reinforced by the problems of the business models of newspapers’. But interestingly, while there may be more of a focus on less weighty issues, consumers nominate foreign affairs as the most important reason for following the news.

The ABC, according to the Minister, has been the 'standout' in coverage of foreign affairs in Australia:

In recent years, The Australian has closed bureaux in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok and New Zealand but still has correspondents in Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Jerusalem and of course a very extensive network of correspondents to draw upon from the wider News Corp stable.

Fairfax has correspondents in Washington, London, Beijing, Delhi, the Middle East and has reinstated Lindsay Murdoch in Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok. Over the years it has pulled out from Wellington, Tokyo and New York.

The Australian Financial Review no longer has anyone in Tokyo, our second largest trading partner. The ABC is the standout in this area. It has bureaux in Washington, London, New Zealand, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Tokyo and stringers in many other locations.

Perhaps no more. If the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi are closed, there go two of the last remaining sources of first-hand news from two of Australia's most important partners and neighbours in the region: Japan, Australia's second largest trading partner and 'best friend' in Asia, and India, a rising power and Australia's 5th largest export destination, not to mention the soon-to-be recipient of Australian uranium following the recent agreement struck by the Government.

Last year Michael Fullilove touched on this issue in arguing the case for Australian eyes on the world, saying:

The rise of Asia means Australia finds itself a lot closer to the centre of geopolitical and economic action than in the past. It is vital to the national interest, therefore, that Australians understand what is happening beyond our shores...But we cannot simply rely on the homogenised worldview of international wire services...

The big international wire services might bring us news from around the world, but they won't necessarily cover the news that's of significance to Australia, because – gasp – Australia often doesn't figure in global news. When an important source of news and information is lost, so is an important input into the foreign policy debate in Australia. And we are the losers. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brian Smith.


Pacific island links: Australian-Fiji ties, Micronesian trade, Benny Wenda and more

by Tess Newton Cain

Catch up with news, commentary & analysis from and about the Pacific island region:

  • Australia is working hard to normalise relations with Fiji now that the election is over, including the restoration of military ties. But there is still no word as to when the Bainimarama Government will welcome Australia's High Commissioner.
  • The government of Nauru is threatening to shut down services, having run out of cash (this despite the regional processing centre generating a 10% uptick in GDP for 2014). Newly introduced legislation means that non-citizens who work on Nauru or supply services will be required to pay tax within the jurisdiction.
  • The Secretariat of the Pacific Community has worked with the Ministry of Education in Vanuatu to produce the 2013 annual statistical digest [pdf].
  • In the Cook Islands, a High Court decision has resulted in the ruling party losing its one-seat majority.
  • New research adds to what we know (and what we don't know) about the history of the Polynesian colonisation of New Zealand.
  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group is providing assistance to Micronesian states in establishing the Micronesian Trade Center.
  • At the UN, Pacific indigenous peoples called for a moratorium on seabed mining until appropriate national regulatory frameworks are in place. Vanuatu has since released a draft policy on deep sea minerals [pdf].
  • Benny Wenda is the charismatic face of the fight for the independence of West Papua. Learn more about him, his life in exile  and his activism  from this documentary: 



Strategic stability and SSBNs: Arms control may be the answer

by Peter Dombrowski

From a strategic perspective, the bottom line attraction for states seeking to acquire nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is survivability. States possessing SSBNs cannot be victims of a disarming first strike.  They will always possess the ability to strike back with submarine launched ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons in order to inflict unacceptable damage on the attacking state. If this logic is correct, bilateral relationships will be stable because neither side will have an incentive to strike first.

Given some of the assertions in this Interpreter exchange on Indo-Pacific regional stability and SSBNs, it is worth revisiting two assumptions necessary to believe in SSBN survivability:

1. That they remain continuously at sea and;

2. They are very difficult to find once deployed.

Both assumptions are largely derived from the way the US and, to a lesser extent, the other powers possessing SSBNs — the British, French and Soviets — theorized about and operated SSBNs during the Cold War.

Yet for a SSBN force to operate continuously at sea requires at least three, but likely even more, of the platforms (depending on possible attrition during actual war) given deployment patterns. Neither India nor China are likely to possess sufficient numbers of SSBNs in the immediate term to operate continuously; in a simple sense, one vessel prepares to go to sea while another deploys and the third refits after its deployment. And of course, both countries must develop the training, tactics and procedures, not to mention maintenance and personnel policies, that would allow for this cycle over time. 

There are also reasons to doubt the assumption that SSBNs will be largely undetectable by adversaries in context of the Indo-Pacific. Indian and Chinese submarines, at least for the foreseeable future, are likely to be noisier than Russian, British, and French SSBNs, much less their American counterparts. Moreover, operational and doctrinal features of both navies may ease the inherent difficulties of detecting SSBNs. Both countries have a limited and well-known number of bases capable of housing them. Absent a larger number of hulls, both countries are likely to operate SSBNs in ways detectable to intelligence collection at the strategic and tactical levels. 

Indian and Chinese SSBN deployments are likely to spur greater efforts to develop anti-submarine warfare capabilities in many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. With a limited number of platforms, limited ability to spend time at sea, as well as command and control constraints (the importance of which has been raised in Ravi N. Ganesh's post), operational doctrine may derive from a modified version of the bastion concept used by the Soviets in the Cold War. Indian and Chinese SSBNs may remain in port until they 'surge' to pre-designated undersea bastions protected by anti-submarine warfare techniques and surface ships during crises. 

Aggressors may thus have incentives to attack adversary SSBNs in their home ports preemptively, as well as to find and neutralize undersea bastions. Unless China or India invests in large scale hardening — think U-boat pens in World War Two adapted to withstand nuclear and deep-penetrating conventional weapons — SSBNs will be vulnerable in their home ports, when transiting to and from those ports and likely, their bastions. 

Protecting bastions will be costly: China and India will have to improve their own anti-submarine warfare capabilities as well as devote a large percentage of their existing undersea and surface fleets to defensive measures. There are also opportunity costs; those parts of the fleet devoted to protecting SSBNs will not be available for offensive operations during crises. 

Further, if a nuclear state wants to protect against a disarming first strike, there are other potentially less costly ways of doing so. Existing or newly developed missile delivery systems (leaving aside air-launched weapons here) can be either mobile or hardened. Mobility and hardening at the very least introduce uncertainty into an adversary's calculations at, debatably, less cost and while leaving expensive and flexible naval assets available for other missions. 

Which brings me back to my original point about naval arms control. 

For those interested in strategic stability, not to mention peace, arms control remains attractive. In practical terms, there are remote prospects in the Indo-Pacific of achieving broad based disarmament for the three potential possessors of operational SSBNs, or in the case of Pakistan, diesel electric submarines armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles.  Yet even during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union found ways to limit the riskiest forms of military competition. India, China, and Pakistan each possess sophisticated strategic communities well aware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Thinking carefully about arms control measures for SSBNs — one of the most expensive and riskiest forms of proliferation — could begin the path toward to reducing military tensions across the entire region. Third party states like Australia and Japan affected by the nuclear rivalries at sea might provide good offices and perhaps even incentives to initiate arms control negotiations.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Navy Page.


Xinjiang and terrorism (part 1): China's global narrative

by Michael Clarke

The ABC's Foreign Correspondent story 'Crackdown', about Beijing's renewed hard-line in Xinjiang and which aired last night, has been the focus of considerable Chinese ire. The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that officials from China's embassy in Canberra pressed the ABC's Managing Director, Mark Scott, not to air the story by the Beijing-based correspondent, Stephen McDonell. As pointed out in the SMH story, such pressure harks back to Chinese efforts in 2009 to have the Melbourne Film Festival pull a biopic of Uyghur exile leader, Rebiya Kadeer.

While the argument implicit in the story, that this latest incident threatens to negatively impact Sino-Australian relations, may be over-stated, this incident demonstrates the extent to which Beijing is committed to managing the narrative vis-à-vis Xinjiang and the Uyghur on the international stage. In this regard, recent developments in Xinjiang itself and in the wider Islamic world suggest that this will be an increasingly difficult task, with many potential pitfalls for Beijing.

The Xinjiang and Uyghur issues have been in international media headlines recently due to the trial and sentencing of dissident Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. China's rhetoric regarding this is highly symbolic of not only its repressive tendencies in Xinjiang, but also some of the difficulties in attempting to shape international opinion. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on 23 September for using his Uyghur and Chinese language website, Uygurbiz, to 'spread lessons containing separatist thoughts', incite 'ethnic hatred', and 'separate Xinjiang from China'. Observers, such as James Millward, have noted that Beijing's 'fruitless' repression of Tohti not only 'denied itself a critical Uighur viewpoint and an alternative approach to the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang', but also 'subjected itself yet again to international opprobrium' from Western governments and various human rights NGOs.

What has been missing from such reactions to Tohti's sentencing, however, has been comment on the verdict's pointed criticism of the academic for attempting to 'make an international issue' of Xinjiang and the Uyghur, by agreeing to interviews with foreign journalists and media organisations.

The irony here is that it is Beijing that has driven the internationalisation of the issue.

Beginning in the early 1990s Beijing made the issue of Uyghur 'separatism' or 'splittism' a key concern in its bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with the states of Central Asia. Governments in the region committed to a zero-tolerance approach to potential Uyghur 'separatist' activism in their countries as the bedrock of their expanding relationships with Beijing. This approach was also extended to China's relations with Turkey, where a major Uyghur population had migrated after Xinjiang's absorption into the PRC in 1949.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Washington's subsequent commitment to a 'war on terror', provided Beijing with a golden opportunity to convince the international community that its repression of Uyghur dissent was justified, as it too faced Islamist-inspired terrorism in Xinjiang. This initially bore fruit with the US State Department, which listed the 'East Turkestan Islamic Movement' as an 'international terrorist organization' in March 2003. Since that time Beijing has regularly sought to embed the Uyghur issue into the discourse of the 'war on terror', blaming the periodic violence in Xinjiang upon externally-inspired Islamist terrorism.

For evidence that this effort remains an ongoing concern, one should look no further than China's attempts over the past few months to link violence in Xinjiang to the Islamist threat du jour: the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. China's envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike,  stated on 23 July that after consultations with various governments in the region, including Iraq, he estimated that 'up to 100' Chinese nationals, mostly 'East Turkestan elements' were fighting with various Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS.

The Obama Administration's statement on Tohti's sentencing, in which it expressed not only its deep concern over his fate but also portrayed him as 'civil society leader' promoting inter-ethnic dialogue between Uyghur and Han, also drew a particularly strident response from Beijing linking the Uyghur, Xinjiang and the ISIS threat. The state-controlled Xinhua editorialized that such lauding of 'criminals as human rights fighters' demonstrated the West's 'deep-rooted belief that China has colonized Xinjiang' and its desire to 'hype Xinjiang-related incidents with the aim of making domestic issues international'. 'As the warplanes of the United States and its allies bomb the Islamic State', it continued, China's 'painstaking efforts to eradicate the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism in Xinjiang should have been viewed as part of the world's anti-terrorism endeavors. Ilham Tohti should be denounced as a criminal threatening the peace and security of a country'. 

Such posturing demonstrates Beijing's failure to recognise that its strategy of internationalising the Uyghur issue has now become a double-edged sword. Due in large measure to China's own strategy, the Uyghur issue has now undoubtedly become global.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Evgeni Zotov.


Indo-Pacific security links: Modi in the US, Chinese satellites, Indonesian F-16s and more

by guest blogger – blank

By David Schaefer, an intern in the Lowy Institute's International Security program. The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the US, and the Wall Street Journal reports that part of the agreement he has reached with the Obama Administration includes the creation of a new inter-agency group that will iron out problems arising from the 2005 civil nuclear cooperation deal.
  • While the media is focused on civil unrest in Hong Kong, Olivia Enos points out that long-term trends in demography will soon begin to squeeze China's economy.
  • China has launched another batch of satellites in what military experts believe to be a growing range of ocean surveillance and missile early warning systems.
  • Project 2049 have published a report on Taiwan's defence strategy, which it says is 'constructing what may be the world's most robust air and missile defence network'.
  • US diplomats are visiting Seoul to revive the six-party talks over de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. CSIS has a biographical sketch of Sydney Seiler, the US State Department's special envoy to the talks.
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's latest speech before the Japanese Diet mentioned his desire to 'build up a friendly relationship' with China. The Japan Times parses this remark as a diplomatic gesture to Beijing.
  • With an eye towards the volatile South China Sea, Indonesia's Defence Minister has announced plans to station an F-16 fighter squadron on Indonesia's Riau Islands.
  • For a comprehensive account of Indo-Pacific maritime disputes, Mohan Malik's new book is being released in the coming weeks, and includes a chapter titled 'Mapping the Indo Pacific? China, India, and the United States', authored by Rory Medcalf.

The Lowy Institute International Security Program's work on Indo-Pacific security is supported by two grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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