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Opposing war does not make you left-wing

by Sam Roggeveen

Great piece from Fairfax's US correspondent Nick O'Malley today on those in Washington who are resisting the rush to war in Iraq and Syria, most notably prominent foreign policy realist Stephen Walt, who argues that a large scale US intervention against Islamic State (IS) 'could make the broader regional situation even worse. Even if such a reaction was to work, he says, it would be disproportionate to the threat posed to the US by the IS, which Walt believes is real but limited, and certainly not existential.'

I agree with Walt and I said some broadly similar things last week. This evidently surprised the people at Crikey. In a curious item they posted yesterday which collects the views of various pundits who are sceptical of military action against IS, I am described as a 'usually right-wing commentator' who has 'taken a jump to the Left'.

But of course you don't need to be left-wing to oppose the use of military force. It is true, anti-war conservatism has become marginalised in the US by the neo-conservative faction, but before the 2003 Iraq war, there was a small rump of realist and conservative critics of George W Bush's plans to topple Saddam Hussein, including figures such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George HW Bush.

These are not dewy eyed one-worlders who think peace is around the corner if we can all just learn to get along. They recognise that international politics is fierce and anarchical, and that states need to defend themselves, sometimes with force. But they also insist on a rigorous examination of their country's core interests and are wary of the hubristic tendency to believe that lasting political reform can be imposed by outsiders through force.


China links: 3D printing, US grad schools, Hong Kong, interracial marriage and more

by Dirk van der Kley


Putin's 'New Russia' looks a lot like the old one

by Matthew Sussex

I have just returned from St Petersburg, regarded as the most 'European' of all Russia's cities. Burgeoning investment has made St Petersburg look modern (if still a little grim), and many of its residents have a worldly and cultured air. Shiny new office developments are starting to crowd out older grey concrete monoliths, and expensive products are advertised everywhere.

But for all that, St Petersburg is still Putin's Russia. The only media sources are state-approved. Bloggers with more than 3000 followers must register as official media entities and are subject to tight laws that carry jail terms for criticising public officials. All internet companies must store data on their users and make it available to the government. Journalists who are too critical of the Kremlin receive 'warnings' via a phone call to their superiors.

Near the famous Hermitage museum, market stallholders sell a bewildering array of clocks, clothing and crockery, all emblazoned with Putin's stern face. You can buy 'Russian leader' tea (the Putin variety is naturally the strongest). Against a backdrop of fighter planes and tanks, a T-shirt bearing the slogan 'Russian Military Power' is currently a hot seller.

In many ways, St Petersburg is emblematic of Putin's novorossiya ('New Russia'): modernised and affluent. Yet Russians are strangely determined to constantly remind everyone – and themselves – of Russia's status as a world power.

Many of Russia's foreign policy specialists subscribe to a school of geopolitics which places an emphasis on stability in Eurasia based on the spread of Russian language, ethnicity and culture that was notionally achieved under Catherine the Great. Yet novorossiya has a deeper and more troubling meaning than a new modern Russia with a radicalised politics of identity. It was used during the Russian Empire of the 1700s and 1800s to denote the territory north of the Black Sea, currently part of Ukraine. It included much of the industrialised Donbass region and the cities of Luhansk and Donestsk, as well as the coastal town of Mariupol where Russian (and Russian-backed) troops have opened a new front.

Putin has made two major recent references to novorossiya. The first was in April this year, to justify the annexation of Crimea. The second came when he addressed the 'militia of novorossiya' on 28 August. Now he has explicitly called for the formation of a new state in Eastern Ukraine.

If this was just posturing or signalling, there would be little reason for the West to worry. The problem, though, is that Putin is using a significant amount of hard power to bring about his vision. The T-72B1 tanks (which are not used by Ukraine) videoed near Amvrosiyivka in Ukraine are proof that he has escalated from a campaign of deniability and deception to outright intervention. Russian media made little attempt to explain what ten Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces were doing on the other side of the border, except for a bland suggestion that they had 'got lost'. When the ten were swapped for over 60 Ukrainians, it sent the message that Russian lives were intrinsically more valuable than Ukrainian ones. And the decision to keep sending relief convoys to the separatists is designed to goad Ukraine into taking action against them, which would be a pretext for a full-scale invasion.

The vast majority of Russians, including even some among the marginalised 'liberal' intelligentsia, would strongly back Putin doing exactly that. Notwithstanding his media dominance, Putin is genuinely popular, especially among young people. He is seen as having restored Russia's sense of Derzhavnost: acting and thinking like a great power. Russians also generally accept Putin's regional Eurasian Union vision as being institutionally legitimate, just like the EU. They see his moves in Ukraine as authentically humanitarian, with a solid basis in international law. After all, they ask, why is it acceptable for the West to intervene in conflicts and not for Russia, whose own people (ethnic Russians) are being threatened?

Westerners are also often surprised to find that Putin is seen at home as a moderate. The Russian political landscape allows generous airtime for figures like the one-time Putin confidante Aleksandr Dugin and Vladimir Zhrinovsky, the clown prince of Russian politics. Dugin was formerly the ideologue of the proto-fascist Russian National Bolshevik party, and among many other antics Zhirinovsky's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia once published a foreign policy manifesto entitled Plevok na zapad ('Spitting on the West'). When Zhirinovsky recently suggested that Putin should be made 'supreme leader', Putin demurred, saying he ruled only due to the will of the people.

It is often said that Putin appears to hold all the aces in the imbroglio with Ukraine. This is mistaken. The EU is far more powerful economically, and so is the US, which is also vastly superior militarily. Closer to the truth is that Putin is the only one prepared to play the cards he has. The US is hoping that the Ukraine problem will go away, and sees managing Putin as a job for Brussels. But given its small military capabilities and deep internal divisions, the EU has little option but to appease members (like Germany) who are not keen on punishing Moscow too much.

Photo by REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin.


Foreign investment: Australia needs a clear strategy

by Mike Callaghan

Foreign investment policy is back in the news. The Business Council of Australia (BCA) is warning that Australia's foreign investment regime is discouraging Chinese investment, particularly from Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs). The BCA has put forward a number reform options, arguing that change is necessary because we are competing for foreign capital.

Others have flagged the need to overhaul the foreign investment review system too. Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Allan Fells has called for the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), which screens foreign investment applications, to be reconstituted as an independent and transparent agency modeled on the ACCC. It is currently a non-statutory body. The Australian National University's Shiro Armstrong says the FIRB system is like Swiss cheese, particularly with random free trade agreements (FTAs) introducing new review thresholds. Add to this changes for agriculture investment and possibly new rules for foreign real estate investment.

At a conference on 29 August, Treasurer Joe Hockey suggested the Government is contemplating a more liberal approach to investment from China's SOEs. He did not signal specific changes but said a number of times that the Government hopes to conclude an FTA with China by the end of the year; it is likely that a more liberal approach to Chinese SOE investments will be part of the FTA.

Chinese negotiators are demanding the same treatment for their government-owned investors as in other Australian FTAs. But if there is a carve-out for Chinese SOEs similar to that in the Korean and Japanese FTAs, this would add more holes to Australia's Swiss-cheese foreign investment policy.

Australia needs a clear foreign investment strategy. Foreign investment thresholds should not be a bargaining chip in free trade negotiations.

Currently, all investment applications from SOEs have to be screened by FIRB. For foreign private investors, investments over $248 million need to be screened. But in Australia's FTA with New Zealand and the US, only investments above $1.078 billion are screened. The same threshold is included in the recent FTAs with Korea and Japan.

The reason SOEs are treated differently reflects a concern that, as state entities, SOEs will may not be motivated solely by commercial motives.

The BCA notes that if FIRB screening is removed, this will stimulate investment in Australia but could expose Australia to investments 'contrary to the national interest'. But removing screening of SOEs under an FTA also exposes Australia to investments that could be contrary to the national interest. Perhaps the benefit of increased market access for Australian exporters under the FTA will offset the risk of foreign investments contrary to the national interest. However it is unlikely such a cost-benefit assessment is undertaken as part of the negotiations.

Ministers have said one of the benefits from the FTAs with Japan and Korea is increased investment by these countries in Australia. But if our foreign investment policy is excessively deterring investment in Australia, we do not have to enter FTAs to increase screening thresholds. Australia can make that change unilaterally.

The BCA's reform options range from removing FIRB screening altogether to doing nothing at all. In between are five options based around different screening threshold levels (such as the US/NZ FTA level at $1 billion or the general threshold for private foreign investment at $248 billion), and options where such thresholds would only apply to SOEs with a good track record in Australia or to those meeting specific operational criteria.

The core criteria that needs to be established in order to assess the reform options is the degree to which SOE investments are likely to be contrary to Australia's national interest. It is clear that not all SOEs are the same and Chinese SOEs are changing. In particular it needs to be established if there is a real economic threat or whether it is more a case of appeasing community concern over SOE investment. If it is the latter, the focus should be on community education.

Australia does need to overhaul its foreign investment review system. It needs a coherent strategy, not one based on concessions in FTAs. Moreover, the whole system should be reviewed, not just the treatment of SOEs. And Alan Fells is right; changes need to be made to the FIRB. The OECD has recommended that Australia needs to 'further promote foreign direct investment by easing the stringency of screening procedures'. But Australia needs a clear foreign investment policy strategy, and not one that looks like Swiss cheese.

Photo by Flickr user bleu celt.


Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Worthwhile, despite its faults

by Milton Osborne

Cambodians with copies of a Khmer Rouge Tribunal verdict. (Flickr/ECCC.)

Interpreter readers will be aware that I have frequent criticised the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC) for problems of corruption, lack of cooperation from the government, the sometimes dubious results stemming from the tribunal's character as a body with both Cambodian and international participation, and the glacial slowness of its procedures.

So it was salutary to sit down with Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh last week to hear his views on the tribunal.

Youk Chhang and his family suffered under the Khmer Rouge and he has made it his task to assemble the widest possible archive of evidence for the events that occurred under Pol Pot's regime. The Documentation Center has also worked to ensure that knowledge of the Khmer Rouge period is taught in Cambodian schools and that the general population has the opportunity to understand what the tribunal has been trying to achieve.

Youk Chhang has no illusions about the problems of the tribunal, making many of the same points that have formed the basis of my criticisms. But overall he argues that the tribunal has been a worthwhile exercise. He offered an analogy. Think, he said, of the tribunal as being like a house. It is buffeted by storms, rained on, even struck by lightning, but if it is still standing after all those problems it has justified its existence.

Because of the tribunal, many hundreds, even thousands of Cambodians have been able to share their experiences in testimony before the tribunal or by attending the tribunal's sessions to see the court processes in action and the defendants having to appear for judgment. In outreach programs undertaken by the Documentation Center, Youk Chhang and his co-workers have found that their compatriots are concerned about 'justice' and do believe that despite its slowness, the ECCC has been able to deliver justice, even if defining the term is difficult for many with whom they talked.


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