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Congress, midterms and the TPP

by Adelle Neary

US mid-terms elections will take place on 4 November, with polls suggesting the Republicans will re-take control of the Senate. President Obama's next steps on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which his Administration says is the key economic plank of the rebalance to Asia, will be heavily influenced by the outcome of this election. A Republican majority probably bodes well for President Obama's chances of finalising the TPP.

President Obama delivering the State of the Union address, 28 January 2014.

As a key component of Obama's foreign policy legacy, the rebalance to Asia enjoys more or less bipartisan support. Congress understands the necessity of it, though it has from time to time put forward ideas about how it might be alternatively resourced.

Free trade, however, does not attract broad bipartisan support. Complicating matters, Congressional assent is required for ratifying trade deals; the Republicans are traditionally pro-trade, whereas the Democrats are not. When negotiations heat up, a wide range of well organised and resourced interest groups apply targeted pressure to members of Congress, which leaves those from trade-sensitive electorates vulnerable to a backlash from campaign funders and constituents if they come out in support of trade. 

Consequently, trade policy debates in the US tend to be more divisive than in Australia, where a bipartisan consensus is by now broadly entrenched. This is despite a recent Pew Research poll showing that a majority of Americans say they support free trade (even if they are not quite as optimistic about it as some other countries). 

Another striking difference between the Australian and American conversations about TPP is that in the US, the economic rationale for the deal only forms one part of its overall appeal. All branches of the US government see the TPP as a crucial geopolitical move that will cement American economic power in the Asia-Pacific region. A common refrain in Washington DC foreign policy circles is that 'the rebalance is in serious trouble without TPP'.

The unfortunate confluence of all these factors means the TPP sits at the uncomfortable nexus between US foreign policy and domestic constituency politics. Even members of Congress who understand the geopolitical imperative of the rebalance are unlikely to cast their vote with the US national interest on their minds. Instead, members' votes will largely be cast based on the putative impacts trade agreements will have on their electorates.

President Obama has not enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Congress and has been widely criticised for his lacklustre approach to pursuing the TPP. His sharpest critics say that, for a President who has placed the rebalance to Asia at the centre of his foreign policy, he has been decidedly unwilling to spend political capital on bringing it to reality. One Senate staffer quipped recently, 'it's clear when the President wants something, and it's not clear he wants this.'

Because of the way the legislative process works in the US, presidents generally need Congress to give them Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) before they can finalise a deal, otherwise it risks being picked apart by Congress, leaving it open to unlimited amendments on any subject. TPA, also known as 'fast-track authority', gives the President a set of parameters within which to negotiate and ensures a simple yes or no vote on the final bill. 

Granting of TPA, sooner rather than later, would be a confidence boost for other TPP member countries, reassuring them that any agreement would be likely to pass Congress and therefore worth their own domestic political pain. But Obama has not moved to secure TPA yet, and some commentators are beginning to speculate that he will simply submit the TPP, as a bill, to Congress. This would mean that members get to have it both ways; they'll be able to say they support the deal and the rebalance, while voting down the bill for specific reasons.

Perhaps encouragingly, potential presidential candidates from both the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party have highlighted free trade as one of a handful of issues they would be willing to work on with Obama after the mid-terms. This would also give Republicans, many of whom have spent the past two years ensconced in 'Nobama' campaigning, a chance to demonstrate that they have a positive agenda and are ready to govern.

On the Democratic side of the house, Obama was apparently chastened by Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's emphatic rejection of his trade agenda earlier this year. In line with Reid's reprimand, Obama's recent low-key approach to the TPP is an apparent attempt to insulate Democrats from losses in tight House and Senate races. Nevertheless, a solid handful of those re-elected will need to commit to supporting the TPP if the President is to have a chance of persuading Republicans to back the deal (even though Republicans are generally pro-trade, they will face blowback too).

Meanwhile, as the Administration appears to tread water, US trade diplomats from the United States Trade Representative (USTR) are working overtime on advocacy. US Trade Representative Michael Froman has written pro-TPP articles for both the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs in recent weeks. USTR negotiators have been working intensively with their Japanese counterparts in Washington DC last month, and in Sydney this month, on some of the agreement's most sensitive elements. 

But most observers agree that leaving the heavy lifting to bureaucrats will not finish what is increasingly a political job for the White House. Finalising the TPP will require the type of political compromise that has eluded President Obama since his 2012 re-election. A Republican majority in both houses, while otherwise corrosive to his agenda, means he has a greater chance of doing the deal if he can find an acceptable way forward. But this won't come easily, and a strong possibility remains that Republicans won't be able to resist kicking the President while he is down.

Optimists are looking for a sign after the mid-terms, when it becomes clear who will control the Senate, whether Obama will come out all guns blazing in pursuit of his foreign policy legacy on the rebalance to Asia and, within that, the TPP. They hope he will move quickly to ask Congress for TPA before empowering his negotiators to brace for the end game. 

Pessimists, on the other hand, don't think he has the 'ticker' to broker the compromise, leaving US TPP partners, including Australia, high and dry. 

Regardless of whether Australia sees finalising the TPP as a crucial component of the rebalance to Asia, it would be a shame to see five years of negotiations sacrificed to US Congressional politics. We should also, therefore, keep watching closely for a sign that President Obama is ready to spend political capital on cementing his foreign policy legacy.

Photo courtesy of the Flickr user The White House.


The global proliferation of Chinese drones

by David Schaefer

In November of every other year, aviation experts descend on the Chinese city of Zhuhai for a rare look at the future of China's air power. Over the last ten years, the International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition has charted the progress of China's drone fleet from concept art to functioning models. Now, as the country's investment in drone technology helps it catch up to the competition, the technology on display at Zhuhai next week could pose another challenge for the global arms control effort.

The Wing Long UAV, Zhuhai International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, 2012.

Chinese companies have boasted about muscling into the international drone market, and they appear to be making headway. In May, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia purchased an unknown number of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, a rough equivalent to the US-made Predator. This followed earlier reports of Chinese collaboration with the Algerian military, and suspicion that Uzbekistan, the UAE and Pakistan are operating Chinese drones. And in an August joint military exercise, China conducted a live-fire demonstration of drone strikes for its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

All this comes at a time when American experts are worried about their diminishing lead in unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

Several years after the Predator boom, the US military has scaled back its drone acquisition, to the point where it struggled to cobble together enough vehicles for surveillance of the Islamic State while the fighting season in Afghanistan was also getting underway. The only known future combat drone is being developed by the US Navy, and after being watered down to save on cost it is now the subject of review. In the meantime, with American export licenses for armed drones limited to the UK, there is a gap in the worldwide market which China hopes to plug.

Aiding China's export strategy are several underlying factors. In a country where central authority often needs to be imposed on wayward local officials, and where privacy restrictions don't really exist, technology which offers persistent surveillance is in high demand. Beijing has already used drones to keep an eye on polluting industries, corrupt officials and drug smugglers, assist the emergency response during earthquakes and support policing operations against Uighur-led violence in Xinjiang. All of these roles are likely to expand in the years ahead.

Drones also have commercial applications for China. Industries that are modernising in the developing world, like agricultural science and environmental mapping, rely on aviation. But the shortage of commercially available flight in China is making otherwise cheap drones a viable substitute.

As the Chinese military pushes ahead with research into next-generation fighters and bombers, improvements in engines and sensors will likely flow over into better equipment for future drones. As a result, China is forecast to become the global hub of drone production over the next decade, with the Chinese Government as the main buyer. But this raises some questions for a country with a patchy record on weapons proliferation. 

China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the major arms control body for regulating the sale and transfer of unmanned technology. This Cold War regime was originally meant to curb the proliferation of launch vehicles for weapons of mass destruction, imposing a 'presumption of denial' against the export of airborne systems able to carry dangerous payloads like nuclear weapons or biological agents. These restrictions also extend to the heavier class of drones, like the Predator. The US has tried to modify the terms of the MTCR to permit the sale of more drones, but faced with resistance from European partners, the Obama Administration is unsure of how far it can push the issue.

China's position is more concerning. It has long promised to adhere to the MTCR rules, but its 2004 request for membership in the arms control body was denied, partly from suspicion over its past violations and partly from doubt about its accountability in any future regime. 

Non-proliferation experts agree that China has been cleaning up its act on weapons sales in recent years, but there have also been some notable lapses. With so little transparency over its drone programs, it is hard to know whether China will abide by its unilateral commitment to the regime. If the Wing Loong resembles the Predator, as China claims it does, then its sale to Saudi Arabia very likely pushed close to the line of the MTCR.

To be sure, China selling drones may not provoke the kind of proliferation disaster which many critics fear. The threat of a precise 'targeted killing' campaign relies on a sophisticated and expensive infrastructure. Satellite bandwidth, guidance software, remote operating terminals, electronic sensors and informants on the ground are all needed for drones to operate far from home with any accuracy. This is difficult for all but a few of the most powerful countries to manage.

But there are many uses for UAVs among countries which struggle with messy, protracted conflicts. With the Hadithi rebels seizing cities in southern Yemen, a Saudi Arabia losing trust in American diplomacy might be tempted to intervene in the neighbouring territory with its own drones; or in a Myanmar criticised for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, a quick trade with Beijing for drones may secure the best tool for use against rebellious hill tribes. Like China's small arms exports, drones could further strain the political stability of the developing world. 

As UAV technology improves, this problem will become more acute. Already, the latest vehicles on the market blur the distinction between armed drones and cruise missiles. For instance, the Israeli-made Harop is capable of loitering in the air until it detects the radar signal of an enemy, arms itself and then flies headfirst into a target. If the sale of these advanced drones is not carefully regulated, the guidance and flight technology can be adapted to other missiles, undercutting the MTCR. Drones will offer an ideal vehicle for dispersing other types of prohibited weapons. Already, Russian scientists have warned that slow-flying drones dispersing biological weapons could deliver more damage across a wider area than a standard ballistic missile. 

With massive human and intellectual resources being poured by the Chinese state into combat drones, these problems will at some point make their way onto the agenda in Beijing. The state of drone technology and the potential buyers in the crowd at Zhuhai will shed some light on whether that time has now arrived.

Photo courtesy of


Australia and the AIIB: A lost opportunity

by Philippa Brant

The debate about whether Australia should join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has gone beyond the realm of economic development and investment to hit at the core of Australia's apparent security dilemma.

The initial concern revolved around the governance arrangements and whether Australia should be part of a new China-led regional development bank. As I argued last month, in this regard Australia would have more influence by being involved than by not.

But Paul Kelly's piece in The Australian today reveals some interesting insights into how the Australian Government views China, and how it sees Australia's position vis-à-vis its allies. It seems to me that the Government has attributed more meaning to the AIIB than need be. Two statements in particular in Kelly's article struck me:

The issue has triggered a core split within cabinet over the classic dilemma for Australia's future — how to decide between China and our US-led alliance partners. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was keen for Australia to remain tied to the existing institutions, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, now dominated by the US and Japan.

Why frame it as a choice? There is nothing in the AIIB proposal that suggests by being involved Australia would loosen its ties to the Asian Development Bank or World Bank. This is not a zero-sum decision. Indeed, this consideration evidently hasn't affected Singapore's decision to join.

Here's the second quote from Kelly, who says the cabinet debated this issue twice, but that the second discussion occurred only among members of cabinet's National Security Committee:

It is revealing that the second debate was conducted in cabinet's NSC, where strategic rather than financial arguments became paramount. Ms Bishop provided scenarios of how China could convert financial power via investment loans into direct military advantage in vulnerable nations close to Australia.

Again, this tells as a lot about the Government's thinking on China and how it views its development finance in the region. Let's think about this.

There could plausibly be a concern that if countries in the Pacific couldn't pay their debt (owed to the China Eximbank for concessional loans, not investment), China would use this as leverage or a bargaining chip for enhanced military engagement (or access to fisheries, which Pacific countries are more concerned about). The only case where this is a potential concern at the moment is Tonga; others are on track to pay off their Chinese (and ADB) loans.

Another possibility is that China's 'financial power' could be converted into soft power, with 'vulnerable nations' swayed to follow China's demands rather than Australia's. This is more likely than the first possibility. But as I've recently noted in the case of Fiji, the love for China is wearing thin.

China is already providing millions of dollars of development financing in the region and will continue to do so, both through its own financing mechanisms (like China Eximbank loans) and through a range of regional facilities – including the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and now its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. If you believe these scenarios will eventuate (and I would caution against doing so), they would happen regardless of whether the AIIB exists and certainly regardless of whether Australia is part of it.

By seeing the AIIB as purely 'an instrument of China's national interest' (and therefore not in our national interest) Australia has lost a valuable opportunity to participate alongside other Asian nations and influence the direction China's financial engagement. And the strong overtures from US representatives feeds the Chinese perception that Australia doesn't make independent foreign policy decisions, making it harder to convince China that we're not just America's 'lapdog' when it comes to China's role in the region.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Movie trailer: Zero Motivation

by Sam Roggeveen

Zero Motivation is an office comedy set in the Israeli Defense Force, and the trailer is a gem:


Looks like the movie itself measures up too, judging by the reviews. It started showing around Australia yesterday.


Aung San Suu Kyi and Kipling's Burma

by Andrew Selth

One of the inevitable side effects of Burma's long struggle for democracy has been the demonisation, or canonisation, of its main political actors. This phenomenon has been reflected in countless articles in the media and on the web about figures like Ne Win (who effectively ruled Burma from 1962 to 1988), Than Shwe (who led the country's military council from 1992 to 2011), and of course opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

There are very few books published in English about the country's military leaders. The first full length biography of Than Shwe appeared in 2010, and a scholarly account of Ne Win's career is currently in preparation. Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, has been the subject of more than a dozen biographies, ranging from books for children to major studies. She has also published three semi-autobiographical works.

This is not counting director Luc Besson's rather imaginative account of her place in modern Burmese history, as seen in the feature film The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh and released in 2011.

Given the close attention that has been paid to Aung San Suu Kyi's background and career since she first rose to prominence during Burma's 1988 pro-democracy uprising, it would be surprising to discover anything new about her. However, there remain a few areas of her private life that have still not been thoroughly explored.

These can sometimes be revealed in unlikely ways.

For example, a Griffith Asia Institute research project about the influence of Rudyard Kipling and popular Western music on perceptions of colonial Burma, has unexpectedly thrown new light on Aung San Suu Kyi's affection for both the 'bard of empire' and classical music.

When Aung San Suu Kyi began to challenge Burma's new military government after 1988, a campaign that saw her awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Kipling's 1890 poem Mandalay was used in state propaganda against her. The generals likened her to the 'unpatriotic' Burma girl who had turned her back on her own race and, by implication, her own country. As David Steinberg has explained:

They cite the marriage of Aung San Suu Kyi to a British academic, Michael Aris, as disqualifying her from leading the country. This colonial issue, as exemplified in Rudyard Kipling's poem 'The Road to Mandalay' (and its paean to Burmese women who had relations with British soldiers) … thus continues today. 

There is no denying that Aung San Suu Kyi is an admirer of Kipling. In 1972, extracts from 'Mandalay', referring to 'a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land', were read out at her wedding. She and her husband named their second son Kim, after the lead character in Kipling's famous novel of the same name, published in 1901. Also, she ended her first Reith Lecture for the BBC in 2011 by quoting her favourite lines from Kipling. They were taken from his poem The Fairies Siege:

I'd not give way for an Emperor

I'd hold my road for a King —

To the Triple Crown I would not bow down —

But this is a different thing. 

I'll not fight with the Powers of Air,

Sentry, pass him through!

Drawbridge let fall, 'tis the Lord of us all,

The Dreamer whose dreams come true!

Despite the views of some postcolonial scholars, Aung San Suu Kyi seems always to have associated Kipling with the idea of freedom. Referring to his poem If, published in 1910, she said 'the poem that in England is often dismissed as the epitome of imperialist bombast is a great poem for dissidents'. The verse most often associated with the opposition leader and her struggle for democracy in Burma is the second:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

Aung San Suu Kyi even distributed a Burmese language version of the poem to inspire her staff and supporters. The report in a recent biography that she translated the poem herself, however, is incorrect.

There is no easy segue from Kipling to classical music, other than to say that, thanks to modern technology, the musical settings of his poetry were often better known than the original texts. Aung San Suu Kyi was familiar with both, but it would appear that she preferred the printed versions. Also, if her carefully chosen selection of recordings for the BBC radio program 'Desert Island Discs' in 2013 is any guide, her musical tastes, while mixed, are inclined more to the classical than the popular end of the spectrum.

Because of her public standing, and the challenge she posed to Burma's military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for almost 15 years. During that time, part of her daily regimen was to practise on the piano. Until the instrument was completely out of tune, she played pieces by a range of classical composers, including Pachelbel, Telemann, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Clementi and Bartok. At one stage, she was forced to sell much of her furniture to generate money for food. One of the few items that she refused to let go was her piano.

As Jonathan Webster wrote in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi's piano playing 'in rebellious isolation' became a powerful symbol of her continuing resistance to military rule:

Concerned supporters reportedly snuck within earshot for assurance that she was still alive. Famous Europeans who publicized her struggle sympathised with her as musicians. U2 called her 'a singing bird in an open cage'. Annie Lennox tried to send her a new piano. The top prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition was recently renamed the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Gold Medal for its fiftieth anniversary.

Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters around the world turned the image of her sitting at the piano in her closely guarded Rangoon home into a symbol of her country's struggle for democracy. Some also equated the military regime's efforts to curb the appreciation of Western music in Burma with their attempts to silence the respected opposition leader. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times even called the piano itself 'a symbol of Myanmar's struggle for democracy'. 

In these, as in other aspects of Burma's struggles over the past few decades, there is a fair degree of exaggeration and myth-making — on both sides of the political divide. That said, Aung San Suu Kyi's devotion to Western music and her determination to make Burma a more respectable international citizen has some interesting historical parallels. Also, rather than denote Aung San Suu Kyi's abandonment of her country, as suggested by her domestic opponents, her affection for Kipling suggests quite the opposite. 

Indeed, one could say that, in several ways, the wheel has come full circle. As Burma gradually emerges from its long period of military dictatorship, economic hardship and international isolation, there are millions of people both inside and outside the country who hope that it keeps turning.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Development Programme in Europe.


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