International relations

 
 

Islamic Warriors: Pakistani soldiers in Arab armies

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | South Asia

 

Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?

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OBOR: A Checkmate Move in China’s New Great Game?

Toby Warden

Politics | Asia

 

Announced in 2013, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) economic blueprint has been heralded by some as ‘the number one project under heaven’. The mega-plan sees the construction of an infrastructure project at sea, connecting both South East Asia and East Africa to China, and a revival of the ancient Silk Road- a trade route that lead the way for Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical expansion. The ambitious initiative stretches across Central and Western Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Although described as having ‘trade relations, financial cooperation and coordinated development policies’ in his sights, Xi Jinping has faced considerable regional headwinds, begging for the question: is OBOR becoming the new realm for regional contestation, despite being framed as a way to transcend popular geopolitical issues?

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Indonesia: From paradox to partnership

Peter Bright

Politics | Asia

 

Whilst Australia and Indonesia have shared strategic challenges in the past, we are now seeing a convergence of interests that should see cooperation, rather than rivalry, defining bilateral relations.

Of course a convergence of strategic interests is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for cooperation. Australia and Indonesia will need strong leadership, long-term policy making, and a concerted shift in strategic thinking.

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Engaging Iran: Time for a new approach

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | Central Asia

 

Iran and the US have been at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite concerted efforts to force Iran into submission, the Islamic Republic has persevered and grown even stronger. It is now a major player in Middle Eastern geopolitics and wields substantial influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As the regional power structure undergoes pivotal change amid the fallout of the Syrian war, the US is making renewed attempts to weaken Iran. However, threats and demands are counterproductive. Instead, the US must swallow its pride and engage with Iran respectfully to reduce confrontation by allaying its fears.

Simply put, Iran feels threatened by a hostile US and its regional partners after military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, combined with anti-Iran rhetoric. Its political and military interventionism stems from a need to maximise its own security. So long as it perceives an existential threat, Iran will continue to bolster its military capacity and counter its rivals’ interests.

Whether the US likes it or not, Iran is here to stay as an influential power, and regional stability requires its assent.

Iran’s fears and resentments did not emerge in a vacuum. A seminal moment was the 1953 coup engineered by the CIA, when a democratically elected Iranian government was toppled for trying to establish control over its own oil resources. This sordid affair contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and remains a source of national indignation.

Relations were further strained by the destructive Iran-Iraq War. Invaded by Saddam Hussein, Iran faced embargoes while Iraq was funded and armed by Western and regional states. Particularly bitter memories surround the many chemical weapons attacks Iran suffered. Not only did the international community fail to reprimand Iraq for their use, but US intelligence helped target Iranian forces. Iranian deaths from chemical attacks rival those inflicted during World War 1, and many still live with permanent health problems.

Despite these grievances, moderates in Iran have since tried to establish better relations with the US. After 9/11, Iran and the US found a common enemy in the Taliban. Then under a reformist government, Iran hoped to adopt a new foreign policy and align with the US. It supported the US invasion of Afghanistan and pledged to help rebuild the country. Yet in return, George Bush infamously condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”, imposing sanctions and threatening invasion.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Afghanistan’s game of horses and headless goats"]

With the sanctions and the sabre-rattling, a golden opportunity to repair relations was lost and domestic indignation returned a hardline government to power. Relations between the two countries have since been tense, with Iran’s nuclear program a major sticking point.

However, there is now another window of opportunity for a rapprochement. As in the days after 9/11, there is a moderate government in power and a common enemy in violent extremism.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal saw sanctions lifted, with Iran eager to break its isolation and economically engage with the world. If there is to be any hope for a lasting thawing of relations, the US must now honour the nuclear deal, understand Iran’s security concerns and engage with it in a respectful manner. This should include easing remaining sanctions, consulting Iran on Syria’s future and recognising Iran’s right to develop missiles for self-defence.

Taking these steps would improve the perception of the US inside Iran and strengthen the platform of reformists who seek to steer Iran away from confrontation. Iran’s population is young, urbanised and educated, with many having little or no recollection of the revolution or the Iran-Iraq War. While patriotic, many dislike the conservative aspects of their country and there is much potential for this new generation to respond well to positive treatment from the US.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. The US still refuses to constructively engage with Iran. Instead, hatred of Iran seems institutionalised within US politics and at times borders on irrational. The new Trump administration has threatened Iran and branded it the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. This spurious claim ignores that even many in the US believe the worst forms of extremism and jihadi violence are financed by US partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran actively fights against such forces. Including Iranians in US travel bans on the pretext of preventing terrorism is simply illogical.

Of course, Iran has also been involved in some dubious activities (including holding US diplomats hostage and attacks on Israeli personnel) - but few countries haven’t, and dwelling on these will not serve any constructive purpose.

This latest aggressive rhetoric has raised tensions and fanned anti-US sentiment. It certainly hasn’t persuaded Iran to change its course, and there is no reason to expect it would. Iran has proved remarkably resilient, managing to defend and develop itself for decades even as an international pariah. The current US stance serves only to legitimise hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s aggressive outlook. This is especially important with Iran’s presidential election looming this month.

If the US wishes to defuse tensions and protect its own interests in the Middle East, it needs to improve relations with Iran. This can only be done by building confidence through sustained positive engagement.

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Interview with Professor Michael Wesley

Society and culture | Asia

 

Interview conducted by Catia Rizio and Mish Khan, written by Reza Mazumder. 

Michael Wesley is Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) and Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Wesley gained his PhD from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and his BA (Honours) from the University of Queensland. He was Assistant Director-General for Transnational Issues at the Office of National Assessments (Australia’s peak intelligence agency), from 2003 to 2003, Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University from 2004 to 2009, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy from 2009 to 2012. He took up the position of Dean at ANU in 2013.

Here at The Monsoon Project, we sat down with Professor Wesley to talk about his experiences as an academic and as Dean of CAP.

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Tiger on a tightrope – Why Taiwan is called ‘Chinese Taipei’

Harrison Rule

International relations | Asia

 

Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific will congregate in Peru this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting. As the global political heavyweights gather around the diplomatic roundtable in Lima however, one placard may seem out of place.

Squeezed between household names like Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe will sit a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.

A name for a nation that does not exist, ‘Chinese Taipei’ is a political compromise. It’s a label for one of Asia’s four great ‘economic tigers’ that must perform a delicate balancing act to win the right for global recognition. The diplomatic status of ‘Chinese Taipei’ or Taiwan as it is more commonly known, is a quirk of history – a by-product of a 70 year-old civil war over the governance of Asia’s oldest superpower.

[caption id="attachment_5005" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Taiwanese politician Lien Chan greeting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the 2008 APEC Forum[/caption]

In the early hours of 10 December 1949, Communist troops laid siege to the final Nationalist stronghold in China – Chengdu. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Government, battered and bruised retreated to safety of Taiwan. The Nationalists however, much like the Communists, insisted that their government continued to represent all Chinese people, both on the island and the mainland.

While for much of the Cold War, most Western powers including Washington and Canberra recognised the administration operating in Taiwan as the legitimate government of ‘China’, it became apparent in the 1970s that the People’s Republic of China in Beijing posed greater economic and political utility in the fight against the Soviet Union.

And so, in 1971, representatives of Taipei walked out of the UN General Assembly, an organisation of which they were founding members, as Resolution 2758 was passed. It recognised the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”

The following decades saw a string of memorandums and communiques, with the United States promising to withdraw recognition and reduce the quantity of arms provided to Taiwan in exchange for an assurance from Beijing that Taiwan would be able to engage in capitalism and maintain a degree of autonomy – “one China, two systems” in the words of Deng Xiaoping.

But the China of the 1990s, undergoing turbulent economic and structural reforms, was ill-equipped to represent the diplomat and economic interests of a democratic, capitalist Tiger, eager to engage with the region.

The compromise was ‘Chinese Taipei’.

Taiwan would be permitted to participate in multilateral organizations, not on the basis of legal sovereignty, but on its role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.

The restrictions placed on this new ‘Chinese Taipei’ were not however limited to simply a humiliating name. A Memorandum of Understanding signed between China, Taiwan and APEC in 1991 significantly limited Taiwan’s space in the organisation, specifying that Taiwan is not permitted to send its President to the annual APEC economic leaders meeting or its Foreign Minister to the Ministerial Meetings.

Instead a strange diplomatic ritual has emerged, in which the APEC secretariat sends a special envoy to Taipei to deliver a letter of invitation to Taiwan’s President, who is then expected to politely decline. A second envoy then delivers an invitation to a candidate that has been both elected by the president and approved by the APEC host nation.

For a country with limited diplomatic means, the ability to appoint an APEC representative has become an unconventional but important tool for maintaining balance on the tightrope that is cross-strait relations.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s newly elected president, has used the APEC candidate selection process to extend an olive branch to Beijing. Representing ‘Chinese Taipei’ in Peru later this month is James Soong, leader of the People First Party – a small pro-China, minor opposition party with only two seats in the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan.

[caption id="attachment_5035" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Leader of the Taiwanese People First Party and representative of Chinese Taipei to APEC 2016, James Soong[/caption]

Tsai’s election of a candidate with a strong pro-unification stance is a show of good faith from a president whose Democratic Progressive Party is viewed in Beijing as a major challenge to the existing status quo.

Pulled in two directions by an ever growing domestic desire for recognition and an intense pressure from its powerful neighbour, Taiwan must tread carefully. The Little Tiger of East Asia must exploit the abnormality of its peculiar political position, even if that means working under an unfamiliar banner to achieve its diplomatic objectives.

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Warm diplomacy in the world’s coldest capital

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia

 

“The sleeping giant of Asia has awakened.”

So warned Charles Morgan, the Honourable Member for Reid speaking of Asia to a deeply divided Australian parliament in the midst of the Cold War.

“It has been said that he who rules or dominates Asia rules or dominates the world. As the methods and techniques of Genghis Khan are being revived … we could suddenly be embroiled in trouble.”

At the time, the image of a ruthless conqueror whose great Golden Horde toppled even the most equipped armies of Central Asia and beyond, sent shivers down the spine of Australia – a young nation that viewed itself as alone in its own region, highly reliant on far off powers for protection.

The Mongol Warlord whose empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Siberia, has acted as a cautionary symbol in Australian Defence politics, of an Asia with an inherently aggressive and expansionist spirit. An Asia that is to be feared, placated or contained.

It thus with great irony, that Australia’s newest embassy has been erected in a city guarded by the watchful gaze of the Great Khan himself. Casted in steel and gold a stoic Genghis watched on from the wild steppes just east of Ulaanbaatar as diplomatic relations were formalised between the two unlikely partners earlier this year.

[caption id="attachment_4742" align="alignnone" width="3557"] Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue - Located East of Ulanbaatar on the bank of the Tuul River. Source: Jonathan E. Shaw [/caption]

This was a move that seemed quite out of character for a sea-girt middle power that has traditionally focused its diplomatic efforts on Oceania and South-east Asia, while consolidating its presence in Northeast Asia to a few major capitals.

So what has changed? Why reach out to Mongolia now?

The importance of engagement with Asia has never been of greater strategic value than today. Following mutual recognition in 1967, diplomatic officials in Canberra were “at a loss” to describe the exact nature of Australia’s business in Mongolia. It was only recently, with the shift in focus towards the “Asian Century”, that Australia has realised the economic and strategic potential of deepening relations with powers like Mongolia.

With a rapidly changing global order, Australia is facing increased competition for access and influence in the region. Larger Asian countries are becoming more central to global diplomatic decision-making and are beginning to encroach on Australia’s traditional diplomatic stomping grounds.

Mongolia presents an opportunity for deepening and broadening our relationship with Asia. The Land of Blue Skies has already backed Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat as well as advocated for Australian participation in important biennial diplomatic forums such as the Asia–Europe Meeting. Like other small powers squeezed between military giants, Mongolia is looking to combat its vulnerable geographic position by expanding its diplomatic networks.

By supporting Mongolia’s aspirations for involvement in the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as other international financial institutions, Australia may in return win the support and cooperation of a state in the heart of the world’s most dynamic region.

As mineral-rich nations, both Mongolia and Australia rely heavily on Chinese importation of resources for economic prosperity. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report suggesting that the two nations will find themselves in deep competition for mineral and agricultural export markets in North-east Asia. While this may in part be true, the economic relationship shared by Australia and Mongolia is in fact far more complex.

Fifty Australian companies have a presence in Mongolia, according to data released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including mining giants Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Leighton, Xanadu Mines and Kumai Energy – all of which have significant Mongolian mineral leases and investment plans.

On the other hand, Mongolia lacks the domestic technology, wealth and expertise to capitalise on its resource potential. In a 2011 joint-statement, it was made clear by the Mongolia government that the country is looking to Australia for vocational, agricultural and legal assistance in the coming decades.

While some Australians may still be skeptical of their country’s engagement with Asia, we must depart from the political trappings of the past. The image of a terrifying Mongol horde surging towards Australia is today unfounded and laughable.

The “sleeping giant of Asia”, as the late member for Reid warned, has indeed awakened. The threat posed today, however, is not one of ideology or a Pan-Asian Empire, but of a failure to engage.

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Facebook: A coercive political actor?

Marco D’Alessandro

Society and culture | South Asia

 

If Facebook could stack an election against the likes of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, would you want it to? Would you want it to quash the threat of global terror by employing algorithms to censor content which demonstrates partiality to flagged organisations or individuals?

Facebook may seem to be an innocuous and convenient communication platform, however it has become apparent that Facebook has the means to transform these questions into reality. In the majority of situations the only mechanism capable of constraining Facebook is corporate morality.

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