Why has Taiwan not passed marriage equality yet?

Kai Clark

Politics | Asia


"In the face of love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” In a short 15-second campaign video, Tsai became a symbol of progressive change in a region tainted by repression of queer rights. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), later won the 2016 elections, taking the presidency and a majority in the legislature. Marriage equality was imminent.
But she failed. Last year, the DPP was unable to pass its marriage equality bill due to the fierce backlash from Taiwan’s Christian minority. The party looks set to repeat its mistakes this year, delaying the bill’s passage until 2018, or as some fear, 2019.
Seven months ago, the Taiwanese constitutional court found Taiwanese marriage law unconstitutional. The court chose not to immediately grant marriage equality, instead ordering the legislature to amend the law within two years. Failure to do so and the court will then finally abolish the law.
Yet, the DPP prioritised other legislation, squandering the “6-month golden window” to amend the law. The government promised to debate the marriage equality proposal during the current legislative period. But they have not announced the details of the bill, with many doubting it will be passed on time, if at all.
Debate over the bill centres on two proposals. Some legislators demand the government amend the civil code to grant all couples the same rights. Other legislators want a special law that allows for marriage equality, but does not grant equal rights.
[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Strait differences: China and Taiwan"]
Tsai’s administration hinted that it may propose the latter bill. Writing on her Facebook page, Tsai said: “We are obligated to design a legal framework in line with the spirit of the grand justices’ interpretation, but we are also responsible for ensuring unity in society.”
A majority of Taiwanese support marriage equality. Yet, Taiwan’s Christian groups, who make up less than 5% of the island’s population, threatened to oust lawmakers who support the bill. Their bullying tanked the 2013 and 2016 attempts to bring marriage equality to Taiwan. The recent court ruling has not deterred them.
A Taipei lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, faces a recall campaign by Sun Chi-cheng, chairman of the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, a group opposed to marriage equality. Sun detests Huang’s support for amending the civil code, stating it will destroy Taiwanese family values.
Such pressure may explain Tsai’s lack of commitment to marriage equality. With local elections scheduled for late 2018, Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu suggests that if Tsai cannot pass the bill before January, the DDP will shelve it until 2019 to focus on campaigning.
Many believe Tsai will wait until May 2019, when the court’s ruling will strike down the law. While it would save her from Taiwan’s evangelical backlash, it would create logistical problems and further harm to Taiwan’s queer community.
If the law is struck down, many government offices will need to process marriage claims without clear guidelines. Hsu explains that “[t]he municipal registration office will not know what to do with their certificate and their IDs; hospitals will not know how to process them. A lot of contingency plans must be put in place.”
Meanwhile, the government will still deny queer couples marriage equality for the next 17 months. Some cannot afford to wait. The partner of Nelson Hu, a famous queer rights activist, is diagnosed with a rare form of hemangioma and could die. Hu has no legal say over his treatment.
Many in the queer community now feel betrayed by Tsai and the DPP. In an interview with the News Lens, Nelson Hu criticised the DPP for “[backtracking] on their promises”. Another disappointed couple lamented that “the politicians supported gay marriage as a way to win votes, but now it feels like we have been fooled.”
Desperate to avoid evangelical ire, Tsai may risk angering the queer community she sought to support. Hsu and commentators have urged the DPP to pass the bill by this session or to hold a special session in early 2018. The journey for many in the queer community to be treated as equal partners in society would be painfully prolonged otherwise.

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Lessons from Taiwan: The epicentre of East Asian rivalry

Harrison Rule

Politics | Asia


Heads of state from across the Asia Pacific congregated in Vietnam this November for the annual APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. As global political heavyweights gathered around the diplomatic roundtable in Da Nang, however, one placard may have seemed out of place.

Squeezed between household names like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe sat a Taiwanese politician from a minor opposition party, under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’.

‘Chinese Taipei’ is the humiliating label for the largely unrecognized Island nation of Taiwan. This unofficial name printed on placards in front of an unfamiliar flag, flown by an unknown political representative - all echo a history of bloody civil conflict and divisive cold war politics. The fact that Taiwan even has a seat at the table however, tells a far subtler story of East Asian rivalry and grand strategy.

The true epicentre of the region’s seismic strategic relations, Taiwan represents a microcosm of East Asia’s major diplomatic challenges. How the nations of East Asia chose to handle Taiwan and where they are willing to compromise, provide a potential model for future regional relations in an era of impending strategic uncertainty.

The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan

The Cross Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei is one of jarring hostility and quiet cooperation.

Despite Beijing’s Peaceful Development Doctrine, a 2004 Official Statement from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that “If Taiwan leaders move recklessly to provoke incidences of Taiwan independence, the Chinese people will crush their schemes firmly and thoroughly at any cost.”

In the face of this major aversion to displays of Taiwanese Independence however, China has puzzlingly also permitted Taiwan to participate in a number of multilateral organisations such as APEC. While there are a handful of restrictions placed on this participation, Beijing has for the most part respected Taiwan’s role as an autonomously governed economy with significant regional economic interests.

This confusing strategic cognitive dissonance is intimately linked to Xi Jinping’s notion of the China Dream 中国梦. A political concept-cum-nationalist ideology, the China Dream is a push for national “rejuvenation”, attempting to redefine the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ and of Chinese nationhood to consolidate and galvanise Greater China under a single authority.

The Cross Strait relationship is the most transparent testing ground for this new strategy. Whether a peaceful slumber or an offensive nightmare, the pursuit of the China Dream in Taiwan will set the terms of engagement for China’s future relationship with its autonomous regions. The lessons learnt by Taiwan and its significant gains in economic autonomy provide practical utility to keen-eyed observers Hong Kong, Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet.

Japan and Taiwan

The nuance at the heart of Japan–Taiwan relations, as is often the case in Asia, arises from a legacy of colonialism.

Following a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede the island of Taiwan to Japanese sovereign control. It was during this period of harsh treatment and widespread discrimination that Taiwanese intellectuals began calling on citizens to challenge the militaristic leadership and to purse modernity alongside mainland China. The very notion of an independent Taiwan only surfaced in opposition to Japanese Occupation.

When one examines the mood in Taiwan today however, this anti-Japanese strand of nationalism is almost non-existent.

Unlike other former Japanese colonial holdings like the Koreas, China, the Philippines and Malaysia, Taiwan seems to greet its colonial past with a degree of nostalgia and amity. While some literature has dismissed this as simply a by-product of elderly Taiwanese citizens sentimentally reflecting on their childhood memories, the trend of Japanese rapprochement is in fact an intergenerational one.

Japan has managed to recontexualise its colonial legacy with Taiwan into a story of shared democratic values, security concerns and opposition to an increasingly assertive Beijing. Japan’s unofficial diplomatic representatives in Taipei have, since the late 1990s, stressed the importance of the triangular security relationship between the United States, Japan, and Taiwan – a move which has time and time again been met with great public enthusiasm in Taiwan.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Tiger on a tightrope"]

Japan has also provided open support for Taiwanese participation as an observer in the World Health Organisation and was a key driving force in the decision to include ‘Chinese Taipei’ at APEC.

In order to continue to challenge the interests of a rising China, Japan will have to win over its former colonial holdings. Taiwan provides a model for reframing colonial contempt into a more positive and enduring relationship. The negative historical burden which still weighs on the Koreas and the Philippines represents a major roadblock to a strong unified region. If a regional-led containment policy to oppose China is a major aspect of Tokyo’s grand strategy, policy makers will be looking to the Taiwan case to inform bilateral relations in the coming decades.

The Republic of Korea and Taiwan

The South Korea – Taiwan relationship is a rarely addressed, but fascinating case study in political parallels. The key security concerns in both Taipei and Seoul are their rogue neighbours which present alternative governments that claim the ancestral homeland as their own.

North Korea is to South Korea, as Taiwan is to China.

This parallel complicates the triangular relationship between South Korea, China and Taiwan – three sizable economic forces which all benefit from economic cooperation.

Despite potential economic benefits, China frequently employs economic sanctions to coerce its neighbours. But no one is more familiar with Chinese sanctions than Taiwan.

In 2000, upon the election of its first pro-independence president, Taiwan incurred significant diplomatic and economic costs from Beijing – as many in the international community expected.

What was more surprising however, was Beijing’s response to the March 2008 election. Following the success of candidate Ying-jeou Ma, Beijing endorsed the new President’s more neutral cross-strait stance, lifting numerous sanctions for the first time in decades. Beijing abandoned its policy of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, permitted further multilateral autonomy and even looked the other way as Taiwan signed free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.

This behaviour demonstrated to international observers that China was no longer the spiteful, unwavering Cold War patron it was once considered. Chinese foreign policy had matured as it entered the 21st century – using economic and diplomatic coercion to both punish and reward behaviour in its sphere of influence. It is this maturity that South Korea needs to acknowledge as it shapes its own relationship with Beijing and Taipei.

Beijing’s decision to sanction Seoul earlier this year is less to do with broader relations and more so a response to specific policy issues. Beijing has signalled repetitively that it disapproves of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system installed in South Korea early last year. Heeding the lessons from the history of cross-strait sanctions, Seoul must think carefully about the risks of compromising Beijing’s strategic deterrent capabilities.

China’s sanctions must be understood as a redeemable act of economic coercion. Policy change has proven in the Taiwan case to motivate a rapid retraction of economic punishment.


Why bother with Taiwan?

When faced with the question – “why bother studying Taiwan?” -  it is hard not to formulate an answer that comes across as patronising. Ultimately Taiwan is the junction of its region. It is has been occupied, bombed, sanctioned, unrecognised – but has always remained central. To understand East Asia’s major challenges, it always prudent to glance first at Taiwan and consider its potential as lens for viewing the region. After all, should push come to shove, and the superpowers of the regions begin to tussle – Taiwan will likely immerge as the seismic epicentre.


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A Tale of Two Chopsticks: Lingering Traces of Hong Kong’s SARS Epidemic

Kai Clark

Society and culture | Asia


SARS ravaged Hong Kong more a decade ago, infecting over 1,700 people and killing more than 300. Because of it, when I eat Dim Sum with my family in Hong Kong, I am presented with a cultural oddity. There are two pairs of chopsticks to eat with.
One pair is ivory-white, which you use to collect the food from the shared dish. The other pair is jet-black, which you use to eat the food from the plate. At least, that’s how I think it works. Watching my friends eat, they usually just take one pair and eat with it. Each tells me different answers for which one to use and admit that they don’t bother with the serving chopsticks at all.
This confusion is expected of a practice that finds its roots only 14 years ago. In Chinese culture, outside of extremely formal dinners or when eating with strangers, most people use the same pair of chopsticks to both collect and eat their meals. The same holds true in Beijing, Taipei, Singapore, and even in most of Hong Kong. Only upmarket restaurants provide two pairs of chopsticks.
So why have these restaurants abandoned centuries of traditional culture? The answer lies in the intensity of SARS’s attack on Hong Kong.
When the coronavirus spread throughout Hong Kong, hospitals were unsure how to respond -- allowing SARS to infect almost 400 medical workers and kill eight others. Nurses at the time found the panic was, “greater than the HIV/AIDS epidemic because of the swiftness of the outbreak.” Instructions for treating the patients kept changing, exacerbating the confusion.
Seeing that even doctors did not understand the disease, the public panicked and rumours on how SARS spread went viral. Over 100,000 people fled Hong Kong during the outbreak. Families of nurses refused to dine on the same table, fearing the disease would spread through chopsticks. Many people resorted to eating traditional Chinese foods believing it would protect them. Others wore facemasks, obsessively washed their hands, and avoided other people.
The restaurant industry lost over three billion dollars during the outbreak. Many restaurants shut down after losing over 90% of their business. Others survived by delivering takeaway orders as people were afraid to go outside. Reduced revenues forced many restaurants to lay off workers. Others willingly took no-pay leave, realising the extent of the crisis in the industry.
Desperate to attract patrons, restaurants promoted greater hygiene standards by requiring staff to wear surgical masks, check temperatures of customers at the door, disinfect tables, sterilise utensils, and provide two pairs of chopsticks to prevent the spread of saliva.
Once the medical community contained SARS, restaurants rolled back most of the adopted hygiene practices. However, many upscale restaurants chose to maintain some of these practices, including providing two pairs of chopsticks. This was despite research suggesting there is little health risk of SARS or other colds spreading through chopstick use.
The pandemonium of the SARS epidemic still remains fresh in many people’s memories. When I was in Hong Kong over a decade after SARS, I had lunch with a group of classmates in a dingy little food stall by the coast. We’d been hiking for 3 days, reeking of sweat and teen spirit. Settling in to eat I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug right in. My friend, whose family fled Hong Kong during SARS, had yelled at me to, “Use another pair of chopsticks!”

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Two sides of the gambler’s coin: Japan’s conflicting opinions on casino expansion plans

Adina Darbyshire

Politics | Asia


Large, flashy Pachinko parlours light up the streets of Japan. These are pinball arcades that have marginally circumvented Japan's anti-gambling laws for many decades. However, Japan's gambling culture is about to change. The Japanese Diet passed a bill lifting the ban on integrated resorts (IR) - commercial complexes including casinos - last December, and are set to hold an extraordinary session to pass an IR Implementation bill in late September of this year.

[caption id="attachment_6408" align="aligncenter" width="513"] Pachinko players in Akihabara[/caption]

The incumbent Liberal-Democratic party (LDP) is largely in favour of expanding the Japanese gambling market. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his hopes to implement integrated resorts before the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo in order to draw more tourists to the country and to help revive regional economies. On the other hand, the Opposition (Democratic Party) and the public alike are dubious about the motion. In fact, members of the Opposition walked out in protest during the session last December on the grounds that the bill contains insufficient safeguards addressing gambling addiction.

The former head of the Opposition has also voiced his concerns over the rashness with which integrated resorts are being pushed for, noting that the initial IR Promotions bill was passed in just six hours without a consensus between the LDP and the Opposition. The public has echoed these concerns, fearing that the bill understates problems such as gambling addiction and gambling-related crime. In fact, a national survey conducted on August 7th shows that 22.8% and 66.8% of Japanese citizens are respectively for and against passing the IR implementation bill.

Thorough deliberation of implementing integrated resorts in Japan is crucial considering its existing gambling problem amongst Pachinko-goers. A 2008 national survey found that Japan's gambling addiction rate was approximately 5.6%, with similar results in a 2013 survey. This is high compared to national survey results of other Asian countries. As of 2011, this includes 0.8% in South Korea, 3.1% in Singapore, and 4.4% in Hong Kong.

[caption id="attachment_6414" align="aligncenter" width="577"] A gambling parlour[/caption]

How can we hasten IR legislation when we have yet to ensure that Japan will be sufficiently prepared to tackle the problem of gambling addiction? It is crucial that enough time is taken to discuss safeguards before the bill is to be enacted. An example of a country that has done just this is Singapore.

Singapore implemented two integrated resorts in 2010 - Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa - both of which have achieved astounding success. Prior to these developments, the Singaporean government had already prepared a comprehensive framework tackling gambling addiction. In accordance with the framework, the newly appointed National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) proactively sought public opinion; funded an educational TV series on the issue in January, 2006; and set up a problem gambling counselling helpline with the Institute of Mental Health in December, 2007. Moreover, the Ministry of Health helped establish a National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) in 2008.

[caption id="attachment_6422" align="aligncenter" width="515"] Inside a Pachinko parlour[/caption]

The Japanese government has appointed a Casino Management Committee to examine gambling issues related to organised crime and money laundering, and has proposed safeguards such as using 'My Number' cards to limit patrons' visits to casinos. The National Police Agency has also pushed for regulations limiting the number of Pachinko balls that can be won. It would be in the best interest of the Abe administration to follow Singapore's lead in accommodating the mental health needs of the Japanese people further.

Addressing mental health is especially a pressing issue considering Japan's high suicide rates. A 2014 study suggests a strong positive correlation between suicide rates and gambling addiction, even pinpointing Japan as exemplary of this trend. If so, it is all the more reason to establish relevant safeguards, such as providing specialized counselling services for potential gambling addicts. Otherwise, the Abe administration will be gambling on the public's support.

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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?

The leviathan project has been announced at a time when China’s foreign policy has been typified by aggressive assertiveness and proactivity. By purposely excluding the western-orientated Japan and the US, OBOR draws upon Edward Luttwak’s concoction of “geo-economics” and “military strategy”, which sees the “logic of conflict” being pursued through “methods of commerce and trade”. In 2015, Shinzo Abe announced Japan’s $110 billion infrastructure investment program for Asia through the Asian Development Bank (ADB)- the major competitor to OBOR’s AIIB bank. Likewise, the previous US’ previous administration’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’, which focused on the ‘expansion of trade and investment’ reflects a challenge to China’s grand strategy. This informal warfare over economic influence is rattling the current global economic order at its pillars, and China is at the epicentre.

The geopolitical creativity of the blueprint manifests in its ability to take advantage of other’s fragility and instability. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, which will deliver China greater preferential strategic access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the port of Gwadar, runs through Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal areas, including the Gwadar port itself, which has subsequently required a 12,000-strong special unit protection force. Its greater proclivity for corrupt and unstable politics will allow China to assume leadership in a range of security issues. Likewise, the relationship of dependence of these relatively economically, politically and socially fragile countries with the Chinese powerhouse will, as David Arase argues, give China ‘superior leverage in one-on-one economic negotiations’. This relationship gives China the ability to inflict punishment through reduced market access and to incite obstructionism in international organisations at its will.

The anxiety of neo-imperial tendencies and a lack of commercial imperatives have seen international backlash. In April 2017, Australia rejected any involvement in the initiative. As Peter Cai, OBOR researcher for the Lowy Institute, believes, OBOR antagonism and strategic distrust is most prominent in India.

Furthermore, even looking past of what some see as geopolitical expansion through pursuit of Eurasian power, domestic observers are concerned. These financially unsound countries could only add to China’s accelerating burden of debt, which soared to 170% of GDP in 2016. Surrounded in domestic and international worries, Xi Jinping needs to take clear, inclusive and transparent actions to soothe and reassure.

Undoubtedly, OBOR is a major component in China’s grand strategy of national renaissance, the ‘Chinese Dream’ (hence the echoing of the ancient Silk Road). Xi Jinping has agreed with predecessors that China is confronting a “period of strategic opportunity” until 2020, legitimising its actions that pursue great power status. Yet the security environment isn’t as benign as Mr Xi has been taught to believe it is.

The Indian Ocean is, and will for the extended future remain, a significant international space.  Its control by a single security community will always elicit reactionary contest. Possibly motivated by the construction of deep-sea Chinese-built ports, which accommodate the dimensions of Chinese aircraft carriers and submarines in Gwadar, Kyaukphyu and Hambanota, the Modi government has rigorously pursued its ‘Look East’ policy. This has been manifested in the acceleration of the construction of the India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway and the reinvigoration of dialogue within the SAARC organisational union to open up more maritime corridors.

While Britain and Russia may have fought for Central and South Asian power in the 19th and 20th century Great Game, China’s OBOR blueprint is a possible checkmate move in the New Great Game. Although competing geopolitical interests and visions stand in the way, the Chinese locomotive has started and it seems there is little to stop it. In Trump’s age of anti-globalisation and Europe’s sweeping populism, Xi Jinping is being served the opportunity to make OBOR the global vehicle for international trade in the 21st century. But if he is truly going to champion our liberal economic order he will need to be efficient. And that means addressing trust deficits, assuring multilateral cooperation and reinforcing the promise that OBOR will serve collective absolute gains for all its members.

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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.

As it stands today, Indonesia represents a paradox in our defence planning. It is potentially one of our greatest strategic assets or greatest future threats. Indonesia forms the first line of defence between Australia and any intrusive hostile power. However, Indonesia will also be the major power with its military assets closest to Australia.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. It is highly likely that this economic strength will gradually translate into comparable military strength.  We must move quickly to ensure that a rapidly strengthening Indonesia will be a solution rather than a problem for Australia. Unfortunately, we have not yet recognised the important role Indonesia will play in our strategic future.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and our defence planners continue to see Australia’s defence as relying primarily on American power in Asia. Admittedly, receding US primacy is not a certainty, but with the rise of China, a far more contested Asia is. This will have significant implications for both Australian and Indonesian defence planning. We must both consider new answers to the same old question: How do we best prevent the intrusion of a potentially hostile power into maritime South East Asia?

It is in the answer to this question that Indonesia and Australia find the most common ground. In a contested Asia, both countries will need to look closely at the sorts of strategic alignments that will best serve to prevent a hostile power intruding into maritime South East Asia.

For Indonesia, ASEAN is no longer the answer, due to a geographically driven divergence of common interests in the face of a rising China. For Australia, we need to seek security partners aside from the US. It should be acknowledged that Indonesia, simply as a consequence of geography, is our most logical security partner. It certainly presents greater advantages than the other oft-proposed options of Japan or India.

Indeed, the time could be right for a deeper partnership, whether it is formal or informal. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) appear to be cultivating a close personal relationship. That being said, during Jokowi’s February 2017 visit to Australia, bilateral defence cooperation was a far second to trade and investment on the list of priorities.

It was only in an interview given before the Australia trip that Jokowi drew attention to shared security issues. Jokowi suggested joint patrols in the South China Sea, only to backtrack as a result of domestic disapproval and outright rejection by Bishop and Turnbull. But perhaps this slip of the tongue does open up the question of what deeper cooperation could look like, and what it might achieve.

Australia would benefit significantly from a more capable Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), Indonesia’s equivalent of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). A more balanced TNI force structure, in favour of naval and air capabilities, would more effectively protect Indonesia’s air and maritime approaches. This would consequently better protect Australia’s approaches.

Jokowi has clearly prioritised Indonesia’s transformation into a maritime power with his announcement of a ‘global maritime axis.’ Though admittedly a vague set of policies, Jokowi’s maritime vision signals clear intentions, and Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to this transformation.

To make the most of this opportunity Australia needs to go beyond the simple staff exchanges, military aid and joint military exercises that have made up our partnership in previous years. We must transition into a relationship of equals and pursue deeper cooperation that might include the much tougher areas of defence procurement, capability planning, joint maritime surveillance, and increased force interoperability.

Australia is currently uniquely placed with its air and naval ‘capability edge’ to help shape a TNI rebalance. However, this window of opportunity is closing fast. Over the next 15-20 years, the contribution Australia could make to a partnership would be comparatively small based on current defence procurement and force structure. Certainly, 12 undelivered submarines will not make a meaningful contribution to any future partnership in the event of regional conflict.

Unfortunately, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper does little more than acknowledge Indonesia’s long-term importance to Australia. It fails to outline the sort of ambitious steps that would be required to see the full potential of this relationship realised. And that is exactly what we need on both sides, ambitious steps.

For too long we have focused our attention on the little issues and pitfalls that loom so large in our bilateral ties. There has been seemingly endless tit-for-tat diplomacy involving the recalling of ambassadors and unilateral suspension of everything from live exports to military cooperation. This prevents us from looking at the bigger picture and making meaningful progress.

To progress we need to stop taking an increasingly powerful Indonesia for granted. Instead, we must start laying the groundwork of a relationship that could support a meaningful and effective future security partnership.

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Apocalypse not-right-now: The unsurprising disorder in Mindanao

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Asia


On May 23, militants from the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) and Maute Groups stormed the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The conflagration was sparked by a raid conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines which intended to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. Maute reinforcements were called into the city shortly afterwards, eventuating in the current crisis.

Having declared allegiance to the Islamic State, the actions of the Maute Group and ASG have drawn Western media attention in a somewhat apocalyptic light, linking the fighting to the international effort against IS. The ABC’s report began: “militants linked to the Islamic State group torched buildings, seized more than a dozen Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of IS.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald’s lead stated simply that IS-linked militants “threatened to kill a priest and other Christian hostages.” A Reuters headline put it plainly as a “rebel rampage claimed by Islamic State.”

While the assault has undoubtable implications for human life and minority groups in the south, permitting an outsized appreciation of the Maute Group and ASG capabilities would be unhelpful for policy thinking. The recent upsurge in Marawi does not necessarily herald the spawn of a Philippine Raqqa, a caliphate wherein terrorists can freely roam and assail the rest of the archipelago.

The Maute Group and ASG operate in a distinct manner, and are empowered and constrained by unique contextual factors in the Philippine south. Firstly, the two terrorist organisations must be characterised by their relatively small size and limited controlled territory that forces them to operate surreptitiously in rural areas. ASG has been persistently hunted by the Duterte Government, and although a recent Congressional report places the Maute’s strength at 263 armed members, it remains outsized by rival Islamic, ethno-nationalist, and Communist armies on the island.

Moreover, both groups face resource limitations – this challenge drives ASG’s long-running fixation on kidnap-for-ransom operations, and similar extortionist behaviour from the Maute Group. While the aforementioned report also implied that the Maute Group was receiving funding from IS – a legitimate cause for concern – how well this will translate into battlefield advantages, especially in the face of a heavy-handed government counter-offensive, remains to be seen.

Most importantly, such unrest is not new to Mindanao. Armed groups have long exploited the central authorities’ inability to effectively govern and extend coercive influence over far-flung regions in the south. Opportunities are also opened by crushing poverty and pro-autonomy sentiment from a Bangsamoro Muslim population seeing itself as ethnically and culturally distinct, enmeshed in a history of maltreatment by Manila.

The Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, wherein 58 civilians were killed by a private militia as part of an electoral feud, illustrates this. In a similar vein, the Moro National Liberation Front occupied Zamboanga City for nearly three weeks in 2013, attempting to establish a breakaway republic. The current siege of Marawi is more an extension of a trend than an exceptional outburst of IS in Asia.

However, implicit in these opportunities are considerable threats to the Maute Group and ASG. These two organisations were not the only armed groups to rise out of deficient central governance. Much to their disdain, a number of Mindanao’s non-state forces – namely the MNLF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the New People’s Army – contrast with the IS-linked militants ideologically and are engaged in talks with the government at present. The  MILF even assisted Government forces in disrupting Maute and the ASG as part of their ceasefire negotiations.

More so, both the MNLF and MILF have a deeper history in carrying the banner of Muslim and Moro autonomy, and are generally more popular as a result, as outlined by Filipino scholar Eric Gutierrez. Adding insult to injury, both Fronts also denounced the terrorists’ assault on Marawi. The Maute Group and ASG would struggle to capitalise on wider Muslim discontent in Mindanao while surrounded by more experienced and entrenched competitors, regardless of the funds it allegedly receives from IS.

IS influence in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is a real threat, but it should not be overly inflated. Nor should it be forgotten that the Maute Group and ASG differ from the core IS organisation in the Middle East. Mindanao’s home-grown jihadist groups have a unique modus operandi, and exist under circumstances that stem from entrenched local issues, particularly the difficulties facing the Philippine state in bringing order and equitable development to the distant south.

In recognising these distinctions, more realistic and targeted policy options – especially from the Philippines’ Western allies – can be rendered that pinpoint specific vulnerabilities in the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Groups. More broadly, there is greater wisdom in restraining current and future policymakers from defining regional threats in broad strokes when localised, surgical approaches would prove more fitting.

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