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20 April 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Sri Lanka crisis

Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis that has forced it to suspend debt repayments as it struggles to pay for food and fuel from abroad. The crisis could also add to tensions between India and China, which both may see this as an opportunity to consolidate their influence. Australia – whose 2020 Defence Strategic Update identified the northeast Indian Ocean as part of its own “immediate region” – will be keenly observing what mechanisms Sri Lanka uses to emerge from this current situation.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location along the busy Indian Ocean shipping lane – which handles most maritime trade between Asia and Europe – means it has the opportunity for economic and political leverage. Eighty per cent of China’s imported oil passes by Sri Lanka and through the Strait of Malacca, and as a result Beijing has developed a significant Indian Ocean naval capability to protect its interests. Yet China’s presence conflicts with India’s belief that it should be the natural security provider for the Indian Ocean.

China’s strategy has found willing participants in the Rajapaksa family, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for almost two decades. Currently, brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa are president and prime minister, respectively. Prior to the recent resignation of the cabinet, the extended family held nine ministerial portfolios, overseeing an estimated 75 per cent of state expenditure. The family also happens to be significant landholders in the Hambantota region, where, in 2010, China financed the construction of a new port, and the state-owned enterprise China Merchants Port subsequently acquired a ninety-nine-year lease to operate.

Sri Lanka has reached out to Beijing to secure a US$2.5 billion rescue loan, while India has already offered a US$1 billion line of credit.


Blue Pacific

Last week, Palau, with the United States, hosted the seventh iteration of the Our Ocean Conference, which seeks ways to better manage marine health and resources, and increase resilience to climate change. This was the first time the event had been held in the Pacific, offering the opportunity for Pacific Island countries to showcase their unique knowledge of the ocean.

Central to the collective diplomacy of Pacific Island countries is the concept of the “Blue Pacific”, which seeks to reframe these countries as “large ocean states”. The Blue Pacific is built on a recognition that the ocean is the primary influence on the region’s way of life – shaping its history, values, practices and cultural identity.

But other imperatives can divide this collective will.

Coinciding with the conference, a group of Pacific MPs formed the Pacific Parliamentarians’ Alliance on Deep Sea Mining, which opposes mining the ocean bed due to the unknown environmental costs. The alliance consists of politicians from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Guam, Solomon Islands, French Polynesia, Tuvalu and Palau, with the notable exclusion of Nauru.

The current governance of deep-sea mining is complex. Companies need to operate in partnership with a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is yet to devise further procedures, although a clause in its charter stipulates that if a request is made by a state, it will finalise regulations within two years. Desperate for new sources of income, Nauru, partnering with a Canadian-owned mining firm, triggered this clause in June 2021, setting up a conflict with its Blue Pacific brethren.


The Rwanda solution

The United Kingdom recently announced a plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda – a proposal that looks to be heavily influenced by Australia’s offshore detention policies, particularly the reliance on a false distinction between a “legal” and an “illegal” asylum seeker.

During committee hearings in the House of Commons in September, Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, George Brandis, appeared as a witness to answer questions on Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. In February, Home Secretary Priti Patel appointed Alexander Downer to oversee a review of the UK’s Border Force. Last week, echoing Australia’s language, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated, “Those who tried to jump the queue or abuse our systems will find no automatic path to set them up in our country ...”

It appears Australia’s approach also inspired Demark. In 2016, a delegation of Danish politicians was allowed access to Australia’s detention facilities in Nauru. Last year, the Danes passed a law that would allow asylum seekers to be deported outside of Europe for processing. Rwanda is also considered to be the prime candidate for hosting.

Given that the UK’s proposed legislation will face opposition in the House of Lords, and will almost certainly be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights – which still has jurisdiction over the UK after Brexit – this may be just one of Johnson’s infamous “dead cats”. But like the strategy of distraction itself, this offshore processing idea is one of Australian breeding.




Welcome to the second week of The Election Specials. This week we ask Elizabeth Buchanan, Andrew Davies, Sam Roggeveen and Bec Strating: are nuclear submarines the answer? CONTINUE READING


Weekly round-up

The perils of an Atlantic outlook

“A country’s foreign policy is shaped both by history and geography. For Australia, this means that while we are ideologically western, our central foreign policy focus should never deviate far from the Asia-Pacific … It may be time for little less history and a tad more geography.” John McCarthyAsialink insights

Time to think big on the future of Australian diplomacy

“More money is only half the answer. What’s needed is a bigger agenda to rethink Australian foreign policy … A more radical idea would be to create a ‘diplomatic reserve’, allowing security-cleared specialists and experienced officers to be flexibly called up for special assignments.” Hugh Piper, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

What India’s fence sitting on the Ukraine war means for the Quad

“Convincing New Delhi to change its stance toward Russia isn’t a realistic goal. A better option is to invite it to serve as a mediator. And if it enjoys a degree of success, not only could this help deescalate a war, it could also preempt tensions within a Quad grouping that is critical to India’s interests.” Michael Kugelman,australian outlook (AIIA)


Canberra’s tired old script has led to a less democratic Solomon Islands and a less secure Australia

“For 15 years, during the RAMSI mission, Australian officials had a hands-off approach towards the vastly corrupt logging industry that has been China’s Trojan horse into Solomon politics. At the same time, they concentrated power and resources on the central Solomon government, setting it up for capture.” Celsus Irokwato Talifilu,The Guardian

How Defence and the ADF can help Australia achieve its aims in Southeast Asia

“Coordinating each arm of statecraft to maximise its impact requires understanding that all agencies have a role to play. Defence should be alive to the responses it can bring to an integrated series of interventions—and the value of working with strong diplomacy and development programs.” Melissa Conley TylerThe Strategist (ASPI)


The Shortest History of Democracy

John Keane

In a time of grave uncertainty about the future of our planet, the radical potential of democracy is more important than ever.

From its beginnings in Syria-Mesopotamia – and not Athens – to its role in fomenting revolutionary fervour in France and America, democracy has subverted fixed ways of deciding who should enjoy power and privilege, and why. For democracy encourages people to do something radical: to come together as equals, to determine their own lives and futures.

In this vigorous, illuminating history, acclaimed political thinker John Keane traces its byzantine history, from the age of assembly democracy in Athens, to European-inspired electoral democracy and the birth of representative government, to our age of monitory democracy. He gives new reasons why democracy is a precious global ideal, and shows that as the world has come to be shaped by democracy, it has grown more worldly – American-style liberal democracy is giving way to regional varieties with a local character in places such as Taiwan, India, Senegal and South Africa.

In an age of cascading crises, we need the radical potential of democracy more than ever. Does it have a future, or will the demagogues and despots win? We are about to find out.Read More




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