The United States has registered the largest fall in relative regional power of any country in the Indo-Pacific during the last year, according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index.
The index, started in 2018, ranks 26 countries and territories according to the power they wield in the region. It uses multiple indicators across military capability and defence networks, economic resources and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resilience and future resources.
While the US is still the most powerful country in the region, it has gone from a 10 point lead over China two years ago to five points in 2020, scoring a rating of 81.6.
“Despite its continuing pre-eminence, US standing has waned in all but one of the eight Index measures,” the report says.
It says the closing power disparity with China suggests America, “far from being the undisputed unipolar power, can more correctly be described as the first among equals in a bipolar Indo–Pacific”.
The US lost the most points in measures where China is ahead – economic relationships, economic capability, and diplomatic influence.
Despite the US’s significant advantages, “the current US administration’s unilateral inclinations mean the United States is an underachiever in its ability to wield broad-based power in Asia. In addition, the coronavirus has contributed to a loss of US prestige.
“America has suffered the largest reputational hit in the region for its domestic and international handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report says while China has been “diplomatically diminished” by COVID it is “holding ground in its overall power”.
“In conditions where most countries are less powerful than a year ago, China’s fast economic rebound from COVID-19 will widen the power differentials between itself and the rest of the region.”
China, which ranks second at 76.1 on the regional power index, has an unchanged score.
“China leads in four of the eight measures of power: economic capability, diplomatic influence, economic relationships and future resources. But the country delivers inconsistent results in the other measures, with stark strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, US performance in the Index still appears more rounded.”
Australia and two other middle powers – Vietnam and Taiwan – were the only countries to gain in comprehensive power in 2020.
“Their competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was a necessary, but not sole condition for improving their regional standing.”
Australia ranks number 6 on the index with an overall rating of 32.4. It was previously 7th and has overtaken South Korea. Its greatest improvement was in cultural influence.
“Australia’s comparative advantages as a middle power are most evident in its defence networks, where it ranks second behind the United States. Despite a far more modest military capability, Australia is ranked ahead of the United States for its defence diplomacy with non-allied partners.
“Canberra has led the way in forging variable geometry — bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and ‘quad plus’ — defence partnerships with a diverse range of countries, including India, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Australia carries less ‘great power baggage’ and has demonstrated it can be far nimbler in Southeast Asia than its US ally.”
But the report warns of the effect of the contraction of migration to negative levels.
“Dropping out of the demographic ‘Goldilocks zone’ will have adverse implications for Australia’s fundamentals as a young and growing middle power. The failure to reverse this trend in the next few years would result in a smaller, poorer and ultimately less secure nation.”
The report also concludes that Japan will take much of the next decade to recover economically from COVID. It says that of all the countries, “India’s economy has lost the most growth potential through the damage inflicted by the pandemic”.
An Afghan soldier convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers is among six high-value prisoners who have been flown to Qatar ahead of peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government this weekend.
Hekmatullah has spent seven years in jail after killing the three soldiers he worked with in 2012 — Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate. He is one of the last remaining Taliban prisoners.
Both the Taliban and the United States have pressured the Afghan government to release all 5,000 Taliban prisoners it holds as part of their peace deal. In return, the Taliban pledged to release 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government was excluded from the original peace deal struck between the US and Taliban in February where the prisoner release was negotiated, but has since agreed to release the prisoners.
For a long time, the Afghan government vowed not to free 600 prisoners it considered too dangerous, including murderers and foreign fighters. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called them a “danger” to the world.
But last month, an assembly of Afghan elders, community leaders and politicians called a “loya jirga” approved the release of the last 400 Taliban captives and hundreds have been set free.
Foreign governments’ objections to prisoner release
The release of prisoners who killed Westerners has been among the most contentious parts of the deal.
The Australian government, and the families of the three murdered Australian soldiers, have strenuously objected to the release of Hekmatullah.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has raised the issue with US President Donald Trump in recent weeks, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reiterated this position in a statement today:
The Australian government’s long-standing position is that Hekmatullah should serve a full custodial sentence for the crimes for which he was convicted by an Afghan court, and that he should not be released as part of a prisoner amnesty.
The US has not publicly objected to the release of three prisoners who murdered Americans in so-called insider attacks, although it is reportedly exploring the possibility of release under house arrest.
The importance of the rules of war
So far, the issue of freeing prisoners in Afghanistan has been largely treated as a political and security issue. There has been less attention given to the equally important question of law, justice and human rights.
It follows a regrettably common view that peace is necessary at any price, even if it means letting suspected or convicted war criminals go free, denying justice to their victims and violating international law by enabling killing with impunity.
It is no surprise that such a deal has been spruiked by Trump, who has pardoned US soldiers accused or convicted of war crimes, despite protests by US military commanders. Trump also this week imposed sanctions on senior officials of the International Criminal Court for investigating alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.
The rules of war, or international humanitarian law (as it is otherwise known), take a much more balanced and reasonable approach. These rules are also binding on Afghanistan, the US and Taliban alike.
Hekmatullah’s killing of three Australian soldiers was not a fair fight in the heat of combat between opposing forces under the law of war. It was treacherous and illegal because Hekmatullah was wearing an Afghan army uniform when he killed the Australian soldiers while they were resting at a patrol base in August 2012.
Hekmatullah says he was inspired to kill the soldiers after watching a Taliban video purporting to show US soldiers burning a Quran. He was later aided by the Taliban in his escape.
Through these actions, Hekmatullah violated the basic rules set forth by the Statute of the International Criminal Court, specifically
making improper use … of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy … resulting in death or serious personal injury
The law of war also acknowledges the granting of amnesty to ordinary fighters is an appropriate means to promote peace and reconciliation to end a civil war. But it does not permit amnesty for those who violate its basic rules, including those suspected or convicted of war crimes.
All countries have a legal duty to “respect and ensure respect” for international humanitarian law. Releasing prisoners, thus, is not purely a political question for the Afghan government to decide. It is also bound by international law and must respect it.
Australia has a right to “ensure respect” for the law by both Afghanistan and the US. Releasing Hekmatullah would arguably be a violation of international law by Afghanistan, aided by the US.
Peace without justice can cause long-term problems
The US, Taliban and Afghan government all know this, but are choosing to sacrifice justice for the dream of peace. All sides are exhausted by the two-decade military stalemate and are understandably desperate for a way out.
But numerous conflicts in recent decades — from Latin American to Africa to the Balkans — show that peace without justice is almost always a delusion.
Any immediate gains are usually undermined by the mid- to long-term insecurity that results from giving impunity to killers. It contaminates the integrity and stability of political systems. It undermines the legal system and subordinates the rule of law and human rights to raw politics.
In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted and signed, formalising extended maritime resource claims in international law. At this time, no fewer than six governments had laid claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
Since then, there has been a creeping militarisation of the waters by nations seeking to secure extended maritime resource zones.
In 2009, Vietnam began reclaiming land around some of the 48 small islands it had occupied since the 1970s. In response, China began its much larger reclamations on submerged features it first began to occupy in the 1980s.
In its ruling, the tribunal considered the South China Sea to be a “semi-enclosed sea” as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention — a body of water tightly or largely contained by land features.
This status carries with it the expectation that coastal states should cooperate on everything from conservation issues to commercial exploitation. This concept is important: it means that by definition, the South China Sea is a shared maritime space.
How does international law factor in?
Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states have a right to 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.
This has yet to happen in the South China Sea, which is the source of many of the current tensions. There are three great challenges to this.
The first is the countries claiming parts of the South China Sea cannot agree who owns the Paracel and Spratly islands.
China asserts its sovereignty based on highly disputable evidence from ancient times, as well as more recent claims from 1902-39. Japan occupied the islands during the second world war and later recognised the claim of the Republic of China (now Taiwan) in a 1952 peace treaty.
Rival claimants to the islands deny the validity of this evidence. Vietnam has equally credible evidence from the period before and during the second world war.
Then there is the broader question of China’s larger claim to the waters within the u-shaped “nine-dash” line. This line, which skirts the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam, was first drawn by the Nationalist government of China in 1947. The claim had no basis in international law — then, or now.
A second challenge is one of the actors in this conflict is Taiwan, which has been in dispute with China over sovereignty issues since 1949.
This dispute has meant Taiwan is not formally recognised as a state by most countries and is therefore not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention, nor legally entitled to claim territory. But Taiwan occupies one of the islands.
Third, there is a debate in international law about the type of land territory that can generate rights to an exclusive economic zone. The Law of the Sea Convention mandates the land must be able to sustain human habitation. And in 2016, the international tribunal in The Hague found no islands in the Spratly group met this criterion.
This was a major blow to China’s claims to resource jurisdiction all the way to the southern limits of the South China Sea.
Competing views on freedom of navigation
While the convention settled most international laws governing the sea, it left unresolved some issues related to military activities, especially “innocent passage” by warships in territorial seas.
Under the Law of the Sea Convention, a foreign warship can pass within the 12 nautical miles of another state as long as it takes a direct route and doesn’t conduct military operations.
But states disagree on what constitutes innocent passage. Maritime powers like the US, UK and Australia routinely conduct freedom of navigation operations (or FONOPs) to challenge what Washington calls
attempts by coastal states to unlawfully restrict access to the
The US has angered China by carrying out FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of the islands it claims in the South China Sea. These operations are not designed to challenge China’s claims to islands or resource zones. Rather, the purpose is to assert US rights to freedom of navigation.
China opposes the transits for several reasons, including its assertion that naval ships should not “operate” in other countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Beijing, however, ignores the contradiction between this position and its own activities in the sea, where its naval ships regularly operate in the claimed EEZs of other states.
For their part, the smaller states of the South China Sea are ambivalent about the dispute. They are certainly opposed to what they see as bullying from China on excessive maritime claims and would like to deny all its island claims.
But they are also not keen on seeing the US go too far in its policy of intensifying military confrontation with China.
Will Australia draw closer to the US position?
Australia’s statement on the South China Sea last week was its strongest rejection yet of China’s claims to the waters.
It did not represent a new position on the legal issues, but marked a fresh determination to confront China over its unreasonable claims and its bullying behaviour in the maritime disputes.
Australia has not been keen on following the high-profile freedom of navigation operations of the US — concerned it might provoke a response from China — but that position may be about to change.
The US naval exercises represent an enormous aggregation of firepower. Adding to tensions, the US deployment coincides with Chinese war games in the same vicinity.
These waters are becoming congested naval space.
This is the first time since 2017 that America has deployed three carrier battle groups into contested waters of the South China Sea and its environs. You would have to go back a further ten years for another such display of raw American naval power in the Asia-Pacific.
On this occasion, it is China that is being reminded of American capacity to assert itself in what has become known as the Indo-Pacific. This describes a vast swathe that laps at China’s borders from India in the west to Japan in the north-east.
Washington seems bent on conveying a message. However, it is not clear that China is in a mood to heed such messages in an atmosphere of escalating rhetoric.
In a response to the American naval exercises, Beijing’s official English-language mouthpiece, The Global Times, accused Washington of “attempting to show off its military capability, threaten China and enforce its hegemonic policies”.
The newspaper quoted Beijing “analysts” as saying:
The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the People’s Liberation Army, and any US aircraft carrier movements in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.
This is not true, of course. But the fact such sentiments are emanating from Beijing’s security establishment is confronting, to say the least. When it comes to big-power rivalry, talk might be cheap, but words matter.
In China’s armoury, propaganda is a weapon of influence.
Perhaps the most interesting component of the Global Times assault on US regional “hegemonistic” ambitions is its characterisation of American meddling as that of a “non-regional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away”.
Leaving aside the usual propaganda from Beijing, these sorts of observations represent a continuing escalation in Chinese rhetoric and cannot simply be dismissed as more of the same.
China’s own characterisation of the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake”, in defiance of multiple territorial claims and counter-claims from its neighbours, represents a noose around the region’s neck.
This begs the question whether a regional arms race is under way and likely to intensify. Australia’s own announcement of increased defence expenditures on such items as long-range anti-ship missiles attests to concerns about China’s growing assertiveness.
Canberra’s commitment to lift defence spending above the 2% of GDP benchmark and equip itself with greater offensive capabilities represents a direct response to a perceived China threat.
In that regard, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in which he described the Indo-Pacific as the “epicentre of rising strategic competition”, crosses a red line in Australian strategic thinking.
Morrison added “the risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening”.
This is indisputable.
As a snapshot of the region, the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased military spending between 2009 and 2018 by 33% in real terms, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI).
This was significantly more than growth in spending in other regions. It’s directly attributable to concerns about a deteriorating security environment. Australia’s planned acquisition of long-range anti-ship missiles is part of a wider regional trend.
More weapons with greater range increase the risk of an incident. This may come about by accident but be built up into something much bigger – a shooting war or, more likely, a nasty memory that will haunt international relations for many years and lead to yet more militarisation.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates China’s defence budget in 2020 stands at US$261 billion. This compares with the US defence budget in 2019 of US$717 billion.
In percentage terms, increases in China’s spending outstripped that of its significant neighbours. This includes India, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
A lot more spending is on the way. By 2035, half the world’s submarine fleet will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.
At the same time, China is pressing ahead with its own aircraft carrier fleet. It has two: one purchased off the shelf from Ukraine; the other built in China. The keel has been laid for a third at a Shanghai shipyard.
This is serious stuff. China is a nuclear state.
All this needs to be kept in mind as ill-tempered exchanges between Washington and Beijing over China’s responsibility for a global health pandemic, trade tensions, human rights abuses, bullying of Hong Kong, border skirmishes with India and increased pressure on Taiwan weigh on an increasingly strained relationship.
Arguably, tensions between the US and China are worse now than in 1989, when a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters ruptured relations. The difference between then and now is that China has a vastly larger economy and is an emerging superpower with a military to match its ambitions.
In 1989, China’s economy on a purchasing power parity basis was a fraction of the size it is today. Its contribution to world trade had not yet become supercharged.
What also is noteworthy is that, unlike 1989, China’s armed forces are no longer almost exclusively land-based. Chinese naval capabilities have progressed in leaps and bounds, along with its electronic warfare capabilities.
Hanging over a potentially worsening security environment, certainly an ill-tempered relationship between Beijing and the West, is widespread uneasiness over a deterioration in American global leadership.
In a presidential election year in which a wounded president is fighting for his political survival, risks of a miscalculation are real.
In other words, the security and political environment is treacherous at a moment when China itself feels under siege. As a consequence, China is lashing out at its perceived detractors, real or imagined.
This includes Australia, which has found itself under an almost daily barrage of Chinese invective following Morrison’s clumsy attempts to spearhead an independent inquiry into China’s responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.
Typical of this sort of invective is the following, courtesy of the Global Times:
Australia is only a follower of the US, and its capability in the South China Sea will be limited.
The bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters might be regarded as the low point in Beijing’s post-Mao Zedong relationship with the West, but it could be argued there is now a more worrying set of circumstances.
No country in the Indo-Pacific, with the possible exception of North Korea, can feel comfortable about China’s growing assertiveness. So it is tempting to say something will most likely give.
A recent statement from China’s education bureau warned Chinese students about studying in Australia due to “racist incidents” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such statements, and further moves from China’s education agents threatening to redirect students towards international competitors such as the United Kingdom, can negatively affect Australia as a study destination. Australia’s universities are already reeling from the loss of international students due to COVID-19.
There have been reports some international students from China have defended Australia as a study destination. I have been conducting in-depth interviews with ten international students in Australia about their experiences and concerns throughout COVID-19.
They too have, mostly, positive things to say.
Here are three things they believe Australia should know as we plan our recovery.
Students I spoke with reported this was already happening. One student from Peru said he had “had quite racist comments like ‘go back to your country’”. Another, from India, spoke at length about part-time jobs now being “offered only to Australian citizens. I was told not to even bring in a CV”.
On April 4, the prime minister called for temporary visa holders to “go home” if they couldn’t support themselves.
Each student I spoke with said this was the point in time when they went from feeling a part of their community, to feeling unwelcome.
One Indian student told me:
I have seen a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Asian sentiment. I have seen my Japanese flatmate have abuse yelled at her on the street. Calling her a “filthy Asian” and things like this.
Another student spoke about Labor Senator Kristina Kenneally’s call to “reset” Australia’s temporary migration intake and give Australians a “fair go”.
Definitely, there is a growing anti-immigrant sentiment here. The talk from people in the Australian government that we should be “getting our jobs back for Australians” is constructed in a way to inherently disadvantage people like me, or immigrants. Because it is government policy it will infiltrate across the country and it’s hard to tackle that on an individual level.
Each student suggested Australia’s reputation as a welcoming, safe and diverse place was what was going to shape how parents and prospective students made decisions about where to study after the crisis.
2. International students are integrated in Australian society
The students I spoke with are looking to integrate in local communities as a central part of their overseas experience. They felt they contributed to various parts of Australian society – as tourists and volunteers.
And many played an active role in promoting Australia and their city internationally.
Daniel, from Peru, is based at a regional Queensland university. He volunteers with a local men’s mental health organisation. He’s taken over the weekly Spanish language program on the local radio station and, until the shutdown, worked part time at a bar and volunteered with a research program measuring local water quality.
Something I have learned here is about a sense of community, about being kind to others. I love Australia and the people I have met so far. Once all this is over, I will go back to my home country and teach them about what I have learned here.
3. The government needs to signal its support through clear policy
International students want clear policy responses and acknowledgement of the valuable role they play in Australia.
Australia’s flattened curve undoubtably works in our favour, giving us an advantage over the United States and the UK.
However, the government’s support and welfare may shape how parents and prospective students make future decisions.
Clear policy responses matter now. They offer a signal to students – current and future – that Australia recognises the importance of international students, and they are a welcome and supported part of our communities.
An example is Australia’s reluctance to guarantee international students will not be penalised from being eligible for a Temporary Graduate Visa if studying online. This visa allows graduates of Australian universities to stay on and work, and is essential to attracting students. Currently students are restricted around the amount of offshore study they can do to be eligible.
Canada made such an adjustment early on, announcing international students could complete 50% of their study online without it impacting their eligibility to eventually apply for a post-study work permit.
One Indian student told me:
I don’t think Indian students will be deterred from their goal to study abroad and to better their lives. But a lot of where they decide to do this depends on how the government reacts and responds. A lot of students are probably going to start looking at Europe and Canada as a better destination because of the policies they have. Canada has been doing a really great job at protecting its international student community.
International students value human connection and their expectations and contributions extend beyond the lecture hall. They are looking for responses and a recovery strategy that acknowledges this.
Fabric producers in Tier 2 and cotton spinners in Tier 3 have had to contend with a decreased supply of raw materials and demands to retool to produce medical equipment.
For cotton growers in Tier 4, the fall in demand has pushed prices down from US 70 cents at the start of the year to US 50 cents, the lowest price in a decade, before a partial recovery to US 58 cents.
…with human costs
Reports of losses of tens of thousands of jobs in Myanmar and Cambodia paint a bleak picture.
In Bangladesh estimates have 1.92 million workers at risk of losing their jobs as factories receive notice of US$2.58 billion worth of export orders cancelled or on-hold.
Making things worse, many workers in Tiers 1-3 were receiving less than a living wage defined as the minimum needed to provide adequate shelter, food and necessities. This has made it hard for them to plan or save for emergencies.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a legally-binding agreement between brands and unions set up in the wake of the collapse of the the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 which killed 1,133 people and critically injuring thousands more.
Inspections under the program have been suspended, as have audits due to the closure of borders.
The problems are cumulative – delays in orders due to interruptions in supplies will need to be addressed when factories scale back up, creating demands from buyers that might result in pressure for workers to work unpaid and involuntary overtime, or even worse, subcontract to the informal market where there is a high risk of human rights violations.
Companies along the value chain have been asked to produce and supply medical equipment such as surgical gowns, face masks and materials and elastics.
Dozens of brands and retailers have donated funds and activated their logistics networks to support the effort.
As orders slowly start returning, cotton and textile associations have joined forces in calling for greater collaboration throughout the value chain. Governments have announced aid packages for their workers, and the European Union has provided an emergency fund to support the most vulnerable garment workers in Myanmar.
Longer term, the supply risks highlighted by the disruption might cause companies along the value chain to diversify their suppliers and even produce locally.
The crisis has demonstrated forcefully the importance for manufacturers and retailers to be agile. Yet this can best be done when workers have been well trained and have access to the best technology and equipment.
For now, we watch and see. Cotton is as good an indicator as any other of the brittleness of supply chains and the ways in which what we produce and consume affects the livelihoods of those further down the chain.
In the short-term, a best-case scenario would see a revaluing of garment work as “essential” in order to produce protective/medical equipment that we need in a way that benefits the people who help make them.
The US has signed an historic agreement with the Taliban that sets Washington and its NATO allies on a path to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of unceasing conflict.
It is now hoped the deal will lead to a more complicated process of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government – starting as early as next week – to work toward a complete ceasefire and new political roadmap for the country.
This is critically important because until now, the government has been absent from the peace process at the insistence of the Taliban.
The opening of this window to end one of the world’s most debilitating and protracted conflicts has been welcomed by many US allies, including Australia.
However, many seasoned observers, including prominent American politicians and former diplomats and military leaders, are concerned the agreement concedes too much to the Taliban without requiring it to make any substantive commitments to ensure a genuine peace process.
The deal has completely sidelined the Afghan government and civil society and does not provide any explicit references, much less guarantees, for the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and minority groups who were suppressed and persecuted by the Taliban.
Indeed, cracks have already begun to emerge in the deal. On Monday, the Taliban refused to take part in the intra-Afghan talks until the government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which President Ashraf Ghani has refused to do.
As a result, many Afghans are worried that rather than being the start of a comprehensive peace process for the country, the deal is merely a cheap withdrawal troop agreement intended to serve US President Donald Trump’s political interests during an election year.
Will the Taliban sever ties with terror groups?
The agreement is to be implemented in two separate processes. The first commits the Taliban to take measures to prevent al-Qaeda and other terror groups from using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to threaten the US and its allies.
In return, the US and NATO have agreed to a complete withdrawal of all forces from the country within 14 months. It is scheduled to begin with the departure of over 5,000 troops and the closure of five military bases within 135 days of the signing of the agreement.
In the short term, the Taliban will likely tactically reduce its relations with certain elements of the local al-Qaeda network to demonstrate its commitments under the deal. But its relationship with these international terror groups is far more complicated and nuanced than the agreement recognises.
Research has shown the Taliban sees foreign militant groups as valuable allies due to their shared ideologies and longstanding material support for one another. This is provided these groups don’t directly challenge their power in the country.
This explains why the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are so enduring, despite the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan aimed at dismantling the terror group. In particular, the Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban movement, has a long history of working closely with al-Qaeda and other groups.
On the other hand, the Taliban has fiercely resisted groups such as the Islamic State when it has threatened to seize Taliban territory.
As a result, the Taliban is likely to intensify its attacks on already weakened Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, rather than going after more dispersed elements of al-Qaeda under the agreement with the US.
But verifying the group has followed through on its commitment to completely sever ties with al-Qaeda and other terror groups may prove to be extremely difficult in the long run. Especially after the withdrawal of the US military and intelligence assets from the region.
Many challenges lie ahead in peace talks
For negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government to succeed, both sides will need to find a compromise on the future of the country’s political system. This would require the Taliban to abandon its goal of restoring its ultra-conservative Islamic Emirate, which it sought to establish from 1996-2001.
The Taliban will also need to make robust guarantees for basic civil and political rights and to shut down its safe havens for militants across the border in Pakistan.
The Taliban has so far steadfastly refused to directly negotiate with officials of the Afghan government, which it describes as an illegitimate imposition of western powers.
The divisions that have intensified within the government since September’s presidential election will only serve to strengthen the Taliban’s position. And the implementation of the first stage of the US military withdrawal is likely to further weaken the government and embolden the Taliban.
Consequently, it is highly doubtful a complete and durable political settlement will be achieved within the 14 months of the complete foreign troop withdrawals.
Yet, despite the failings of the government, the public has not shifted its support to the Taliban. Last year, a national survey by the Asia Foundation found 85% of Afghans had no sympathy for the Taliban.
Taliban negotiators have said they are not seeking to monopolise power and are willing to recognise the rights of women and freedom of expression according to Islam. But given the group’s draconian interpretation of Islam, it is far from certain it is ready to recognise the vibrant role Afghan women now play in the public sector and civil society.
The rights of ethnic and religious minorities also remain a concern. The Hazaras, for one, have been relentlessly persecuted by the Taliban since the 1990s.
Finally, the Taliban’s sanctuaries and power bases in Pakistan will undoubtedly remain a sticking point in any peace talks on the future of Afghanistan. A durable peace is unlikely to materialise when an insurgent group can wage wars from across the border with impunity and backed by elements of a powerful neighbouring state.
Despite these challenges, the fact a peaceful resolution to the war is on the agenda of regional and global powers is a positive development. A genuine peace is likely to be the outcome of trials and errors, a long process that requires patience and sustained international commitment.
After months of delays and uncertainty, Afghanistan is set to hold its presidential election on Saturday. This election, the fourth since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, has critical implications for the political stability and security of the country.
Most importantly, it will test the resilience of the country’s fragile democratic process and shape the conditions under which the now-defunct negotiations between the United States and the Taliban can be resumed with more meaningful participation from Kabul.
And if the vote produces a broadly acceptable and functioning government – which is not a guarantee after the last presidential election in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2018 – it will have profound repercussions for the Afghan people.
Further, the number of Afghans below the poverty line increased from 33.5% in 2011 to nearly 55% in 2017.
And in another bleak assessment of where things are at the moment, Afghan respondents in a recent Gallup survey rated their lives worse than anyone else on the planet. A record-high 85% of respondents categorised their lives as “suffering”, while the number of people who said they were “thriving” was zero.
Tests of democracy in Afghanistan
Despite the major challenges posed by insecurity and risks of electoral fraud, Afghanistan’s recent elections have been serious contests between the country’s various political elites.
Ordinary voters take extraordinary risks to participate in the polls. Thanks to a dynamic media sector, these contests involve spirited debates about policy-making and the visions of the candidates. This is particularly true when it comes to presidential elections, as the country’s 2004 Constitution concentrated much of the political and executive power in the office of the president.
The political crisis was averted by the formation of the national unity government, in which Ashraf Ghani became president and his main challenger in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, took the position of chief executive officer, with powers similar to a prime minister.
Negotiations with the Taliban
Since the withdrawal of most of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban has considerably expanded the areas under its influence. Nonetheless, the insurgent group has been unable to score any strategic military victories by gaining control of provincial or population centres.
In 2016, President Donald Trump came to the White House with the promise of ending the war in Afghanistan. However, after a meticulous assessment of the risks associated with a complete troop withdrawal, he backed away from that pledge.
Trump instead called the 2014 departure of most US troops a “hasty withdrawal” and declared a new strategy that included an increase in the number of US forces in Afghanistan.
The deployment of additional troops significantly escalated the military campaign against the Taliban but failed to decisively change the security dynamics in the country.
Then, in 2018, the Trump administration formally began engaging the Taliban in a series of direct negotiations in Qatar. The process was called off by Trump earlier this month when it was reportedly at the threshold of an agreement.
Critics noted, however, the many flaws of this approach and the haste with which the negotiations were conducted by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation.
Ironically, at the insistence of the Taliban, the process excluded the government of Afghanistan, which the Taliban refuses to recognise as the legitimate authority in the country. This led to phased negotiations, whereby a deal between the US and the Taliban was expected to be followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue and eventually a ceasefire.
A successful presidential election that produces a broadly acceptable outcome can significantly strengthen the position of the new government in negotiating and implementing a peace process with the Taliban. This is one reason why Ghani does not want to be sidelined from the negotiations.
Challenges for the upcoming vote
The election involves a significant number of political players and coalitions, but is essentially a replay of the 2014 poll between Ghani and Abdullah. While none of the other 13 candidates have a realistic chance of winning, they can split the votes to prevent one of the leaders from claiming victory in the first round. A run-off was required in the last two presidential elections in 2009 and 2014.
Another factor is the threat of violence from the Taliban. The group has already vowed to violently disrupt the election. In recent weeks, it has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on election rallies, including a devastating attack on the campaign office of Amrullah Saleh, the first vice-president on Ghani’s ticket.
This election is unlikely to be a game changer in the face of the magnitude and complexity of the challenges facing Afghanistan and its people.
Nonetheless, the election presents a rare opportunity for the country’s people to exercise their rights to choose who governs the country.
And if the supporters of the leading candidates stay committed to a transparent process, even a reasonably credible outcome can go a long way in restoring confidence in the country’s shaky institutions and strengthening the position of the government in any future peace negotiations with the Taliban.
This article was corrected on September 27, 2019. The forthcoming election is the fourth since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, not the third as originally stated.
On August 30, Timor-Leste will celebrate the referendum that gave it independence from Indonesia. For the people of this small island, it has been a long battle – and one that continues today. You can read our companion story on the island nation’s struggle for independence here.
This Friday marks the 20-year anniversary of the day the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia after a 24-year occupation.
Another significant anniversary comes next month, on September 20. That was the day of the arrival of the INTERFET mission, the Australian-led multinational force that brought an end to the violence that wracked Timor-Leste after the independence vote.
In the intervening three weeks, 1,500 Timorese were killed in the violence, which had been orchestrated by the Indonesian military and its proxy militias. Over 250,000 were forcibly displaced to West Timor and some 80% of the infrastructure was destroyed.
Many Australians are rightly proud of their contribution to Timor-Leste’s independence, which served as a historical corrective to Australia’s longstanding support for Indonesian’s invasion and forced integration of East Timor in 1975-76. The more than 5,000 Australian soldiers in the INTERFET mission marked the nation’s largest military deployment since the Vietnam War.
Yet despite the goodwill the mission engendered in Timor-Leste for the Australian people, relations between the two nations have repeatedly been undermined by contentious negotiations over control of the lucrative oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.
A treaty signed last March created a maritime boundary between the states for the first time. The border is expected to come into force this week following its ratification by both parliaments – another momentous milestone in Timor-Leste’s history.
But other thorny issues remain. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives in Dili for the anniversary on Friday, he will likely face calls for Australia to drop its prosecution of a whistleblower who revealed an Australian spying operation against Timor-Leste.
As former Timor-Leste leader Jose Ramos Horta said,
If Australia doesn’t show political leadership, moral leadership on this issue, every time we talk to Australian leaders I will wonder if they have a tape recorder in their pocket [or] if my office has been bugged.
Conflict over oil and gas
Since its independence, Timor-Leste’s relations with Australia have been overshadowed by one major factor: the oil and gas fields on its contested maritime border.
Allegations then emerged in 2013 from a former ASIS agent (now known as Witness K) that Australia had spied on Timorese officials during the negotiations over the CMATS treaty. This led Timor-Leste to launch a case in The Hague challenging the treaty for want of good faith.
Australia was embarrassed by the exposure, but determined to maintain the countries’ ongoing treaty arrangements and focus instead on revenue-sharing agreements. However, Timor-Leste argued that the bulk of the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea would lie on their side of a median line and pushed for a permanent boundary to be drawn between the countries.
As relations deteriorated, ministerial visits ceased for almost five years.
Because Australia had abandoned the international courts as a means of resolving the maritime boundary in 2002, Timor-Leste had only one option left. In 2016, it pioneered the use of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) compulsory conciliation process: a non-binding but mandatory mediation between nations on maritime disputes.
The conciliation panel of five judges found the CMATS treaty’s moratorium on defining a maritime boundary was invalid. This dealt a fatal blow to decades of Australian foreign policy focused on maintaining its continental shelf claim in the Timor Gap in line with the 1972 Australia-Indonesia border treaty.
Australia could have attempted to tough it out since the tribunal’s finding was non-binding. But by this point, the Labor opposition was arguing the maritime boundary with Timor-Leste should be renegotiated in line with international law, putting additional pressure on the government to resolve the dispute.
A separate dispute over China’s claims in the South China Sea, also settled in 2016, made Australia’s position increasingly untenable, as well. The world was urging China to respect an international tribunal’s maritime ruling, so it would be difficult for Australia not to do the same.
Announcement of the new maritime border treaty followed in March 2018. It was a major diplomatic breakthrough and soon led to the resumption of ministerial visits.
The treaty created a median-line boundary in the former Timor Gap, placing the wells in the former Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) in Timor-Leste’s sovereign waters.
The Timorese believe there is another A$1.5 billion of oil reserves in this area, but as these fields near the end of their life, the greater game lies in the as-yet-untapped Greater Sunrise field. This field straddles the eastern side of the new boundary and is believed to be worth in excess of US$40 billion.
Timor-Leste also achieved a major increase in royalties from the future development of this field, up from 50% under the CMATS treaty to 70-80%, depending on whether the pipeline eventually goes to Timor or Darwin.
Since then, Timor-Leste’s focus has shifted to negotiations with its commercial partners over its ambitious plans for the Tasi Mane oil and gas megaproject on its southern coast.
This project could bring additional challenges for the relationship with Australia. The East Timorese government estimates that external financing will provide some 80% of the estimated US$10.5-12 billion funding for the project. And Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Australia has already stated that if funding partners cannot be found among Timor-Leste’s friends in Australia, the United States, Japan or South Korea, then Chinese capital would be a clear alternative.
Timor-Leste has rejected reports that China’s Exim bank offered a A$16 billion loan to finance the megaproject, though it acknowledges both countries have expressed willingness to cooperate over the separate development of Timor-Leste’s petrochemical industry.
Even though China might be seen as a logical partner for developing Timor-Leste’s oil and gas processing capabilities, Beijing’s involvement would certainly complicate relations with Australia.
Timor-Leste has generally sought to balance its relationships with key regional powers, in part to prevent the dominant influence of any single nation. The country’s foreign minister recently emphasised that discussions on the Tasi Mane project are ongoing with potential partners in Australia, the US, Europe and Asia.
Remaining obstacles to closer ties
Despite the major improvement in bilateral ties between the two countries, there are some remaining points of contention.
The prosecutions of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery in the espionage whistleblower case have been criticised by Horta and another former Timor-Leste leader, Xanana Gusmão. This week, Gusmão indicated he would appear as a witness to give evidence on behalf of the two, raising the potential for further embarrassment for Australia.
Some political activists in both Australia and Timor-Leste have also called for Canberra to pay back oil and gas revenues it has received from the JPDA since the border treaty was signed in 2018, and accused Australia of delays in ratification.
While these accusations have made headlines, Timor-Leste’s parliament had not ratified the treaty either until last month. In any case, Timorese NGOs point to the far larger question of up to US$5 billion in revenues that Australia has received dating back to 2002, when revenue-sharing agreements began.
But it appears there is no appetite in either country to consider repayment of historical royalties.
As Australia and Timor-Leste prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the independence referendum – as well as the recent restoration of good bilateral relations – it’s worth keeping in mind that new hurdles potentially lie ahead, with implications for the wider region.
On August 30, Timor-Leste will celebrate the referendum that gave it independence from Indonesia. For the people of this small island, it has been a long battle – one that continues today. You can read our companion story on the island nation’s vexed relationship with Australia here.
Indigenous myth attributes the high mountain chain that runs like a spine down the centre of the crocodile-shaped island of Timor to Mother Earth’s dying movements when she retreated underground. This mountain chain is more pronounced in the east, in the territory of Timor-Leste, and often protrudes directly down into the sea along the rugged northern coast.
The island is also surrounded by significant waters. To the south are the vast and disputed oil reserves. To the north is a deep exchange pathway for warm water moving from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, creating conditions for a major “cetacean migration” highway for 24 different species of whale and dolphin.
In 1944, the anthropologist Mendes Correa described the Portuguese colony of Timor as a “Babel … a melting pot”, and a diverse mix of traditions is still strongly felt today.
The island is a bridge between the Malay and Melanesian world and has as much in common with Pacific Island cultures as Indonesia. The diverse indigenous societies cross the spectrum of matriarchal and patriarchal organisation.
Women are accorded a sacred status within Timorese cosmology and the divine female element is prominent in much indigenous belief. Female spirits dominate the sacred world, while men dominate the secular world. So, while women may hold power in a ritual context, they generally do not have a strong public or political voice. But they are fighting to change this and now make up a third of members in the national parliament.
By the early 16th century, Portuguese colonisers arrived in the Spice Islands of which Timor was part. This was the beginning of a colonial relationship now 500 years old.
Revolts by Timorese against Portuguese rule were frequent and bloody. Famous Timorese rebel Dom Boaventura lost an armed uprising against his Portuguese colonisers in 1911, leaving East Timor to be ruled directly from Portugal by the fascist dictatorship of Salazar for most of the 20th century.
The marginal colony remained neglected and closeted from any modern liberalising trends. But in the early 1970s the Timorese independence movement Fretilin, partly inspired by Dom Boaventura, began to oppose Portuguese colonialism, while developing a revolutionary program that included the emancipation of women.
Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte was one of the founders of the nationalist movement and the leader of its women’s organisation. While Bonaparte participated directly in the struggle against colonialism, she also stood against “the violent discrimination that Timorese women had suffered in colonial society”.
After the colonial regime collapsed in 1974, a three-week civil war, secretly manipulated by Indonesian military agents, was the precursor to the larger war and invasion to come.
The victors of the civil war, Fretilin, reconstituted the faction of loyal Timorese soldiers serving in the Portuguese Army as resistance army Falintil. This army, and the civilian resistance, countered the massive and brutal attack of US-and-Australian-backed Indonesian military for 24 years. The horrors were kept as secret as possible, even to the point of covering up the deaths of those trying to report them, such as the “Balibo 5”.
After the Indonesian invasion of December 7 1975, much of the population of East Timor retreated to the mountains, with the resistance living in free zones for the next three years.
However, in November 1978, the Indonesian campaign of annihilation finally encircled the remaining resistance leadership and 140,000 civilians on Mount Matebian, in the east of the island. Most surrendered. They were placed in prisons and “resettlement camps” where many slowly starved to death. The violence of the 24-year Indonesian occupation affected and traumatised the whole of Timorese society.
After the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998, President B.J. Habibie agreed to let the Timorese decide their future in a ballot. In his honour, they recently named a bridge after him.
Timor’s pre-eminent leader, Xanana Gusmao, was the key negotiator with UN representatives. He conducted negotiations from his prison house in Jakarta where he’d been since 1992, serving a 20-year sentence for fighting Indonesian forces in his homeland. He persevered with ballot preparations despite growing Indonesian military and militia violence.
In the August 30 1999 referendum, nearly 80% of East Timorese voted for independence by indicating the blue and green National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) flag on the ballot paper.
Extensive military and militia slayings followed the announcement of the vote. An estimated 1500 East Timorese were killed and more than 250,000 forcibly displaced into Indonesia. About 80% of infrastructure was destroyed. Survivors struggled to feed and look after their families while recovering psychologically from the mayhem.
Stories from the resistance period and 1999 are constantly remembered in Timor-Leste and are hugely significant in the new society. A hierarchy based on past service to the resistance has been established. Pensions and payments to male veterans are one of the biggest expenses for the government.
Anthropologists have described an indigenous belief that those who fought and sacrificed “purchased” the nation with their own lives and are owed a living.
Along with celebration there will be much reflection in Timor in the next weeks about the last 20 years of building a nation from “zero” and the 24 years of struggle that came before that. It will consider what they have achieved and what still needs to be done.
Hopefully, Timor-Leste can build a free and fair future for the over 1 million citizens, 60% of them under 18. They include many inspiring, educated young leaders who are ready to take up the responsibility.
As we watch and cheer from the sidelines, we hope for a less eventful and more peaceful future for all Timorese.