ASPI suggests

Welcome to our first ‘ASPI suggests’ for 2020. There’s a lot of reading to catch up on, so let’s dive right in.

The world

The Middle East remains embroiled in conflict and instability. A report from the US Air Forces Central Command notes that more bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in 2019 than in any other year since 2010—that’s despite Donald Trump’s promise to wind down actions in the region.

Questions still remain about the targeted US airstrike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian paramilitary Quds Force, on 3 January. For the details behind the assassination and why the Trump administration chose this time to conduct the strike, see this short explainer on Al Jazeera. The Center for Strategic and International Studies examines the justification for and legality of the strike against Soleimani and what it means for the use of force into the future. James Sherr offers his take on Russia’s view of the assassination—a contradictory blend of public condemnation of the US and a behind-closed-doors interest in restraining Iranian retaliation. Finally, see Chatham House for the ways in which Soleimani’s death has affected surrounding Middle Eastern countries, ranging from internal politics to international action.

On 18 January a ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels hit a mosque in central Yemen where soldiers had gathered to pray, killing over 100 people. According to The Guardian, the incident threatens to damage the country’s fragile peace process. The New York Times reports that exiled internationally recognised Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi released a statement arguing that this act of aggression proves the rebels have ‘no desire for peace’. The BBC reminds us that the country’s civil war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people living in famine-like conditions.

The Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, ‘Peace to prosperity’, was released earlier this week and was met by Israel’s adamant support and Palestine’s adamant rejection. The Wall Street Journal explains why some Middle Eastern leaders have decided to support the plan.

It has always been a question of ‘not if but when’ for the next global pandemic and the latest strain of the coronavirus may be just that. So far, 7,700 cases and 170 deaths have been recorded in China and there are at least 90 cases outside of the country. The New York Times analyses the human causes of the epidemic relating to population growth and ecological disturbance. Chatham House claims that panic is unwarranted, while Foreign Policy outlines the potential devastating impact the virus could have on the global market.

The French ‘yellow vest’ movement that made world headlines early last year eventually faded after a period of quiet, but the situation has heated up again. The Guardian details the latest protests across France, including by a group of firefighters who set their uniforms alight while wearing them. The protests have become more violent, as reported by BBC News, and more than 60 people have been arrested. While populist movements dominate France, Italy is experiencing the reverse, with a wave of anti-populist protests across the country. The Atlantic warns that in the 2020s voters will experience the consequences of the populist movement, as Britain is now doing after the prolonged Brexit process.

London recently hosted the UK–Africa Investment Summit as Britain prepared to depart the EU. Stephen Paduano argues in Foreign Policy that, despite this ambitious step towards a ‘global Britain’, the summit didn’t compare in scale and impact to other recent African summits with world powers like China and the United States. The BBC contends that trade relations with Africa won’t immediately be affected by Brexit; in fact, suggests Global Finance, they could be significantly improved in the near future as the UK seeks investment opportunities in markets outside of Europe. The new energy deals in the region announced at the summit have drawn criticism, with The Guardian reporting that 90% of them are in fossil fuels.

Tech geek

One of the problems associated with the F-35 joint strike fighter program is the cloud-based ‘autonomous logistics information system’. It doesn’t work. That’s leading to poor operational readiness and rising sustainment costs for the F-35 program. The Pentagon has finally announced a replacement, but it won’t appear until 2022 at the earliest.

For an emerging global sea power like China, aircraft carriers are a symbol of maritime power projection. They’ve been the centrepiece of the US Navy since the Battle of Midway in 1942. But they’re expensive and complex to operate. China is finding this out and has scaled back its carrier plans from six to four, cancelling two planned nuclear-powered ships.

Maybe the future of sea power isn’t big flattops but robots? China, like the US, is developing unmanned warships and has been testing a small one recently. The fact that both countries are moving in this direction is significant, and proposals are being made (and resisted) for sweeping cuts to US naval surface combatants in favour of unmanned platforms.

Or maybe the future of war is in the grey zone. There’s a great piece in The Daily Beast which looks at this argument.

In space, a key political battle is emerging in the US over the future of NASA’s plans for a new mission to the moon under project Artemis. A congressional bill, pushed by House Democrats and Republicans, would dramatically scale back ambitious plans to return US astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, in favor of getting them to Mars orbit by 2033, and cancel long-term lunar operations. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has raised concerns—as has tech geek!


Living in a coastal town in Colombia has its struggles, and they’re being exacerbated by climate change. Watch the emotional journey of a young girl learning to swim so she will be prepared when her village sinks beneath the waves. [10:35]

See this photo series from Business Insider which illustrates the magnitude and violence of recent protests in France.

For more on the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and what to expect next between the US and Iran, listen to The Truth of the Matter from CSIS. [27:00]


Sydney, 4 February, 7–8.15 pm, University of New South Wales: ‘The fight for human rights’. Register here.

Canberra, 5 February, 6–7 pm, Australian Institute of International Affairs: ‘Defence of the island continent: what to watch in the 2020s’. Register here.