ASPI suggests: a look back at 2019

As I looked back at the article I wrote this time last year, I was disappointed to see the bad had remained, the good had turned, and the ugly got worse. In saying that, glimmers of hope remain for humanity as the number of people living in poverty around the globe continues to fall, global movements unify millions to demand change, and medical breakthroughs bring hope to the sick and vulnerable.

Let’s kick off at home because, how good is Australia! No, that isn’t a question, it’s just the exclamation made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison who took the W in an ‘unwinnable’ federal election in May. Just before ScoMo retained his throne, though, Australia said goodbye to one of its greatest prime ministers when Bob Hawke died on 16 May. From the creation of Medicare to the Australia Act, Hawke was a true Aussie and anyone who says otherwise is a bum.

Press freedom was called into question this year when the Australian Federal Police conducted raids on the ABC and at journalist Annika Smethurst’s house. The raid on the ABC was part of an investigation into the 2017 publication of the Afghan Files.

Bushfires have been devastating Australia, and with extreme heat now tracking across the country, conditions are only set to get worse. Please be careful and monitor emergency alerts and apps like the NSW Rural Fire Service’s fire map for live updates. And finally for our Australian round-up, see the ABC’s look back at 2019 from a fact-checking point of view.

ScoMo’s British equivalent, BoJo, retained his post as prime minister in a very winnable election. With a Tory majority not seen since the Iron Lady won in 1987, you can bet your bottom dollar (which is all Britain might have left soon) that Brexit will be pushed through Parliament as early as 31 January. The Financial Times has a great article on Britain’s national interests and the future of its economy and see here for a timeline of the Brexit process since the referendum on 23 June 2016. I can’t believe this saga has been going on for three and half years either.

Trump. Enough said.

Okay, fine: the longest government shutdown in US history, a trade war with China, withdrawal from the INF Treaty, two meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (plus becoming the first US president to enter North Korea), the Mueller probe, the vetoing of a resolution to end US involvement in the Yemen conflict, phone calls with Ukraine’s president, a visit from ScoMo, a Japan trade deal, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Want more? See Vox. Oh wait, he was impeached, too.

Climate change is beginning to look a lot less like an invention of the Chinese with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere at the highest level in 800,000 years, global temperatures continuing to rise, compounding natural disasters, rising sea levels and more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report highlighting the growing impact global warming is having on oceans and seas. Writing for ASPI, Robert Glasser investigated the compounding impacts of climate change and natural disasters, and the Financial Stability Board looked into climate-related financial disclosure packages.

Over to China: the country is taking great strides to reduce its carbon footprint. Of note is the ‘Green Great Wall’, a 4,800-kilometre-long strip of forest being planted across the north of country in an attempt to stop the Gobi Desert expanding. On the flip side, though, the generating capacity of the coal-fired power plants Beijing has planned or under construction is equal to the entire electrical output of the European Union.

China has also continued to mount pressure in the South China Sea, emphasised this week with the deployment of its new aircraft carrier to the region. Some countries are starting to push back against its Belt and Road Initiative too. And although there’s been plenty of outcry over China’s treatment of its Uyghur population, just yesterday its ambassador to Australia said accusations of human rights abuses were ‘fake news’.

On top of all that, protests have erupted all over the globe, from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Chile; the Middle East has remained a region embroiled in conflict and instability; and the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya population has continued despite allegations of genocide.

Now, I don’t want to leave on a sour note so here are the glimmers of hope I promised. New data has revealed that the number of people living in extreme poverty has reduced by 1.29 billion since 1990. Europe has introduced a plan to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the US swore in the most diverse Congress in the nation’s history with more women than ever before, and Iceland became the first country in the world to enforce equal pay. For more happy news, here are 99 more good news stories that you may not have heard about in 2019.

Tech geek

Let’s finish the year with some interesting tech developments too.

Starting with artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, there’s an interesting piece in Forbes on the Orca large unmanned underwater vehicle. Naval Technology has a piece on the US Navy’s ‘sea train’ program of unmanned surface vessels. Defense News highlights the political risks associated with investing in unmanned systems.

In space, we’ve seen some key steps towards fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicles, with SpaceX testing the ‘Starhopper’ that will eventually lead to the ‘Starship Super Heavy’ fully reusable rocket, which is due to fly in 2021. New Zealand’s Rocket Labs, the US’s Blue Origin, and China’s i-Space are also embracing reusable rocket systems. Reusable launch systems will likely replace a significant portion of existing expendable ones in the 2020s.

The US Space Force has been approved by Congress. It will be a sixth branch of the US military, and sit within the US Air Force, in the same way the US Marine Corps sits within the US Navy.

This was also the year of the unmanned wingman. In Australia, the ‘loyal wingman’ platform emerging from Boeing Australia’s ‘airpower teaming system’ was unveiled at the Australian International Airshow. Meanwhile, in the US, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is being tested.

As mentioned above, China has commissioned its first locally produced aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which will be based in Hainan. It may eventually carry a new fighter that will reportedly be based on the Shenyang FC-31.

Finally, some interesting images out of Tonopah Test Range Airport in the Nevada desert imply that something from the dark may have popped into the light.