Power politics, trade wars and a humanitarian rescue mission dominated headlines in the Asia Pacific region over the course of the last fortnight. The most important geopolitical development, quite obviously, was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meetings with North Korean officials to finalise the terms of the supposed denuclearisation ‘contract’ that the DPRK has signed with the United States. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of the talks was deemed to be unsatisfactory and Pyongyang registered its disappointment about Washington’s ‘gangster-like’ tactics vis-à-vis the next steps. Quite clearly, both countries have different understandings of what was agreed upon during last month’s summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim in Singapore and as analysts had predicted, the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear program remains. Meanwhile, new reports suggest that North Korea has accelerated nuclear testing at secret sites.
On the other hand, some pundits regretted the US decision to postpone the ‘2+2’ defence and foreign ministerial dialogue with India to accommodate a meeting with North Korean officials. Prioritising a friendly and important power like India over a pariah regime like North Korea’s should have been an obvious choice for Washington, according to them. Interestingly, even as the ‘2+2’ meeting was postponed, the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley visited India and held meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and lobbied for New Delhi to cut down on its oil imports from Iran. There are signs that India is already complying with this US demand as Iranian oil imports have fallen by almost 16% since June. Tehran has already warned New Delhi of repercussions if the trend continues.
The ongoing trade war between the US and China has escalated further with the latest reports suggesting that Trump has upped the stakes by announcing tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. Interestingly, Beijing has renewed its call to Canberra to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to tackle Trump’s vicious attacks over trade, through a speech made by the Chinese ambassador at the One Belt One Road in Australia conference in Darwin. In response, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson reiterated the Australian position and apprehension about the ‘transparency, rules and governance arrangements’ of the mega initiative.
In a stunning development that most did not see coming, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was arrested and slapped with corruption charges to which he has pleaded not guilty. If proven true, they could mean life imprisonment for the disgraced leader. Disconcertingly, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have also been sentenced for ten years imprisonment on corruption charges, two weeks before the general elections in a country historically ravaged by bloody civilian-military contests for leadership and troubling democratic credentials. Recently, Pakistan also accepted being grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its support to terrorist groups operating in the subcontinent and has reportedly put ambitious plans in place to comply with the ruling.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited India this week ‘to review the entire gamut of bilateral ties’. The two countries have signed 11 memorandums of understanding to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation, including plans to upgrade a comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Seoul has also championed New Delhi’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
The biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC), hosted by the US Pacific Fleet and featuring 25 countries, including Australia began this fortnight and will end on the 2nd of August. China is conspicuous in its absence post its exclusion from the exercise by the US because of Beijing’s latest acts of militarising the South China Sea. Meanwhile, it is reported that China has been quietly conducting electronic warfare tests in the South China Sea.
China’s intimidation of international airlines continues and the latest airline to toe Beijing’s diktat is Air India, which has changed the way it refers to the Republic of China from ‘Taiwan’ to ‘Chinese Taipei’. Some analysts were quick to draw a connection between this decision and India’s recent strategic reorientation or ‘reset’ vis-à-vis the People’s Republic. However, the Indian MEA’s maintains that the move is consistent with official Indian position on One China. In response, Taiwan lodged its protest against Air India’s decision.
Closer home, reports of a massive hacking of the Australian National University’s (ANU) computer systems by China-based hackers have caused great worry in the national capital. Members of the strategic community are concerned about the possible loss of ANU’s intellectual property relating to cutting-edge research into defence applications.
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has urged the parliament to exit the Paris agreement on climate change and withdraw from its emissions reductions target, in a stinging attack on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee. Ironically, it was Abbott who had agreed to the agreement as the Australian prime minister in 2015.
Australia joined 12 other countries to cooperate on a difficult rescue operation in Thailand to save a young soccer team and its coach who were stuck in a treacherous cave for over two weeks. After a remarkable effort, all the persons were rescued alive. However, the mission was marred by the death of a Thai navy SEAL tasked with delivering oxygen cylinders.
Significance for Australia
As alluded to in the previous edition of the Regional Wrap, Australia has been circumspect about any real chances of success coming out of the talks between the US and North Korea. The recent breakdown in the negotiations is hardly surprising for anyone, including Canberra. Australia would just be hoping that this wouldn’t lead to another round of verbal bellicose exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang as they’re both led by temperamental and unpredictable leaders.
A downturn in US-India ties and prospects of sanctions on India either due to Iranian oil or Russian defence purchases would be worrisome to Australia. These two nations are the lynchpins of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategic reorientation and Canberra has a vested interest in ensuring the preservation of amicable ties between Washington and New Delhi.
Canberra is being warned to brace for the effects of the 1930s style trade wars between Washington and Beijing, which has the potential to hit the Australian economy hard. Economists are pessimistic about any reversal of tariff trends and predict that higher tariffs and barriers to trade may become the norm, which would be detrimental to Australian interests of a free global economy.
The latest round of hacking reports of ANU’s computer systems by China-based persons adds to the debate on Beijing’s interference in Australian politics and drives home the magnitude of the threat that Australia faces in the cyber realm. Needless to say, this poses a national security threat to Australia and is causing sleepless nights Down Under.
Finally, Australian participation in the Thai cave rescue mission is being hailed as an example of what Australian aid can achieve in terms of elevating the country’s soft power and outreach and demonstrates Canberra’s commitment to the region.