While the most talked-about development, globally, was the Helsinki Summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Asia Pacific region witnessed an eventful fortnight as well. One of the biggest stories in our region this fortnight was Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to sign an agreement with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to build an undersea internet cable network preventing Chinese corporate giant, Huawei, from seizing the project. This development has attracted criticism from Beijing, which accuses Canberra of trying to ‘contain its influence’ in the region. Importantly, the $137 million deal demonstrates Australia’s commitment to its Pacific Island neighbours and exemplifies, in Turnbull’s words, a ‘very practical way’ of delivering foreign aid.

The Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), the annual defence and foreign ministers’ meeting between US and Australia took place this week. Significantly, this year’s iteration of the dialogue took place on the west coast of the US, which Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop regards as a ‘strong acknowledgement of the extensive interests we share in the Indo-Pacific region.’ Just prior to the meeting, a US congressman called on Australia to undertake independent freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to check China’s growing adventurism in the contested waters. However, Bishop rejected the suggestion and remarked that it would be ‘an extraordinary step’ for Australia to consider unilateral FONOPs because it hadn’t conducted such exercises anywhere in the world.

Australia unveiled its new India Economic Strategy 2035  authored by former foreign secretary and India expert, Peter Varghese, to create a coherent and comprehensive roadmap to tap the immense potential of its relations with India. However, critics wondered why the report, which had been commissioned last year with great fanfare, was released in such a low-key manner. Some speculated that this was done to prevent further embittering of relations with Beijing, given they are at an all-time low already. Another analyst pointed out that the section on geopolitical and strategic convergences between Australia and India in the report underestimates the differences in their worldviews and that the so-called shared interests and ideologies aren’t that obvious.

The Narendra Modi-led BJP government faced a vote of no confidence in the Indian parliament, over a plethora of domestic issues such as price rise, poor implementation of the GST and farmer distress, among other factors. Nonetheless, the government won the motion comfortably due to its strong majority in the lower house. In other news, India and Iran have reiterated their commitment to maintain trade levels even in the face of possible US sanctions against India. New Delhi has also taken further steps to acquire the s-400 air missile defence systems from Russia, which is another matter of contention between the US and India. However, there may be some relief in the offing on that front, at least, as the US Congress has passed a motion to allow certain countries, including India, to be granted waivers from the sanctions proposed under the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Interestingly, amidst the ongoing push-and-pull in the US-India relationship, the Indian government has invited President Donald Trump to be the chief guest at next year’s Republic Day parade, an invitation that was also extended to and accepted by his predecessor. However, recent reports suggest that India may be in two minds about the invitation to Trump now, exemplifying the oscillating rhythm of the relationship.

Singapore was hit by its worst-ever cyber-attack, with hackers stealing health records of nearly 1.5 million citizens, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. State-based professional hackers are being said to be behind these attacks as experts point to the sheer scale and smoothness of the operation. On the other hand, the White House announced its decision to terminate the Cyber Security Coordinator role on the National Security Council, underscoring this administration misplaced priorities and short-sightedness.

China has stepped up its engagement with Sri Lanka and latest reports suggest that Beijing plans to gift a frigate to the small Indian Ocean island-state. Earlier this week, President Xi Jinping also offered another fresh loan worth $295 million to Colombo.

At the time of writing, Pakistan is gearing up for its general elections. There are serious concerns about the fairness of these polls as the military has been found to be wielding undue influence in the lead-up to the voting day. Several key leaders, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have been deemed disqualified on one charge or another. It is speculated that former cricketer Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf party may win the elections but it is widely held that he is the ‘army’s puppet’, casting a gloomy shadow over the future of the politically troubled nation.

The Royal Australian Air Force is hosting operation Pitch Black, a major biennial multinational large force employment exercise from July 27 to August 17 in Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory. Participants included, among others, the US, India, Singapore, Malaysia. In other defence-related news, the US, Japanese and Indian navies began the annual mine countermeasures exercise, an important exercise furthering security cooperation and interoperability, near Ominato in Japan.

Significance for Australia

The past fortnight was especially remarkable for Australian foreign policy with AUSMIN and the undersea cable deal with the Pacific Islands being signed. Foreign minister Bishop is winning praise for her performance at the ministerial dialogue, advancing ‘a fairly bold and clear-eyed perspective’ on the state-of-affairs in the bilateral relations. In a steadfast expression of Australian concerns, she called the US out on its perceivably declining commitment to the international rules-based order that it ‘pioneered’ and for ‘favouring a more disruptive, often unilateral foreign trade policy’.

Australia is bound to be worried by the cyber-attacks in Singapore as it is generally considered one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. Another issue of concern for Canberra is China’s growing debt traps in the Indian Ocean and the long-term repercussions of that.

With the rapidly changing geopolitical realities of the region, Canberra is being urged to reassess its priorities and to align its investments with its interests. In other words, analysts say it is imperative for Australia to advance its goals of a free and open Indo-Pacific regardless of whether the US is on board or not. The deal with the Pacific Islands is a good example of what Australia needs to do to ensure the preservations of its interests in its neighbourhood. Also, the release of the new India economic strategy is a recognition of the importance of cultivating good relations with the rising Asian giant and ties in to the Australian vision of a prosperous Indo-Pacific region.

Aakriti Bachhawat is a Research Intern at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.