The last fortnight witnessed significant shifts in the geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region. The 2+2 defence and foreign ministerial dialogue between Washington and New Delhi yielded the landmark Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which would pave the way for unprecedented defence interoperability between the two powers. The joint statement released after the meeting stated that the agreement ‘will facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing U.S.-origin platforms.’ The pact would also give India access to sensitive high-tech US equipment and military intelligence for an agreed initial period of 10 years.
Given India’s historical ideological aversion to align too closely with the US, this agreement marks a watershed in bilateral relations. The strategic community in both countries largely welcomed this development. A big reason for India’s decision to agree to this deal was the realisation that it could benefit from real-time US military intelligence, especially to track Chinese movements in the Indian Ocean Region and during Doklam-like confrontations. Apart from the communications agreement, India and the US have agreed to conduct joint army, navy and air-force exercises for the first time, further augmenting their defence interoperability and coordination. Experts say that this step is emblematic of New Delhi’s adoption of a more hard-balancing approach vis-à-vis China. However, others rue this step and see it as a loss of India’s strategic autonomy.
Interestingly, India’s plans to acquire Russian S-400 air missile defence systems and its likelihood to generate Washington’s sanctions were not discussed at the 2+2. In fact, barely a fortnight after the meeting, it’s reported that India is close to buying Russian frigates worth $2.2 billion. On another note, India politely declined America’s request to elevate engagement within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) from joint-secretary to secretary level. The next meeting of the Quad is likely to be held soon. Significantly, Indian officials insisted to their US counterparts at the dialogue not to conflate the Indo-Pacific with the Quad as it would hurt ASEAN and Chinese sentiments.
At the time of writing, South Korean prime minister Moon Jae-in is on a three-day visit to the DPRK for a summit with Chairman Kim Jong-un. North Korea has reportedly agreed to destroy the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and Yongbyon nuclear complex ‘if the United States agrees to corresponding measures.’ The two leaders have also vowed to bring permanent peace to the Korean peninsula, building upon the goodwill of their summit in April this year. Experts say that ‘the ball is now in Washington’s court’. So far, Washington’s efforts to denuclearise Pyongyang haven’t yielded much success despite President Donald Trump’s boastful claims following the Singapore Summit. He has recently taken to blaming China for the stalling of the negotiation process with North Korea.
Moon, however, has been outwardly optimistic of the prospects for peace, remarking that ‘a new age of inter-Korean relations has arrived.’ Moon and Kim have even signalled their intent to jointly bid for the 2032 Olympic Games. It’s a clever diplomatic proposition which adds a positive dimension to the otherwise difficult relationship and provides a reason for ongoing talks and people-to-people connections. For President Moon, it goes some way towards realising his aspirations for more people-centred diplomacy on the peninsula.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe held summits with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier this fortnight, providing yet another indication of Tokyo’s intention to actively engage other powers in the region. Japan and Russia have agreed to step up economic collaboration on their disputed islands; however, experts say that the meeting yielded little progress towards achieving a resolution to the legal disputes pending since the end of the Second World War.
China, meanwhile, participated in Russia’s largest-ever tri-service war games Vostok 2018 held in the vast swathes of Siberia and the Far East, the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Analysts say that China’s inaugural participation in these exercises signifies that Sino-Russian relations ‘have come a long way’ and indicates a potential for the development of a formal alliance.
Australia has blocked China from building a military base in Fiji- an indication of Canberra’s concerns vis-à-vis growing Chinese influence in its backyard. This comes in the wake of the Pacific Islands forum in Nauru earlier this month where Australian foreign minister Marise Payne represented Australia. The Pacific Islands, along with Australia and New Zealand signed a declaration recognising climate change ‘as the single greatest threat’ to the region. However, Pacific Island leaders were unhappy with what they saw as Australia’s attempts to water down the final wording of the declaration and its refusal to endorse a statement calling for an urgent acceleration of reduction in carbon emissions.
There was also a controversy in the lead up to the event, with Taiwan-aligned Nauru briefly refusing to allow Chinese observers to enter the country using their official passports and Fiji and Samoan leaders threatening to withdraw from the forum in retaliation. Beijing’s representative stormed out of the forum on not being given precedence to speak before other leaders. Nauru’s president criticised the Chinese envoy’s arrogant behaviour and demanded an apology from Beijing adding that he intended to take up the matter at the UN.
On another note, Australia has taken another step towards ratifying the Trans Pacific Partnership after the Labor party caucus dropped its opposition to the deal. This means that the bill should have enough numbers in both houses to be passed as law, even with the Greens and other parties opposing it. Speaking of trade, the ongoing US-China trade wars have escalated further, with President Trump announcing tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods and Beijing adding US goods worth $60 billion to its tariff list. US-China tensions surfaced elsewhere too, with Washington recalling its diplomats from El Salvador, Panama and Dominican Republic over their de-recognition of Taiwan in recent weeks.
There are reports that Pakistan is reconsidering its participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, due to concerns that the project is more beneficial to China than to itself. On another front, Nepal has perceivably snubbed India by pulling out of the BIMSTEC joint military drill in what many interpreted as a sign that Kathmandu was being pulled further into China’s orbit.
A few natural disasters marred this fortnight. The Hokkaido Islands in Japan were struck by an earthquake which claimed several lives. Hurricane Florence in North and South Carolina in the US also led to major evacuations and relief efforts. Super typhoon Mangkhut wreaked havoc in the Philippines, Hong Kong and parts of southern China last week causing many casualties and great devastation.
On a positive note, India has decriminalised homosexuality after the country’s Supreme Court passed a historic judgement finally declaring the colonial-era law null and void.
Significance for Australia
The last fortnight has given Australian policy-makers plenty to think about. Growing consolidation of US-India ties is certainly welcome news to Canberra as it aligns perfectly with Australia’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, India’s continued reticence on furthering cooperation through the Quad may puzzle Canberra, given that New Delhi seems to be content in deepening bilateral and trilateral security cooperation. India has highlighted its three mantras for the Quad: ‘that it is not anti-China, that it is all about inclusiveness, and that it stands for a rules-based order.’ While Australia identifies with all three aspects of India’s approach as outlined above, it seems that New Delhi still has some distance to travel in terms of aligning its strategic autonomy approach to the Quad framework.
The growing synergy in Sino-Russian relations is bound to cause worry Down Under. China and Russia have displayed tendencies disruptive to global peace and security, especially in the last decade, and their coming together could have adverse consequences in the region. On the other hand, Australia would also be taking note of Japan’s behaviour and likely read it as yet another sign of Japan’s inclination to hedge its bets in the face of an unconventional US administration and an unpredictable enemy in North Korea.
The Labor Party’s acceptance of the TPP is a welcome step towards ensuring Australia’s commitment to a more integrated, free and open Indo-Pacific region. On another front, last month’s leadership spill impacted Australia’s foreign policy in at least one tangible respect: new prime minister Scott Morrison was condemned for skipping the Pacific Islands Forum and accused of ‘abandoning Australia’s international backyard’. Canberra would do well to make up for the perceived ‘snubbing’ of the Pacific nations through more meaningful engagement. The Pacific has assumed unprecedented importance in Canberra’s strategic calculations. Australia’s efforts to outbid China from building a military base in Fiji reflects Canberra’s very real concerns. However, Australia’s refusal to take Pacific Islands’ worries on climate change seriously threatens to distance them from Canberra. Australia needs to take concerted steps to address the Pacific Islands’ fears of climate change if it hopes to better relations in the region.
Finally, Australia wouldn’t be too optimistic about the latest episode of Korean bonhomie as Kim Jong-un’s promises are conditional upon equivalent US reciprocity. While growing people-to-people links on the Korean peninsula are a welcome prospect, how this camaraderie between the North and South ultimately shapes up remains to be seen.