The last fortnight was marked by an escalation of tensions between the US and China in various domains. A US navy reportedly had an ‘unsafe’ encounter with a PLAN warship as it conducted a freedom of navigation operation near the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. This comes amid a series of bitter exchanges between the two superpowers, including Beijing’s rejection of a US navy ship’s port call request at Hong Kong, cancellation of high-level trade and military meetings and most importantly, the announcement of US sanctions due to China’s procurement of Russian weapons. The overall context for the recent dip in ties, quite obviously, is the elevating trade war between the US and China, with the latest salvo being Washington’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods worth US$500 billion. Additionally, the US has proposed to conclude a US$330 million arms deal with Taiwan which has generated protest from Beijing. This week, US defense secretary, James Mattis cancelled his scheduled visit to China, indicating further strain in relations.
In a remarkable development, Australia unveiled its plan to build a joint military base with Papua New Guinea on Manus Island in an apparent bid to curb Chinese influence in the South Pacific. Canberra is reportedly hoping to conclude the agreement ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Port Moresby in November. This follows Australia’s efforts to block China from building a military base in Fiji last month. Canberra had also outbid Chinese telecom giant Huawei from building an undersea internet cable in PNG in July this year amid warnings of cyber security risk posed due to its involvement.
In another part of the Indo-Pacific, another geopolitical rivalry, that between China and India, was the focus of attention as the small island state of Maldives went to polls. Maldives had been undergoing a political crisis since February this year, when its then-president Abdulla Yameen imprisoned several opposition leaders and even over-rode the supreme court’s decision to free them. However, all fears of a rigged election were put to rest when opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the popular mandate and Yameen accepted the verdict. Many analysts saw the election outcome as a victory for India as the Yameen-led government was perceived to be heavily influenced by China. In fact, the last few months before the elections witnessed unprecedented souring of relations between Male and New Delhi, which was seen as a direct reflection of Beijing’s clout. Significantly, hours after being elected, Solih is said to have called up the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and declared India as Maldives’ ‘closest ally’.
Speaking of geopolitical rivalries, the rift between India and Pakistan has grown wider, as India cancelled a proposed foreign ministers’ meeting between both countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly leaders’ week. India cited the recent killings of Kashmiri policemen by Pakistani-funded militants in the Indian state of Kashmir and Pakistan’s release of postal stamps commemorating terrorists, as a reason for cancelling the dialogue. New Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had earlier written to his Indian counterpart calling for a resumption in bilateral peace dialogue. Later, when India called off the meeting, Khan took to twitter to express his rage, calling India’s decision ‘arrogant’ and ‘negative’.
The Indonesian island of Sulawesi suffered a disastrous earthquake and tsunami which claimed more than 840 lives and caused widespread devastation. A massive rescue effort is underway as local authorities assess the damage and plan for relief measures. Indonesia has called upon the international community for help with the disaster response. So far, Australia and Singapore have extended offers of assistance to Jakarta. Indonesia has been hit by a few natural disasters in recent months, including a deadly earthquake in Lombok in August. Japan was struck by typhoon Trami, which too caused severe destruction and left two people dead.
Significance for Australia
Growing tensions between the US and China present cause for great worry to Canberra, especially incidents in the South China Sea region, which could easily spiral into military face-offs. US offers of an arms deal to Taiwan are also greatly provocative and have the potential to lead to conflict. As Brendan Taylor notes in his newly released book, The Four Flashpoints, the China-Taiwan conflict is the biggest flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific. Both Canberra and Washington would do well to take cognisance of the dangers involved in testing Chinese resolve and vulnerability with regard to Taiwan, especially when effective emperor Xi Jinping is already facing domestic pressures. On the other hand, analysts express hope that the trade wars may trigger much-needed economic reforms within China.
On another note, Australia’s decision to fund a military base on Manus island is another indication of Canberra’s growing recognition of the Chinese threat in its backyard. As Graeme Dobell notes, China is not looked upon as benignly as it was a decade ago in Canberra. While earlier all Chinese geopolitical moves were seen through the prism of China-Taiwan rivalry, Australia now sees a much more assertive and ambitious China intent on challenging the rules-based order in the region. And this shift has been very perceptible under this Australia government, manifest in how Canberra describes its strategic challenges in the Foreign Policy White Paper 2017 as well as through practical steps like passing strict foreign interference laws and banning Huawei from its 5G network.
Maldives’s successful attempt at pulling off a free and free electoral process would be seen most favourably in Australia given the fears that the island state was increasingly being pulled into China’s orbit. Analysts were quick to compare Solih’s victory to Maithripala Sirisena’s in Sri Lanka and to Mahathir bin Mohamad’s in Malaysia, given that both these leaders offered an alternative to pro-China leaders. However, some experts caution that it may be too premature to expect Solih to follow Mahathir’s example in pushing back against Chinese influence. Nonetheless, they say that Solih’s win may result in ‘a slowing pace of rapprochement’ between China and Maldives. For China on the other hand, analysts warn that Maldives serves as an example of how democratic outcomes can offer shocks to China’s BRI.
Finally, Australia’s prompt and timely response to Indonesia’s call for help, including tweets from prime minister Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne, signals the importance that Canberra attaches to its relations with Jakarta. It builds on the goodwill that Mr Morrison built during his visit to Jakarta in his first week as Australia’s prime minister last month and would go a long way in cementing stronger ties with Indonesia and ASEAN.