The last fortnight proved to be an action-packed one, with many significant developments taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia was at the front and centre of most of the news-worthy activity and multilateral forums like APEC and East Asia Summit, not to mention the Quad, stole the spotlight.
This week, summit season kicked off in Asia with the East Asia Summit (EAS) taking place in Singapore on 14-15 November. Meanwhile, the 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc are due to convene their annual meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on 17-18 November. While President Donald Trump’s absence from both summits is conspicuous, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s attendance at the regional dialogues is significant. The draft statement released ahead of the conclusion of the EAS highlighted the need for ‘an open, transparent, comprehensive and rules-based approach in the Indo-Pacific’, which would allow ASEAN to play a central role in regional affairs.
US Vice President Mike Pence, the US representative at these summits, has reiterated his call for a free and open Indo-Pacific and assured the region that the US ‘is here to stay’. In an interview this week, Pence remarked that it was up to China to avoid ‘an all-out cold war’ and that it needed to ‘fundamentally change its behaviour’ for that to happen.
Arguably the most important meeting of this fortnight, even though it doesn’t feature any leaders directly, is the joint-secretary level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, comprising US, Australia, Japan and India. This is the third meeting of the Quad, a year after it was revived. It’s being seen as another step towards consolidating the four-way arrangement among ‘like-minded democracies’ working to preserve a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. It’s apparent that the US is very enthusiastic to elevate this engagement to a ministerial or even a foreign-secretary level; however, India, is intent on keeping things low-key for now. At the time of writing, it’s unclear what was discussed at the meeting although it was said to focus on increasing maritime cooperation and infrastructure projects and development.
On another note, sixteen Asia-Pacific nations also committed to move towards finalising the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, seen as a ‘major step down’ from expectations of it being concluded by year end. Analysts cite the difficulty of negotiating a free trading arrangement among the diverse economies of the region in an era of rising protectionism and ‘tit-for-tat exchanges of higher tariffs’ between the US and China.
Victoria became the first Australian state to sign a memorandum of understanding to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in many ways going against Canberra’s stand on the mega infrastructure project. While the federal government hasn’t welcomed the deal, its criticism has been ‘low-key’; opposition leader Bill Shorten, on the other hand, defended the Victorian government’s decision, arguing that the deal wasn’t out of the ordinary. Astonishingly, the Victorian government has refused to divulge the details of the agreement.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has, according to experts, ‘made one of the most significant Australian policy announcements on the Pacific region in recent history.’ Apart from announcing five new diplomatic missions, expanding defence cooperation and increasing Australian media presence in the region, Morrison unveiled his plan to establish a $2 billion infrastructure finance bank to invest in the development of the Pacific island nations. He also allocated $1 billion to fund Australian businesses in the South Pacific.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham visited China last week, ending months of diplomatic travel freeze, signifying a thaw in relations between Canberra and Beijing. More importantly, Payne raised the Australian government’s concerns regarding the illegal confinement and human rights abuses of millions of Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang with Beijing.
On another note, Jakarta has severely objected to Canberra’s contemplation of moving the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has indicated its unwillingness to sign a free trade deal with Australia unless it backtracked from the decision. At the time of writing, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to pursue the matter with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the EAS.
The White House has finally appointed Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. as the top US envoy to Australia, after the position was unprecedentedly kept vacant for two years. Trump’s nominee has largely been welcomed by the political and strategic community in Canberra and has been described as a candidate who meets all the attribute requirements from Australia’s perspective.
In other news, the US has waived off sanctioning India over its import of Iranian oil, even as it re-imposed sanctions on Tehran to pressurise it to end its nuclear program following Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action earlier this year. India has deep economic, strategic and civilizational linkages with Iran and is developing the crucial Chahbahar port, which would enable it to have a critical monitoring station in the eastern Indian Ocean Region. Moreover, it would provide India with another route to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan completely and would go a long way in expanding its ties in Central Asia.
On another note, India successfully trialled its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, achieving a triad of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons. However, some experts contend that India’s lone SSBN did not give it credible deterrent status and thus, the nuclear triad was still some distance away from being truly completed. In an interesting development, India and Indonesia held their first bilateral naval exercise, Samudra Shakti, in the Java Sea this week, giving further ballast to their strategic partnership.
An unprecedented constitutional crisis in currently underway in Sri Lanka, where Prime Minister Ranil Wikremasinghe was forced out of power by President Maithripala Sirisena last month and replaced by former prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, the new prime minister failed to win a confidence motion in the parliament which led Sirisena to call for an election. This week, the country’s supreme court overturned Sirisena’s election announcement and ordered the parliament to resume though it’s unclear how the chaos would be resolved given the deeply fractured polity.
Significance for Australia
The last fortnight has given Australian policy-makers plenty to think about, particularly about the way in which Canberra should approach Beijing’s dealings with Australian state governments and the apparent disconnect between federal and state imperatives on matters of international engagement. Victoria’s decision to unilaterally sign up to China’s mega infrastructure initiative puts Australia in an awkward position internationally as Canberra’s opposition to the BRI is based on its principled stance on transparency and sustainability. As analysts point out, it’s ironic that the details of the Victorian deal are being kept secret from the public.
The Morrison government, in announcing the Pacific investment, has made an unequivocal declaration of its intent to preserve its status as the Pacific nations’ primary friend and supporter, in order to prevent China from taking its spot. In the last few months, the Australian government has made important decisions like proposing to build naval bases at Fiji and PNG, among others, highlighting its very real concerns about Chinese encroachment in Canberra’s backyard.
The latest Quad meeting and ongoing momentum in US-India-Japan ties, offers hope that the arrangement will consolidate into a meaningful forum for these nations to work towards achieving their shared interest of a free, stable, secure and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. Scott Morrison’s first meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also generated much interest and policy-makers on both ends would be hoping for an increased momentum in bilateral and multilateral cooperation between both countries.
The Sri Lankan constitutional crisis is a matter of great concern for Canberra given the island-nation’s highly strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region. Australia would hope for a speedy and peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham’s successful visit to China and a thaw in bilateral relations between Canberra and Beijing are welcome developments from Canberra’s perspective. It was important for Australia to raise its voice on the Uighur issue and now even more important to follow up on it with Beijing. While Australian political parties, at the federal and state level have one eye on the ballot and are doing their best to preserve and further Australian business interests, it’s imperative that our statesman also display a wider appreciation of our long-term strategic interests and principles.