The last fortnight was an especially busy one for the Indo-Pacific region’s policymakers. The US withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia delivered a big blow to international non-nuclear proliferation efforts. President Donald Trump accuses Russia of violating the terms of the agreement which has been an instrumental element of nuclear arms control since 1987. The treaty mandated the destruction of short-range land-based missiles and prevented their deployment in Europe. NATO commanders are reportedly still trying to salvage the deal but also preparing for ‘a new era without the Cold War agreement’.
Closer home, political powerplay ahead of Australia’s approaching federal elections, largely dictated the actions and motivations of public figures. While on the defence end of the spectrum, Canberra inked a critical submarine deal with France, on the foreign policy and diplomatic end, Australian officials managed to secure the return of refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi and prevent his extradition to Bahrain from Thailand after much kerfuffle.
In Canberra’s latest attempt to clamp down on foreign interference in the country’s domestic politics, Australia cancelled Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo’s permanent visa and refused his citizenship application citing his close association with the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, a body linked to the Chinese Communist Party. The business tycoon is now stranded in Hong Kong and has appealed for a review of the decision. Xiangmo has been a major political donor to both sides of politics in Australia and gained prominence after his links to disgraced Labor senator Sam Dastyari became known. He has now asked for both parties to return his donations, with interest.
After a couple of years of uncertainty, Australia and France signed a major strategic partnership agreement worth $50 billion under which French contractor Naval Group will build twelve of Australia’s Shortfin Barracuda non-nuclear attack class submarines in South Australia. The construction will start in 2023 and the first sea-trials are slated to begin in 2031, following which the first of the submarines should be ready to enter service by 2034, according to current timelines. However, this timeline is debated and analysts worry about a capability gap that may arise as a result of any delays.
Foreign minister Marise Payne visited New Zealand this week for the biannual foreign ministers’ meeting. US-China trade wars, intelligence matters and cooperation initiatives on the Pacific Islands were reported to be on the agenda. The New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters was said to have raised his disappointment about the increasing deportation of New Zealanders from Australia.
The Taliban has announced that it will hold talks with the US in Pakistani capital Islamabad next week, to discuss the terms of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Last month’s talks that took place in Qatar, were said to have yielded positive results, according to the two sides. However, the absence of the Afghan government from the negotiations as well as regional stakeholders such as India has led analysts to slam the peace talks as a sham. There is a real fear that a hasty American withdrawal will pave the way for the resurgence of the barbaric forces of the Taliban and lead to the strengthening of terrorist havens supported by Pakistan. Apart from Afghanistan, the other country most impacted by this development would be India, which has been a target for these terrorist groups for three decades.
Bahraini Australian refugee and football player Hakeem Al-Araibi’s detention in a Thai jail pending extradition to Bahrain led to a three-month long stoush between Australian, Bahraini and Thai officials. After months of intense lobbying from Australian officials, including prime minister Scott Morrison, foreign minister Marise Payne and special efforts by former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, this week, a Thai court ruled in Al-Araibi’s favour to allow him to return to Australia. Speaking of Thailand, Thai Princess Ubolratana, the king’s eldest sister, made headlines this fortnight by announcing her plan to contest the country’s prime ministership at the next elections. However, her candidature was deemed ineligible by the Thai election commission.
Also, the Morrison government suffered the ignominy of losing its first vote on a proposed legislation (the first time an incumbent government has been defeated in 77 years) introduced by independent MP Kerryn Phelps, to allow asylum seekers on Nauru to be transferred, in cases of medical emergencies, to Australia. The Liberal Party’s defeat led many to question why the Morrison government didn’t resign immediately, considering it to be vote of no confidence. The Liberal Party adopted a hard-line approach refusing to weaken its asylum-seeker policy and its stance on border protection while Labor supported the motion on humanitarian grounds. Eventually, the government blamed the Bill Shorten-led opposition for compromising on national security and announced that it will reopen the Christmas Island detention centre.
The Australian parliament was targeted by a sophisticated hacking attack, that security agencies believe was authorised by a foreign government. The head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre reported that it would take investigators a few weeks or months to ensure that the system is completely secure, adding that it was too early to determine which country was behind the hack. Amid suspicion pointing to China, the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson denied the rumours, and remarked that this was ‘part of a larger smear campaign against China’.
Significance for Australia
This fortnight witnessed the intertwining of the domestic and the external in Australia’s foreign policy. While the submarine deal with France is arguably motivated by Defence minister Christopher Pyne and the Liberal Party’s electoral push for creating jobs in the erstwhile manufacturing hub of South Australia, the Medevac bill, while great on compassionate grounds, has nonetheless led analysts and security agencies to worry about the prospect of more refugee boat arrivals and its impact on national security.
The decision to cancel the permanent residency of Chinese tycoon Huang Xiangmo also has a domestic and international ring to it; it is a strong declaration of Australia’s steadfast stance on preserving its institutions from foreign interference and a bipartisan consensus on the same.
Australian policy-makers would worry about the unravelling of the INF treaty between the US and Russia as it represents a significant dampener in the global non-proliferation movement and augurs badly for international peace.
The safe return of Bahraini footballer Al-Araibi is a welcome development as well as a lesson going forward for domestic law-enforcement agencies to verify the identity and background of people they report to Interpol. It’s also a victory for clever and persistent Australian diplomacy which won the day. However, analysts now call for Australia to show the same mettle vis-à-vis its handling of Australian detainees in China.