Intellectual discourse during the last fortnight focused heavily on the events and outcomes of the preceding one; several questions remain unanswered in the aftermath of the cross-border skirmishes between India and Pakistan and the summit meeting between President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. Their answers and larger impact on international relations in the region will only be determined with time.
To continue the thread from the last iteration of this wrap, it’s evident that the recent India-Pakistan crisis has ‘peaked’ as a seasoned observer puts it and the immediate danger has abated. Pakistan released Wng Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, the pilot of the MiG-21 jet that the Pakistani Air Force downed, in a ‘peace gesture’ and India chose not to escalate tensions further. Questions remain on whether India’s airstrikes were successful; independent satellite imagery analysis carried out by Australian Strategic Policy Institute researcher Nathan Ruser and others revealed that the buildings claimed to have been hit in the raids remain intact.
However, the Indian air chief marshall B.S. Dhanoa, in a press statement, reiterated that the targets were hit and added that casualty numbers can’t be determined. News reporting in India focused on a particular building, believed to be a Jaish-e-Mohammad seminary in Balakot that had been sealed by the Pakistani army, with no visitors allowed. Pakistan, of course, denies any significant damage was done. The second question revolves around reports of a fallen Pakistani F-16 jet which implied that Islamabad violated its end user agreement signed with the US vis-à-vis the jets’ usage. It’s reported that the US played a major role in applying pressure on Pakistan to release the Indian pilot.
As I write this, I see reports of China blocking yet another move to designate JeM leader Masood Azhar a global terrorist at the UN. This is a significant blow for Indian efforts to freeze Azhar’s assets, movements and ability to carry arms and more importantly, bring Pakistan’s terrorist safe-havens to the world’s attention. China rejected the sanction request on technical grounds, arguing that it needed time to study the evidence produced by India. Indian representatives presented what they say is irrefutable evidence linking Azhar to the terrorist group which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terrorist attack and many such incidents in the past, including the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. This is the fourth time that Beijing has blocked this move. Azhar continues to be a free man, protected by the Pakistani state and its all-weather friend.
Speaking about the US, the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi turned out to be a non-starter. The talks broke down because of the two sides’ refusal to concede to each other’s demands: North Korea demanded the lifting of all American sanctions before it could make any concessions on its supposed plan to denuclearise; clearly, this is untenable from Washington’s perspective. Although expectations from the summit weren’t really high to begin with, a few people would have expected it to collapse so unceremoniously. Nonetheless, President Trump was keen to downplay the negative outcome, saying that the interaction between the two sides had been ‘amicable’ and that Kim had promised that there wouldn’t be any further nuclear weapons or missile testing.
Closer to home in New Zealand, a few Labour MPs tried to block academic and China expert Anne Marie Brady from speaking in the parliament about foreign interference in the country’s elections. The MPs backtracked on their attempts after pushback from the Opposition. Anne Marie Brady has done seminal work on China’s covert and coercive influence in New Zealand and has been subjected to considerable harassment, including burglaries and sabotage in her home.
The Australian Labor Party has warned that it might seek to draw back on a few clauses in the free trade deal with Indonesia before it is allowed to pass in the parliament. The Labor Party’s new trade policy prevents companies to sue foreign governments more easily and the party would thus delete the ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ clause; the party briefed Indonesian officials about it last year. Current trade minister Simon Birmingham criticised the Labor Party’s ‘reckless’ approach in delaying the ratification of the trade deal.
Another important development but one that gained relatively little publicity, is the trouble brewing in US-India trade relations. The US has decided to withdraw duty benefits to Indian products under its Generalized System of Preferences scheme, which is likely to hit Indian goods worth $190 million, according to the Indian government. Analysts rue the fact that President Trump is missing the larger picture and failing to realise the importance of keeping India on America’s side as it tries to counter China’s growing revisionism in the Indo-Pacific.
Washington’s new envoy to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., has reached Canberra and fills an important post which was vacant since 2016.
Significance for Australia
Policy-makers in Canberra, as their counterparts around the world, were caught off-guard by the rapid escalation of the crisis between India and Pakistan in the last three days of February. Never before had two nuclear powers been involved in a low-grade conflict in the age of social media and 24×7 news channels. It meant that New Delhi and Islamabad had to ‘be seen’ as responding to the provocations and had to craft a suitable narrative to appease their local constituencies. Analysts argue that the latest crisis indicated that the next crisis between the two subcontinent nations might prove to be more dangerous, given that each nation had to prove its resolve through crossing previously-set thresholds for action and response.
China’s move to block Masood Azhar from being blacklisted at the UN adds to Australia’s growing worries that Beijing is likely to be a disruptive force in the region and will always act according to its own interests, disregarding security threats to others.
The Australian Labor Party argues that Indonesia favours its decision to delete the investor-state dispute settlement clauses; however, policy-makers would be concerned about the potential delay this would cause in getting the deal ratified, especially given that Indonesia faces elections in the near future.
Adding to Canberra’s China worries was the attempted blocking of Anne Marie Brady’s testimony on foreign influence in the New Zealand parliament, which leads to questions over the extent of Chinese influence in the neighbouring country.
Finally, analysts emphasise that Washington’s new ambassador Down Under has his work cut out- he will be looked upon to ‘translate Trump’ to Canberra, not a mean task by any measure. He arrives at a crucial time in our alliance history, when Australia needs a strong reassurance from the United States of its continuing commitment to leadership in the region.