The last fortnight was marred by yet another man-made tragedy in this part of the world, a terrorist attack that claimed several hundred innocent lives in Sri Lanka. Multiple, co-ordinated bomb blasts in churches and luxury hotels killed more than 300 people across the island-nation on Easter Sunday. The Sri Lankan government blames the home-grown terrorist organisation National Thowheeth Jamaat even as the Islamic State has formally claimed responsibility and released a video of the suicide bombers swearing their allegiance to the caliphate.
At the time of writing, the motive behind the attack is unclear but it’s being reported that Sri Lankan agencies failed to act on credible intelligence inputs, including those provided by their main ally, India. An intra-governmental rift between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, ongoing since last October’s constitutional crisis appears to have played a part in the massive security lapse. The attacks have renewed the political crisis as well with politicians trying to shift blame onto each other.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is in Vladivostok for his first-ever meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin to gain the latter’s support in his efforts to preserve Pyongyang’s nuclear program in the face of American pressure. Kim says that he hopes to have ‘a detailed discussion of the settlement process on the Korean Peninsula and the development of our relations’. Analysts say that the North Korean leader is trying to revive the country’s old Soviet connections as his dealings with President Trump are going nowhere.
Last week, Kim announced that his country had tested another tactical guided weapon, signalling a deterioration in his talks with America. The North Koreans have also demanded the replacement of their main interlocutor, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by someone more ‘mature’. The US, however, played down the developments with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan emphasising that it wasn’t a ‘ballistic missile test’. Clearly, the US still wants to salvage the negotiations.
China has approached the World Trade Organization (WTO) over what it perceives as Canberra’s ‘discriminatory’ ban on its tech companies Huawei and ZTE from supplying equipment for Australia’s 5G network. However, Australian trade minister Simon Birmingham has reiterated Australia’s firm stance, adding that its decision ‘was not targeted at any one country or telecommunications company’. The WTO doesn’t allow countries to discriminate against each other in their trade relations, except on grounds of national security.
While we’re on the topic of disputes, the US has announced that it will end waivers to all nations buying Iranian oil, including China, India and Japan, in a bid to isolate Tehran economically. The move will come into effect on 2 May, after which Washington will start imposing penalties on all companies that are involved in transactions related to Iranian oil purchases. China is the biggest buyer of Iranian oil and has been increasing its purchases over the last year, despite US warnings. Experts believe it’s unlikely to fall in with US demands and the ongoing trade negotiations between Beijing and Washington could be derailed if the latter was to impose penalties on Chinese financial institutions.
The move also impacts US-India and India-Iran relations. The US is pressuring India to end its Iranian oil imports in return for the former’s support on the Masood Azhar issue at the UN. India has subsequently said that it will reduce its imports to zero and that it was ‘adequately prepared’ to the end of the US waivers. Crucially, it’s reported that UN sanctions won’t affect India’s investments in the Chahabahar port. However, it will adversely affect India’s overall trade relations with Iran.
On the other hand, India-US defence ties elevated another level as their respective navies participated in an anti-submarine warfare exercise in the Indian Ocean, the first such drill after the two countries signed the important military communications (COMCASA) agreement last year. It is also worth noting India has now set up a dedicated ‘Indo-Pacific’ wing in its ministry of external affairs, in what analysts describe as a telling ‘show of intent’. The new wing will integrate Indian policy-making on the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN and ‘the Quad’, treating it as a unified theatre. It’s reported that the wing will be absorbed into the ministry of defence in due course, mirroring the US’s conversion of its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command.
This was an important fortnight for democracy in the region; while India began its seven-phase voting to elect its next government, Indonesia held its general election for the posts of president, vice-president and members of the people’s consultative assembly (MPR) on 17 April. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has declared that his country’s next election would be held on the 18 May. With the dissolution of the government, the Australian public service has formally entered the caretaker mode.
Voting for the Indian election will take place over 39 days, in 7 phases, with a staggering 900 million people eligible to vote. This is the world’s most expensive election, with $14 billion being spent. The counting will take place on the 23 May, with results expected the same day. The incumbent Narendra Modi government, riding on a renewed wave of nationalist fervour post the crisis with Pakistan in February this year, is clearly the front-runner though chances of it repeating its superlative performance of 2014 are highly doubtful.
It was the first time in Indonesia’s electoral history that voting for the three institutions took place on the same day. While the results are yet to be declared, exit polls suggest a victory for the incumbent Joko Widodo. However, his rival Prabowo Subianto rejects the early verdict and insists that he will emerge victorious. In an age of loud and frenzy campaigns, analysts point out that the Indonesian election has been surprisingly ‘tame’ and low-key.
Also, legislators in the Solomon Islands have appointed Manasseh Sogavare as prime minister for the fourth time, leading to widespread protests in the Pacific island nation. Voting for this election took place earlier this month, with Australian officials deployed to ensure it went smoothly. It’s the country’s first election since the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) came to an end in 2017.
Speaking of democracy, it’s important to acknowledge that Myanmar’s top court has rejected the final appeal of the two Reuters journalists jailed last year on charges of treason. The US has criticised the ruling, and it creates serious doubts over the Southeast Asian nation’s transition to a democracy.
Significance for Australia
This was an incredibly complex fortnight for Australian policy-makers. Two Australian citizens died and two were injured in the deadly Sri Lankan terror attacks. Prime minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Bill Shorten condemned the attacks in the strongest possible terms. Australian authorities would also be concerned to note that one of the suicide bombers was reported to have studied in Australia. Lowy Institute research fellow Lydia Khalil emphasises that these attacks show that jihadi violence is a ‘global threat’ and that ‘When networks are international, attacks in one country demand concerted action to prevent such mistakes from happening again’. The prospect of the IS gaining a foothold, even virtually, in the world’s most populous region is cause for major worry in Australia and the world.
The US’s tightening of screws vis-à-vis Iran presents another challenge and Canberra would be apprehensive about the repercussions of any mis-step by the Iranians that could lead to an open-conflict. The resultant strain in US-China ties is also unwelcome from Australia’s perspective. With cracks emerging in US-North Korea talks and the worsening situation between the US and Iran will have policy-makers worried.
Clashes in Honiara over the election outcome are also troubling for Australia, which has invested so much manpower and resources in helping to stabilise the political situation in the Solomon Islands. Australian policy-makers would also hope for the emergence of stable governments in India and Indonesia, to continue the momentum in bilateral ties.
India’s establishment of an Indo-Pacific wing is significant in this context and a welcome step for the consolidation of relations between New Delhi and Canberra. With the AUSINDEX maritime exercises concluding successfully this week, it’s worth noting that bilateral ties have never been better. In the words of Australian high commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu, ‘…we should recognise it (AUSINDEX)…as the natural next step in a friendship between Australia and India that is marked by growing trust, understanding and camaraderie. That is really something to celebrate.’