The Indo-Pacific region was witness to some stunning developments last fortnight, with the re-election of Australia’s conservative government, defying numerous opinion polls, stealing the show. On the 18th of May, Australians voted to re-elect the Scott Morrison led Liberal- National coalition to power, handing a convincing defeat to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) led by Bill Shorten. Analysts believe that Labor’s proposed taxation policies as well as Shorten’s unpopularity ultimately cost them the 2019 election. In what was touted to be Australia’s climate change election, analysts rue the election of a party with limited ambition to curb the country’s emissions rate.
At the time of writing, the ALP is taking stock of its losses and is in the throes of electing a new leader. Significantly, despite the Liberal Party’s positive performance overall, voters ousted former conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott from his seat of Warringah, choosing independent Zali Stegall to replace him.
The results of the Indonesian election were announced this week with incumbent president Joko Widodo being declared the winner. However, opposition leader General Prabowo Subianto, who received 17 million fewer votes than Widodo, is challenging the verdict as unfair and claiming victory instead. There are fears of widespread protests and a legal challenge by Prabowo to the presidency. Already, reports of violent protests have emerged from the streets of Jakarta with six lives claimed and many more injured following announcement of the result.
At the time of writing, vote-counting for the just-concluded Indian election has begun, with results expected later today. Exit poll results published this week gave the ruling Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party a thumping majority predicting that the party will better its performance at the 2014 election.
The US-China trade war, continuing for almost a year now, has intensified. The US increased tariffs from 10% to 25% on approximately US $200 million worth of Chinese goods earlier this month, in retaliation to which Beijing has promised to levy its own tariffs, effective from June. Analysts fear that the escalating trade war between the world’s two largest economies could lead to another global recession.
To add to tensions, this week the US government announced its decision to blacklist Chinese tele-communications giant Huawei; American chipmaker Qualcomm has already stopped trading with Huawei. At the same time, Google’s also decided to terminate its links with the Chinese telco, meaning that Huawei phones would no longer be compatible with android software. Beijing responded by threatening to stop exporting rare earth metals that are needed to build telecom equipment.
At the time of writing, it’s being reported that the US has suspended its decision on Huawei for three months to allow tech companies and consumers to adjust. As an article from the Australian Financial Review warns, ‘If this ban is just a bit of brinksmanship to pry a better trade deal out of Beijing…it’s a blunder. The national security issues raised by Huawei’s technology transcend any trade dispute.’
Last week, a few prominent members of the US Congress, including former presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, introduced a bill to ban persons affiliated with the Chinese military from studying in US universities. The move follows the publication of Australian Strategic Policy Institute researcher Alex Joske’s ground-breaking report which shed a light on the extent to which the People’s Liberation Army was benefitting from sending its officers to universities in the West. Significantly, the bill calls on Australia to follow suit and ban Chinese military officers to study at its universities.
The Australian military’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE 19) Joint Task Force has landed in Indonesia this week for the last leg of its engagement operations in the region. Around 1,000 personnel from the Australian army, navy and air force are participating in IPE 19 and have completed port visits to Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, to increase regional cooperation security issues, including ‘counterterrorism, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, defence industry cooperation and intelligence.’
The Australian navy has also been participating in a wide range of military exercises in the region. This fortnight, the Australian, US, Japanese and French navies conducted drills in the Bay of Bengal. Interestingly, earlier this month, navies from the Philippines, the US, India and Japan participated in a joint exercise, the first of its kind, in the South China Sea. This comes at the back of important bilateral exercises between Australia – India and India – US in the Indian Ocean Region held in April.
Australia mourned the loss of one of its longest-serving prime ministers (1983-1991) and Labor Party stalwart, Bob Hawke, this fortnight. He’s credited with reforming Australia’s economy and championing globalisation, establishing Medicare and laying the foundations of a modern Australia.
Significance for Australia
Canberra has a new government. With many Liberal MPs announcing their retirement at the election, however, we’re in for new faces in the parliament and significantly, in the Cabinet. The new Cabinet will be decided in the coming days but there are speculations that West Australian senator and former army veteran Linda Reynolds will become the new defence minister, replacing Christopher Pyne. West Australian politicians bring a unique perspective to our defence and foreign affairs; former LNP foreign minister Julie Bishop and former Labor defence and foreign minister Steven Smith’s respective terms in office corresponded with Australia’s significant embrace of the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.
It’s worth noting that prime minister Morrison is keen to promote women within his government’s ranks; with his party’s problematic male-dominated culture, one hopes that its new term in office will be better for our women leaders. On a related and cheerful note, Australians voted out the far-right senator and hate-monger Fraser Anning who spoke of a need for a ‘final solution’ to halt Muslim migration. Clearly, Australians have demonstrated that there’s no place for xenophobia and hatred in our multicultural country.
The return and prospective return of incumbents in fellow Indo-Pacific democracies Indonesia and India will be welcomed by the Morrison government, which has invested significant diplomatic and personal capital in building robust relations with its counterparts in those countries. Both Indonesia and India have embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific and policymakers in Canberra would be looking forward to a period of sustained momentum for bilateral and multilateral ties involving Delhi and Jakarta.
Lastly, Canberra would be hoping for the US policy on Huawei to remain consistent and firm; as an article on the Sydney Morning Herald makes it clear, it was Australia that opened the US’s eyes on the security risks posed by Huawei. Given President Trump’s ‘art-of-the-deal’ proclivities, Canberra would hope that security interests are not traded for a better hand for Washington in its trade wars with Beijing.