The last fortnight was one of those never-ending ones, where Indo-Pacific watchers witnessed the unfolding of spectacular geopolitical developments with long-term implications for regional security. The 18th Shangri La Dialogue, or what Graeme Dobell refers to as the annual ‘speed dating’ event for defence ministers, was held in Singapore last weekend and witnessed key speeches by regional leaders, including by Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, acting US defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds and China’s defence minister General Wei Fenghe, among others.
As a commentator remarked, ‘the spectre of US-China conflict loomed over proceedings’ as the proverbial elephant in the room. Ultimately, while the Shanahan’s speech was seen as being more conciliatory and restrained, General Wei’s warning of China willing to ‘fight to the end’ (on trade and US competition more generally) will be regarded as a key takeaway from the event. Other gems in Wei’s speech included an assertion that China had ‘never provoked a war or conflict, taken land or invaded another country’ and a justification of the massacre of the Tiananmen protesters by the PRC as necessary to curb the ‘political turbulence’.
On that note, it’s worth mentioning that this week marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen killings. Australian foreign minister Marise Payne issued a statement acknowledging the ’tragic loss of life on 4 June 1989’, adding that ‘Australia remains concerned about continuing constraints on freedom of association, expression and political participation in China.’
This anniversary was especially symbolic for Australia as three People’s Liberation Army-Navy warships, including a frigate fitted with surface-to-air and anti-submarine missile systems, a refuelling vessel and a landing helicopter, made a port call at Sydney this week, catching the local public, media and even the local state government by surprise. It’s assumed that members of Sydney’s Chinese community were aware of the proposed visit and some were seen welcoming the ships with Chinese flags. A scuffle was reported between pro and anti-China protesters at the latter’s commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre at Sydney’s Garden Island Naval Base.
The ships’ visit is even more significant as it comes on the heels of Australian naval helicopters being targeted with lasers by Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea, as they participated in the Indo-Pacific Endeavour maritime drills.
Getting back to Shangri La for a moment, the US Department of Defence released its new Indo-Pacific strategy, timed to coincide with acting secretary Shanahan’s attendance at the Track 1.5 event. Experts note that the new document is largely similar to Obama’s ‘rebalance to Asia’, with the difference that the former contains ‘more explicit concerns about, and priority on, China’, ‘focus on allied burden sharing’ and ‘inclusion of Indian Ocean region’.
Speaking of the Indo-Pacific, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison visited the Solomon Islands earlier this week, beginning his new tenure with a renewed focus on the South Pacific, and as I described it elsewhere, putting meat on the bones of his signature Pacific ‘step up’. Morrison announced an infrastructure investment program worth $250 million over a ten-year period and other funding programs. The Australian prime minister declined to comment on whether he tried to influence the Solomon Islands’ government to remain steadfast in their recognition of Taiwan, in the face of increasing pressure from China. Newly reappointed foreign minister Marise Payne is also visiting Fiji, at the time of writing, in a bid to boost bilateral ties.
Next, senior government representatives from the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, i.e. the United States, Japan, India and Australia, convened their fourth meeting, in less than two years, in Bangkok last week.
Moving on, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won a spectacular mandate, bettering their performance at the 2014 elections and proving most exit polls correct (lessons here for Aussie pollsters!). Modi’s new cabinet includes a few changes, the most interesting for our purposes being the appointment of former foreign secretary Dr S. Jaishankar as the country’s new external affairs minister.
Significantly, it was under Jaishankar’s tenure that India had displayed unflinching resolve during the Doklam crisis with China in 2017. Another key appointment is national security advisor Ajit Doval’s (mastermind of surgical strikes in Myanmar, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Balakot) promotion to that of a full-fledged cabinet rank. Modi invited BIMSTEC leaders for his government’s swearing-in instead of SAARC nations a la 2014, which many saw as a snub to Pakistan (no surprises there, given recent events).
Already, the new Indian government finds itself in deep waters vis-à-vis US president Donald Trump’s trade wars. The US has decided to end its preferential trade status for India by removing it from the Generalized System of Preferences. The move is motivated by Trump’s trenchant emphasis on reciprocity and claim that India ‘remains one of the least open major economies in the world’. India is reportedly planning on imposing retaliatory tariffs. Touching on trade, it’s worth mentioning that the US-China trade wars are now officially in a state of deadlock with the last round of talks ending last month without any breakthroughs.
Interestingly, China is proposing a new ASEAN+3 (Japan, South Korea and China) trade agreement to replace the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that would effectively exclude India, New Zealand and Australia. Beijing reportedly seeks to put its plans in action at the next East Asia Summit. Indian officials believe that these are pressure tactics being used by China to get New Delhi to make more concessions as it is the lone player still holding out as it fears cheaper Chinese goods flooding its market. If RCEP comes into fruition, it would account for 25% of the global GDP and 30% of the world trade according to estimates.
Significance for Australia
The Pentagon’s new Indo-Pacific strategy can be summarised in one sentence, ‘The past, present, and future of the United States are interwoven with the Indo-Pacific’. As I alluded to above, the strategy’s emphasis on ‘burden-sharing’ is deeply relevant to Australia.
‘The United States expects our allies and partners to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats. When we pool resources and share responsibility for our common defense, our security burden becomes lighter and more cost-effective’, the strategy goes. As the strategy goes on to demonstrate, Australia remains a steadfast US ally in the Indo-Pacific and globally, but we need to continue stepping up our engagement with the US and contribute our fair-share.’
The docking of three Chinese ships at Sydney harbour is clearly one of highlights this fortnight. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison affirmed that the government had known about the planned visit and there was nothing unusual about it, commentators debated its significance, and some questioned why the public was kept uninformed. ASPI’s Executive Director Peter Jennings saw it as Beijing flexing its military muscle; remarked that the visit’s coincidence with the Tiananmen anniversary is a cause for embarrassment to Australia, adding ‘What it reflects really is that no one in Canberra seems to know how to deal with the rise of Chinese power in a way that looks after Australia’s interests’. However, others such as the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen cautioned against calling it ‘a show of force’ by China but agreed that the type of PLA vessels was extraordinary. Nonetheless, one can safely say that these are strong undercurrents of signalling by Beijing.
The only remarkable thing about this year’s Quad meeting was the participant nations’ keenness to keep it as low-key as possible. Even a day before the meeting, there was no announcement to the media about the proposed consultation though the timing made sense because of its correspondence with the Shangri La Dialogue. The choice of location was also interesting- Quad meetings usually take place on neutral grounds. But eschewing Singapore (where the SLD was taking place) in favour of Bangkok was a sign of the Quad nations trying to pay deference to ASEAN (Thailand being ASEAN chair this year).
A former Solomon Islands’ prime minister has termed Morrison’s silence on climate change during his visit as ‘disappointing’. The Australian prime minister allegedly deflected questions on climate change, arguing that ‘civil stability’ was the most critical threat facing the Pacific. The new LNP government has even less credibility on climate change with reports suggesting that the proposed coal mine deal in Queensland with Indian mining giant Adani is just one step away from being approved.
Morrison, while responding to media questions during his visit to the South Pacific nation, also sought to distance Australia from the ensuing great power rivalry between the US and China and emphasised that his government’s outreach to the Pacific was not borne out of any worries about China’s influence. ‘There is a great risk and a great danger in any analysis that only can see the world through such a binary prism. I certainly don’t. Australia certainly doesn’t.’ the prime minister asserted.
As Bilahari Kausikan, former Singaporean permanent secretary for foreign affairs, reminded his fellow country-men (and which holds true for all nations) in a recent opinion piece, ‘…under present circumstances, there may be no sweet spot we can occupy that will keep both the Chinese and the Americans simultaneously happy. There is no silver bullet, and it is a fool’s errand to look for one.’