This fortnight, millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest against a proposed bill that would allow them to be extradited to mainland China. Largely reminiscent of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in which the people of Hong Kong had protested, unsuccessfully, against electoral reforms by the Chinese Communist Party, this time around the protests have yielded positive results, for now at least: the extradition bill has been shelved.
Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has publicly apologised for introducing the extradition bill amid protesters calling for her to step down from leadership. Meanwhile, China’s trying to disrupt the protests through information warfare tactics like cyber attacks on communication applications, propaganda and censorship. The CCP’s mouthpiece China Daily even published reports that the people were protesting in favour of the bill and against US interference in Hong Kong’s domestic matters, in a shocking manipulation of the truth.
The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest against China after a Chinese fishing boat hit and sank a Filipino fishing vessel in the South China Sea. The Chinese vessel then abandoned the sinking ship and fled, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen to die; they were eventually rescued by a Vietnamese ship. Although China has acknowledged the incident, it states that it was accidental and that its ship left because it didn’t want to be ‘besieged’ by other Filipino boats. Interestingly, Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, often under fire for his kowtowing attitude towards Beijing, has been criticised for not condemning the incident. The main opposition leader in the Philippines, Sen. Risa Hontiveros has called on Duterte to downgrade relations with China and to recall its ambassador.
Speaking of maritime hostilities, another dangerous incident was reported this fortnight, when an American guided missile cruiser, the USS Chancellorsville and a Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov came perilously close to each other in the East China Sea and only just managed to prevent a collision. The US and Russian navies blame each other.
The annual summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan this fortnight and featured important bilateral meetings on the sidelines, including between India and China.
The SCO meeting was preceded by an important summit between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, in which the two countries signed trade deals worth US$20 billion giving a significant boost to bilateral energy and telecom cooperation.
In the latest salvo in the escalating trade wars between the US and India, the latter has retaliated with punitive tariffs in response to the US removing it from its Generalized System of Preferences earlier this month. Interestingly, in his speech at the SCO, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi mooted the idea of creating a ‘rules-based, anti-discriminatory and all inclusive WTO-centred multilateral trading system’ that looked after the interests of the developing countries, adding that unilateralism and protectionism benefited no one.
On another note, Modi began his new term in office with visits to key Indian ocean island states of Maldives and Sri Lanka, keeping up with India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. This visit is significant for two reasons: one, it was surprisingly the first bilateral visit by Indian prime minister to the country and second, Modi had snubbed the Maldives in his first term, perceivably because of the then-Maldivian government’s strong ties to China. During his visit, he and Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih jointly inaugurated the coastal surveillance radar system that India has gifted to its island neighbour; the two countries signed six other agreements aimed at deepening bilateral cooperation. The Indian prime minister’s visit to Sri Lanka, on the other hand, was symbolic and a show of solidarity in light of the recent Easter terrorist attacks.
The US finally has an assistant secretary of state for East Asia, David Stilwell. Stilwell is a retired air force general and has now assumed one of the most challenging roles in the State Department, a role that had been vacant for over two years.
Australians were shaken up by a rare raid at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sydney office by the Australian Federal Police over leaked defence documents said to have been shared with journalists. The raids on the ABC were preceded by a surprise raid at journalist Annika Smethurst’s house for similar reasons. There was a general outcry against this perceived attack on press freedom across Australia, including on social media and many reflected on what the crackdown meant for the future of investigative journalism in the country. The ABC is even contemplating legal action against the AFP.
Significance for Australia
The last fortnight has given Australian policymakers plenty to think about. The Chinese Communist Party’s increasing attempts to curb dissent not only in mainland China but also Hong Kong, is a worrying sign of things to come. While the most recent crisis has abated, Carrie Lam hasn’t committed to not pursuing the extradition bill at a later date; as Caitlin Byrne notes, suspending the extradition bill ‘…offers a necessary moment for pause. But it hasn’t taken the heat out of the protests.’
Commentators have also attacked Australia for being a mute spectator to the police brutalities during the protest and the attempted trampling of Hong Kongers’ civil liberties. This also opens the broader question of Australia’s policy on China- and the recent attacks on Australia’s intelligence community for their ‘hawkish’ views. As Chris Uhlmann puts it, ‘…The back down by Hong Kong’s quisling administrators is simply a pause in a long march that has only one destination. The people must also know that no one will come to their aid. Countries like Australia will watch mute, so as not to uproot the money tree.’ This offers a moment of reflection for Australia on what sort of a regional order it wants to see in the future, especially with incidents like the Chinese fishing vessels’ aggressive displays of behaviour in the South China Sea become more and more commonplace (as just one example).
Indian prime minister Modi’s emphasis on prioritising its island neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region will be viewed positively by Australia- especially the renewed closeness with the Maldives, a country that threatened, not very long ago, to become the next victim of a Chinese debt trap in the region. India’s proactive diplomacy in winning its neighbours back offers a lot of common ground for Canberra and New Delhi to work together towards a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.