The past fortnight would be best described as surreal and bizarre; surreal because one witnessed leaders of countries seemingly hostile to each other dining nonchalantly at the same table at the G20 summit in Japan, and bizarre because some of the outcomes at the sidelines, like President Donald Trump’s perceived softening up on Huawei, defy logic. Not to mention that the US president’s daughter and son-in-law, who have no diplomatic background or training, were on his team participating in official capacity. Or that immediately after the summit, Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas after first proposing the meeting on twitter. Overall, this fortnight will be remembered for officially ushering in an era of what Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta calls a ‘T20’ style of diplomacy.

The biggest takeaway from the G20 summit was the apparent thaw in US-China trade relations, which have been under the shadow of a fierce trade war for the past 18 months. Both countries announced a temporary freeze on additional tariffs and more importantly, Trump agreed to allow US companies to trade with Huawei again. Also, China will buy ‘large amounts’ of American agricultural produce (ostensibly in return for US concessions). Analysts conclude that Beijing was the clear winner at the meeting having extracted much larger bargains. More worrying, from an international security perspective, is Trump’s cavalier attitude to the risks posed by Huawei and the message his prevarications send to other countries which have been under pressure from the US for months now, to disallow the Chinese telco from bidding in their 5G rollouts.

As a sidenote, a few Asian countries are benefiting from the protracted US-China trade wars, as Americans are choosing goods imported from Vietnam, Taiwan, Bangladesh and South Korea instead of Chinese products now.

Trump also ratcheted the tenor of his ‘trade tantrums’ vis-à-vis India, admonishing New Delhi over its retaliatory tariffs in a tweet before the summit. His meeting with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi along the sidelines was, nonetheless, pleasant and key bilateral issues such as India’s purchase of Russian S-400 air missile defence systems, relations with Iran, trade disputes, and India’s 5G plans were discussed. The Modi-Trump meeting came on the heels of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to India earlier this fortnight. The US’s top diplomat was much more conciliatory in his tone on the trade frictions and other differences with India, emphasising that ‘great friends are bound to have disagreements…’ Not surprisingly, the US president mostly undid Pompeo’s good work. Experts now worry if Trump’s fixations on trade and transactional attitude to foreign policy might derail the US-India relationship, which has come a long way since the end of the Cold War. On a related note, the US Senate has passed a bill to give India a similar status as its NATO allies, formally operationalising the 2016 decision to make New Delhi a ‘major defense partner’.

Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong un, on the other hand, was noted as an attempt to ‘reset’ the relationship, which had been in cold storage since the failed Hanoi summit in late February this year. At the meeting, Trump reportedly expressed a willingness to lift some of the US sanctions on Pyongyang. It’s unclear what North Korea has promised in return although the New York Times believes that the US might be inclined to accept a ‘nuclear freeze’, implicitly accepting the status quo of the country’s nuclear reality. However, this is categorically refuted by the US administration. Analysts say that the president is keen to cut a deal with North Korea to boost his credentials in the run up to the presidential race for next year’s elections. Nonetheless, Trump’s overtures to Kim send a clear message to other rogue regimes that having a nuclear capability could offer them the chance of being treated well by the United States.

Moving away from Trump, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison delivered his first new government’s major foreign speech at an Asialink event in Sydney last week, right before the G20. Morrison implored the US and China to acknowledge and address the ‘collateral damage’ being caused to other nations due to their trade wars. ‘It is no one’s interest in the Indo-Pacific to see an inevitably more competitive US-China relationship become adversarial in character’, he remarked.

And while Xi Jinping was meeting other world leaders at the G20 last weekend, China tested several anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea in a not-so-subtle indication of its muscular foreign policy. The Pentagon condemned the incident as violating China’s professed claims of seeking peace in the region.

Speaking of China, Hong Kong witnessed another wave of protests this week against celebrations of Britain’s handover of the city to mainland PRC. A few protesters also stormed into and occupied Hong Kong’s legislative offices to express dissent against the proposed extradition bill that has still not been fully suspended. The police unleashed a brutal crackdown on the protesters. China called the protesters ‘extreme radicals’ and has asked the UK not to interfere in its internal matters after British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt voiced support for the protesters.

ASEAN adopted an ‘Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ at a leaders’ summit in Bangkok this fortnight, an initiative led by Indonesia. It espouses the following goals: ‘the integration of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions; the promotion of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry; the advancement of development and prosperity of all; and the importance of the maritime domain in the regional architecture.’ The outlook also lays down areas of future collaboration to further those goals, namely, maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic ties.

Speaking of economic ties, negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership took place in Australia last week among representatives from ASEAN countries, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, India and Australia. A few weeks ago, tired of the protracted talks, China proposed an RCEP minus Australia, New Zealand and India. Now, Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamad has expressed support for leaving India out, to ensure that RCEP goes ahead quickly. They aim to conclude the deal by the East Asia Summit in October or November this year.

Significance for Australia

As Caitlin Byrne notes, Scott Morrison performed ‘remarkably well’ at the G20 summit this year. One of his important victories included getting an agreement from other world leaders to apply pressure on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to curb the spread of extremist and terrorist content on their platforms. As has been reported, this was a significant achievement on Morrison’s part as US officials were cautious about the implications for freedom of speech.

Analysts also highlight that Morrison has laid down the markers of a distinctly Australian foreign policy, placing the country firmly as a champion of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. The prime minister’s success at the G20 summit reflect the wisdom of his ‘…stereotypically Australian shrimp-on-the-barbie conservatism…’ says Rory Medcalf.

That Australia is positioning itself as a ‘mediator’ between the US and China on their trade wars at the same as ploughing ahead with the RCEP negotiations sans the US, is reflective of some shrewd policy tactics. Canberra appears to be keen to have all the ASEAN+6 nations, including India, on board with the plan. Any arrangement that excludes India would see Australia and New Zealand out of RCEP as well in the form of collateral damage, as the remaining countries do not want any exclusionary moves appearing to single India out. Australia has major stakes in preventing such a situation and would be looking to work closely with New Delhi on this.

Finally, Australia would be pleased with ASEAN’s adoption of its own Indo-Pacific outlook, which represents the broader acceptance of the Indo-Pacific concept by Southeast Asia. As Prashanth Parameswaran notes, the release of the US Indo-Pacific strategy last month and the concept’s embrace by countries like India and Japan has led to the galvanisation of ASEAN’s own efforts to assert their centrality within this new geopolitical space. Despite some hesitation on the part of countries like Singapore, the adoption of this document marks the first step towards Southeast Asian nations aligning themselves to the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region built on norms of transparency, openness and freedom.


Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.