We’re slowly but surely drifting towards an era of a new Cold War between the US and China and nowhere is it going to be more deeply felt than in the Indo-Pacific; the past fortnight served to remind us of just how stark our future strategic choices will have to be. A Chinese surveillance ship was reported to be sailing near Australian waters off the coast of Queensland to observe ‘Talisman Sabre’, joint military drills involving the US, Japan and Australia. This is the first time that Japan is participating in these exercises, which speaks to the deepening ties among these nations.

Although the Dongdiao-class ship will remain outside Australian territorial waters, it will stay in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone for a month, to monitor the war games. Defence experts say that the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) is especially looking to see how Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force operates with its Australian and American counterparts. Australian naval officials were not too worried about this development but affirmed that they will ‘take appropriate action.’ The US Pacific Fleet’s spokesperson commented that they’d taken all necessary precautionary measures to protect their critical information. The US, by letting China observe these exercises, hopes to seek similar reciprocity from Beijing in the South China Sea, according to Ankit Panda.

Twenty-two countries, including Australia, signed a letter calling on China to stop its mass-detention of Muslim-minority Uighurs in Xinjiang, at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting this fortnight. Human Rights Watch claims that over 1 million Uighurs have been detained in detention centres by Beijing, which China says are ‘reeducation camps’ aimed at stamping out Islamic radicalisation. However, as this week’s ABC Four Corners investigation reported, government activities which include the removal of children from their families, strikes closer to a campaign of cultural genocide against the Uighurs.

Australia has formally taken up a case of a Uighur-Australian man, whose wife and Australian-born son are said to be under house-arrest in Xinjiang. Canberra has asked Beijing to allow the woman and child to travel to Australia. The four corners investigation has also unveiled the involvement of Australian universities said to have research links with a Chinese company which is providing the Chinese government with technology to track and detain Uighurs. Now, the University of Technology Sydney is reviewing its $10 million research partnership with the Chinese company.

Corporates such as Target and Cotton On are also reviewing their supply chains after it was revealed that the cotton they use is produced by forced labour in Xinjiang. The Chinese embassy has reacted sharply to the tv program, saying it is ‘full of lies, distortion and bias’. China points to the support it received at the UNHRC meeting recently, when 37 (mostly authoritarian) countries condoned its treatment of Uighurs. More than anything else, the US-China rivalry represents a battle of political systems (as Elsa Kania sees it) and values and has significant implications for the future of the international order.

Another aspect of this new era of major power rivalry is the battle for influence and power projection in distant theatres. Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe, addressing senior defence officials from the Caribbean and South Pacific, stated that China was keen to expand defence cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative, putting paid to its own claims about the peaceful agenda of the BRI.

Speaking of the BRI, former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed sparred with the Chinese ambassador in his country on Twitter over Male’s colossal $3.4 billion debt to China. Maldives claims that the Chinese over-invoiced them for the infrastructure projects they commissioned. The small Indian Ocean Region island ousted its pro-China president last year and the new government is much more clear-eyed about the Chinese debt trap. Male is said to be planning to cancel its agreement with Beijing to build an Indian ocean observatory in Makunudhoo, a critical strategic point in the IOR. On a related note, Malaysia seized US $243.5 million from the bank account of a Chinese state-owned oil company after it failed to deliver the pipelines it promised.

In another part of the Indo-Pacific, tensions flared briefly between the Indian and Chinese armies along the Sino-Indian border in eastern Ladakh when China objected to some locals celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday. China is especially sensitive about Tibet at the moment, in light of the Dalai Lama suggesting recently that his successor may not emerge in China but in ‘free country’ and could come from India. China plans to nominate its own Dalai Lama and there’s every possibility that there will be two claimants to the position, one Chinese and one from India. Beijing issued a sharp statement this week warning India not to interfere with the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen made her first trip to the US as president of Taiwan last week, despite strong protests by China. Addressing a gathering of UN ambassadors from countries that recognise Taiwan at the de-facto Taiwanese consulate in New York, Tsai declared, ‘I want to reiterate that Taiwan is not and will never be intimidated.’ She also urged them to support Taiwan’s bid for UN membership. Her visit comes days after the US department of defence approved arms sales worth $2 billion to Taiwan.

Catching up on the latest developments on the ongoing RCEP negotiations, ASEAN trade ministers visited New Delhi last week to persuade India to sign up to the trade agreement. However, the Indian government’s primary advisory body on these matters, the Niti Aayog, has warned of ‘disastrous’ consequences of India signing up to the deal, highlighting that Indian markets will be flooded with Chinese goods and further widen the trade deficit between India and China. Australian is working hard to allay Indian fears about RCEP, arguing that it will give a much-needed boost to Indian industry. 

In other news, the US has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders over their abuse of the Rohingyas, in what’s being called the strongest US reaction to the Rohingya crisis.

On another note, Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte signed a sexual harassment law this week amid heavy criticism of his own behaviour towards women, including several controversial statements made by him in the past.

Elsewhere, Indonesia has embarked on its own pivot to the Pacific, its so-called ‘Pacific elevation’. Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi declared this week that the country was entering into a ‘new era for Pacific engagement’ to promote its trade and cultural ties to the region.

Shifting focus on Australia’s own Pacific ‘step up’, Papua New Guinea’s new prime minister James Marape and his wife Rachael will visit Australia next week as Scott Morrison’s first official guests in his new term. The six-day visit will be geared towards deepening bilateral economic and security cooperation.

Significance for Australia

Professor Hugh White’s latest book How to defend Australia couldn’t have been more timely. At a time when disruption seems to be the defining characteristic of the international order, and amid growing uncertainty about the future trajectory of US-China relations, it’s important to have a conversation about Australia’s core interests and how they ought to be protected. While many don’t share Professor White’s glum views on the US commitment to the region, the book’s most important contribution is to have started a much-needed debate on these matters.

Similarly, the ABC’s investigation into the condition of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has begun a conversation about human rights and Chinese repression. As I alluded to earlier, this new phase of rivalry between the US and China is about norms, values and divergent visions for the future of the international order. So, whether we talk about the BRI, Taiwan, Xinjiang, South China Sea or Tibet, we’re essentially talking about norms and values of freedom, openness, transparency, human rights and democracy. While Australia respects other countries’ domestic sovereignty, there remains a moral obligation to speak out against atrocity, as it has done in the Rohingya case in Myanmar.

There’s a very real possibility that as China becomes more powerful, it might start exporting its domestic norms and values abroad, as it’s already doing with Chinese nationals living overseas. Australia recognises this trend and is looking to work with regional and global partners to protect our common interests. As Peter Jennings wrote recently, ‘If a new cold war is our future, Australia must move quickly to stake out our position as an influential player in the region with a voice to be listened to in Washington and Beijing.’


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.