The past fortnight was marked by not one but two history-defining international events in different theatres of the Indo-Pacific: one in South Asia and the other in Hong Kong. The Indian government announced the amendment of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, ending the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state has also been bifurcated into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, although this is said to be a temporary measure for the former.
Earlier this fortnight, India evacuated tourists from Kashmir and built up a massive military presence in Jammu and Kashmir, shutting down all communication and internet services and placed local politicians under house-arrest. The motion to revoke Article 370 was then introduced and passed in the Indian parliament and approved by the President of India on the 5th of August. Since 1947, the state of Jammu and Kashmir had enjoyed a special autonomous status under the Indian Constitution in all matters except finance, defence, foreign policy and communications.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech to the nation after the announcement of the decision, said that the constitution had been amended to integrate Jammu and Kashmir fully within the Indian Union and to allow the region to develop. Pakistan has reacted angrily and called it a unilateral and illegal measure. It has approached the UN Security Council twice this week and is trying to gain international support to stop India from effecting this change. Most nations, including the US, have affirmed that this is India’s internal matter though Russia is so far the only P-5 nation to officially state it. The abruptness of the decision and the heavy-handed method of orchestration has led to widespread criticism from all quarters; India, on the other hand, justifies it on national security grounds.
China, meanwhile, has called for a UN Security Council intervention to discuss the matter. Last week, Beijing responded negatively to India’s announcement, especially with regard to the move’s implications for Aksai Chin, the part of Kashmir that it claims sovereignty over. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited China this week and clarified that the decision has ‘no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China’, adding that ‘India was not raising any additional territorial claims’.
Talking about China and India, it’s been reported that Indian companies are veering towards leaving Huawei out of their 5G network. China, in return, has promised its own retaliatory measures if India blocked Huawei.
The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are increasingly taking a deadly turn, as China prepares a military response. Latest reports say that China has deployed a large number of paramilitary forces to the Hong Kong border, purportedly to ‘send a message’ to the protesters. This week, democracy activists staged a peaceful protest at Hong Kong airport, blocking operations for more than two days. Hong Kong airport authorities yesterday banned the demonstrations at the airport.
Last week, China issued a notice to Cathay Pacific airlines to ban all crew who have participated in the protests from flying to mainland China and accused it of posing a ‘safety risk’.
What began as a protest against a proposed extradition law in June has spiralled into a wider movement seeking universal suffrage and investigations into police brutality. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam has apologised for her government’s handling of the crisis but has reiterated that the situation will only be resolved once law and order is restored.
US President Donald Trump hasn’t helped matters, referring to the protests as ‘riots’ on one occasion. Meanwhile, Beijing has denied permission to two US Navy ships to dock at Hong Kong port and has warned America against interfering. At the time of writing, there are reports that Trump has called on ‘good man’ Xi Jinping to approach Hong Kong ‘humanely’ or risk losing the trade deal. On a sidenote, Trump recently imposed new tariffs worth $300 billion worth of Chinese goods. However, analysts warn that we’re looking at a ‘three-week window’ to avoid a collapse in US-China trade negotiations due to talks being overrun by the US presidential race.
At the time of writing, Australian Prime Minister is attending this year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, where the region’s overwhelming concern on climate change is driving the agenda. According to latest reports, Australia has been largely successful in softening the language on climate change in the communique, from ‘climate change crisis’ to ‘climate change reality’. Moreover, Morrison has been successful in removing all but one reference to coal in the statement, drawing attention to the fault lines in Australia’s ‘Pacific Step Up’, which is bent on turning a blind eye to the real threats of climate change facing the South Pacific nations. Despite the Morrison government’s announcement of funding a $500 million climate change package to the Pacific island countries last week, Canberra’s ‘Step Up’ is fast losing credibility.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Australia last week, for AUSMIN meetings with their Australian counterparts. There were media reports that the US had raised the possibility of deploying missiles in north Australia which were later denied as untrue by Prime Minister Morrison. In a telling remark, Pompeo declared, ‘you can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans, or you can protect your people’, implying that Australia shouldn’t lose sight of its commitment to the rules based order and free and open region, in its pursuit of deeper ties with China.
Australia joined the US and Japan in issuing a strong statement criticising China’s coercion of smaller nations, militarisation of the South China Sea and unfair trade practices. While we’re on the topic, Liberal MP and Chairman of the Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Andrew Hastie drew Beijing’s ire this fortnight, when he wrote in an editorial piece about the need for Australians to recognise China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour. China slammed him for displaying ‘Cold War thinking’ and much was spoken about both for and against Hastie in the Australian media and public discourse. This comes amid heightened tensions surrounding Chinese interference in Australian universities and public life in Australia. This fortnight, even New Zealand objected to incidents of Chinese interference against free speech in its country.
Minor tensions have arisen in Japanese-South Korean relations after Tokyo downgraded trade relations with Seoul following court rulings in South Korea calling for Japan to pay war-time labour damages. Seoul responded by removing Tokyo from its preferred trade list in turn.
Significance for Australia
This year has been marked by a few landmark moments that will be remembered for the impact they had on the world for years to come- Balakot, Christchurch, Sri Lanka, and now Article 370. There’s a heated debate taking place around the world about what the decision will mean for the Kashmiris and for the future of peace in the region. Australian policy-makers ought to keep a close watch on what’s happening as this is a key flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s actions and China’s role in the crisis will be of special interest to Canberra as this will determine the course of their bilateral relations as well as strategic dynamics in the long haul.
Similarly, how Xi Jinping handles the Hong Kong crisis will reveal the nature of the international order that Beijing envisages. As Michael Shoebridge notes, ‘It’s not really about Hong Kong now, but about the future of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule of the multi-ethnic empire that makes up today’s China, and about the kind of relationship Xi’s state can have with other nations.’
Donald Trump’s indifference towards Hong Kong is also a cause for concern; it’s widely believed that Trump is not an accident in US politics but the reflection of a rising trend. If this America turns inwards and refuses to champion democracy and freedom of speech, and in fact, toes the authoritarian countries’ line on the matter, we’re charting unfamiliar territory. To be fair though, we’ve been on this unknown path since 8th November 2016.
Australia’s failure to recognise the Pacific Islands’ plight on climate change will turn out to damage its Step Up immeasurably. Already, these countries believe that Canberra’s recent pivot towards the region has been driven not by genuine good-neighbourly relations but by a rising fear of China’s presence and leverage among the Pacific island countries. Unless Australia takes concerted action to reduce its carbon emissions to meet the Paris targets, it’s going to lose its Pacific friends.
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.