The past fortnight witnessed the unfolding of important events with deep significance for the region. Perhaps the most important development was the re-internationalisation of the Kashmir problem, which was discussed at the UN Security Council after more than five decades as a result of India’s revocation of the special status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month. While the China-led call for a formal UNSC statement on Kashmir fell flat with the majority of the powers calling it a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan, New Delhi has made it clear that any negotiations with Islamabad henceforth will only relate to the parts of Kashmir under Pakistani administration. The erstwhile Indian state continues to be under an almost complete lockdown and the situation on the ground is sombre. Pakistan has downgraded relations with India and the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has resorted to nuclear blackmail, warning world leaders of the consequences of an India-Pakistan war.
This year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu at the beginning of this fortnight didn’t end too well for Australia, with a great deal of disappointment expressed by Canberra’s Pacific neighbours over its watering down of the climate issue in the final communique. In an unusual show of dissent, Pacific island leaders issued an alternative statement, the Kainaki II Declaration, highlighting their climate concerns and detailing the ways to mitigate the climate crisis. It calls for all nations to stop using coal in ten years’ time. Australia hasn’t endorsed this declaration as coal is one of the bedrocks of the Australian economy. The Pacific island countries weren’t mollified by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of a $500 million package to address climate change in the Pacific, which as analysts say, reveals the simple fact that ‘Canberra cannot buy off the Pacific’. Of course, the other player in the region is China, which is emerging as an attractive partner to these nations, despite the fact that it has the world’s largest carbon footprint.
Canberra has launched an investigation into foreign interference at Australian universities, after the past few weeks witnessed violent clashes across Australia between pro-democracy and pro-China protesters over the democracy movement in Hong Kong. This announcement comes amid rising concerns regarding the Chinese government’s open support to those opposing the pro-democracy demonstrations and amid more general worries surrounding China’s interference at universities and its attempts to hack into university servers. The newly created taskforce will be responsible for looking into foreign interference in the education sector, cyber security and investigating theft of research and intellectual property. On a related note, China slammed Taiwan over its offer of asylum to Hong Kong protesters last week.
Speaking of Australia’s rising concerns vis-à-vis China, Australian citizen and writer Yang Hengjun, who has been under Chinese detention for months, has been charged with committing espionage by Beijing. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne clarified this week that Yang was not a spy and has urged China to release him. China, on the other hand, has warned Australia to stay away from the matter. Experts have asked the Australian government to consider issuing an appropriate travel advisory to Australian citizens travelling to China in light of the growing risks of arbitrary detention.
Prime Minister Morrison visited Vietnam this fortnight, where both sides reviewed their strategic partnership and agreed to focus on three priority areas: economic engagements, strategic and defence ties, and knowledge and innovation partnerships. The visit was also significant as it came amid Vietnam’s rising tensions with China and immediately followed this month’s US-Australia-Japan joint statement criticising China for its aggression in the South China Sea. However, Morrison refrained from making any strong statements on China during his visit even in the face of China’s military exercises in the disputed waters a week earlier. Meanwhile, the US has announced its decision to conduct military drills with ASEAN in the Gulf of Thailand in early September.
This fortnight also witnessed a further worsening of Japan-South Korea relations, which began earlier this month with both nations downgrading bilateral trade ties. This week, Seoul has announced its decision to end its intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, a move likely to have a disastrous impact on the US’s hub-and-spokes security framework in the Indo-Pacific. This decision has attracted strong criticism from the Pentagon, emphasising that ‘the only winners in the Japan and Korea feud are our competitors.’
India has announced the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff, acting upon a long-held recommendation by policy analysts and practitioners. Though the exact nature of the role is yet to be determined, it marks a step in the right direction, according to most observers.
Significance for Australia
The most significant outcome of the UNSC discussion of Kashmir, from an Australian strategic perspective, is China’s almost disproportionate reaction to what is at best a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. It shows that Beijing is extremely sensitive to even a remote possibility of Indian assertiveness vis-à-vis its boundary disputes, even in the face of Indian reassurance that the recent constitutional changes do not have a bearing upon Chinese-administered Kashmir. Moreover, the entire episode reeks of Chinese hypocrisy where Beijing complains about other countries effecting constitutional changes in their own territories whereas China’s doing the same to challenge other countries’ sovereignty rights in the South China Sea. Furthermore, an autocratic China admonishing a democracy for human rights violations peaks in irony.
Australia’s spat with Pacific island leaders at the recently concluded PIF augurs badly for Morrison’s signature policy of the Pacific Step Up. The Pacific island countries’ issuance of an alternative statement is reflective of palpable displeasure at what they perceive as Australia’s dominance in the region. As an analyst puts it, ‘…open dissent is a very un-Pacific outcome…’. Clearly, Canberra needs to do a lot more than offer cash to its Pacific neighbours, if it intends to win their hearts and minds.
On another note, the Australian government’s foray into countering foreign interference within the education sector has generated mixed responses from the security and academic communities. While many in the security field welcome the decision citing real worries owing to Chinese interference, academics fear their loss of autonomy. Many say that the government’s decisions are warranted but the general climate surrounding such an enquiry into university life is bitter, not helped by allusions to this being driven by White Australia sentiments.
Morrison’s visit to Vietnam was also watched with great interest in the region. As analysts point out, Australia’s reticence at calling China out for its poor behaviour has the obvious implication of normalising Chinese actions in the South China Sea. In the words of Huong Le Thu, ‘Effective diplomacy includes speaking up when necessary.’
Also, the dip in Japan and South Korea’s relations present a real worry to Australia as it signifies the weakening of the American alliance system in the region. Canberra would be hoping for a quick redressal to the tiff and hope that the two countries are able to overcome their historic animosity towards each other.
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.