Summit season is once again under way as world leaders converge in New York for the United Nations General Assembly leaders’ week. One of the most significant developments this fortnight, nonetheless, is the renewed call for US President Donald Trump’s impeachment, after it was revealed that he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate alleged corruption charges against former US Vice-President and Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter in return for additional American aid, among other requests. The White House has released the transcript of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky, which reveals that Trump did make those requests, and which analysts say lays solid grounds for impeachment, unlike the Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia in 2016. The prospects of an impeachment casts a shadow over Trump’s engagements at the UNGA and on the sidelines.
In his speech at the UN, Trump called for an overhauling of China’s status as a ‘developing’ country, a day after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made that call while addressing the Chicago Institute of Global Affairs. Morrison, referring to China as a newly developed nation, also called for it to do more on climate issues by reducing emissions. He remarked, ‘Having achieved this status, it is important that China’s trade arrangements [and] participation in addressing important global environmental challenges, with transparency in their partnerships and support for developing nations, reflect this new status and the responsibilities that go with it as a world power’. Morrison met Trump at the White House earlier in the week and was best described by a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘looking like a hostage on happy pills’.
Another important bilateral meeting in New York this week, was that which took place between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An expected trade deal between the US and India could not materialise, adding a dampener to Modi’s visit, along with Trump making further albeit qualified offers of mediation on Kashmir. The ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event organised by the Indian diaspora in Houston, which Trump and many other politicians attended last week, was a highlight nonetheless and will go down as a high watermark in the history of US-India ties.
Another critically important development, taking place at the time of writing, is the meeting of the Quad nations, the US, Japan, India and Australia, at the foreign ministerial level, which is a remarkable elevation of its status given that even until late last year, India had been reluctant to go beyond joint secretary level talks. ‘This proves the Quad’s many naysayers wrong, and [holds up] the validity of a bottom-up slowly-slowly approach, second time around…’as Euan Graham puts it. Ian Hall believes that it’s a reflection of deepening US-India ties.
Moving away from the goings on in the US for a moment, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, in what’s being seen as a major victory for Beijing. Beijing promised $730 million in aid to the Solomon Islands in exchange for the recognition. As Michael Shoebridge points out, the switchover is much more than just about China-Taiwan rivalry and signifies China’s growing reach in the South Pacific, motivated by geo-economic and strategic calculations.
On a side note, India has promised $12 million to Pacific island states to be used for development projects, pointing to a desire to build influence and aligning with Canberra’s vision of more Indian involvement in the South Pacific.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the Indo-Pacific, the navies of India, Singapore and Thailand held a trilateral exercise in the Andaman sea, signalling India’s multi-pronged approach and strategy to build its strategic heft in the Indo-Pacific.
Significance for Australia
Prime Minister Morrison’s visit to the US has been largely positive. His remarks on China elicited approval and praise from Trump. At the time, Canberra’s been branded as the country leading an anti-China global campaign, by a ‘high level’ Chinese delegation touring Australia. At the same time, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, in a speech in Indonesia, has urged Australia to do more to prevent the ongoing US-China trade war from causing harm to the region. She said that Canberra must not be ‘a spectator in US-China contest’ and should prevent the region from becoming a theatre for great power rivalry, striving to build a multipolar world instead.
Reflecting on the Morrison-Trump camaraderie, few can match the eloquence of Graeme Dobell who writes, ‘The trick for Morrison is to embrace Trump but not the Trump worldview; no easy feat when basking in the ceremonial hoopla Washington is so good at.’
The Quad is well and truly alive. The unexpected elevation of ties among Quad nations is an extremely important and positive step in fulfilling Australia’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific built on partnerships among like-minded countries. It signifies a growth in trust among these four democracies as well as growing convergence on matters of common interest.
On the other hand, Canberra will take a bleak view of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati’s switching of allegiances and the way in which China appears to be buying their recognition. Marshall Islands is said to be next to hop onto the bandwagon, leaving Taiwan with very few friends in the region. As Shoebridge remarks, perhaps it’s time for Australia to think about building direct working links between Australian and Taiwanese defence and security officials. Canberra doesn’t need to change its formal policy on Taiwan for that, he notes, we could just reinterpret it and change policy underneath.
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.