The past fortnight has been a witness to a few interesting events and developments. US President Donald Trump’s in fresh trouble after it was revealed that he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into his potential 2020 Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden in return for additional aid. The controversy ultimately ballooned to involve other nations, including Australia, with revelations that Trump asked their leaders to dig up dirt on his adversaries.

The Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 70th anniversary of its rule last week, with a grand militaristic display and parade, leading analysts to draw Cold War analogies again. As Rory Medcalf points out, ‘China accuses others of Cold War thinking. But this is Cold War acting…’ Meanwhile, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to mark the 70th anniversary turned violent and were met with police fire in which at least one person got injured. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has warned that China could be forced to take a military option to suppress the pro-democracy protests in the city unless the situation improves.  

In a surprising but welcome development, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has  announced visa restrictions on Chinese government and members of the Chinese Communist Party believed to be involved in the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The US has also blacklisted 28 entities accused of perpetrating human rights violations and abuse in Xinjiang. The blacklisted companies include tech companies and other businesses, 18 public security bureaus and a police college.  

China-India relations have been on an especially rocky footing in recent months. This fortnight began with India objecting to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statements on Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh at the United Nations General Assembly. Even as India prepares to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping for an ‘informal’ summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mamallapuram on 11th October, the Chinese government issued a strong objection against India’s Him-Vijay military drills in Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as its own). New Delhi, on the other hand, protested against a statement made by the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, in which he affirmed China’s backing of Pakistan on Kashmir (which goes against Beijing’s formal position). No surprises then that, the summit was confirmed at the very last minute.

Nitin Pai notes that Xi has little tangible benefit to derive from his visit: India has refused to join the Belt and Road Initiative, has not been forthcoming on allowing Chinese companies to build its 5G equipment and network, and has been resisting participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

This week Xi has meetings with the leaders of Pakistan, India and Nepal and analysts say that it indicates the growing importance of South Asia to the Chinese president’s signature BRI plans.

Amid the ongoing rift in Sino-Indian ties, there are reports that Bhutan may be close to formalising a boundary settlement with China, which would recognise the ‘holding line’ as the international border, thereby enabling Beijing to consolidate disputed territories it had illegally occupied. However, these rumours have been rubbished by a leading Bhutanese journalist, who claims that ‘Bhutan will not make any moves to hamper Indian security’ and that any negotiation that Thimphu enters into with Beijing will be done in close consultation with New Delhi.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India last week to further consolidate bilateral ties. In what turned out to be a very successful four-day visit, India and Bangladesh concluded, among other agreements, a Memorandum of Understanding allowing New Delhi to set up a coastal surveillance system radar in Bangladesh. India has built such surveillance systems in island states of Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius and is planning one in Myanmar.

Moving on to another part of the Indo-Pacific, North Korea has refused a US offer for another round of negotiations later this month after the latest talks, which took place last weekend in Stockholm, stalled within a few hours. Last weekend, officials from the US and North Korea met in the Swedish capital after more than 8months to discuss the ending of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the North Korean representatives complained that their US counterparts had come ‘empty-handed’ and didn’t have anything substantial to offer. Analysts are nonetheless, hopeful of ‘some sort of limited accord emerging in the coming months.’

Closer to home, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed a gathering at the Lowy Institute in Sydney last week in which he, in the words of Tony Walker, ‘redefined Australian policy in a way that represented a distinct contrast with that of his predecessors… (and)…brought Australia’s worldview home with a thud…’ Morrison used the veiled reference of ‘negative globalism’ to attack the UN for its criticism of Australia’s climate change policy, adding that he didn’t want to see an ‘unaccountable international bureaucracy’ dictate terms to independent governments, including Australia’s.

Commentators and members of the Opposition criticised the vision outlined in Morrison’s speech as ‘inward-looking’ and that of a ‘little Australia’, and steeped in nationalism of the Donald Trump-sort.

Morrison also reiterated a statement he’d made at the UNGA last month about China being a developed economy, adding that he meant it as a compliment and not criticism. On keeping a balance between Canberra’s ties to Washington and Beijing, Morrison remarked, ‘By rejecting the binary narrative of their strategic competition and instead valuing and nurturing the unconflicted benefit that can arise from our close association with both, we don’t have to choose.’

Significance for Australia

Plenty of takeaways for policymakers this fortnight. The overarching one though, is the fact that this is a well and truly an age of disruption and uncertainty. Donald Trump may or may not be impeached, but the ongoing controversy as well as Trump’s decision to allow Turkish forces to a free rein in north-eastern Syria (betraying the Kurdish militia) doesn’t augur well for global confidence in America’s power and credibility.

 And since Australia’s relations with the US is more than just about ‘a hundred  years of mateship’, what the world thinks of America matters to us. Juxtapose that against a growingly revisionist Chinese state which acts in ways contrary to Australia’s values and vision for a free and open region, and we’re in trouble. That’s why Prime Minister Morrison’s invocation of the value of building close relationships with countries such as Japan and India in his Lowy speech is significant. Canberra realises that we need like-minded friends with common interests in the region.

The recent worsening of Sino-Indian ties is prominent. But Canberra would be aware that problems between China and India aren’t new- they’re embedded in the relationship. The upcoming Xi-Modi visit would be keenly watched from Down Under- because India’s stance on the BRI, 5G and RCEP all matter to Australia. Perhaps the RCEP is one issue on which Canberra shares ground with Beijing but it’s very much on the same page with New Delhi where the BRI is concerned. On 5G, Australia hopes that India would make a sensible decision but so far, New Delhi’s been giving mixed signals.

Finally, the strengthening of India-Bangladesh ties would be viewed favourably by Australia. Especially, the establishment of a coastal surveillance radar system is significant as it would allow New Delhi greater oversight over China’s movements in the Indian Ocean Region and allow for better responses to transnational crime on the seas. It would also help India to build greater connectivity in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific, which is a positive development from Australia’s perspective as it sees India as a close partner in the region.


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.