The past fortnight saw plenty of action in the Indo-Pacific. The most relevant, from an Australian perspective, was news that China may be leasing the island of Tulagi from the Solomon Islands. Last week, it was revealed that a Chinese company, closely tied to the Chinese Communist Party, has signed a secret deal to secure exclusive development rights on Tulagi and surrounding waters. The revelation has, understandably, renewed Australian and American concerns that Beijing may be planning to build a military base in the South Pacific even though some experts have raised doubts on whether the leasing of the island to the Chinese company is possible.
This development comes weeks after the Solomon Islands officially established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, severing its ties to Taiwan. Earlier this month Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visited Beijing where the Pacific Island nation signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other agreements on education and economic cooperation.
On a related note, Pacific leaders congregated at the China-Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa this week have called on Beijing to do more to tackle the ‘climate change crisis’. The Pacific Islands Forum’s Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor remarked, ‘China, as the world’s largest economy, can be an important ally for the Pacific region…by taking a lead in escalating its ambition level and its commitments under the Paris Agreement- a valuable opportunity to demonstrate commitment to addressing our region’s greatest threat.’
Meanwhile, Washington has announced its very own Pacific pivot, officially called the ‘Pacific pledge’ to ‘step up its partnership efforts’ and dedicated to promote ‘sound, just and responsive’ governance in the region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Indonesia last weekend to attend President Joko Widodo’s inauguration of his second term in office. The two sides discussed free trade, counter-terrorism cooperation, Papua, and Indonesia’s new capital during the brief visit. The Australian prime minister also reassured Jokowi and received confirmation that the proposed Australia-Indonesia free trade agreement would be concluded by the end of the year.
However, it was Morrison’s side-meeting with Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, that was the highlight of his time in Jakarta. The two sides sought to clear the air amid elevating temperatures following recent statements made by Australian leaders, including Morrison’s remarks at the United Nations, in which he’d referred to China as a ‘developed economy’. Morrison emerged from the meeting and announced that the discussion included the ‘full gamut’ of Australia-China relations and that ‘there is a very clear understanding of where Australia is coming from, (and) our commitment to the relationship.’
Earlier this fortnight, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had made a scathing statement calling the Chinese Communist Party out for its hostile activities such as influencing university students, intellectual property theft and cyber-attacks, actions that are ‘inconsistent’ with Australian values. Drawing a clear distinction between China the country and the Chinese people on the one hand and the Chinese Communist Party on the other, Dutton emphasised that his attack was targeted at the latter. Reacting sharply to Dutton’s comments, the Chinese embassy in Canberra issued a statement reiterating that ‘…his malicious slur on the Communist Party of China…constitutes an outright provocation to the Chinese people’, thereby equating the CCP with the Chinese people.
Dutton’s remarks come amid heightened Australian concerns regarding the Chinese government’s activities Down Under. A University of Queensland student, Drew Pavlou, has sued the Chinese Consul-General in Brisbane, Dr Xu Jie, over allegedly inciting death threats against him after he led an anti-China protest over Hong Kong at the university campus a few months ago. Pavlou has sought a retraction of the diplomat’s comments along with an apology.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India on the 11-12th of October and participated in yet another ‘informal’ summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mamallapuram near Chennai. As Yogesh Joshi argues, there were four main takeaways from the summit: no agreement to resolve border disputes; some progress on issues relating to Kashmir and Pakistan; some breakthroughs on trade, particularly, India’s softening stance on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); and India’s firm refusal to join the Belt and Road Initiative. Overall though, it’s hard to disagree with C Raja Mohan that such informal summits are ‘…inadequate to cope with the range of structural tensions that have enveloped the bilateral relationship- from Kashmir to trade and multilateral challenges.’
On a sidenote, even though there are signs that India may be warming up to RCEP, the deal is far from sealed, as far as India is concerned. The RCEP ministerial meeting held earlier this fortnight in Bangkok was inconclusive as India’s negotiating hard on market access, investment and e-commerce. The next (which, it’s hoped, would be the final) ministerial is scheduled for the 1st of November.
President Xi also visited Nepal, the first Chinese President to do so in decades. Nepal is on the frontlines of the Sino-Indian battle for influence in New Delhi’s neighbourhood; it’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the BRI and has slowly edged away from India’s influence. Importantly, Nepal shares the longest boundary with Tibet, and is thus of immense strategic value to China.
At the time of writing, it’s being reported that a US Congressional subcommittee has concluded a hearing on the human rights situation in South Asia. The hearing witnessed sharp statements by US Congress men and women on the dire human rights conditions in Kashmir which has been under a lockdown for almost 3 months following India’s revocation of its autonomy in August this year. Though noting India’s secular and democratic credentials, State department officials expressed concerns about the rights of Muslims elsewhere in India too, and particularly under the proposed National Citizens Register in the state of Assam, which could see millions of Muslims become stateless. Pakistan was also heavily criticised at the hearing for its treatment of minorities and harsh blasphemy laws.
Speaking of Pakistan, the Financial Action Task Force last week decided to keep Islamabad on the grey list, with a warning and a deadline fixed for February next year within which it needs to end all support to terrorists. This is being seen as a small positive deriving from the Xi-Modi summit as there was a real concern that China could veto this decision.
Significance for Australia
Plenty to think about, this fortnight, for Australian policymakers. The prospects of a Chinese military base in the South Pacific has been worrying Australia (and the US) for over a year now (ever since the rumours about a Chinese base in Vanuatu spread last year). Even though experts are sceptical about whether the entire island could be leased out, they admit that ‘the project might (still) go ahead in some form’ especially if the Chinese company in question is able to secure funding. However, there are chances that the venture could backfire on China as it risks getting caught up in local politics.
Nonetheless, China’s intentions are clear- it seeks to be a player in the South Pacific for the long haul.
Scott Morrison’s meeting with the Chinese Vice President may have helped in lowering temperatures but the more systemic problems emerging in Sino-Australian relations are unlikely to go away that easily. Especially, the CCP’s tactics to brand any criticism of itself as a criticism of the Chinese people, allegedly borne out of racism on Australia’s part, are deeply troubling. This became apparent in the whole saga surrounding the investigation into Australian MP Gladys Liu’s links with the United Front department of the CCP, which the Chinese government criticised as racist.
As Michael Shoebridge puts it, “The ‘hurt feelings’ of Chinese people is merely a subtext of the Chinese Communist Party’s core narrative, carrying resonances of the century of humiliation. The CCP acts as the self-appointed mouthpiece of a citizenry it has rendered voiceless.”
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.