The last month of this year, and this decade, has so far been a troubling one. From extensive bush-fires and thick smoke choking large parts of south-eastern Australia, to concerning constitutional changes and violent protests across India- the past fortnight portends a bleak 2020 for the region.
One of the most important developments in the past two weeks was India’s passing of the citizenship amendment act, which is designed to offer expedited citizenship to ‘persecuted minorities’ belonging to all other religious except Islam, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, thus making religion a basis for discrimination. This law, coupled with the proposed creation of the national citizens’ register would potentially strip away citizenship of millions of Muslim immigrants from the region, who have been living in India since 1971. There have been widespread protests against these actions of the Narendra Modi-led government by students and liberals across India (and largely gaining support internationally), who see this is an attempt to change the secular nature of India’s constitution.
More importantly, this bill and the widening streak of illiberalism in India is casting a shadow over hopes for a continued alignment of values between New Delhi and the West. Short term, too, India is beginning to suffer from reputational damage. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled his visit to India scheduled for later this week, citing the violent protests in Northeast India against the new law (where he was supposed to honour the Japanese war heroes of the Second World War).
Moreover, Bangladesh, which is India’s closest friend in the subcontinent today and a proud secular country, has expressed its displeasure over insulting remarks made by Indian politicians, referring to their neighbour as a ‘theocratic Islamic’ nation. Bangladeshi foreign and home ministers cancelled their scheduled visits to India in light of those statements. Clearly, Indian policymakers are sacrificing their long-term strategic goals to score brownie points domestically, as Shekhar Gupta points out. Also, as an observer poignantly notes, India would worry about the prospect of Islamic countries and the West finding ‘common cause in global platforms’.
On a related albeit a different note, Australia and India held their third defence and foreign secretary level ‘2+2’ talks in New Delhi last week, which was deemed to be successful in strengthening bilateral strategic cooperation. The annual US-India defence and foreign ministerial 2+2 is currently underway; as analysts note, the positive India story is becoming a hard sell in Washington at the moment, the Indian delegation have their work cut out.
Moving on, Bougainvilleans voted in record numbers to seek independence from Papua New Guinea last week. The vote, while non-binding, has put the onus of the final decision on PNG’s parliament- which might have a detrimental snowball effect on other provinces. The result also has significant bearings for Australia, which could be looked upon for support by a newly independent Bougainville. As Ben Packham notes, ‘Australia has a strategic interest in ensuring a unified PNG….’ The path forward is full of uncertainty.
In other significant news, Russia and China have proposed the lifting of some sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this week, perceivably to encourage dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. However, the US isn’t likely to vote in favour of any such resolution, given North Korea’s refusal to denuclearise. Pyongyang, meanwhile, has begun ratcheting up its rhetoric, threatening to resume its nuclear and long-range missile testing lest the US lifted sanctions quickly.
Speaking of the UNSC, China made its second failed attempt to bring up the issue of Kashmir at the peak multilateral governance body this week. While India refused to be drawn into the controversy citing its non-membership of the UNSC, France and other nations pushed back on Beijing’s plans by reaffirming that Kashmir was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, forcing China to withdraw its proposal. As per reports, India and China are going to embark on another round of boundary talks beginning this weekend.
Staying on the theme of India-China relations, New Delhi transferred a diesel-electric submarine to Myanmar to bolster defence cooperation with one of the key battlegrounds for Sino-Indian competition for influence in the region. An unintended consequence of India’s decision has been the rousing of concern in Thailand over Myanmar’s growing capability. Bangkok is set to purchase three submarines from China, according to reports.
Japan and South Korea ties continue to remain strained after talks to ease Tokyo’s restrictions on high-tech exports from Seoul failed. Officials say, however, that dialogue is likely to continue. Japan-South Korean relations have taken a nose-dive in recent months over trade disputes and metamorphosed into strategic downgrades and renewal of historical animosities.
Significance to Australia
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s absence from the helm, in the middle of one of the biggest climate emergencies in Australia is causing significant consternation Down Under. Not so much his physical absence, but his leadership amid the crisis, as Katharine Murphy writes. And also because of his government’s failure to take decisive action to meet our Paris emissions target, resorting to cheating to manipulate our record at the UN climate meeting in Madrid last week. The need of the hour, according to Robert Glasser, is to ‘begin building a bipartisan Australian response to climate change’ and to strengthen the resilience of Australian communities.
The Indian government’s recent actions will undoubtedly cause discomfort in Canberra, especially ahead of Morrison’s visit to New Delhi next month. Australia has issued travel advisories for Australians travelling to India. Plans to strengthen strategic and economic ties are well in place, including the conclusion of a defence logistics exchange pact, and the potential finalisation of a free trade agreement. More importantly, Australia would be concerned about New Delhi’s worsening goodwill with US policymakers and with its neighbours like Bangladesh, another country being heavily wooed by China.
The verdict on Bougainville also presents a significant challenge to Canberra; the prospect of a new nation in the South Pacific, which would require substantial support in institution-building and governance, against the backdrop of increased geopolitical competition in the region, is a testing one.
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.