The year 2020 has begun on a sobering note for Australia (and the world). While the world came close to facing the possibility of an outbreak of war between Iran and the US last week, Australia continues to grapple through one of the most devastating climate events in its history. Climate change-induced bush fires have ravaged close to 17 million hectares of land across the island-continent this season, claiming 24 human and millions of animal lives. The Scott Morrison-led federal government’s response to the crisis has been shaky and delayed, with the prime minister facing severe backlash over his poor leadership and absence of an effective climate change policy.

The significant drop in his approval ratings have forced Scott Morrison to address climate change as the reason behind the bushfires; this week the government promised a royal commission on the bushfires and resolved to reduce carbon emissions to 2030. While the royal commission’s findings will only be released after a few years, it’s expected that initial recommendations will be made available later this year. Australian cities and towns, meanwhile, have been choking under hazardous levels of smoke for over a month now, leading experts to warn of an impending health crisis due to the smoke.

Prime Minister Morrison has had to postpone his scheduled visits to New Delhi and Tokyo this month due to the unprecedented nature of the calamity. International support has been pouring in from all over, with many countries, including the US, New Zealand and Canada dispatching fire-fighters to Australia. The Australian Defence Force has been heavily involved in firefighting and will also be deployed to assist with recovery and rebuilding efforts, if asked to, by state governments. Around 3,000 army reservists have also been called up to help with the response.

In further depressing news, Jakarta faced large scale floods and landslides that resulted in the death of 67 people and caused several hundred thousands to seek shelter.

Taiwan re-elected incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen with a landslide majority this week, putting paid to Beijing’s hopes of reconciliation with what it refers to as its ‘renegade province’, according to some external observers at least. Tsai, representing the status quo- leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 57.1 percent of the vote share, defeating her Kuomintang (KMT) rival Han Kuo-yu, who secured 38.6 percent votes. In the legislative elections taking place the same day, although the DPP won more seats (61 compared to the KMT’s 38), the KMT managed to win a significant number of votes.

Experts note that this election was in a way a referendum on unification with China. Tsai was seen as a ‘steady hand’ on China whereas her opponent Han was more pro-Beijing. As Charlie Lyons Jones puts it, ‘Saturday’s election wasn’t so much a resounding victory for the DPP and defeat for the KMT as it was an endorsement of Tsai Ing-wen and a rebuke of Han Kuo-yu.’

Many world leaders, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Shadow Australian foreign minister Penny Wong congratulated Tsai on her victory. China on the other hand, dismissed the election results and slammed countries that offered congratulatory messages to Taiwan.

In another part of the Indo-Pacific, tensions between Indonesia and China over the Natuna islands resurfaced again this fortnight. Jakarta lodged a diplomatic protest against violations of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna islands by three Chinese Coast Guard and roughly 63 fishing boats last month. Indonesia’s foreign ministry emphasised that it didn’t recognise Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line and its illegal claims in the North Natuna Sea.

In response to China’s provocations, Jakarta deployed fighter jets and warships to patrol the disputed waters. Jakarta also authorised its fishermen to join the effort to defend against Chinese ships, in what’s being seen as the greatest altercation between the two sides in years. Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the islands last week and asserted, ‘Natuna is part of Indonesia’s territory, there is no question, no doubt…There is no bargaining for our sovereignty.’

On the other hand, the Chinese foreign ministry’s response was that the Chinese fishermen were within their rights to fish in their ‘traditional’ waters, which overlap with Indonesia’s EEZ. Pointedly, the Chinese ministry spokesman asserted, ‘So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters.’

At the time of writing, the Chinese fishing vessels are being reported to have retreated to the border of Indonesia’s EEZ in the North Natuna Sea and tensions said to be cooling. 

India’s passing of the controversial citizenship amendment act last month and a perceived government crackdown on student protests (on several issues) has vitiated the political atmosphere in New Delhi and across India. Moreover, globally, India’s recent domestic moves are causing concern leading countries to renew their assessments New Delhi’s commitment to the liberal values.

Last week, the Indian government organised a trip for foreign diplomats, including from the US, to Jammu and Kashmir, which continues to be under a communications lockdown. The move failed to generate some positive press for New Delhi, and instead has renewed calls for the end to communications blackout and release of political and other detainees in government custody for months now.

Significance for Australia

While domestically the new year has so far not been to kind to Australia, strategically, the results have been mixed. Taiwan’s choosing of pro-status quo candidate Tsai Ing-Wen in the face of tremendous pressure from China and amid elaborate Chinese Communist Party-led influence and disinformation campaigns, is a good sign. Events of the recent past including, most importantly, Beijing’s clamp down on Hong Kong last year, have had a telling impact on the Taiwanese election as Xi Jinping’s pitch to Taiwan has been to replicate the ‘one country, two systems’ Hong Kong model.

As Lyons Jones notes, short of war, China has all but lost Taiwan. The upholding of democratic values and traditions is a positive development for Australia.

Others caution that the results will toughen Xi Jinping’s resolve to explore other options to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

China’s recent adventurism in the Natuna Sea add to Australia’s worries about Beijing’s intentions and modus operandi. Analysts note that the pattern is clear: like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, China is pushing its claims southwards, this time at the expense of Indonesia.

The Indonesian government is being called upon to develop a new strategy to deal with an assertive China, including suggestions for the creation of a special office to look into strategic matters aimed at ‘changing’ China’s behaviour in the Natuna waters, bolstering coordination with Malaysia and Vietnam on maritime issues and increasing engagement with like-minded countries such as Australia, Japan, India and South Korea.

While such a proposition would be welcome from an Australian perspective, there remain doubts about Jakarta’s appetite and willingness for risk-taking vis-à-vis China. Already, there are concerns that the Jokowi government is downplaying the most recent standoff.

Most importantly, the past fortnight has invoked calls for Canberra to exercise global leadership on climate change. Australia needs to see the 2019-20 bushfire crisis as a wake-up call and take solid measures to reduce our dependence on non-renewable sources of energy, phasing coal out of our energy sources and moving towards a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

On that note, it’s disconcerting to read that the Australian government is refusing to make public draft versions of its strategy report for aiding the Pacific island’s adapt to climate change, leading to fears that the government weakened the final document.

In any event, one would hope that Australia learns from this crisis and focuses on building a more resilient and better equipped nation to fight climate change.


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.