The Indo-Pacific region continued to witness the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic as more and more cases came to light this fortnight. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency earlier this fortnight and has dispatched a team of experts to the disease’s epicentre in China. Many countries have banned flights from China, while the US, Canada and Australia have banned foreign nationals currently in or who’ve been to China recently, from crossing their borders. The Australian government has set up a quarantine centre on Christmas Island for Australian evacuees from the PRC, who would now have to spend 14 days there before being allowed to enter the country.
There’s a great degree of fear about the economic repercussions of the crisis on the Chinese and consequently the world economy. Already, food and essential commodity prices have shot up in China as people are being forced to stay away from work. The China travel ban is also likely to hit the Australian economy, particularly the tourism and tertiary education sectors. Meanwhile, the Chinese government hasn’t responded kindly to Australia’s decision to ban travellers, and is pushing for compensation for its affected citizens.
Some countries such as the Philippines have also placed bans on flights from Taiwan, in a bid to appease the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has slammed these nations, citing that it has fewer numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases than some other countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Thailand. In the midst of this crisis too, China’s geopolitical heft continues to determine other countries’ responses.
Several thousands of people are stranded on cruise ships in different parts of the globe; the plight of the 3,600 people aboard the Diamond Princess docked in Tokyo is the worst. Around 174 people have tested positive so far on the Diamond Princess and Japanese authorities are being criticised for not being transparent to the passengers about the situation.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s successful visit to Australia was the one of the main highlights this fortnight. Building on his warm relationship with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Jokowi addressed the Australian parliament and called Australia Indonesia’s ‘closest friend’. Jokowi also came bearing ‘gifts’ for Australia: the Indonesian parliament recently ratified the Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement signed between the two nations last year. As Ben Bland points out, this is a significant marker of progress in bilateral ties as Indonesia has traditionally been sceptical about free trade agreements.
The two countries announced initiatives to deepen their diplomatic ties during this visit, including promises to cooperate closely on international forums on a wide range of issues. There was also a mention of institutionalising a ministerial level Australia-Indonesia-India trilateral strategic dialogue.
Importantly, Jokowi made a call for Australia and Indonesia to do more to tackle climate change and lower emissions, adding that the two nations ‘needed to become anchors for sustainable development and environmental protection across the region.’
Sri Lankan Prime Minister (and former President) Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India this week and held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subramanian Jaishankar to explore ways to deepen bilateral ties. Known for his close links to China, Rajapaksa’s visit and amenable stance towards India are significant indicators of Sri Lanka pursuing a great balancing game between Beijing and New Delhi. While Rajapaksa spoke of the familial nature of Sri Lanka’s ties with India, he vigorously championed the cause of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, emphasising how much his country had gained from it.
At the time of writing, it’s being reported that the Philippines has notified the US of its decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement. The agreement allows the US to deploy its forces to the Filipino military bases and enables joint military exercises between the two countries. Analysts fear that this is yet another sign of President Rodrigo Duterte’s growing closeness to China and increasing chasm with the US. While some believe that this might be Duterte’s tactic to get the US to back off from its sanctions against the Filipino government officials leading its war on drugs operations, others say that ‘this time he seems intent on bucking the United States…’
On another note, US President Donald Trump has been acquitted of his impeachment charges in the US Senate after the House voted in his favour. Analysts lament that the divisive trial has brought about ‘a dangerous hyper-partisan era that could damage the workings of government for a generation.’
Significance to Australia
The coronavirus epidemic is likely to hurt the Australian economy badly and exposes our need to diversify our trade partners. At the same time, it clouds the message that Australia is ‘open for business’ which, backed by Prime Minister Morrison’s $76 million tourism recovery package, was intended to reassure global travellers in the wake of the nation’s devastating bushfire season.
More importantly, for the first time in a long time, it has exposed the vulnerability of the Chinese Communist Party to instability and criticism from its domestic constituents. The death of the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to warn about the disease outbreak in early December but was silenced, led to a massive outcry on Chinese social media this week. As the New York Times reported, his death ‘has prompted a nationwide soul-searching under an authoritarian government that allows for little dissent.’
Even the CCP’s censorship machinery failed to stem the flow of outrage as millions expressed anger at the government’s handling of the crisis. As a result, the CCP has fired several top officials in the Hubei province over their negligence. For a government that prioritises curbing dissent over any meaningful action acknowledging a mistake, this is significant.
However, Australia would be concerned over countries banning flights from Taiwan in order to pay homage to the ‘one China’ notion- the ban is unnecessary and undermines Taiwanese aspirations for autonomy.
President Jokowi’s visit and the ratification of the free trade agreement are extremely positive developments from Canberra’s perspective. The two countries’ decision to cooperate more closely on international forums and on issues such as the disputes over the South China Sea is significant. As a number of analysts point out, there’s now much greater strategic convergence between Australia and Indonesia as evidenced by Jakarta’s most recent face-off with China over the Natuna Islands. Nonetheless, as Bland notes, it’s critical for Indonesia and Australia to manage any disputes by isolating them from the broader relationship- which is likely to yield more fruit than just talking about convergent interests.
Finally, the emerging cracks in US democratic institutions and traditions is cause for deep worry Down Under. Trump’s gracelessness at the State of the Union Address and the overall erosion of American values and dignity are enough to shake the faith of even the most fervent champions of the Australia-US alliance. Much rests on what happens in November this year. As Michael Fullilove cogently puts it, ‘The world still wants to believe in America. But we need Americans to help us believe.’
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.