Change is the only constant in life they say—this holds even more true for politics. The past fortnight witnessed yet another demonstration of how dynamic the Indo-Pacific region is. While US President Donald Trump’s first state visit to India dominated the headlines, communal riots in New Delhi formed an important subtext, and cast a gloomy shadow on India’s secular and liberal credentials at a time when it’s being hailed as an exemplar of liberal values juxtaposed against an authoritarian China. Meanwhile, dramatic political developments in Malaysia threaten to plunge the country into chaos once again. All this while COVID-19 (the erstwhile coronavirus) continues to spread at a rapid pace, having claimed more than 2500 lives to date.
President Donald Trump visited India this week in what was seen as a largely successful visit albeit more rhetorically than substantively. The US and India signed important defence deals to the tune of US $3 billion and involving the sale of 24 MH-60 R Seahawk Multi-Role Helicopters and 6 AH-64E attack helicopters to India. Both countries also came close to finalising another military pact called the Basic and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), which will allow the US to share sensitive and advanced satellite and topographical data with India, marking another step towards closer military engagement.
However, tellingly, the two sides failed to agree upon a much talked-about trade deal. President Trump has still expressed optimism about signing a ‘comprehensive trade deal’ with New Delhi in the near future.
Overall, Trump’s visit was characterised by signs of his growing camaraderie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his speech to the 125,000 strong crowd at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad was cleverly directed to please the hosts. It was also meant to appeal to the strong and influential Indian diaspora in the US, as Trump’s bid for re-election gains momentum.
Interestingly, Trump made an unsubtle distinction between India and China, without naming the latter, when he stated, ‘There is all the difference in the world between a nation that seeks power through coercion, intimidation, aggression, and a nation that rises by setting its people free and unleashing them to chase their dreams’.
Nonetheless, underneath the show and the theatrics, lies the undeniable fact that US-India relations have never been better. Dhruva Jaishankar sums it up well when he writes, ‘The India-US relationship has proved resilient amid the immense changes underway in international politics. The greatest significance of Donald Trump’s visit as president is the indication that this broad trajectory is likely to continue, even under circumstances that would once have been considered highly unlikely.’
Troublingly, this fortnight has been marred by a vicious communal riot between Hindus and Muslims in north-eastern Delhi, in which 24 people are reported to have died so far. Violent clashes between supporters and opposers of the Indian government’s recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act, spiralled into full-scale riots this week as religious mobs went on rampage attacking people and property with impunity. Several journalists reported that the police did nothing to curtail the violence in many areas. Also, Trump has been criticised for keeping quiet about the riots taking place in the city while he was there.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is also visiting Delhi this week, along with a major delegation of Australian businessmen and women. Before departing for India, Senator Birmingham expressed his government’s wish ‘…to make sure Australian businesses are front and centre as India’s economy grows over the next 20 years.’
Birmingham is scheduled to meet his Indian counterpart Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal to reinvigorate talks of a free trade agreement after India walked out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Although there’s speculation that New Delhi is more amenable on concluding an FTA with Canberra this time around, past as well as recent experience suggests otherwise. This Indian government has been more protectionist than probably any other government in New Delhi’s post Cold War history.
In further India-related news, a Chinese ship carrying potential dual-use equipment and headed to Pakistan, was detained at a port in Gujarat earlier this fortnight after it mis-declared an autoclave as a ‘dryer’. Autoclaves can also be used to build missiles. The ship was detained following a high-level tip-off received by Indian intelligence agencies.
In other news, China is delaying granting permission to an Indian Air Force flight carrying medical supplies to Hubei province, and on a mission to rescue more than 100 Indian nationals from the COVID-19 epicentre. As Tanvi Madan notes, it’s mere speculation at this stage, but there could be a link between the detainment of the Chinese ship and Beijing’s stubbornness on this account as signalling retaliation.
In another part of the Indo-Pacific, a political drama has begun unfolding. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced his resignation, claiming that the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition (of which his party was a part) had lost its majority in the parliament. A power struggle is now ensuing between Mahathir, who’s acting as a caretaker prime minister and the ‘perpetual’ prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim (who was to succeed him later this year). The erstwhile coalition has declared Anwar as its leader; it’s reported that the Malaysian king will determine which party has the majority and the results are yet to be declared.
James Chin predicts that ultimately, Mahathir will likely emerge victorious but the overall outcome will be tragic for the country- it’ll just be a reaffirmation that ‘regime change last year did not fundamentally alter the trajectory of Malaysian politics’, and that there has just been a change of power ‘from the Najib dynasty to the Mahathir dynasty’.
Closer to home, the Australian government announced its plans to expand the Royal Australian Air Force’s base Tindal, around 300 km away from Darwin, which commentators see as ‘a giant strategic step forward’ and which will enable Australia to ‘deliver a firmer deterrent posture and a closer alliance with the US.’
Current Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess delivered his annual threat assessment speech in Canberra this week. Notably, he mentioned that the level of foreign interference activities within Australia is at its peak now. Without disclosing the name of any country, Burgess revealed that ASIO had discovered a foreign ‘sleeper-agent’ in Australia, who had been found guilty of espionage. He also mentioned that right-wing terrorism is quickly gaining ground Down Under, with Neo-Nazism emerging as one of the key threats facing Australians today.
Picking up from Burgess’s remarks, Sen Rex Patrick accused China of perpetrating insidious foreign interference activities against Australia. On that note, China’s deputy head of mission to Australia, Wang Xining appeared on Australian TV show Q and A this week and attacked Australia’s ‘xenophobia’ vis-à-vis China. He asserted that China did not censor information and there was ‘no cover-up’ where the coronavirus outbreak was concerned. He also defended Beijing’s internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, insisting those were ‘training’ and not concentration camps.
Significance to Australia
The past fortnight has given Australian policymakers plenty to deal with, with the ASIO chief’s warnings being the topmost priority. The prospect of right-wing terrorists operating and posing a threat to Australians is one that’s going to keep many in Canberra awake. Moreover, the discovery of the foreign sleeper cell and the extent of the unnamed foreign regime’s reach into Australian society is also deeply worrisome and is likely to test our resilience as a nation.
Trade Minister Birmingham’s visit to India could not have come at a more unfortunate time- riots in Delhi are the last thing Australian businesses need to witness as they assess India’s potential as an economic partner. India’s descent into shades of illiberalism is one that’s going to put a shadow over any future engagement and will dampen Australia’s newly found keenness on consolidating ties with New Delhi.
The fact that the US wasn’t able to secure an FTA with India, after over a year of negotiations, is also likely to depress Canberra. As Aman Thakker notes, a free and open Indo-Pacific can not be realised without a free and open India. And for that to happen, New Delhi will need to ‘build a free, open, and inclusive India’ at home first.
If members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party keep stoking communal tensions and voicing anti-Muslim sentiments, Australia will need to reassess its strategy of engagement with India, as unfortunate as that is. Although realism dictates that nations act in self-interest, engaging with a divisive and inward looking Indian government will cease to be within Australia’s interests if India’s current political and economic trends continue.
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.