If 2020 were a horror movie, the past fortnight would probably qualify for the scariest part, the one in which everything seems to be going wrong- all one can do is shield their eyes, shut their ears and hope for it to end soon (if you’re anything like me, anyway). The only trouble is, I’m not sure if it’s going to be over with this fortnight.
The United State of America is in freefall- witnessing large scale protests after a black man, Floyd George, was killed by a policeman for a minor crime, the latest in a series of such killings of black people across the country and raking up long standing issues of institutionalised racism and racial injustice. What has made it worse is the deployment of security personnel, including the National Guard to disperse crowds, some of whom are taking to looting stores and rioting. In many instances, law enforcement authorities have been brutal in their crackdown, using pepper spray and beating up people, including a couple of Australian journalists, in one incident. And lording over the mayhem is a president who revels in chaos, specialises in fomenting divisions and relishes the use of force on his citizens- the pandemic almost seems like a secondary issue for now.
Unsurprisingly, China is using the opportunity to point out that its use of force on its citizens, as in Hong Kong last year, is not only justified but necessary. This at a time when Beijing is using the pandemic as a distraction to assert complete control over Hong Kong. The Chinese parliament passed a new legislation that would impose the mainland’s national security laws on Hong Kong and allow the Chinese Ministry of State Security to operate with full authority there. It would effectively end the ‘one country, two systems’ promise made by China when Britain handed over Hong Kong back to the PRC in 1997.
The Hong Kong decision has disturbed global leaders, a number of whom have spoken out against Beijing’s decision. Australia’s chair of parliamentary foreign affairs committee David Fawcett has issued a joint statement with MPs from the UK, Canada and New Zealand calling for the UN to appoint a special human rights envoy for Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the UK has said that it might provide a pathway for British citizenship to British national overseas visa holders in the city. There is a similar call within Australia to open its doors for people who might be targeted in Hong Kong.
India and China are engaged in yet another standoff at several points along their 3,500 km Line of Actual Control. Although details remain murky due to conflicting media reports, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh in an interview two days ago admitted that several thousand Chinese soldiers had entered Indian territory; this was later refuted by the Indian government’s official press handle. According to some reports, PLA soldiers have entrenched themselves in the Galwan Valley and the Finger Area near Pangong lake in the Ladakh sector (under Indian control); Chinese soldiers had also made a shallow incursion into Naku la in the Sikkim sector earlier last month, violating an undisputed border between the two sides.
It’s reported that de-escalation talks are taking place at several levels, but the situation is serious enough for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring it up in his phone call with US President Donald Trump this week. This, after Trump made a public offer on Twitter to ‘mediate’ between the two sides earlier this fortnight.
As M. Taylor Fravel notes, China’s recent adventurism along the borders with India is triggered by New Delhi’s development of infrastructure and roads along the LAC, particularly a ‘feeder road’ that connects the Galwan river with the Shyok and Darbuk and Daulat Beg Oldie road. India is also building a road near the Pangong lake, which is also making China nervous. Beijing thus hopes to deter India from finishing these roads. According to Fravel ‘These events, perhaps, are a classic expression of the security dilemma- China views India as changing the status quo, even if India sees its moves as an attempt to consolidate the status quo along the LAC.’
In some positive news, the Australian and Indian prime ministers will be holding a virtual bilateral summit later today- it’s expected that the two countries will sign a mutual logistics sharing agreement to facilitate greater naval cooperation. Other important announcements on critical technology cooperation and education services are also being reported to be on the table.
In yet another positive development, the Philippines has temporarily suspended its decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement it has with the US. With the PRC’s recent aggressive manoeuvres in the South China Sea and given the volatility of the international system, this isn’t surprising.
Meanwhile, Trump has invited Australia, India, South Korea and Russia to join this year’s G7 meeting in the US in September. Prime Minister Scott Morrison accepted the offer over a phone call with the US president yesterday and emphasised that a seat at the global high table was exactly what Australia needed to shore up its interests during a global recession.
Significance for Australia
Pandemic. Curtailment of Hong Kongers’ rights. Large scale rioting and police suppression in the US. Prospect (however remote) of India-China war along the borders.
Suffice to say that Australian policymakers have their plates quite full.
Walter Russell Mead is right when he says that regardless of the outcome of the US election in November, the biggest challenge facing whatever US administration is in power next year will be ‘to convince the world that this time, America really means what its president says.’ The US is facing a loss of credibility at an unprecedented scale with the events that have unfolded over the past six months. Australians can no longer trust their most ‘trusted’ security partner to get its house in order. Its ability to secure the region is a long haul.
The Black Lives Matter protests have struck a chord across the globe, including in Australia, which needs to reflect upon its own record of police brutality and racial prejudice, especially against aboriginal Australians.
China’s actions in Hong Kong and vis-à-vis India are cause for grave concern. While they may prove useful to Xi Jinping to ward off criticism of his handling of the pandemic at home, they portend a trend of more emboldened actions in future, unless met with resistance and resolve.
Canberra would be relieved that so far both India and China have maintained calm and not engaged in inflammatory rhetoric that would bind them in an escalatory spiral. Australia has wisely commented that the border standoff between India and China are for them to resolve mutually; nonetheless, the PLA’s temerity to violate India’s sovereignty and station troops there is worrisome to say the least.
On the other hand, Canberra should look to open its borders to any dissidents from Hong Kong if Beijing refuses to back down on its decision to impose the new law on the city.
2020 is turning out to be a nightmare but to end on a seemingly positive note and especially with reference to the ongoing BLM movement, I quote Arundhati Roy’s recent article, where she writes,
‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’
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.