‘…(E)ven as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post-COVID world that is poorer, that is more dangerous, and that is more disorderly.’ Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, this week, articulated what many Indo-Pacific nations are feeling — that the international security landscape that had been changing for the worse in recent years, has deteriorated further due to the effects of the pandemic and that the region and the world are headed for troubled times in the not-too-distant future.
This week, the Australian government unveiled the 2020 Defence Strategic Update which commits $270 billion, over a ten-year period, to build a larger Australian military equipped with long range anti-ship missile capability, precision strike weapons, cyber and advance underwater surveillance capabilities. As Peter Jennings notes, ‘What is new is the realisation that the risk of conflict is upon us right now, not a comfortable distant 20 years away.’
Countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines have welcomed Australia’s decision to develop a credible deterrent capability, ending speculation about how this move would be seen regionally. Tellingly, the Indonesian defence spokesman referred to Canberra’s announcement as being ‘in line with Indonesia’s defence focus, which is to maintain security and stability in Indonesia and in the region.’ The Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana remarked, ‘We see these upgrades as Australia’s contribution to the maintenance of the rules-based regime in the region.’
The obvious subtext to all of this is the increasing Chinese aggression in various theatres, including the South and East China Seas, vis-à-vis Taiwan and the ongoing bloody standoff with India along the Line of Actual Control, which has taken a serious turn in recent weeks. To top this, Beijing’s new national security law has come into force in Hong Kong this week, which empowers the Chinese state to trample dissent and effectively ends the city’s semi-autonomous status as promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ rule. Already, around 370 people have been arrested under the draconian law, with police cracking down heavily on protesters with tear-gas, pepper spray and water cannon.
The law applies to all individuals and entities for crimes of ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ regardless of whether the individual is a resident of Hong Kong or not, and even if they are based overseas. Essentially, any person or organisation expressing a view disliked by the Chinese Communist Party is in danger of prosecution in Chinese jurisdiction- unsurprisingly, many nations such as the UK, Canada and Taiwan have issued travel advisories warning their citizens of the risk of arbitrary detention in China.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a scathing statement calling the Hong Kong decision an ‘affront to all nations’, adding that the US wasn’t going to stand by idly. Earlier this fortnight, Pompeo justified the deployment of three American aircraft carriers to the Indo-Pacific citing China’s growing adventurism in the region and threats to friends and allies.
Meanwhile, the Sino-Indian clash along the LAC continues to remain a flashpoint. Latest reports suggest that China and India have agreed to begin disengagement in the Galwan valley and the Hot Springs region in Ladakh although the situation remains tense at Pangong Tso, where both sides have amassed a great number of troops. The People’s Liberation Army has built several fortifications between the contested ‘Finger-4 to 8 area’ on the northern bank of the Pangong Lake.
This again, as I noted in the previous iteration of this wrap, is a classic example of Chinese salami-slicing of territory and an attempt to change the status quo using coercion. Moreover, new reports indicate that China is also stepping up its military activity along Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern-most sector of the McMahon Line (which isn’t recognised by the PRC). Too add to India’s woes, there are reports of Pakistani troop deployment in northern Ladakh along the Gilgit-Baltistan area, making India’s nightmare of a two-front war a distinct possibility.
In response, India has banned 59 Chinese mobile applications, including TikTok, on the grounds of preserving its data-sovereignty and to prevent China from using data gathered from these apps for nefarious purposes. India and Japan also conducted military exercises in the Indian Ocean over the weekend.
Closer to home, Australia continues to grapple with unprecedented CCP interference at home. This fortnight, New South Wales MP Shaoquett Moselmane’s home was raided by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation after allegations revealed that CCP-linked agents have infiltrated his office. Moselmane has been known to have expressed extremely views closely aligned to CCP propaganda, praising the party’s leadership, and criticising the Australian media as anti-China. One of his staffers, John Zhang, had attended a CCP propaganda training course in 2013. Moselmane has been suspended by the Labor Party and an investigation is underway, but this episode provides yet another indication of how pervasive Chinese interference has become in Australian politics.
In a bizarre and seemingly spiteful, tit-for-tat development, CCP mouthpiece Global Times blamed Australia for waging an espionage war against China, claiming that Chinese authorities had apprehended two Australian spies, who were ‘caught red-handed (and) also had a compass, a USB flash disk, a notebook, a mask, gloves and a map of Shanghai.’ They were also carrying ‘espionage equipment, US dollars and Chinese yuan for espionage funds…’
Also, Prime Minister Morrison earlier this fortnight announced that Australia was battling malicious cyber attacks of an unprecedented nature, from a ‘sophisticated state-based cyber actor’, across several sectors of government and industry, including critical service providers, education and health bodies, and political organisations. Although the prime minister didn’t name any country, government sources confirmed that China was behind the attacks.
Significance for Australia
‘Our region is now facing the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II.’ Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds carved out a grim assessment of Australia’s strategic reality in her address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute this week. Canberra has recognised that it needs to prepare for an extremely volatile and dangerous near-future and develop capability to deter and respond to threats in Australia’s backyard. More importantly, Australia has taken full ownership of its responsibility to uphold a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and displayed a willingness to defend its interests.
This move is likely to be welcomed by the United States, and other like-minded countries in the region, as it is a statement of resolve and positive intent in the face of increasing Chinese provocations.
Prime Minister Morrison, in his speech to launch the defence strategic update, compared the current period with the 1930s, noting, ‘That period of the 1930s has been something I have been revisiting on a very regular basis, and when you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting.’ The remark speaks to the seriousness of the challenge that China is posing in the region.
Hong Kongers’ loss of freedom and violation of human rights will be viewed with immense concern Down Under. No wonder then that Australia is considering offering sanctuary to dissidents. Australia should also consider issuing a fresh travel advisory for China in light of what’s happening in Hong Kong as well as the detention of Australian ‘spies’ caught with ‘espionage equipment’ including foreign currency, maps and a compass.
Australia’s actions this fortnight are likely to generate more vicious attacks from China but are likely to raise our stocks among friends and allies in the region.
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.