The past fortnight witnessed a few interesting developments which, although understated in their nature, are likely to have lingering consequences for the Indo-Pacific region. One of the most important, and yet subtle developments this fortnight was a shift in Australia’s position on the ongoing border tensions between India and China, as Canberra affirmed its support for New Delhi and emphasised its opposition to ‘any attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo’.
The latest Sino-Indian clash along the Line of Actual Control has been underway since May this year and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, despite several attempts at disengagement and negotiation. Earlier in the crisis, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had taken a neutral stance and urged both countries to maintain restraint after a bloody incident left several soldiers dead on either side. However, now Australia has backed India’s stand on the issue, marking a significant moment in bilateral ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. It’s even more significant in the China-Australia context because it comes on the heels of Canberra’s recent decision to back the 2016 UNCLOS ruling in the South China Sea, rejecting Beijing’s claims to the region entirely.
As reported in the earlier iterations of this wrap, the disengagement process between China and India along the LAC isn’t progressing well as PLA troops are refusing to withdraw from the Pangong lake and the Depsang plains in eastern Ladakh. In fact, China is continuing to increase its military presence all along the LAC, extending to Arunachal Pradesh. This week, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong asserted in an opinion piece that the responsibility for ending the standoff doesn’t lie with China, even as his counterpart, Vikram Misri, met with a senior CCP official to discuss the LAC issue. Importantly, the Indian Chief of Defence Staff and other senior military officials briefed an Indian parliamentary panel on the status of the disengagement and are reported to have told the panel that they were preparing for a ‘long haul’.
To mark the anniversary of the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status by India, Pakistan issued a new map this fortnight which shows Kashmir as part of Pakistan and also includes Siachen, Sir Creek and bizarrely, the erstwhile Indian princely state of Junagadh, which is now part of the Indian state of Gujarat. Even more remarkably, Islamabad left its eastern boundaries undefined as it didn’t want to challenge China’s sovereignty over Aksai Chin and other parts of Kashmir. India, on its part, slammed this move by calling it a ‘political absurdity’. Pakistan and China are not the only nations challenging India’s territorial claims, with Nepal set to send its new map to the UN, to assert its sovereignty over the Lipulekh region, which India contests as its own.
Moving on, this fortnight marked another low point in Hong Kong’s struggle to preserve its democracy with law enforcement agencies making some high-profile arrests under the CCP’s draconian national security law, including owner of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and activist Agnes Chow. Critics say that China is conducting a ‘political purge’ in Hong Kong to end all forms of dissent. Meanwhile, foreign ministers of the Five Eyes nations issued a joint statement criticising the Hong Kong government’s decision to postpone the legislative council elections and for the disqualification of the pro-democracy candidates.
In other important news, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order effectively banning Chinese social media applications TikTok and WeChat on grounds of national security. TikTok has come under much global scrutiny in recent times after India banned it in retaliation against Chinese aggression along the LAC. Concerns over Beijing using its technology companies for espionage have been rife for quite some time, with giants such as Huawei and ZTE being banned from participating in 5G spectrums in several nations, including Australia. Notably, the Australian government has decided not to place a ban on TikTok, at least for now, and has left it to individuals to choose whether or not to use it.
In another corner of the Indo-Pacific, former Sri Lankan President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Party swept the island nation’s parliamentary election last week, consolidating the family’s dynastic rule. Last year, his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa had won the presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa is known to have been close to Beijing and it was under his watch that the Hambantota port deal was made. However, since Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election last year, the country has followed a largely centrist foreign policy, accommodating Indian interests as well.
US Democratic presidential nominee John Biden has selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the upcoming election in November, raising hopes for a Democratic win.
Closer to home, Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered an important foreign policy speech at the Aspen Security Forum this fortnight titled ‘Tomorrow in the Indo-Pacific’ in which he laid Australia’s strategic vision and perspective of current challenges facing the region. Interestingly, Morrison defended his ‘negative globalism’ speech at the Lowy Institute last year, insisting that Australia continued to value positive globalism in a world where all nations engaged fairly as ‘equal, sovereign nations’. However, he said, recent trends indicate that global institutions are being manipulated, facing unprecedented coercion and are failing in their tasks- it is this trend towards negative globalism that Morrison’s government is against. Morrison also urged China to accept its ‘broader strategic responsibility’ and ‘to enhance regional and global stability, commensurate with its new status.’
Significance for Australia
We are living through unprecedented times. The larger geopolitical, strategic, and technological competition between the US and China is gradually underpinning all facets of international engagement between nations, including in the Indo-Pacific. These trends have been exacerbated due to Covid-19, including a sense of pervasive uncertainty about global strategic, economic and environmental stability.
Australia’s support for India on the LAC issue is a major milestone in Australian-Indian relations, especially because of New Delhi’s traditional suspicions of Canberra being too close to Beijing to be a reliable strategic partner. That is now changing and for good measure. Canberra has adopted a principled stance, consistent with its commitment to a rules-based order, both in the South China Sea and along the LAC.
The Five Eyes’ statement on Hong Kong is also important as it puts forward a unified stance against the subversion of liberal values in the city and calls China out over its flouting of its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promise.
Canberra would be grievously concerned about the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and would be watching the situation closely.
Prime Minister Morrison’s Aspen speech was filled with a sense of urgency and realism about the current state of the international system, even though he invoked Hedley Bull’s ‘international society’. Morrison succinctly summarised Canberra’s plan for the Indo-Pacific thus:
‘We will play our part in maintaining the strategic balance so necessary in the Indo-Pacific.
We will invest in regional relationships because we all have a stake in the future.
We will strengthen our ties with fellow liberal democracies and like-mindeds, working with all partners in the region as well…’
Australia is committed to upholding a rules-based order in the region and has, at least through recent actions, proved that it’s willing to put its money where its mouth is.
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.