Covid-19 has changed the world in unprecedented ways. Some of the worst-performing countries such as the US and India are part of the Indo-Pacific region but largely, East Asia, Australia and the Pacific island nations have weathered the health crisis pretty well, at least until now. While the economic repercussions of the pandemic are being felt globally, geopolitics still dominate the headlines in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s beef with Australia
The most significant development this fortnight, from an Australian perspective, is the Morrison government’s proposal of a new Foreign Relations bill, through which the foreign minister could cancel any existing foreign agreements made between state and territory governments if they are found to be harmful to or inconsistent with Australian foreign relations and policy. A public register would also be created where all arrangements would need to be disclosed by the state and territory governments for review by the foreign minister. Importantly, the move could end Victoria’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a deal signed in 2018. This could have wider implications for federalism in Australia, as evident from Premier Daniel Andrews’s sharp response to the decision. However, foreign policy experts have welcomed this development, as it makes Australia’s international stance coherent and consistent.
Somewhat ironically, this announcement comes on the day the Chinese Deputy Head of Mission to Australia, Wang Xining, in an address at the Australian Press Club in Canberra, referred to Australia as ‘Brutus’ to China’s ‘Caesar’ for daring to call for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. The diplomat warned Australia for all the ‘hurt’ it had caused China in recent months. Notably, Australian wine has become the latest casualty of the souring bilateral ties, with Beijing launching an anti-dumping investigation into the key Aussie export last week. Reeking with symbolism, the Press Club lunch featured quality Australian beef, barley and wine.
South China Sea Troubles and US resolve
China’s belligerence continues to rankle the region; this week, Beijing launched two missiles in the South China Sea, which landed between the Hainan coastline and the Paracel Islands. According to The Diplomat, this move was ‘designed to signal Washington as well as regional powers that Beijing is unafraid of a military confrontation should the U.S. challenge its resolve…’
Not altogether coincidentally, one would believe, the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercise, the world’s largest US-led naval drill comprising ten navies, began earlier this fortnight off the coast of Hawaii. China has been excluded from the exercise this year again, after it was disinvited from it in 2018 at the last minute due to Washington’s objection to Beijing’s provocative actions near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. What’s interesting about this year’s iteration is that the military exercise is happening at all, despite Covid; analysts say that this reflects the US and its allies’ ‘determination’ to deter China.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is visiting Hawaii, Guam and Palau this fortnight, to participate in the ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and more importantly, to reiterate American support and commitment to the Pacific Island nations. Secretary Esper will also visit the ships participating in RIMPAC.
On a related note, the US State Department has announced visa restrictions on ‘individuals responsible for, or complicit in, either the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, or the PRC’s use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources.’ Also, the US Department of Commerce has blacklisted 24 Chinese state-owned enterprises involved in the construction of facilities in the disputed zones in the South China Sea.
Vaccine ‘Diplomacy’ and the battle for hearts and minds
The battle over hearts and minds in the Pacific continues as well. The Australian government this week has invested an initial $80 million to the Gavi international vaccine alliance to ensure early access to the coronavirus vaccine to frontline workers and vulnerable communities in the Pacific Island states and in Southeast Asia. According to The Australian, this is part of a larger Australian strategy to safeguard vaccines in the region, and has become Canberra’s ‘most important single aid commitment’. Interestingly, this announcement comes in the wake of news that Papua New Guinea refused entry to a plane full of Chinese mine workers, who had been injected with an experimental Covid-19 vaccine and sent off to the country.
Something remarkable is underway in Thailand- for more than a month now, Bangkok streets have been filled by student rallies calling for the establishment of a democracy in the country, which is currently ruled by a military-led government and presided over by a monarchy. The Guardian notes that these protests aren’t organised by any one entity and that they are coordinated on social media by different groups. Protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha dissolve the parliament, reform the constitution to allow for more freedom, and put an end to the harassment of activists. Alarmingly, a few protesters have been arrested on sedition charges. The prime minister issued a strict warning to protesters this week, adding that their actions could lead to the country’s collapse.
What’s happening in the Himalayas?
Moving on to another part of the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a visit to Tibet and the troubled border areas earlier this fortnight, and conveyed a message that the security and stability of the region are important for China’s overall development. Analysts note the rarity of a foreign minister’s visit to the remote region.
Meanwhile, the border clash between China and India is nowhere near resolution, as noted in previous iterations of this wrap. Last week, the Indian Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, made a statement saying that India would not refrain from testing its military options ‘should all efforts to restore status quo along the LAC do not succeed’.
DFAT job cuts
Coming back to Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced the slashing of a few key positions from its ranks this fortnight, including personnel based in Beijing, Jakarta, Port Moresby, Manila, Tokyo, Mexico and Baghdad. Significantly, one of the two jobs to go in the Beijing embassy included an official responsible for tracking the country’s human rights situation. This comes due to a proposed budget cut, and the deficit will be used to fatten the defence budget as part of the $270 billion strategic update that the Morrison government announced last month, emphasising that the world had become ‘poorer, more dangerous, more disorderly.’
Significance for Australia
The world may have become ‘poorer, more dangerous, more disorderly’, but cutting key diplomatic positions in our very region defies logic and is only likely to worsen Australia’s response to the growing strategic uncertainties and to our ability to safeguard our interests. Moreover, reducing the nation’s ability to monitor China’s human rights abuses at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is reported to be orchestrating an ethnic genocide in Xinjiang is a decision that can’t be easily explained or justified.
The Chinese diplomat’s speech would have been watched closely by policymakers and the public alike. But as Stephen Dziedzic notes, those policy-makers are likely to pay more attention to China’s actions rather than its words. Xining’s reference to China as Julius Caesar and to Australia as Brutus—an interesting insight likely to be oft-quoted henceforth. Afterall, Brutus (and others) protested against Caesar’s dictatorial actions. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had the perfect response to this, ‘People use many metaphors. That’s not one that I would use.’
The Morrison government’s proposal to reassert the Commonwealth’s powers in foreign and strategic policy will be welcomed in the policy circles, in Canberra and like-minded countries. Victoria’s deal with China on the BRI—problematic at best in light of Canberra’s principled opposition on transparency and sustainability grounds to Beijing’s trillion dollar initiative—is likely to come under close scrutiny, should that proposal proceed.
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.