The past fortnight witnessed a few key developments in the Indo-Pacific region but the overarching trend of intensifying geopolitical competition between the US and China, and the emergence of middle power solidarity among other nations, continues to form the subtext of international engagement in this part of the world.
Tensions continue along the LAC
The months-long Sino-Indian faceoff along the Line of Actual Control continues to remain under the spotlight this fortnight, with the latest reports suggesting some sort of a mutual understanding between the two sides to halt the deployment of troops to the ‘frontline’ in Ladakh, after the 6th round of commander-level negotiations yesterday. However, peace is still elusive, and it remains to be seen whether New Delhi and Beijing will be able to sustain this agreement. Moreover, both sides refuse to withdraw their existing forces, blaming the other country for starting the tensions.
Troublingly for New Delhi, the latest joint statement doesn’t contain a reference to the original Indian demand for the restoration of the status quo ante, hinting at a possibility of a new status quo being accepted- with China gaining territory in Ladakh.
Earlier this fortnight, foreign ministers of India and China, Subramanian Jaishankar and Wang Yi, had met in Moscow and agreement on a five-point joint statement to defuse the situation, but as analysts note, the meeting failed to achieve anything substantial. Shortly afterwards, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke about the crisis for the first time in the Indian parliament, in which he asserted his government’s commitment to ‘protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’ and their preparedness for facing any eventuality.
Meanwhile, there are reports that China has deployed its S-300 and S-400 air defence systems in nearby Tibet, which abuts the Ladakh region. India, on the other hand, has been war-gaming scenarios of air combat with China.
China’s flexing of military muscle over Taiwan
China engaged in a major show of force over Taiwan once again last week, sending 18 fighter jets and bombers towards the midline of the Taiwan strait, as the island nation was hosting the US Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, marking yet another provocation. The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command released a combative statement afterwards, asserting that ‘The relevant moves are necessary measures to deal with the current situation across the Taiwan Strait and will help enhance the capability of troops…’, adding that the PLA would fight any attempt by separatists to seek Taiwan’s independence.
Growing momentum in India-Japan and India-Australia ties
India and Japan have signed an Agreement on Reciprocal Provision of Supplies and Services, which was announced in a press release following a phone call between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his erstwhile counterpart Shinzo Abe on the 10th of September. The agreement will pave the way for deeper military cooperation between the two sides, allowing for reciprocal access to supplies, ports and facilities during military exercises, UN and other humanitarian missions and bilateral port visits.
With this, Japan has become the sixth nation with which India shares such an agreement, joining the likes of US, Australia, France, Singapore and South Korea. The agreement, Ankit Panda notes, ‘speaks to what has been a near-two decade process of strategic convergence between New Delhi and Tokyo, two major swing powers in the Asia-Pacific.’
On another note, the Australian and Indian navies are conducting a bilateral naval exercise, PASSEX, in the eastern Indian Ocean Region this week.
Japan’s New Prime Minister
Japan elected its new prime minister this fortnight, with former chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga being appointed to the position following Shinzo Abe’s resignation last month. Widely regarded as Abe’s ‘right hand man’, there is expectation that Suga would continue his predecessor’s policies, especially his economic reform program, known as ‘Abenomics’. He takes over at a critical time for Japan, amid a worsening global economic recession and deteriorating geopolitical ties with far-reaching implications for the Indo-Pacific.
US-Maldives Defence Agreement
The US and the Maldives signed a defence cooperation agreement two weeks ago, strengthening their bilateral relations, and providing yet another indication of this Maldivian government’s concerns regarding China, although neither country officially mentioned it. The agreement also caters to Male’s maritime security needs, with the two sides promising mutual assistance and cooperation on maritime domain awareness, natural disasters, and humanitarian assistance.
Significantly, New Delhi, which has traditionally been extremely suspicious of any ‘extra-regional powers’’ close engagement in what it considers its ‘backyard’, has welcomed this development. Indian government sources approved the principles outlined in the defence agreement noting that, ‘…the explicit endorsement of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific are in line with India’s overall interests and regional stability’.
Bougainville’s New ‘President’
The autonomous province of Bougainville, which voted in a referendum to become independent from Papua New Guinea last year, elected a new president and parliament this week. Ismael Toroama, a former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a long-time campaigner for independence, will be sworn in as president in the coming weeks. Although the referendum isn’t binding, with the PNG parliament having the power to veto it, Toroama is optimistic about his vision for independence, which he aims to achieve in the next five years.
Fresh political drama in Malaysia
Malaysia seems to be on the cusp of yet another leadership change, as opposition leader and long-time prime ministerial hopeful Anwar Ibrahim announced that he has secured the majority support in the parliament. Anwar has now sought a meeting with the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah to prove that he has the numbers to oust incumbent Muhyiddin Yassin, after just seven months of his government. The drama is expected to unfold over the coming days and weeks.
Protests continue in Thailand
The students-led prodemocracy movement in Thailand continues to gain momentum. Last weekend, thousands of protesters marched near the royal palace and delivered a letter to a police commissioner, containing their demands for constitutional reforms and freedom of expression and dissent. The protesters also demand for the dissolution of the current parliament led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power following a coup in 2014. The prime minister, meanwhile, has agreed to concede on some of the demands. The protesters have called for a general strike on 14th October and have called on the people to withdraw their savings from the Siam Commercial Bank, in which King Maha Vajiralongkorn has the largest shareholding. Although some of the student leaders have been charged with sedition, it’s encouraging to see peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations being allowed and to see the Thai government making an effort to engage with the protesters.
Significance for Australia
The Indo-Pacific is in flux- there isn’t one but two potentially active flashpoints in the region that demand our attention. The situation in Ladakh continues to be at a standstill with no signs of resolution. Any indication of India conceding land in Ladakh will be a major blow to regional security as it will embolden Beijing to continue its tactics of salami-slicing and engaging in low level provocations to usurp territory.
Taiwan, too, is facing a precarious situation with increased Chinese belligerence, backed up by aggressive rhetoric from CCP media mouthpieces such as the Global Times, which has made overt threats to Taipei in recent weeks. The latest provocations timed to coincide with a US official’s visit is extremely worrying- there are great chances of escalation arising out of any miscalculation of resolve by either side. Australia has an active interest in ensuring peace and stability but should make its opposition to Chinese aggressive manoeuvres clear.
Burgeoning middle power relations between Japan and India will be viewed extremely favourably Down Under. In their own ways, these deepening bilateral relationships between dyads of the Quad will ultimately lead to a more strengthened and focused Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with institutionalised habits of cooperation and synergised interests and values.
The US-Maldives defence agreement, too, is good news for Canberra as it gives Washington further stakes in the upholding of the regional rules-based order. Ultimately, India-US partnership in the western Indian Ocean Region will be ideally suited to Australian interests, as it will complement growing Australian-Indian collaborations, bilaterally, and with partners such as Japan and Indonesia in the eastern IOR.
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.