The past fortnight may well have been the prologue to the most consequential event this year, and perhaps, this decade. As I write this fortnightly wrap, voting for the 2020 US presidential election is beginning to close, with early results coming in; although a final outcome is still a long way off, there are indications that this election will be more closely fought than polls have been predicting for the past few months.

America votes

The verdict of this election will decide the fate of the most powerful nation in the world and determine the future of the global order. Although experts believe that the Indo-Pacific strategy of a possible Joe Biden administration will be very similar to Donald Trump’s, it can be argued that an America under the former will be more trusted by allies and partners, even if its ability to provide leadership is slightly circumspect. Already, President Trump has thrown a spanner in the works by accusing the Democrats of trying to ‘steal the election’, claiming that he had won, and that he would challenge an unfavourable outcome in the US Supreme Court. The next few days and weeks are going to be long, and potentially, dangerous for the US.

US-India 2+2, Pompeo’s Indo-Pacific push

Earlier this fortnight, US and Indian defence and foreign policy leaders held their biannual ‘2+2’ meeting in New Delhi. The meeting, taking place against the backdrop of one of the longest-running border standoffs between India and China, a raging pandemic, and an impending US election, was hugely significant, both in substance and symbolism. The two  countries concluded a critical defence agreement called the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) which would allow the US to share real-time geo-spatial data and topographical images needed for precision missile strikes. With the signing of BECA, US-India defence ties are now stronger than ever.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited a host of other countries in the region after departing from New Delhi, including the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam, all in an effort to curtain China’s influence in these countries. As Sebastian Strangio notes, Pompeo’s efforts to ‘harangue’ these nations into an anti-China coalition of sorts fell flat as most nations put forward a cautious statement, refusing to endorse Pompeo’s rhetoric.  

Significantly, however, Pompeo announced the opening of a US embassy in Maldives during his visit, which is likely to further Washington’s influence in a key island-state in the Indian Ocean Region, weeks after Washington and Male signed a defence cooperation agreement. Interestingly, growing US-Maldives ties are also an indication of India’s growing comfort with Washington’s presence in the region, as New Delhi has traditionally been extremely sensitive about foreign interference in what it considers to be its backyard.

Meanwhile, the Malabar military exercises are underway this week in the Bay of Bengal, with all four Quad nations (US, Japan, Australia and India) participating in it after a hiatus of 13 years. Australia’s inclusion in this year’s iteration is significant and speaks to the growing trust and alignment of interests between New Delhi and Canberra.

Pacific pivot

Speaking of Indo-Pacific initiatives involving Quad nations (minus India), the US, Japan and Australia announced the launch of their first project under the Trilateral Infrastructure Project, to build a US $30million submarine fibre-optic cable to Palau in the South Pacific. The cable aims to connect Palau with the world’s longest undersea cable network linking the US with Singapore. Palau remains one of the few island nations in the region which is favourably inclined towards the US, and which recognises Taiwan diplomatically.

On a related note, the Australian government has pledged an additional $500 million towards vaccine distribution to arrest the spread of Covid-19 in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, on top of the $300 million announced earlier this year.

Taking China on in the high seas

The Philippines is looking to create its own paramilitary sea forces called the Cafgu Active Auxiliary Service (CAAS) to protect with Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the face of China’s grey zone tactics in the South China Sea. Analysts warn of heightened risks of escalation and armed conflict if Manila was to go down this route.

Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, India gifted a Cold War-era kilo class submarine to Myanmar this fortnight to offset Beijing’s growing reach in the Southeast Asian nation. Last month, senior Indian officials, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army Chief General Manoj Naravane visited Myanmar and met with Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and others. The two sides agreed to further cooperation on infrastructure and connectivity projects, capacity-building, trade and defence ties. India’s outreach to Myanmar is largely aimed at pushing back against China’s attempts to gain a foothold in the strategically important nation.

Recalibrating ASEAN?

Where Southeast Asia is concerned, retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan ruffled a few feathers this fortnight with some remarks he made virtually at the 35th Asean Roundtable 2020. He openly attacked some of ASEAN’s ‘newer’ members, aka Cambodia and Laos, for not keeping the regional interest above national interest. Moreover, he bravely called for the two countries to be cut loose from ASEAN as they were acting as China’s ‘proxies’ within the organisation. Not surprisingly, Kausikan received sharp criticism from Cambodian diplomats, who accuse him of turning Southeast Asia into a playground for great power rivalry.

Significance for Australia

America’s democracy and liberal character are in danger this fortnight. President Trump’s unfounded accusations of voter fraud and insinuations of illegitimacy of mail-in votes cast a dark shadow over the country’s proud democratic foundations and heritage; it also serves as another warning of the chaos that the country is likely to further descend in if he gets another four years in the White House. On the other hand, a President Biden will have his work cut out- first and foremost to heal and bring the country back together, address the multi-pronged crisis created by the pandemic and to articulate a strong and unified response to China’s growing menace in the international system.

As Michael Shoebridge points out, the outcome of the US election would only matter to a certain extent to Australia; beyond that, ‘Australian political leaders will need to keep making hard decisions in our national interest and, by doing so, help shape global debates and decisions.’

Australia would also be mindful of what a Biden administration might mean for itself too, especially on the vexed issue of climate change where the new government will recommit to the Paris Climate Change Accords, and might expect Australia to do more to reduce our emissions.

Nonetheless, Canberra would welcome a US which respects its allies and partners, which is dependable, and which doesn’t adhere to a transactional approach to foreign policy, much less a temperamental one. Of course, this can only happen if the US is able to weather the likely storm of a nasty constitutional crisis coming its way. Until then, and perhaps even after that, Canberra would recognise that we’re on our own.


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.