The past fortnight provided yet another indication of how bizarre this year has been: President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election, despite losing it by a big margin, is another memory of 2020 we’d like to quickly forget.
US Election results and ‘truth decay’
Former Vice President Joe Biden is the projected winner of the election and has received congratulatory phone calls from several world leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. However, Trump and his supporters continue to spread conspiracy theories of electoral fraud and rigging, without evidence. As former President Barack Obama remarked in a recent interview: Trump’s era has ushered in a period of ‘truth decay’, ‘…the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter.’ Ultimately, this election reflected America’s growing and deepening divisions which have become visceral in recent years.
President-Elect Biden has promised to restore America’s place in the world, including rejoining the Paris Climate Change Accords, the World Health Organization and revisiting the nuclear deal with Iran. While this will be welcomed by the global community, there are real fears of what damage a ‘lame duck’ President Trump could wreak in the next couple of months to make Biden’s task more difficult. Trump has already fired a few key officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who he fired via a tweet. However, the biggest test that awaits President Biden will be in the Indo-Pacific, and how his administration handles the China challenge.
Morrison-Suga summit and a new Indo-Pacific defence pact
Moving on, Prime Minister Morrison is visiting Japan this week to meet his new Japanese counterpart, Yoshihide Suga. The two sides have finalised what’s being hailed as a ‘historic’ defence pact called the Reciprocal Access Agreement, which will facilitate mutual visits by military personnel to each other’s shores and intensify cooperation. While the agreement needs official ratification from the Japanese parliament, Morrison remarked yesterday that this deal marks a ‘pivotal moment in the history of Japan-Australia ties.’ He further added, ‘It will form a key plank of Australia’s and Japan’s response to an increasingly challenging security environment in our region amid more uncertain strategic circumstances.’
Morrison was originally scheduled to travel to Papua New Guinea after his meetings in Japan but cancelled it after Prime Minister James Marape asked him to postpone it, citing a growing political crisis in the island nation. The Australian prime minister was due to announce a new loan worth $142 million to PNG and a bailout plan for Pacific airlines. However, Marape is facing a mass defection of his MPs to former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s camp, which forced him to postpone the meetings.
Going back to Indo-Pacific defence ties, the Malabar naval exercise entered its second phase this week in the northern Arabian Sea. Remarkably, two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and India’s Vikramaditya are participating in these exercises involving the militaries of the four Quad nations. Importantly, this week, the US Navy announced its plans to create a new fleet in the Indian Ocean, called the First Fleet, which could be headquartered either in Singapore or in Australia.
RCEP and Summit Season in Asia
This was a pivotal fortnight for the region economically as well, as 15 nations, including 10 from ASEAN plus China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, after years of negotiations. Kyle Springer sums it up succinctly, ‘The main idea behind RCEP is that by uniting the “noodle bowl” of several individual “ASEAN+1” trade agreements that exist between ASEAN and the five other RCEP members into a single agreement, it can establish a consistent and definitive trade regime in the Indo-Pacific region.’ The absence of the US and India from the deal is significant and a key flaw of the Indo-Pacific economic project.
As Springer notes, RCEP is far from being a China-led initiative designed to further its economic dominance; it will actually bind Beijing ‘to a multilateral, rules-based economic order despite its preference for bilateral economic engagement.’ Moreover, it’s economies such as Indonesia and Vietnam that will become the next economic powerhouses.
The East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-Australia Summit took place virtually for the first time ever last weekend. While Covid-19 health and economic recovery attracted the bulk of the attention at the former, Prime Minister Morrison announced an additional aid package worth more than $550 million for Southeast Asia during the latter. The aid will be directed towards vaccines, disaster resilience and recovery efforts.
China’s stoush with Australia
China’s problems with Australia seem never-ending. This week an anonymous Chinese official sent a list of Beijing’s grievances with Canberra to a media outlet and range from what China sees as Australia’s unfair attempts to block Chinese investments to Australia’s ‘interference’ in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang and also its temerity to seek an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. The Australian government, on its part, has rejected the claims and reiterated that Canberra’s position on these issues is reasonable and that all its decisions are in its ‘national interest’.
Speaking of Hong Kong, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement last week criticising the Chinese government’s decision to disqualify pro-democracy politicians. As a result, the remaining pro-democracy opposition leaders have threatened to resign in protest. Payne said that this decision ‘seriously undermines Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions, as well as the high degree of autonomy set out in the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration.’
Furthermore, China imposed new trade sanctions on Australian products earlier this fortnight, targeting lobster, timber and wheat this time. These actions, as Michael Shoebridge opines, are unlikely to cause Australia to stop taking decisions to protect its national interests, and in fact, might potentially backfire and ‘Australians don’t like being bullied’.
Significance for Australia
President Trump’s departure from the White House will bring relief to policymakers in Canberra, as around the world. However, as numerous analysts have written, President Biden will face a critical test in managing the emerging great power rivalry with China. For all its faults, as John Lee argues, the Trump administration must be credited for being clear-eyed and blunt about China’s revisionism and aggression in the region, something in which Obama failed. There is already a fear that Biden might prioritise America’s relations with Europe over Asia, something that is being talked about a lot in the context of his potential choice for the post of Secretary of State, Susan Rice. However, the nature of China’s actions make it imperative for the next US president to maintain focus in the region and ‘keep the heat on China’, as Lee puts it.
Overall this has been a more than satisfactory fortnight for Australia; Morrison’s successful visit to Japan and further shoring of defence ties, productive East Asia and ASEAN-Australia summits, and the signing of RCEP are important highlights, which portend long term positive trends for Australia. Canberra’s prioritisation of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific couldn’t be clearer. One dampener amid all this is India’s refusal to sign up to RCEP, which is arguably flawed in its logic and reflects a deeply protectionist mindset of the current government, something which is neither good for the country and nor for the region. As former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran notes, India’s reticence to join the RCEP and its apparent downgrading of representation at the East Asia Summit this year present bleak prospects for India’s ‘Act East Asia’ Policy. Canberra would hope for a quick reversal of this trajectory, if that is indeed the case.
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.