The last fortnight witnessed stunning theatrics and turnarounds vis-a-vis the proposed summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And it isn’t over yet. The latest development, at the time of writing, is the confirmation from the White House that the summit, scheduled for the 12th of June in Singapore, is ‘expected’ to go ahead as originally planned. A week ago, President Trump, in a personal-sounding letter to Kim, announced his decision to withdraw from the summit in response to what he called DPRK’s ‘tremendous anger and open hostility’ in recent public statements. In turn, North Korea struck a conciliatory tone and indicated its willingness to ‘sit down with the United States…to resolve the problems.’
The ensuing days have seen frantic diplomatic activity from all quarters; at the time of writing, Pyongyang’s top nuclear negotiator and former spy chief, Kim Yong-chol is on his way to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to attempt to salvage the summit. A few days ago, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting at the demilitarised zone between the North and South, their second rendezvous in two months, to discuss the situation. The unpredictability of the path ahead, owing largely due to what analysts call the ‘summit brinksmanship’ of Trump and Kim, has world leaders scrambling to make sense of the impact of the different eventualities that could play out in the next few days and weeks.
Two major stakeholders in the developments on the Korean peninsula, Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting to discuss bilateral issues and economic cooperation, and also made discussed the North Korean situation. Afterwards, President Putin called on all sides for maintaining ‘restraint’ on North Korea, perhaps echoing Japan’s deep worries about the summit process. Significantly, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen V.K.Singh paid a surprise visit to Pyongyang, the first ministerial visit in almost 20 years, and discussed Delhi’s concerns about nuclear proliferation with North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho.
On another front, the US withdrew its invitation to China to join the Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) last week in protest of Beijing’s latest wave of militarisation in the disputed islands of the South China Sea. Following the discovery of the anti-ship cruise and surface-to-air missiles in the Spratly Islands last fortnight, China’s air force landed an advanced H-6K strategic bomber on Woody Island. The Pentagon issued a statement warning that China’s actions in the region ‘raise tensions and destabilise the region’. China protested this decision, with its top diplomat slamming the Pentagon’s statement. The Chinese defence ministry reiterated Beijing’s claims on the islands, adding that ‘invited or not, China will never change its determination…to firmly defend its national sovereignty and national interests’. The Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has threatened to go to war if China continued to unilaterally mine the natural resources of the South China Sea.
In another corner of the Indo-Pacific, India and Indonesia have elevated their bilateral relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Southeast Asian nation’s capital this week. The two countries have signed 15 bilateral agreements, including on defence, maritime affairs, trade and investment, space and technology, railways and health. Most significantly, both countries have agreed to develop the strategic Indonesian port of Sabang, which would be a game-changer in terms of extending India’s reach in the eastern Indian Ocean. They have also set up a task force to enhance connectivity between Sabang and the Indian island of Andaman.
Indonesia is the first leg in Prime Minister Modi’s three-nation tour of South east Asia: he plans to touch down briefly in Malaysia to congratulate his newly elected counterpart, Mahathir Mohammad, before departing for Singapore to deliver his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue. This tour comes on the heels of Modi’s ‘informal summit’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week to strengthen bilateral relations and discuss global concerns.
In a positive development, India and Pakistan Director Generals of Military Operations held talks and agreed to restore peace along the Line of Control and International Border in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, by promising to implement the ceasefire agreement signed in 2003. On another note, former chief of the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence(ISI), Lt Gen Asad Durrani is facing an investigation and travel ban over his co-authored book with his Indian counterpart, in which he suggests that the ISI had known about Osama bin Laden’s presence and had cooperated with the US raid that killed him.
Closer home, former Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr found himself in the eye of a political storm, when it was revealed that he had allegedly enlisted his fellow Labor ministers to investigate details about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s China advisor, John Garnaut. This is particularly disconcerting given Mr Carr’s close financial ties to China. Mr Garnaut is a contributor to a top-secret report outlining the Chinese government’s attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics over the last few years, that is the subject of abject concern in Canberra at the moment.
Significance for Australia
Australia, like other regional players, has significant stakes in the ongoing theatrics on the Korean peninsula, not least because our key allies are the protagonists and the supporting actors. Canberra would be hoping that Trump and Kim can find a peaceful way to build consensus and understanding, without resorting to apocalyptic threats and war-mongering, and that the interests of all parties, especially Japan and South Korea, are respected.
China’s continued militarisation in the South China Sea is a cause for concern. It reflects Beijing’s growing audacity and conviction to incrementally expand its presence in the region while justifying this as ‘legitimate’ and a matter of Chinese ‘national interest’. On another note, reports of growing Chinese interference in Australian politics, including instances such as Mr Carr’s involvement (especially in light of Senator Sam Dastyari’s links) portends bleak prospects for the already strained bilateral relations between China and Australia.
India and Indonesia’s strengthening bilateral relations would be viewed most favourably in Canberra and both these countries represent the pillars of Australia’s priority relationships in the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Increasing defence and maritime cooperation between Delhi and Jakarta is a welcome development from Canberra’s perspective as it would help advance Australia’s goal of a free and open rules-based order in the region.