The last fortnight witnessed perhaps one of the most eventful episodes in recent times, with significant ramifications for the Indo-Pacific region. The highly anticipated summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un successfully took place in Singapore on the 12th of June, after months of diplomatic to-and-fro, theatrical U-turns and uncertainty. The two leaders issued a statement at the end of the meeting, declaring that Pyongyang had committed to ‘work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’ in return for security guarantees from the United States. Kim has reportedly also pledged to destroy a missile engine test-site as part of the deal. However, critics opine that nothing concrete has been achieved.
Critics argue that President Trump has failed to extract any clear concessions from Chairman Kim, as the phrasing of the declaration is ambiguous in terms of verifying the denuclearisation process and its stages and timeline. This has been a characteristic feature of past attempts at diplomacy between Pyongyang and the West: Kim’s father and grandfather had also displayed a knack of ‘pocketing concessions’ without giving much away. Analysts proclaim that the summit marks the arrival of the DPRK as a recognised nuclear power and legitimises Kim’s pariah regime. As Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda remark, ‘…North Korea’s nuclear power is (now) politically complete, thanks to the legitimacy that comes from a handshake with an American president.’
The ‘security guarantees’ would include suspension of joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, an important US ally. In committing to withdraw from the war games, the US has not only given away a major concession but has also left a key partner in the lurch. This has served to further undermine US credibility and commitment to the rules-based order, already on thin grounds in the Indo-Pacific, as it is globally. This is especially troubling given the bitter end to the G7 summit last week, with the US withdrawing its endorsement to the joint communique over the failure of all parties to reach a consensus on trade disputes.
In another theatre of the Indo-Pacific, at the time of writing, the Malabar naval exercises between India, Japan and the US are taking place off Guam island in the Western Pacific (the first time that the exercises are being held in US territory). This is all the more symbolic given that the US Pacific Command in Hawaii has been officially renamed INDOPACOM this fortnight, cementing Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategic reorientation, as outlined in the US National Security Strategy in December 2017. Significantly, the second senior official-level meeting of the newly reconstituted Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, Australia, Japan and India took place on the 7th of June in Singapore to coincide with the Malabar exercises and where these nations reaffirmed their vision of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. The timing of this meeting was probably meant to signal that Australia’s exclusion from the naval war games this year (in spite of repeated requests from Canberra to New Delhi) would not prevent the Quad from materialising. Also, this came days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Defense Secretary James Mattis broadly championed their respective nations’ commitment to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this fortnight.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit was also held earlier this week, which was attended by its eight member and four observer nations, including India and Pakistan, which became full members last year. Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held another summit along the sidelines, at Qingdao, to build on the atmosphere of goodwill since the Wuhan summit in April. Importantly, India refused to endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it currently stands, as it impinges on New Delhi’s sovereignty claims on Kashmir, through the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Xi is also said to have accepted Modi’s invitation for an informal summit in India next year.
Closer home, relations between Australia and China have reached a new low with reports that Beijing is holding up Australian wine exports at its ports, supposedly in retaliation over Canberra’s criticism of the PRC’s alleged interference in Australian politics. Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo remarked that China’s actions are causing an ‘irritation’ in the bilateral trade relationship, that is thriving despite political differences.
Significantly, Qantas has caved into Chinese pressure and stopped referring to Taiwan as a ‘nation’, calling it a ‘territory’ instead, joining 35 other airlines to follow Beijing’s diktat, and echoing the official Australian government position on the Republic of China. This move comes despite Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and DFAT secretary Frances Adamson’s opposition to China’s tactics to coerce private companies to adhere to its political views.
Significance for Australia
Formally, the Turnbull government has welcomed the outcome of the summit and hailed it as a ‘breakthrough’ and ‘a step in the right direction’. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop struck a note of cautious optimism, emphasising that the real test lay in the verification of the denuclearisation process. She admitted that this was the first positive development in the Korean peninsula in a decade. Nonetheless, it may be reasonable to assume that Australia would be concerned about the veracity of Kim’s commitment to denuclearise, given Pyongyang’s record of empty promises. Canberra may also be worried about the legitimising aspect of the summit vis-a-vis Kim’s pariah regime, as reflected by Bishop’s comments that the spectacle of Kim wandering nonchalantly in Singapore was ‘uncomfortable’, given the brutalities he is accused of.
On the other hand, Trump’s withdrawal from joint military exercises with Seoul and his remarks that war games were ‘expensive’ and ‘provocative’ is likely to raise concerns in Canberra, another major US ally in the region. Ultimately, Trump’s flamboyant disregard for traditional allies and a convoluted ‘America-first’ maxim in all US dealings, including military spending and trade, doesn’t augur well for countries like Australia, whose foreign and defence policy is closely aligned to Washington’s.
Meanwhile, the second meeting of the Quad nations and their reaffirmation of the free and open Indo-Pacific is cause for some satisfaction and perhaps even relief for Canberra as it signals momentum to the coordinated approach to Indo-Pacific security among ‘like-minded democracies’ that the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper envisaged.
Finally, a deterioration in bilateral trade relations with Beijing is cause for real worry for Canberra. So far, trade relations have continued to flourish between the two nations, even in the face of political fallouts. The Australian economy is heavily dependent on China and any indication of the latter tightening the screws, in protest of Canberra’s criticism of the PRC’s meddling in its affairs, is likely to cause severe headaches Down Under.