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Down Under heading up

Australia's increasing importance in the Indo-Pacific is beyond the strategic context
Published : 11 December 2017

By: Tridivesh Singh Maini

An excessively unpredictable and isolationist United States under President Donald Trump, whose transactionalism borders on being simplistic, has caused discomfort globally – even more so in the Asia-Pacific region, now referred to as the Indo-Pacific. This discomfort is exacerbated the fact, that the unpredictable approach of the US has been simultaneously accompanied by an increasingly assertive China.

Along with India, Japan and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members such as Singapore, one country which has taken note of the Trump administration’s unpredictable approach towards the Indo-Pacific is Australia.   

US isolationism and Chinese expansionism

In a White Paper on Foreign Policy (2017), the Australian government, while recognizing the less proactive approach of the Trump administration, unequivocally argues in favor of a more robust engagement between the US and the Indo-Pacific.

We believe that the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order is in its own interests and in the interests of wider international stability and prosperity,” it said.

The white paper, while drawing attention to the unpredictable approach of the US, also highlights the rise of China. While Australia has robust economic ties with Beijing, with bilateral trade estimated at well over US$100 billion in 2016, and Chinese Investments in Australia estimated at over US$15 billion for 2016, the white paper does not refrain from expressing concern over China’s assertive stance on the South China Sea issue.

“Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes.”

The Chinese media has been unsparing in its criticism of the white paper. An editorial in Global Times went as far as saying that: “China can move its ties with Australia to a back seat and disregard its sensitivities.”

It is not just the white paper which has drawn attention to China’s increasing influence. There has been skepticism with regard to the One Belt, One Road project. Commenting on the project, Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson said:

We know from our neighbors in the South Pacific in particular that infrastructure projects can come with very heavy price tags and the repayment of those loans often can be absolutely crippling, and that's why you'd expect Australia has an interest in governance arrangements.”

Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific and Quad alliance

Keeping in mind the twin challenges discussed above, Australian policymakers, think-tanks and strategic analysts have been working toward building an alternative narrative in the Indo-Pacific. One is nudging India to play a more significant role in the region.

2013 White Paper on Defense released by the Australian government (Department of Defense), referred to what was earlier called the Asia-Pacific as the “Indo-Pacific” region. The white paper also spoke of the importance of the India-Australia relationship:

“India and Australia have a shared interest in helping to address the strategic changes that are occurring in the region. Australia and India are also important trade partners and share a commitment to democracy, freedom of navigation and a global order governed by international law.”

During former prime minister Julie Gillard’s state visit to India in October 2012, the joint statement between her and then India prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, said: 

“India and Australia share a common interest in the Indian Ocean and in the maintenance of stability and security through the Indian-Pacific region.”

Common values which bind the Quad

Ironically, while Australia has been worried about US isolationism, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an address on the eve of his India visit in October 2017 referred to not just the close strategic ties, but also to the possibility of Australia “anchoring” the India-Japan-US alliance.

In 2007, Australia, Japan, India and the US established the Asian Quad alliance and held naval exercises, but, due to Chinese pressure, Australia walked out of the alliance. Today, all four participants are much clearer and Australia is not likely to blindly toe the Chinese line. A meeting of the Quad was held in Manila on the eve of the Asean Summit in November 2017, with representatives from all four countries. 

The statement of the Australian Foreign Ministry post the meeting outlined the key factors which bind the Quad alliance. The statement said:

“The officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address shared challenges in the region. This includes upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and increase connectivity.”

Beyond the strategic dimension

It is important to bear in mind, that the Quad is bound by democratic values, openness and a respect for the rule of Law. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was one of the key architects of the Quad grouping, thought of it as a “concert of Asian Democracies.”

Australia strongly stands for some of the ideas and values which are under threat: democracy, diversity, and freedom of speech.

One clear instance of Australia’s reasonable commitment to freedom of speech is it’s nuanced but reasonably firm response to the aggressive behavior of Chinese students on Australian campuses. This in spite of the fact that out of the roughly 580,000 overseas students in Australia (taking into account vocational training, English language training along with higher education), Chinese students (estimated at 170,547) account for roughly 29 percent of the enrolment. A large section of the media and intelligentsia did not shy away from lashing out at the assertive and aggressive behavior of the students.

In one instance, students objected to a Professor at the University of Newcastle, mentioning Taiwan as independent. In another, an IT Professor at Sydney University displayed a map showing Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, and Ladakh as part of India, and had to apologize to Chinese students. Despite the apology, a number of articles in the media have drawn attention to and criticized the aggression of the Chinese students. Government officials too have drawn attention to this. Frances Adamson, commenting on these incidents, said that international students should engage with ideas they disagree with and not “silently withdraw” or “blindly condemn.”

The head of Australia’s spy agency had also drawn attention to increased Chinese interference on Australian campuses through organizations like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CCSA). 

The Australian government’s decision to announce laws which curb foreign funding, was also done with an eye on China, which has been seeking to influence the domestic political system. The Chinese have criticized this move, saying that Beijing has not interfered in Australia’s domestic political system and such a move would harm the bilateral relationship.

Conclusion

While Australia can emerge as a key stakeholder in the alternative narrative emerging in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to be consistent in its commitment to open borders, and not put in place tougher anti-immigration laws which are insular and not in consonance with the aspirations of a more open Indo-Pacific.

While being vigilant, it needs to be a true beacon of freedom and openness, something which has been emphasized by its government and something the Quad stands for. While the alternative narrative need not be Anti-China, it has to have a clear and tough stand on certain values. 

Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and a Visiting Fellow, AIDIA, Kathmandu.

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