Our strategic partnerships with China, India, Japan and the US

The signature of a strategic agreement between Australia and India is being hailed as a success. Certainly our construction of positive relations with India has lagged, although efforts to do better began in the 1980s. But what’s it all about? What are the strategic policies (or impulses) of Indo-Pacific powers. 

The desire to improve connections with India was from the 1980s expressed by officials concerned that so much effort went into building relations with China while India was ignored. India ceased to be ignored, but relations, except for coal exports, did not grow dramatically. The website of the Australian High Commission has not (at 18 June) kept up with recent events but has a statement about the bilateral relationship.

Now Australian national policy seems determined to pull down relations with China and build a vocabulary of self-importance and cold war hostility rather than cooperation and India becomes a factor in that.

For Australia, the strategic partnership with India seems to reflect hope of diversion from economic dependence on China. It comes at a time when the Australian Government is at the beginning of post COVID-19 reordering and is coming under some criticism for its response shaping, returning to old mindsets in relation to workers and the disemployed, resources, energy and climate. It is unlikely that Australian public opinion will be deeply moved by a strategic partnership with India, unless, metaphorically, there’s a cricketer on page 3.

For India, this agreement is part of vigorous, assertive and aggressive external activity by a populist prime minister constantly rousing Hindu nationalism, hostile towards Pakistan and China, love-in with Trump. These activities providing distraction from serious domestic problems. There will be no early success in trying to divert investors in China to invest in India instead given diverse problems in India and estimates that deaths in India from COVID-19 may grow to more than half a million.

There has recently been fighting and loss of life between Indian and Chinese troops at their disputed Himalayan border. Some history here. Note that there is also nearby a live conflict between India and Nepal. And further west, serious long term conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, invigorated recently by Prime Minister Modi. This has added to Modi’s popularity with Hindu nationalists but achieves nothing positive. India is not a happy place.

In 1962 Australia supported India in a war with China in the same difficult terrain, donating woollen blankets. At that time, height of the Cold War, China was subject to ‘containment’, trade embargo, diplomatic isolation and fervid imaginative language of hate as developing again in Australia now.

Japan is in the header of this essay as a major power in the region, but it is awkwardly powerless and preoccupied by COVID-19, long term recession, disaster for its investment in the Olympic Games having hoped that the Games would recover the economy, and great uncertainty about Korea, historically a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”. It is Prime Minister Abe’s desire to change the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to go to war overseas, but COVID-19 has wiped that off the parliamentary agenda. It is an enduring Western strategists’ fantasy that a rearmed Japan would continue to be subservient to the US as at present: but that is, yes, a fantasy. Japan is frustrated in being essentially powerless in this Indo-Pacific gambit. Abe has run to be close to Trump; doing so has not prevented Japan from being subject to American trade penalties. Japan will likely see more and more need to be closer to China, economically and politically. As also needing to be close to South Korea but ethnic loathing and historical memories are in the way.

China has been consistent for a very long time in management of border issues with the fourteen countries with which it has land borders as well as issues at sea, ensuring that borders are stable and instabilities go outwards not inwards. There is no evidence that the fighting with Indian forces recently arises from high policy.

The United States has, in the swing to the Pacific initiated by President Obama, led with increased defence force presence, extending from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean. Australia has responded by more deeply embedding Australian forces and improving interoperability of Australian forces, with US forces, allowing permanent deployment of US forces in Australia and now offering India use of putative bases in Cocos and Christmas islands… about which latter there is no whiff of consultation with any indigenous local persons. I suppose the Cocos-Malay population were slaves and therefore do not exist.

Overall, the US and Australian adventurings in our region illustrate Clausewitz’s maxim that war, having been taken up as an instrument of policy, drives out policy to pursue its own ends.

While human rights is a subject high in invective towards China there is no mention of human rights having been discussed by Morrison and Modi. There has been uproar in India over the Citizenship Amendment Law in the last half year, discriminating against Muslims. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia. The persistence of caste-based abuse has been amplified by treatment of workers from the COVID-19 shutdown.

In the United States, corporations now are permitted to collaborate with Chinese giant Huawei, but not use their equipment. Whether Australia, as the lead country in bash-Huawei was consulted or advised in advance, I do not know. Working with China is inevitable in many advanced fields as well as in general trade. The choice ahead for the United States is to decide whether it will collaborate with China through global transformation or be stuck in conflict mode. We have defaulted to support the latter.

Once upon a time, foreign ministers made annual statements to the Australian parliament, to be the basis of debate on foreign policy. Perhaps because foreign policy skills and awareness are so lacking in the parliament, Foreign Minister Payne made a major strategic statement to the National Security College at the Australian National University on 16 June 2020. In this there was extensive effort to claim her responsibility for the motion at the World Health Assembly to investigate the origins of COVID-19, no mention that the resolution passed was far from what she advocated in a Sunday morning media spout. As is customary, there were three pillars announced for Australian foreign policy. Bob Hawke always had three points to make, Kevin Rudd before he won government wrote of four objectives in a document called “The three pillars: our alliance with the US, our membership of the UN, and comprehensive engagement with Asia”

The Foreign Minister’s speech is in familiar style for those of us who read government statements on the world and China in the 1950s and 60s, in provoking hostility and boasting of chauvinist determination. That didn’t do us any good back then.

The Foreign Minister valuably spoke positively of multilateral engagement, contradicting an earlier speech by the prime minister. Senator Payne’s three points were:

We will target our efforts to preserve three fundamental parts of the multilateral system:

  • [1] the rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace, and curb excessive use of power, and enable international trade and investment
  • [2] the international standards related to health and pandemics, to transport, telecommunications and other issues that underpin the global economy, and which will be vital to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery
  • [3] and thirdly, the norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.

For ease of convenience I have added the numbers in square brackets.

Regarding [1] this must give rise to serious misgivings about our friend, and association with our friend, the USA.

Regarding [2] this signals continuity of policy for decades

Regarding [3]… well, let’s see its application, here in Australia and overseas.

There is reference to doing more to assist the South Pacific. Now framed with focus on COVID-19; in recent past it was to counter Chinese influence. Neighbours treated as war proxies. The aid program has been slashed by the Coalition over many years. It has never been lower than now as a percentage of GDP. Poor in international comparison. Increases are not likely to be impressive.

There is reference to the need to have talented Australians working in the international system. The best known talented Australian in the international system is Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, a truly independent voice ready to criticise Australia and the United States from time to time. Philip’s major 2019 report should be central to all our international discussions but it is anathema. May we have more fine Australians out there doing such important work

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Dennis Argall's degrees were in anthropology and defence studies. his governmental work in foreign, defence and domestic departments and for the Australian parliament. His overseas postings included Beijing as ambassador, and Washington. He regrets the extent of his personal experience with disability but it has perhaps sharpened his desire that the future be a better country.

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