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16 February 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Australia and Ukraine

The build-up of Russian troops along its border with Ukraine is either an extraordinary bluff by Vladimir Putin to force the United States into negotiations for a new European security bargain or the prelude to an invasion. Either way, recent history has shown that instability in Ukraine is likely to have consequences far beyond Europe, including in Australia.

Relations between Ukraine and Australia grew closer after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in July 2014. Ukrainian officials helped identify and repatriate the thirty-eight Australian citizens and permanent residents who were killed in the incident. Australia opened its embassy in Kyiv in November that year.  

On Sunday, as tensions increased, Australia temporarily moved its embassy to the city of Lviv, further west from the Russian border. Despite the limited economic relationship Australia has with Ukraine, Canberra hasn’t abandoned the embassy completely, signalling that it remains committed to the relationship, and that it is increasingly concerned about the possibility of an invasion.

Earlier this week, Scott Morrison warned that Russia and China are forming a “coalition of autocracies”, as the Morrison government prepared to back international sanctions if Russia attacks. The one major card Australia had with which to punish Russia – suspending the sale of uranium – was played by Canberra in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Although sanctions to limit Russia’s gas exports to Europe could prove an opportunity for Australia’s gas industry, this is an opportunity Australia – which has broader concerns about supporting territorial integrity and limiting autocratic aggression – could do without. 

Dealing with India

After a difficult decade of free trade agreement negotiations between Australia and India there has been some small and much-needed progress. Last week, Dan Tehan, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, travelled to India and reached an interim agreement that is expected to cover sectors including textiles, pharmaceuticals, education and renewable energy technology. 

Agriculture remains the major sticking point in these negotiations and is a politically sensitive issue in India as evidenced by the country’s recent year-long farmers’ protest. Over 40 per cent of the population directly earn a living through farming. India has a highly inefficient state-led system of purchase and distribution, which limits farmers’ income but is fiercely defended by them due to its minimum price guarantees. Reforms to the system – like those proposed by the Modi government last year – and greater international competition, are both viewed as threats. 

The interim Australia–India deal is scheduled to be signed in March, followed by a more comprehensive agreement to be finalised within eighteen months. 

As an indication that India may be becoming more flexible, over the weekend New Delhi removed its tariffs on lentils in what should be a boon for Australian growers. The move is a response to the rising local costs of the Indian staple, and the need to diversify its sources. But it demonstrates that greater market access for Australian agriculture could, for some goods, prove mutually beneficial, smoothing the way for the two countries’ trade negotiators to finally reach a comprehensive agreement. 

Afghan embassy-in-exile 

The Twitter feed of Afghanistan’s embassy in Australia does not include the standard promotion of government initiatives and services that is common for foreign embassies. Instead, in an unusual phenomenon, the Afghan embassy is using the platform to highlight problems with the new Taliban regime, often actively seeking to undermine it. 

While the Twitter feeds of the Afghan embassies in the United Kingdom and United States went dead in August and September respectively, others, such as those in Australia, Canada, Italy, Switzerland and Norway remain highly active, with a notable coordination of content between them. These embassies appear to be functioning as a decentralised government-in-exile. 

As no country has yet formally recognised the Taliban, embassies that have continued to operate remain loyal to the previous regime. The Taliban has made attempts to seize control of several embassies, issuing letters that diplomats must return home, but without assistance from host countries they are powerless to enforce their will. In one notable case in January 2022, a man claiming to be the new Taliban ambassador walked into the embassy in Rome, got into a fist fight with the current ambassador, and was escorted out by Italian police. 

It is not yet clear whether any Afghan diplomats in Australia, including Ambassador Wahidullah Waissi, have sought asylum, or whether Canberra has made arrangements that would ensure their safety. In the United States, where about fifty-five diplomats and their family members are expected to seek asylum, the State Department reportedly plans to give embassy staff thirty days to seek asylum if the embassy closes due to a lack of funds. 

I attempted to contact the embassy in Deakin, Canberra to discuss their plans and funding, but received no response. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade informed me that Australia “recognises states, not governments; the Afghan embassy represents Afghanistan. The Australian government is unable to comment on the functions or funding of the Afghan embassy.” 



A free extract from “Data Driven” by Danielle Cave

“On 6 January 2020, eight days before the now infamous tweet by the World Health Organization announcing that Chinese authorities had ‘found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus’, cyberespionage actor APT32 was on the hunt, trying to find out more about the unnamed virus spreading in Wuhan and beyond.”CONTINUE READING


Weekly round-up

The Quad has a strategy to counter China and Russia – be a force for global good without ideological warfare

“The good news is the declaration of a Sino-Russian ‘no-limits’ partnership has given even more momentum to the Quad ... The bad news is we are a few steps closer to outright division between the democratic Quad members and China and Russia, with less room to manoeuvre to find common ground.” Lavina Lee, The Conversation

Ocean transparency and Australia’s impact on nuclear stability

“[Nuclear-armed submarines] have been heralded as the last bastion of defence … because of their concealability – if all else fails in the event of a nuclear attack, a state will always have a retaliatory capacity due to their hidden submarines. However, the advancement of [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities threaten to undermine this confidence, and can disturb nuclear stability.” Ben Yeldham, Australian Outlook (AIIA)

Indonesia makes a big defence statement

“Australia should be thinking about what comes next for the Indonesian military. Indonesia is still very much a middle-income economy, but it has grown at a roughly constant 5 per cent every year for decades now, so it will keep getting richer.” Sam Roggeveen, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)


America and Australia are back on the same page

“Despite former US President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ approach to global politics, AUKUS demonstrated that the United States’ commitment to its allies – and its allies’ faith in Washington – endures.” Michael Fullilove, Foreign Affairs

Federal government asks Sri Lankan filmmakers to create work about “illegal migration to Australia”

“The competition is part of an Australian government-funded campaign called ‘Zero Chance’. It calls for ‘budding filmmakers from around Sri Lanka to creatively express “illegal migration to Australia”’, showcasing that there is zero chance of successfully travelling by boat to Australia.” Avani Dias, Som Patidar and Emily Clark, ABC News


“Whether or not America chooses to fight, a crisis over Taiwan would most likely see its position destroyed. This is the real flaw in America’s position, and Australia’s.” HUGH WHITE

The fourteenth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the rising tensions over the future of Taiwan as China’s pursuit of “unification” pits it against the United States and US allies such as Australia. The Taiwan Choice looks at the growing risk of a catastrophic war and the outlook for Australia as it faces a strategic choice that could reshape its future in Asia. Read More


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