17 August 2022
Geopolitics trumps democracy
Last month, Biman Prasad, leader of Fiji’s National Federation Party, asserted that Australia and New Zealand are ignoring democratic decay within the Pacific due to a fear of pushing island countries toward China. Prasad was primarily concerned with Fiji, yet the claim could be extended to Solomon Islands.
A bill was tabled last week in the Solomon Islands parliament that seeks to delay its next election until after it hosts the Pacific Games in November 2023. Elections are held every four years in Solomon Islands, and the current parliamentary term is due to expire in May 2023. Australia’s Pacific minister, Pat Conroy – in Solomon Islands last week for the anniversary of World War II’s Battle of Guadalcanal – uncritically accepted Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s assurance that this would be a “one-off”.
Australia is generally a stickler for rules and procedures – putting aside Scott Morrison’s secret ministerial roles – and would usually be suspicious if an election was delayed for a sporting event. Even for a country like Solomon Islands which faces logistical difficulties for major events, the reasoning is flimsy. The games clearly offer a stage that Sogavare wants for himself, and he fears he may not survive the next election.
Yet this is also an attempt to see how far he can push Canberra. The security agreement Sogavare signed with Beijing in April has bought him considerable power in the relationship with Australia. Now, after Australia has shown it will acquiesce to his democratic boundary pushing, this is unlikely to be a one-off.
India’s “one China” silence
Unlike its Quad partners – Australia, the United States and Japan – India rarely publicly criticises Chinese behaviour that does not directly concern it. Yet Beijing’s recent actions in the Taiwan Strait have led to a statement over the weekend by the Ministry of External Affairs that Beijing should “exercise restraint” and avoid “unilateral actions to change (the) status quo”. Significantly, the ministry’s spokesman refused to say the phrase, “‘one China’ policy”.
Like Australia and the US, India adheres to a “one China” policy – which acknowledges the People’s Republic of China’s position that there is only one China – but does not commit to this position, bar only having formal diplomatic ties with Beijing and not Taipei. Although India has not changed its policy, since 2008 it has stopped mentioning it in official statements. This upsets Beijing, which requires constant international reinforcement of its own position.
India’s stance is due to the territorial disputes between the two countries – China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”. In addition, Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in a military stand-off and occasional skirmishes since May 2020 along their border – known as the Line of Actual Control – in the Ladakh region in northwestern India, and the state of Sikkim in India’s north-east. China has also been encroaching into the territory of Bhutan, a country that India has defence responsibility for.
New Delhi is signalling that if Beijing will not respect its internationally recognised boundaries, then it will not publicly reiterate its commitment to the “one China” policy. The carrot for Beijing is that India will use the phrase again once China acknowledges, and pulls back from, India’s sovereign territory.
Last week, Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, wrapped up a week-long visit to Australia after opening his country’s embassy, the first Latvian embassy in the southern hemisphere. This is the second new embassy in Canberra to be opened by a Baltic state this year, with Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, inaugurating his country’s new diplomatic mission in February.
The opening of these embassies is curious given that these are small countries with negligible trading relationships with Australia, although there are significant Baltic diasporas in Australia. Instead, these countries are seeking diplomatic reach to help defend their newly won liberal democracies, and in Australia they see an influential like-minded partner. Similar to Australia, Lithuania has recently been on the receiving end of economic coercion attempts by China, and Canberra’s position that it won’t be cowed by such actions has impressed Baltic governments.
With their recent history of occupation by the Soviet Union, the three Baltic states have a clear understanding of authoritarianism. All have taken the firm position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that to placate or coddle the Kremlin would only invite more acts of aggression. As a percentage of GDP, Estonia and Latvia are the two largest aid providers to the Ukrainian war effort, while Lithuania is fifth. Given their size and proximity to Russia, this is a demonstration of remarkable courage. This firm resistance to authoritarianism is extending to China, with all three Baltic states withdrawing from China’s 17 + 1 forum for Eastern and Central European countries.