6 April 2022
After eleven years of stop-start negotiations, Australia and India have signed an Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement. It’s not quite the comprehensive free trade deal that Australia desired, but it’s a significant act of cooperation that will benefit both countries. The agreement is projected to double trade between the two countries within the next five years, and is a central component of Australia’s effort to forge closer ties with India.
This is the first trade agreement that India has signed with a major developed country in over a decade. Since its independence struggle against the British, India has had a deep suspicion towards international trade. In the early twentieth century, the swadeshi (self-reliance) movement was created with the aim of limiting British revenue by boycotting British goods, in the hope of achieving swaraj (self-rule). India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a vision for a centrally planned economy, which subsequently merged with the idea of swaraj and Nehru’s belief that India could produce everything it needed domestically. Notwithstanding the liberalising reforms of the early ’90s, this suspicion towards foreign trade remains prominent within India’s civil society, bureaucracy and its political parties.
Despite the significance of this agreement, India continues to restrict Australian access to many “sensitive sectors” – including staples such as wheat, rice, sugar and chickpeas. These crops are grown in states with large populations that the government of Narendra Modi does not wish to upset. However, the high-end market for Australian fruits, nuts, wine and lobsters is not considered to be a political threat.
Judges in Hong Kong
Three Australian judges currently serving on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal remain committed to their positions, despite the resignations of some of their colleagues last week. Two British judges resigned from their positions, claiming that the Hong Kong government had “departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression”. The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, stated that it was “no longer tenable” for British judges to serve on Hong Kong’s top court, as it would risk “legitimising oppression”.
Hong Kong maintains a unique legal system that invites judges from other common law jurisdictions, such as Australia and the UK, to sit as non-permanent members of the Court of Final Appeal. However, this framework has come under significant stress with the implementation of Hong Kong’s national security law in June 2020 – new laws that were imposed by China after months of pro-democracy protests.
The national security law is seen to undermine the rights and protections of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which guaranteed the rule of law for fifty years after its handover from the UK to China in 1997. The Basic Law was designed to protect the people of Hong Kong from the law being used as it is in China – as a political tool of the Communist Party. The new laws allow the government to prosecute peaceful speech and curtail media and academic freedom if people are deemed to be “inciting subversion”.
For the Australian judges who remain on the court – William Gummow, Murray Gleeson and Robert French – there may be a belief that they can resist pressure from Beijing and continue to serve the people of Hong Kong impartially. However, their presence allows China to pretend that Hong Kong is still committed to common law principles and the spirit of the Basic Law.
Last week, Australia announced it would provide $40 million to Afghanistan to assist with the country’s economic and food security crisis, while simultaneously condemning the Taliban for refusing to allow women and girls access to education and work. International reluctance to legitimise the Taliban has meant that the United Nations’ request for US$4.4 billion in emergency relief fell US$2 billion short.
The world faces an extraordinary moral dilemma in regard to Afghanistan. The Taliban’s oppression of women and girls has made providing diplomatic recognition and any form of legitimacy to the regime unacceptable, yet the country’s economic deterioration is an emergency that cannot be ignored. The path towards at least some normalcy seemed forthcoming when the Taliban announced that girls would be allowed back to secondary school on 23 March. This could have allowed greater aid to flow into the country, but the Taliban subsequently reversed their decision. It is unlikely to be reinstated as the Taliban views educated women as its primary threat.
Australia and other like-minded states must recognise that the Taliban remains ideologically committed to the exclusion of women and girls from society, and this is far more important for the group than diplomatic recognition, or indeed basic food security. The Taliban is simply buying time, hoping that the rest of the world will lose interest in the issue.