14 July 2021
India’s new look
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi overhauled his ministerial team last week as he attempts to address falling support caused by his mismanagement of COVID-19.
Modi dropped twelve senior cabinet ministers and brought in thirty-six new members, expanding the ministry from fifty-two to seventy-eight members, reducing its average age and introducing more gender balance and better coordinated responsibilities, such as education and training.
Key ministers for finance, foreign affairs, defence and home affairs remain in place, but Modi dumped the health minister, who had declared an end to the pandemic, and the information technology minister, who had been in a longstanding fight with Twitter and other social media giants.
The changes underline how the COVID-19 crisis has left Modi, the strongest Indian leader in decades, facing a significant loss of public support for the first time since coming to power in 2014.
While the reforms are intended to drive India’s recovery from the pandemic, they may also shore up support for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies across the country, to prevent a repeat of the state election losses suffered in May.
While the next national election is not due to take place until 2024, Modi faces another round of challenging state elections early next year.
The Morrison government has made a Modi-led India a key part of its regional security and economic diversification strategy to combat coercion from China. The performance of the ministry will be critical to the success of that strategy.
Myanmar’s lonely resistance
The pro-democracy National Unity Government of Myanmar, formed by members of the government ousted by the February coup, has conceded that international interest is waning and it faces a long struggle against the military junta.
The NUG’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Zin Mar Aung, told The Straits Times last week that “we can’t expect external support”.
The NUG is operating from both within Myanmar – in parts of the country controlled by ethnic minorities – and without.
Some of its supporters are taking up arms against the military junta, which may lead to civil war.
Zin Mar Aung’s comments came as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations split on its approach to Myanmar in a United Nations vote last month. Only Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam support releasing political detainees.
Meanwhile, ASEAN has failed to agree on a promised special envoy on Myanmar. The military regime reportedly favours a Thai official, but Indonesia refuses to drop its preferred candidate.
ASEAN’s failure to make progress on Myanmar, despite its claim to a central role in regional diplomacy, will raise questions about the Morrison government’s close alignment with the group on this issue.
This is likely to place pressure on the government to impose its own new sanctions on the military regime.
It may also prompt Australia to prioritise its relationship with some individual ASEAN members over its relationship with the association.
Former top diplomat Frances Adamson appeared to suggest such an approach recently, when she said government action in the past year to strengthen bilateral relations with some ASEAN countries “hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves”.
Duterte digs in
Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has given his strongest signal yet that he plans to remain in power when his six-year single term expires next year.
Last week, he said he was “sold” on the idea of running for the largely ceremonial post of vice-president, while an ally runs for president. This would allow him to circumvent the term limit and continue to exercise power.
Duterte’s comments come two weeks after the death of former Filipino president Benigno Aquino III, which may weaken the long-running pro-democracy, liberal establishment associated with Aquino’s Liberal Party.
Aquino was the son of two prominent politicians: his father, a former senator and governor, was assassinated in 1983 when he challenged the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship; his mother led the 1986 return to democracy and thereafter served as president.
In the three and a half decades since, the Philippines has loosely alternated between populist leaders like Duterte and establishment leaders like Aquino, making next year’s election a test of the country’s direction.
While in office, Aquino revived the economy and stood up to China over maritime boundaries. Since that time, the establishment has floundered and now needs to mature beyond the Aquino family dynasty.
But the populist side of Filipino politics has also fractured, with world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao appearing to break with Duterte to pursue his own run for the presidency.
Australia’s diplomatic and economic links to the Philippines are weak compared to those it has with other South-East Asian nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
However, the Philippines was Australia’s fourth-largest source of migrants in 2019, and thanks to Aquino’s economic reforms it has been one of the region’s fastest growing economies.
Some Filipino strategists have been pursuing closer ties with Australia in recent years, as their country’s traditional ties to the United States have been strained.
The choice of a new leader will have a significant influence on how the bilateral relationship develops.