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10 June 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

Modi and ScoMo bond over China

Since early May, the armies of China and India have engaged in regular clashes, resulting in the deployment of thousands of troops to their disputed border in the Himalayas. Neither side wants a full-scale escalation – the conflict has involved fistfights and rock-throwing, not shooting – but the standoff is a reminder of the fractious relationship between the world’s two most populous nations.

Aside from their territorial dispute, which led to a war in 1962, sources of Chinese–Indian friction include China’s close ties to Pakistan and India’s provision of sanctuary to the Dalai Lama. These tensions have worsened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. India is pushing to replace China as the world’s manufacturing hub, particularly as the White House looks to decouple America’s economy from China’s. In the weeks before the Himalayan conflict broke out, India reportedly tried to lure 1000 US businesses away from China.

India is also reaching out to Australia, and for similar reasons – shared anxieties about China. This was evident last week, when Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi held a virtual summit and signed a series of security and commerce agreements. The agreements included a deal to allow the two countries access to each other’s military bases for maintenance and refuelling.

Morrison told Modi: “In a time like this, we want to deal very much with friends and trusted partners”. He did not explicitly state the converse – that he wants to reduce his dealings with partners he mistrusts. Yet, on the same day that he and Modi held their summit, Canberra announced plans to screen all foreign investment in “sensitive” assets. This move was motivated by fears that Chinese investment in communications, technology and other critical sectors poses a threat to national security. Unlike the United States, Australia cannot afford to economically separate from China. But Australia is starting to view its trade dependence on China as a risk, rather than a handy bit of good luck.

India, too, worries about the consequences of China’s economic clout. It has refused China’s offer to join the Belt and Road Initiative, fearing that the massive infrastructure scheme will increase China’s influence in South Asia. Meanwhile, despite its historical aversion to formal alliances, it has shown increasing willingness to cooperate militarily with the United States and US allies. The agreement between Delhi and Canberra announced last week was preceded by a similar deal with Washington in 2016.

Indian defence officials have also suggested that Australia may be allowed to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise, in which India, the United States and Japan are partners. Canberra has long been keen to join the exercise, but Delhi has resisted its involvement, fearing it would be seen as a step towards cementing the four-nation security partnership known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. In the past, India has been concerned that committing to the Quad might unnecessarily anger China. But, as the brawls continue in the Himalayas, and as China’s influence in South Asia grows, India is more willing to send a message of defiance to Beijing.

The summit between Morrison and Modi last week appeared to make less progress on trade than security. Talks on a free trade deal have been ongoing for almost a decade, without success. Modi’s push to further protect India’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors is unlikely to improve the prospects for an agreement.

The relationship between Australia and India has long seemed unfulfilled, partly because the countries’ leaders tend to overestimate the importance of their shared colonial heritage while overlooking their vastly different approaches to US power and alliances. The current alignment of interests between India and Australia is not being driven by their common belief in democracy and passion for cricket. China’s growing power is bringing them together – and this is more likely to lead to deals on accessing military bases than to deals on accessing markets.


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Economic distancing from China and the world would carry heavy costs

“Supply chains that are concentrated onshore are more vulnerable to other kinds of shocks. A natural disaster or home-grown crisis could wipe out whole industries … Economic distancing from China or self-isolation will both deepen the economic crisis and prolong the path towards recovery.” Shiro Armstrong, East Asia Forum

The party speaks for you – foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s united front system

“Responses to united front work must engage governments, civil society and ethnic Chinese communities … Effective efforts to counter foreign interference are essential to protect genuine participation in politics by ethnic Chinese citizens.” Alex Joske, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)

The case for Australian strategic ambiguity

“[Strategic ambiguity] simply means making it unclear whether a nation will militarily support its friends. The aim instead is to instil caution both in the friend ... and any foes that might otherwise be cavalier in their threats.” Victor AbramowiczThe Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

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The assumption of access in the Western Pacific

“The US is therefore forced to consider whether those locations it relies on to sustain its overseas presence – whether by formal agreement or informal association – would still be available in the event of a military confrontation between the United States and China. How would this sudden loss of access affect how the US fights as a force and projects power into the Western Pacific?” Blake Herzinger & Elee Wakim, CIMSEC (Center for International Maritime Security)

Scott Morrison will join Donald Trump at the G7 this year – and it’s sure to be a circus

“Donald Trump’s past form at G7 meetings – and his use of them as political props for a domestic audience at the cost of international relationships – should have given the prime minister pause to at least say he would have to check his diary, because he has an economy in, you know, collapse, to deal with.” Laura Tingle, ABC News

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Correspondence on “Dangerous Proximity” by Michael Wesley

“I came away disturbed and motivated. Australia, it seems, needs to completely rethink its approach to security because the nature and purpose of force has been transformed, and armed conflict is not the only way to defeat an opponent.” Michael Shoebridge, HERE

Read Michael Wesley’s response HERE

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