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17 February 2021

With Greg Earl

Modi faces revolt

For the past three months, farmers in India have been protesting against federal laws that will deregulate the country’s tightly controlled food markets. The farmers say the changes will leave them vulnerable to exploitation by large commodity companies.

The protests have taken on national and even international significance, because they have become the biggest challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since his election in 2014.

Deregulating the sale of grain can help farmers become more efficient and competitive, which would be a positive development. Inefficient agricultural practices have contributed to India’s environmental challenges, due to the overuse of water, and to its protectionist inclinations, because farmers make up a large share of the population.

But Modi has mishandled the reforms. He rushed them through parliament and failed to build consensus with farmer groups, and then he lashed out at social media users and activists who expressed support for the farmers. Such tactics have been a common feature of his time at the helm of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, leading critics to doubt his ability to manage complex reforms without resorting to authoritarianism.

This has important implications for Australia’s efforts to build closer relations with India as a fellow member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, along with the United States and Japan. It also raises questions about Australia’s plan to restart negotiations on bilateral trade with India, given that agriculture trade is now a more sensitive issue.

Trade minister Dan Tehan has outlined some useful, confidence-building proposals involving Australian investment in Indian grain handling, but the success of his plans will depend on whether Modi can manage his country’s diversity more adroitly.

Virus diplomacy

The World Health Organization mission to examine the origins of COVID-19 has returned from China, but its members have responded somewhat inconsistently when questioned about the extent of Chinese cooperation.

The mission was always going to be sensitive because of China’s failure to fully disclose information about the emerging pandemic in early 2020, as well as the Trump administration’s claims that the outbreak was caused by a laboratory leak.

The Morrison government has struggled to navigate this issue – the way it managed its call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus irritated China – but it has been circumspect about the United States’ latest criticism of the mission’s value.

Scott Morrison says he is waiting to see the World Health Organization’s report before he makes any judgements. This is a sensible strategy. The task of uncovering the origin of the virus is important, but it will continue well after this inquiry is over.

As new variations of the virus continue to spread, fostering international cooperation on distributing vaccines to developing countries is more important right now. High-income countries, which account for 16 per cent of the global population, have bought an estimated 70 per cent of the vaccine doses available this year, limiting access for poorer countries.

Australia has budgeted about A$500 million for immunisation programs in the Pacific and South-East Asia, earning itself considerable credibility in the vaccine diplomacy struggle. However, for Australia’s programs to be most effective, they should align with other vaccine aid initiatives, including those from China.

Biden talks to Xi

Joe Biden had his first telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, last week, having waited almost three weeks since his inauguration as president.

But the timing of the conversation, as well as its substance, underlines how different Biden’s approach to China will be from his predecessor’s.

Biden spent his first three weeks in office talking to other world leaders and allowing his officials to set out a consistent message on difficult diplomatic issues with China, including the Hong Kong protests, Taiwanese independence, human rights violations in Xinjiang, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Chinese economic coercion.

Then Biden appeared to reinforce the message in his conversation with Xi, confirming the consistency and predictability of his administration’s policy.

Such a tactic may not produce quick results, but it reduces China’s ability to exploit apparent differences of opinion within the administration or inconsistencies in the president’s messaging, which it was able to do during the Trump presidency.

Biden’s approach – and his administration’s willingness to discuss economic coercion – should give the Morrison government some hope that Australia–China relations will improve. China may now reconsider the effectiveness of using Australia as a testing ground for picking countries off with coercive diplomacy.


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