21 September 2022
Modi, Xi chide Putin
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week provided Vladimir Putin with his first opportunity to meet face-to-face with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi since Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin may have been hoping for a continuation of the verbal, if not practical, support of Beijing and the ambivalence of New Delhi, but he received neither. Instead, both leaders expressed concerns over the invasion.
Modi told Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war” – a broad statement that did not mention Ukraine but was more pointed than India tends to be with its statements on foreign affairs. Modi may have been motivated by worries about food security and access to other essential commodities like fuel and fertiliser as a consequence of the invasion. He may also have wanted to signal to the West that India is not supportive of Russia, even if it is reluctant to join Western countries in assisting Ukraine.
For Putin, the graver problem was having to acknowledge that China has “questions and concerns” about the invasion. Even if Beijing continues to see Moscow as an important partner in reshaping international rules in its favour, Xi, for domestic purposes, now needs to put some distance between himself and Putin. The Russian president looks weak and incompetent for being unable to force Ukraine to submission – attributes with which authoritarian regimes cannot be associated. The calculation now for Beijing is how it can use Russia’s weakness to its own benefit.
Last week Vietnam’s foreign minister, Bui Thanh Son, visited Australia, meeting with Penny Wong for an Australia-Vietnam Foreign Ministers’ Meeting – the fourth such meeting and the first to be held in Australia. Although no major new initiatives were announced, the meeting sought to consolidate the growing ties between the two countries. Australia views Vietnam as a burgeoning significant power in the Indo-Pacific.
Vietnam’s GDP per capita has doubled over the past decade. This has helped boost trade between the two countries to $16.7 billion annually, making Vietnam Australia’s twelfth-largest trading partner. But there is considerable room for growth. Vietnam has close to 100 million residents, and Australia has the advantage of a significant Vietnamese diaspora to drive engagement. This potential was recognised by the launch last year of the Australia–Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy. In particular, the energy needs of Vietnam’s rapid urbanisation is a major untapped opportunity for Australia, especially with renewable energy.
Although the economic engagement has greater potential, the two countries’ shared strategic concerns have been the primary driver of the relationship. Both countries have deep concerns about China militarising the South China Sea. Beijing’s claims infringe significantly on Vietnam’s maritime zone.
Yet Vietnam’s ability to form a more cooperative security relationship with Australia is currently hindered by the “Four No’s” that drive Hanoi’s foreign policy – no forming military alliances, no joining one country to act against another, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory and no using force as a tool of international relations. These principles may not be sustainable without a shift in Beijing’s behaviour. Canberra could be quietly hoping that Hanoi comes to this realisation.
The United Kingdom has been considering phasing out the Mandarin-language Confucius Institutes operating in the country due to concerns they are used for spying and restrict academic freedom. As in Australia, Confucius Institutes in the UK are joint ventures between a host university, a partner university in China, and the Beijing-based Chinese International Education Foundation. If it goes ahead with the closures, the UK would follow Sweden which closed its Confucius Institutes in 2020, and the United States which forced the closure of most of its institutes, although many have now rebranded and reopened.
However, the UK plans to maintain Mandarin courses in the country, with a group of cross-party MPs negotiating to redirect government funding from Confucius Institutes to Taiwanese-led Mandarin schools. Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council already operates two Mandarin schools in the UK and thirty-four schools in the US, as well as schools in France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Hungary and Sweden. Their objective is to separate the Mandarin language and Chinese culture from the Chinese Communist Party.
After the creation of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in 2018, several Australian universities renegotiated contracts with their Chinese partners to make sure that the institutes satisfied Australian standards. A report from the federal parliament’s intelligence and security committee released in March this year did not advocate that Australian Confucius Institutes be closed; instead, it recommended that Australian universities have control over staff appointments and curriculum content, while maintaining academic freedom clauses in their contracts with the schools.