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1 September 2021

With Greg Earl

Taliban recognition

China has urged the United States to treat the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, as the international community grapples with the future status of the new rulers of the war-torn country.

According to China, its foreign minister Wang Yi told US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Sunday that world leaders should be aiming to “positively guide” the Taliban.

But the US State Department said that the phone conversation focused on “holding the Taliban accountable for the public commitments they have made regarding the safe passage and freedom to travel for Afghans and foreign nationals”.

Last week, the Biden administration played down the chance of it recognising the Taliban any time soon. But on Monday, representatives of the Group of Seven, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Qatar and Turkey met to discuss the issue. Later that day, Blinken said that with the war’s end “a new diplomatic mission has begun”.

When the Taliban last held power in the late 1990s, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Qatar maintained diplomatic relations with it. Western countries withheld recognition due to the group’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism.

The Taliban now claims it understands the need for better relations with aid donors and represents itself as more moderate than it used to be. It is also cooperating with the United States to curb more extreme groups, such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (Isis-K).

Among the international community, there may be tensions over whether diplomatic engagement with the Taliban should be a short-term measure to secure more evacuations from Afghanistan, or a long-term tool to influence the regime.

Australia normally recognises states rather than governments, but the government may need to reconsider this stance if Afghanistan’s territorial integrity is called into question by internal violence.

It is likely that the Morrison government will also need to deal with the issue of recognition in order to investigate war crime allegations against Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

South-East Asia risks

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging Australian business confidence in South-East Asia – just as the Morrison government is trying to increase economic engagement with the region.

The Morrison government is particularly encouraging Australian engagement with Indonesia, South-East Asia’s largest economy, and Vietnam, its fastest growing economy. This is in addition to upping its aid spending in the region.

However, a recent AustCham ASEAN survey of Australian and New Zealand businesses based in Asia found that 52 per cent had suffered revenue losses due to the pandemic, and 20 per cent of those had suffered losses of more than 40 per cent. As a result, businesses were winding back plans for cross-border expansion.

Chau Ta, president of AustCham ASEAN, said the pandemic only partially explains the deterioration in business confidence, which was already in decline before the advent of COVID-19.

The government’s focus on South-East Asia as an alternative economic partner to China should be bolstered by the survey, which found strong support for the economic integration of the region.

But there were more equivocal views on whether the region would benefit from trade and investment flowing out of China and into South-East Asia as a result of tensions with China. Some 26 per cent of surveyed businesses expect that China-related issues will have a negative impact on business overall, and only 18 per cent expect them to have a positive impact.

This will add another layer of complexity to the Morrison government’s efforts to diversify its economic engagement in Asia.

US alliance support

Support in Australia for the alliance with the United States has risen following the demise of the Trump administration and an increase in tensions with China, according to a new opinion poll.

The poll was conducted by the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University ahead of the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty between the United States, Australia and New Zealand on 1 September 1951.

It shows that 38 per cent of people think the US alliance makes Australia less likely to be attacked, while 23 per cent think it increases the risk.

This is a reversal from a poll in 2007, at the height of the Islamic terror threat, when 46 per cent of people thought the US alliance made Australia less safe and 19 per cent said it made us safer.

The chief executive of the United States Studies Centre, Simon Jackman, said the poll shows support for the US alliance had become more bipartisan in recent years, with the biggest shift in attitude coming from Labor and Greens voters.

But at a time when the Afghanistan withdrawal is prompting more people to question the durability of the United States’ commitment to Asia, the poll does not suggest public support for deepening the alliance.

Only 18 per cent of respondents said they support increasing US access to Australian defence facilities, while 65 per cent prefer sticking to the status quo.

This finding would appear to complicate any proposals to increase US bases or training in Australia, including proposals to partially relocate existing US bases in Japan or South Korea to Australian soil.

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