12 August 2020
While addressing a US security conference last week, Scott Morrison announced that Australia would not join the Trump administration in banning TikTok. He said an intelligence agency review had concluded the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing platform was not misusing Australian citizens’ data.
Morrison’s decision stands in contrast to the more severe line taken by both the United States and India, an increasingly important partner to Australia in the Indo-Pacific. It is also a departure from Australia’s own position in 2018. In August of that year, it became the first nation in the Five Eyes intelligence network to ban Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from participating in the construction of the national 5G mobile network.
In the case of TikTok, Canberra appears to have opted for a pragmatic stance. Microsoft is currently in talks to buy TikTok’s US business at a fire-sale price and may also buy its Australian operations. Such a development would conveniently save the Morrison government from having to impose a ban that would likely exacerbate tensions with Australia’s largest trading partner.
Washington’s curbs on Chinese technology are forcing Canberra to make difficult choices about when and whether to follow its lead. Australia needs to be disciplined: it must respond firmly to China’s growing assertiveness when necessary and avoid stumbling into conflicts due to US actions or pressure from anti-China lobbyists at home.
Aid vs China in PNG
Last week, Australia deployed a medical team to Papua New Guinea to assist with the country’s sudden rise in COVID-19 cases. The news was overshadowed by the second outbreak of the virus in Victoria, but it nevertheless underlines how aid commitments to our nearest neighbour have grown exponentially in recent years, encompassing initiatives like the expansion of Papua New Guinea’s electricity infrastructure and the redevelopment of a naval base.
Following the medical team’s deployment, Scott Morrison announced that the government had concluded its negotiations on the Papua New Guinea–Australia Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership (CSEP). The deal aims to strengthen ties between the two countries, which Morrison has described as “unique and enduring”. Australia has a special relationship with Papua New Guinea, due in part to its status as a former dependent territory of Australia and its geographic proximity. Australian is judged globally by how it deals with its neighbour’s many challenges.
The CSEP negotiations were supposed to involve a “comprehensive review” of the architecture for Australia’s sprawling A$600-million-a-year investment in development assistance to Papua New Guinea. The new CSEP simply says the two countries will “continue refining” the way assistance works, which appears to fall short of a serious review. This is a pity, as the expansionary aid program deserves interrogation.
Further, many recent initiatives in Papua New Guinea appear driven more by Australia’s need to opportunistically compete with China than its responsibility to promote the welfare and good governance of Papua New Guinea.
Australia needs a coherent sense of how to best assist Papua New Guinea’s development and that approach must be clearly articulated. If it’s not, both sides of this erstwhile colonial relationship – now rebadged as a partnership – may end up disappointed.
Malaysia’s turmoil has its upsides
Australia has a deep and longstanding relationship with Malaysia, built on diplomatic, business and military ties. Its roots stretch back to 1957, when Australia supported the newly independent Federation of Malaya in its formative years and Australians headed both the central bank and the insurance regulator. But compared to Australia’s more economically significant and newer connections with Asian countries like Japan and Vietnam, the Australia–Malaysia relationship often gets overlooked.
Thanks to the countries’ shared history and Commonwealth connections, the alliance is still one of Australia’s closest in Asia, and Australia’s current high commissioner, Andrew Goledzinowski, has been the third ambassador in line to meet each of the last two incoming Malaysian prime ministers in a period of exceptional political turmoil.
That tumult is set to continue. Mahathir Mohamad, the 95-year-old former prime minister, is forming a new party to contest a potential early election. The Malaysian political scene has been in a state of fracture ever since the 2018 general election, when the long-dominant coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation was defeated.
For Canberra, the political instability in Malaysia, including a recent crackdown on media freedom, is creating diplomatic challenges. But some aspects of recent developments could be viewed as encouraging: more competitive elections may translate to more political choice for Malaysian citizens. Meanwhile, Australian officials have done well to quietly offer Malaysia its assistance with reforming its bureaucratic and parliamentary practices – reforms that will hopefully provide this fractious democracy with the support it needs to work.