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12 August 2020

With Greg Earl

TikTok or not?

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.


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China has squandered its first great opportunity

“Together, these varying motives suggest that the cliché … that Beijing thinks in decades and centuries, whereas the West can’t focus beyond the next quarter, is often wrong. Its leaders can be just as daft as anyone else.” Richard Fontaine, The Atlantic

We have no strategy for tackling the dark side of digital

“Building trust should be an explicit goal in any strategy that so affects our daily lives and business – and it is why any strategy on cyber written primarily through the lens of national security will fall short.” Lesley Seebeck, The Australian Financial Review [$]

“Killing the chicken to scare the monkey” – what Jimmy Lai’s arrest means for Hong Kong’s independent media

“Lai’s case is undoubtedly intended to serve as a warning … and an inducement for the city’s journalists to self-censor, lest they fall foul of the new law.” Brendan Clift, The Conversation


A Chinese-built airport next door to a key Australia–US naval base?

“For perspective, one could scarcely imagine that, during the Cold War era, NATO and its partner nations would have permitted the construction of critical transportation infrastructure by a Soviet state-owned company.” Thomas Shugart, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Asia’s new normal – curbing press freedom

“For a while, there was the belief that Asia was entering a new more democratic era, and that the internet would become a catalyst for more openness and freedom. It seems Asia’s supposed move toward democracy was largely ephemeral.” Keith B. Richburg, Asialink

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

The end of orthodoxy – Australia in a post-pandemic world

“COVID-19 will reshape our lives, our country, the global economy and the world. How much and for how long is unclear. Policymakers cannot afford to be passive. Our economic and public health responses couldn’t wait for perfect information; they had to recognise the imperative to act and the grim consequences of inaction. We now need to bring a similar sense of urgency and purpose to Australian foreign policy.” Penny WongHERE


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