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9 September 2020

With Greg Earl

Virtual diplomacy

The fifty-third foreign ministers’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) starts today via video conference, highlighting an emerging diplomatic reality: regional leaders’ summits are unlikely to be conducted face-to-face this year. 

During the pandemic, virtual meetings have provided Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne with opportunities for greater access to some of their regional counterparts, but summits typically involve casual meetings as well as formal engagements and their effectiveness is likely to suffer from the lack of in-person contact.

There are a number of Asia-Pacific summits scheduled for the remainder of 2020. Payne will this week join in the ASEAN foreign ministers’ summit, reflecting the special relationship Australia has had with the group since its appointment as ASEAN’s first external dialogue partner in 1974. 

This will be followed by the East Asia Summit in November. Australia now ranks this forum – attended by the ten members of ASEAN, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Russia – as one of its most important international gatherings. 

Meanwhile, there are reports that Malaysia will host December’s annual meeting of the twenty-one-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) online.

Conventional summits would have provided an important platform for the Australian government to encourage discussion about how to manage the rise of China and other post-COVID issues. Virtual summits will require Australian officials to carry our more extensive behind-the-scenes preparations to ensure these events are more than just vehicles for set-piece speeches.

China’s trade zone

Australia and other countries are on the cusp of formally signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), despite India’s withdrawal from the Asian trade pact last year. 

Negotiations over the RCEP have been underway since 2012 and de facto agreement was reached by the trade ministers of the participating countries last November. The formalisation of the partnership, which now includes the ten members of ASEAN, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China and South Korea, was expected to be one of the key events on the sidelines of the annual East Asia Summit in two months’ time. 

The Australian government has promoted the RCEP as a post-pandemic growth strategy, which could foster open supply chains for businesses operating across the region. This claim is bolstered by forecasts that, in economic terms, Asia will bounce back from COVID faster than other parts of the world.

ASEAN members present the RCEP as a success for their diplomatic leadership, but many analysts see it as a win for China, the largest economy involved in the agreement. When India pulled out of the pact last year, it was partly because it believed it was gaining less from the deal than China. 

India’s withdrawal is now casting a long shadow over the progress made on finalising the partnership. Without its involvement, it is likely that the RCEP will emphasise China’s ever-expanding role in the regional economy. A recent statement by RCEP trade ministers, including Australia’s Simon Birmingham, reiterated that they want India, the world’s fifth-largest economy, back in the fold.

In Morrison’s words, the RCEP would be a “bigger and better deal with India in it”, but Australia should push ahead with signing the RCEP regardless – even in the face of its recent trade tensions with China. A signing ceremony amid the COVID pandemic would allow RCEP members to demonstrate that the Asia-Pacific still has a common vision for achieving prosperity, despite the impact of the pandemic and its nervousness about China’s growing power.

The Afghan prisoner

Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to begin in Qatar this week in a bid to end a war that began in October 2001, two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The talks follow a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban in February, which laid out a timetable for foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan and committed the Taliban to participating in direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which it had previously refused.

The talks were set to begin in August, but were held up due to disagreements about a planned prisoner exchange, which involved the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners, including a Taliban sympathiser and rogue Afghan sergeant who murdered three Australian soldiers. 

The Australian government has worked hard to leverage its relationship with the Trump administration to prevent the prisoner’s release. It would be a blow to the families of the three Australians if he were set free to further a deal that represents a short-term triumph for the US president, but is unlikely to have long-lasting benefits.

When Australia joined the US-led coalition forces in their attempt to remove al-Qaeda, it did so despite the many warnings presented by previous failed interventions in Afghanistan, stretching from the British–Afghan Wars to the Soviet–Afghan War. Any prisoner swap to emerge from the Qatar talks is likely to serve as another reminder that entering a war without a coherent exit plan has inherent costs. 


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