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22 June 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Wong’s latest Pacific trip


In a demonstration of the new Australian government’s priorities, Foreign Minister Penny Wong last week made her third trip to the Pacific in less than a month since taking office. Solomon Islands has become a pressing concern for Canberra due to the country’s recent security agreement with China, which threatens a pillar of Australian foreign policy – that Australia should prevent unaligned powers having military access to Pacific Island countries.

In her meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Wong was reassured that there are no plans for a Chinese military base under the agreement signed with Beijing, and that Australia remained Solomon Islands’ security and development partner of choice. However, at a subsequent press conference Wong used curious language, stating that Sogavare assured her there would not be a “persistent foreign military presence” – wording that suggests that there may be periodic Chinese military visits. The nature of any potential visits, or their justification, remains unknown.

Wong reiterated the Australian government’s position that Australia, New Zealand and Pacific nations are more than capable of handling any security threats the region may face. The issue looks set to be a major item of discussion at the forthcoming Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting in Suva in mid-July.

Australia’s nuclear stance

The first Meeting of State Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will be held this week in Vienna. The treaty, which came into force in January 2021, has strong regional support, having been ratified by New Zealand, eight Pacific Island countries and six in South-East Asia. Indonesia has signed but is yet to ratify. Australia is not a signatory, but the government has sent a backbencher, Susan Templeman, to act as Australia’s observer to the meeting.

In 2018 the Labor Party passed a resolution that committed it to sign and ratify the TPNW when next in government. Yet Labor’s position places it in tension with Australia’s long-standing policy, which supports the potential use of nuclear weapons by the United States on its behalf. The concern from the previous government was that signing the TPNW would place it outside the US nuclear umbrella. This umbrella is the hopeful interpretation of the purposefully vague language of the ANZUS Treaty.

The AUKUS pact has also complicated Labor’s position. Operating nuclear-powered submarines would require Australia to become the first state without nuclear weapons to remove material from the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the agency that verifies that non-nuclear-weapons states are not using nuclear material to build weapons. This may not lead to Australia developing nuclear weapons, but it will set a precedent that starts to tear at the seams of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it will place Australia in conflict with the ideals of the TPNW, making ratifying the treaty more difficult.

Sikh attack

Over the weekend, gunmen stormed a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing two and injuring seven others. Since the withdrawal of the United States, NATO and allied forces including Australia, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. In particular, the Taliban have been unable to subdue the Islamic State’s local affiliate, IS-K, which has been responsible for over a dozen major incidents this year.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming it was in response to recent insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad made by senior BJP figures in India and incorrectly labelling Sikhs “polytheists”. The attack highlights that religion is the primary identifying feature across South Asia, and that group retaliation is seen as a justifiable response to any offence. IS-K misidentifying Afghan Sikhs adds an extra layer of brutality to this worldview.

The Sikh community in Afghanistan is centuries old. They are not members of the Indian diaspora but are ethnic Pashtuns who adopted the religion as it spread from Punjab, initially through the teachings of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak Dev, and subsequently via the Sikh Empire (1799–1849) as it stretched into the mountainous terrain that forms the modern-day boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, an estimated 100,000-plus Sikhs lived in Afghanistan, but after the intense instability of the past four decades, and a number of direct attacks on the Sikhs, there has been an exodus of the community. Numbers are now around 150 people – only those who have remained to guard holy sites. The Taliban gave Sikhs – and the few Afghan Hindus – a security guarantee, but providing security looks to be outside their control.



From AFA12: FEELING THE HEAT

A free extract from “Ripple Effect” by Wesley Morgan

“In the six years since the Paris [climate] conference, geostrategic competition between the United States and China has prompted major powers to take a renewed interest in Pacific island states. China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, has financed important infrastructure projects in the region, including wharves, airports and roads. The United States has responded with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as part of a 2019 ‘Pacific Pledge’. Japan too has committed new funds for infrastructure, while New Zealand bumped up aid as part of a 2018 ‘Pacific Reset’. The United Kingdom has dived back into the region with a 2019 ‘Pacific Uplift’ that includes three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific. French president Emmanuel Macron visited Australia and New Caledonia in 2018 to remind everyone that France was a ‘Pacific power’ with a keen interest in making sure China does not dominate the region. Even Indonesia announced a ‘Pacific Elevation’ in 2019. Amid these pledges, resets, elevations and uplifts, Australia’s Pacific step-up is in a crowded field.”CONTINUE READING

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Weekly round-up

Holding up a mirror in Australia-China relations

“While some (but not many) other embassies commemorated the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with posts of flickering candles that were very quickly censored this year, the UK embassy took a different approach, no doubt informed by the backlash it received the last time it posted its own flickering candle. Instead, the embassy posted an article … about the Peterloo massacre which took place in Britain in 1819.” Fergus Ryan,the strategist (aspi)

Gender equality in the Pacific – more talk and less action

“There’s plenty of space for more (or more effective) action to help boost female representation in politics across the Pacific. Short-term initiatives too often do little to move the needle on the issue … Programs to boost women’s political leadership need to be ongoing, regardless of where the electoral cycle is.” Jessica Collins,the interpreter (lowy institute)

Improving ASEAN-Australia defence engagement

“ASEAN is under tremendous pressure from Beijing and Washington to take side in their game of great-power rivalry … The fact that ASEAN member states do not want to be seen as advancing the interests of any major power could provide Australia, considered a trusted security partner, with the opportunity to expand its influence across Southeast Asia – particularly through defence engagements.” Abdul Rahmen Yaacob,east asia forum

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Albanese-Widodo visit signals productive phase for Australia-Indonesia engagement

“Two areas in which there’s potential to grow are the service economy – in, for instance, education, technology, health care, tourism and business advisory services – and infrastructure investment … At a political level, these types of initiatives would play well with the natural games of Albanese and Widodo – two leaders whose backgrounds and agendas are steeped in infrastructure.” Donald Greenlees,asialink insights

Trilateral – not Quad – is the best chance for Indo-Pacific defence

“There should be no quarrel that the Quad is an ambitious and promising security mechanism. Yet, as a grouping that will bring about solid defence and strategic outcomes in the region, the Quad cannot compare with the slimmed down [Australia–Japan–US] Trilateral … While the Quad gains all the attention, the Trilateral is quietly achieving in the background.” Hayley Channer,the diplomat

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