NOT THE TIME TO STAND UP INDIA
Long after the fires are out we’re going to need these valuable Asian neighbours
It’s understandable that Scott Morrison cancelled his trip to India and Japan after the abuse he received over his holiday in Hawaii. But it’s an error of judgment. There’s a world of difference between an overseas holiday taken while most people are still working and when there’s a bushfire crisis, and, on the other hand, an official trip to deepen co-operation with two key regional partners. Provided the Prime Minister had fully announced the government’s response to the bushfire crisis by then, there was no compelling reason not to make this trip. Given the deteriorating strategic situation in our region and in the wider world, it’s a missed opportunity not to go ahead with meeting two of the world’s most substantial democratic leaders.
Of course, Australia must come first in everything that our PM does. But that doesn’t mean managing bushfires should take priority over fostering relationships that will be vital to our long-term national interest.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has resoundingly won a second term, despite contentious economic reforms, such as a GST in lieu of state tariffs, and withdrawing large denomination bank notes from circulation to combat tax evasion. Modi is the first Indian prime minister born after independence and without postcolonial hang-ups about the West. He is fully alive to China’s hegemonic ambitions and an enthusiastic advocate for the quadrilateral security dialogue that draws together the Indo-Pacific region’s four most strategically significant democracies: the US, India, Japan and Australia.
Why miss the chance to clinch a free-trade deal with what is already the world’s fifth-largest economy, and, with the blessings of democracy, the rule of law and the English language, could economically surpass China within 40 years? Or to secure a place in the annual Malabar naval exercises with India, the US and Japan? Just because our PM misjudged going to Hawaii while the country burned, he shouldn’t now be neurotic about leaving the fires.
At the last moment, Modi pulled India out of the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal because he was wary of giving China a big win after Donald Trump had squandered the chance to create an American-led regional trading bloc by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But there’s no reason why India could not now do the all-but-finalised RCEP on a bilateral basis with Australia. This would avoid giving China even more access to the Indian market while linking India with a sophisticated and largely complementary first-world economy — that is, us. But it won’t happen without the impetus that only a prime ministerial visit can provide.
Then there’s Japan. Despite Tony Abbott’s inability to finalise a submarine deal with the nation that has the world’s best conventional subs, security co-operation with Japan is deepening. A visiting forces agreement between Australia and Japan is all but finalised to allow mutual rotation of troops through each country.
Like Modi, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a leader of historic significance. He’s now Japan’s longest serving post-war PM and, while his ambitions to deregulate the economy haven’t all been realised, Japan continues to be an underestimated economic powerhouse with about four times China’s GDP per person.
Visits like these are critical because Australia needs to be a much more active and nimble strategic player than ever before. All of the comforting assumptions on which our national security and strategic posture rested are crumbling: Chinese liberalisation; continued close US involvement in our region; and the onward march of liberal democracy. Not only can these no longer be taken for granted, but the opposite is just as likely at least for the foreseeable future.
The internment of a million Uighurs, the rapid rollout of a technology-backed system of social control, and Xi Jinping’s life presidency have ended any realistic hope that China was converging with the West on generally accepted norms of human rights. It’s hard to see the Hong Kong protest movement ending in anything other than severe repression. And there’s little doubt that once Hong Kong has been dealt with, the commissars in Beijing will renew their pressure on Taiwan.
Would America fight for Taiwan as promised and as always previously expected? I doubt that America would risk war with a rival superpower over a country that is legally a province of China. But the abandonment of Taiwan would unravel the US alliance system in East Asia and unleash the biggest arms race in history as every country looked to manage its own security in a post-American world.
Meanwhile the Middle East is as dangerous and as unpredictable as ever. Russia and Turkey are apparently at odds over Syria and now over Libya but are at one in wanting the US humiliated and marginalised. After the usual barrage of presidential tweets, Trump ostentatiously withdrew the US from Syria and abandoned the faithful Kurds to their fate, only to re-intervene a few days later. After taking no real action in response to the Iranian downing of a US drone and the Iranian attacks on Saudi oilfields, the US has just assassinated by drone the head of Iran’s revolutionary guard, probably the most important military figure in that country.
Such impulsive escalation is typical of Trump, but is fraught with peril and far-reaching consequences.
Where does this leave Australia: a Western outpost that can’t defend itself?
Yes, the fires are unprecedented in their duration and extent (if not in their destructive power) and have understandably mesmerised a nation that can’t decide whether they’re caused by climate change or a more prosaic failure to reduce fuel loads.
But should our Prime Minister allow fires that eventually pass to distract him from attending to the strategic alliances that must endure? In cancelling the joint trip to India and Japan, the Morrison government looks like it has a plan to manage the next month but not to manage the next decade.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 41 books.
The Australian, January 7, 2020, p 10.