Australia was sanguine about its security till a few years back thanks to the security cover provided by USA. However, the discovery of the extent of Chinese influence in Australia’s internal affairs sparked a rigorous debate within the nation and forced a re-orientation in its security outlook. Symptomatic of the times was a media report in April this year that China planned to establish a military base in the Pacific island nation Vanuatu.
In June this year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was blunt in her criticism of the projects being undertaken by China, under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in the Pacific islands. She said that the government will compete with China’s infrastructure development spree in Australia’s neighbourhood to help ensure small nations are not saddled with debt that threatens their sovereignty. On 28 June 2018, the Australian Parliament passed legislation to enhance existing espionage, secrecy, treason, sabotage and related offences; introduce new offences targeting foreign interference and economic espionage; and to establish a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. This was widely seen as a response to the revelations of Chinese influence in the internal affairs of Australia. In the same month, the Australian government stepped in to announce that it will jointly fund the construction of a 4000 km underwater telecommunication cable network for Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands had earlier awarded the contract to China and Huawei was to execute the project. The $4.2 billion funding will enable Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to connect to the Australian network. In the annual Australian budget announced in May 2018, $1.3 billion was earmarked as aid for the Pacific Islands.
The Australian government has been keen to upgrade the relationship with India. It commissioned a study to suggest measures for economic cooperation with India. The report, by Peter Varghese, is available online. Australia and India are strategic partners since 2009. The 1st ‘Two plus Two’ (Defence and Foreign Ministers) meeting was held in December 2017. The 1st Trilateral Dialogue between Australia-Indonesia-India was held in November 2017. The 4th meeting of the India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue was held in December 2017. The 2nd Quadrilateral meeting (of US, India, Japan and Australia) was held in June 2018. An IAF contingent took part in the biennial air combat exercise “Pitch Black” for the first time this month. The second bi-lateral naval exercise AUSINDEX will be conducted in August 2018. The two navies have taken part in RIMPAC-18 in June-August this year. INS Sahyadri is now in Australia to participate in the biennial naval exercise KAKADU.
In the latest salvo, the Australian government has passed a directive to exclude suppliers that were subject to “extrajudicial directions from a foreign government” from providing equipment for the 5G network that is expected to start commercial operations in Australia next year. Chinese telecommunication equipment firms Huawei and ZTE have thus been banned from providing equipment. In 2012, Australia had blocked Huawei from tendering contracts for its $38 billion national broadband network citing cyber security concerns and in February this year all defence forces stopped using Huawei handsets. China has predictably warned that this move will adversely affect Australian business.