BEIJING — In recent weeks, Australia and India have re-elected incumbent prime ministers. These Asia-Pacific countries, who have a difficult relationship with China, are unlikely to make the kind of policy changes that Beijing has been seeking for a long time, analysts said.
Australia this month re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison stunning pollsters who had anticipated his defeat for several months. India gave a landslide victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, who campaigned largely on a nationalistic agenda.
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China wants support from Australia and India on issues like the U.S.-China trade war, the Huawei controversy, South China Sea controversy and the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Communist Party in Beijing attaches great importance to obtaining support from democratic countries as a means to enhance China’s global influence. It has spent huge sums to obtain the support of the relatively poor European countries like Greece in order to expand the Chinese footprint. But Australia and India are unlikely to support China on many of the issues that are core to Beijing’s foreign policy.
But there may be some exceptions. India has invited Huawei to start trials of its 5G telecommunications network while Australia has blocked it.
“Australia was the first country to reject Huawei’s 5G technology and it is very hard to see how it is going to revisit the decision,” said Richard McGroger, senior fellow at Lowy Institute in Sydney.
China’s official media expressed dissatisfaction over a statement by Morrison describing China as a customer of Australia and the United States as a friend. He made a clear distinction between the two countries when he said, “China is an incredibly important country for Australia’s future. Our relationship with China is of course different to our relationship with the United States,” he said during the elections.
McGregor said there was no reason to be upset over the remarks. “I think it was not a good choice of words. I am sure the Prime Minister did not intend to send any kind of wrong signal and I doubt very much he will be describing China that way again,” he said.
Beijing may have preferred a change of government in Australia which would revisit some of the decisions taken by the coalition under Morrison earlier. But Morrison is back as Prime Minister and he is unlikely to review past decisions.
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Besides, Australia has its own domestic reasons to support the United States on issues like opposing China’s military build up in the South China Sea.
“Of course, Australia is worried about the Chinese bases in the South China Sea, since most Australian trade passes through those waters,” he said.
In his congratulatory message to India’s re-elected prime minister, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Modi to continue joint efforts with China in “promoting multi-polarization and economic globalization as well as upholding multilateralism.”
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Analysts see this statement as a sign that Xi wants India to join in a broad coalition against the dominating influence of the United States.
Xi’s choice of words is significant because they come ahead of the meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyz Republic capital, Bishkek, on June 13-14. He will meet Modi along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and heads of central Asian countries. China will once again push forward its agenda for opposing U.S. trade policies.
As the re-elected government settles down in New Delhi after a stormy election, envoys from India and China are making swift preparations for a series of exchanges between the leaders. A meeting of foreign ministers will happen soon.
Modi is inviting Xi to his election constituency and pilgrimage city of Varanasi in northern India for an informal summit in September.
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The first Mar-a-Lago style informal summit took place with the two leaders meeting each other without aides took place in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year. The idea is for the two leaders to understand each other, see issues from a larger canvass and give “strategic guidance” to their ministers on enhancing India-China relations.
The Wuhan summit took place one year after India and China were engaged in a 72-day long border spat at a place called Doklam near the Bhutan border.
“There will be some serious effort to improve relationship. I think they will also look at the possibility of finding an early solution to the border dispute between the two countries,” said Phunchok Stobdan, former Indian diplomat and strategic expert.
“They might also discuss the Dalai Lama issue,” he said. The Tibetan leader fled China and came to India in 1959. He has since been demanding “greater autonomy” for Tibetan speaking people in China while Chinese leaders describe him as a “separatist and splittist” element who is instigating a section of Tibetans to break up from China.
Modi will also be careful about allowing implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative because it can be an emotional issue, more so because the Indian public regards Beijing as Pakistan’s biggest ally and protection. Modi and his party fought the election speaking against what he regards as Pakistan based terrorists causing mayhem in India.
An important issue on Xi’s mind is to garner support from different countries against Washington’s aggressive trade actions, which has also affected India and other countries. An important question is whether he will manage to persuade Modi to come out openly against the trade war.
“India usually tries to stay middle of the road instead of choosing between the U.S. and China. It is unlikely to come out strongly against U.S. trade actions,” Stobdan said.
India cancelled oil shipments from Iran under pressure from Washington, incurring huge losses. But it is likely to go back to the earlier practice of importing Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions, Stobdan said.
“India is ready to make exceptions when it comes to its long-term a relationship with Iran and Russia. Everyone’s watching if India would regard its relationship with China at the same level,” he said.