Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: Turnbull in India, rivers with rights, the Xi-Trump summit and more

The Swedish terrorist attack, the dissolution of the Australia-Timor-Leste maritime treaty, the future of China's economic rise and more.

Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Photo: Flickr/MEAphotogallery
Published 15 Apr 2017 

By John Gooding, Digital Editor at the Lowy Institute and Associate Editor at The Interpreter.

During Palm Sunday celebrations in Egypt last weekend, 44 people were killed and hundreds injured in bombings at St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria and St George’s Church in the northern city of Tanta (both claimed by Islamic State), leading Egypt to declare a three-month state of emergency.

While the sophistication of the attack was unusual, the target was not, wrote Lydia Khalil this week:

It is not the first time that Egypt’s Copts have been the targets of violence by jihadists and it will not be the last. Unless the Egyptian state undergoes some serious transformation, and real political and societal reforms are enacted, Egypt’s Copts will continue to be a pawn in the struggle between the Egyptian state and Islamist forces.

And in Sweden, four were killed when a man wanted by Swedish authorities for deportation after his asylum application was denied drove a hijacked truck through a shopping strip before crashing into a mall. Anne-Maire Balbi:

There is no doubt this act of terrorism will prompt debate on how to handle rejected refugees, much like in the recent German case. However, one does not have to look hard for counter-narratives and local resilience when the lasting symbolic image for the tragedy is likely to become police cars covered with flowers.

In the US, the much hyped US-China leaders’ summit was largely overshadowed by US President Donald Trump’s decision to launch an airstrike on Syria mid-meeting. Kerry Brown:

There will be no fundamental change in the nature, scope and convening of the dialogue. All that continues as before. Chairs have just been rearranged – that’s all.

The main achievement of the summit was simply that things didn’t go wrong. Xi and Trump shook hands for a perfectly reasonable six seconds.

Trump then raised the stakes in China's backyard too, moving an aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula. John Hemmings and Jake Ramsamugh wrote:

Perhaps Trump’s instinctive approach toward policy will pay dividends. On Monday, a top Chinese envoy on North Korea, Wu Dawei, met with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong-kyun, agreeing that both countries would take stronger action if North Korea tested more nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Given China’s tendency for vacuous statements, this is a step in the right direction. President Xi urged Trump to pursue a 'peaceful resolution to the tensions' during a phone call the two leaders made on Wednesday. Such rhetoric can only be down the fact that China is taking Trump’s moves on North Korea at least partly seriously. Trump after all tweeted less than a fortnight ago that he was prepared to act unilaterally against North Korea if it does not come to heel. Whatever China’s doubts, the missile strike against Assad displayed in dramatic fashion that Trump is willing to intervene suddenly in situations that others believe to be frozen and immune to intervention.

On Monday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flew from Papua New Guinea to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, amid rapid growth in education exports and an ever-elusive trade deal. The Australian leader’s first trip is the perfect time to resurrect the idea of the security quadrilateral, argued Lavina Lee:

The China factor means impediments to reviving the Quad are smaller than before. This is important because Turnbull will not want to risk the embarrassment of being rebuffed by his host. Under Modi, the Quad idea is highly likely to receive a sympathetic hearing. Australia’s relationship with India is already on a much better footing, with the Rudd Government’s decision to ban uranium exports to India, and to unilaterally withdraw from the Quad, now distant memories.

Turnbull signalled that a free trade agreement with India was not a policy priority, despite the Abbott Government committing to one by the end of 2015. Migration is likely to prove a resilient sticking point in negotiations, wrote Henry Sherrell:

This difference in priorities makes concluding an India-Australia Free Trade Agreement more difficult than perhaps any previous bilateral trade deal. Abbott should have been aware of this before he promised action. It is entirely unsurprising Turnbull has had to walk back this commitment as the concessions demanded will be politically difficult. Across the world, anti-migrant sentiment is a potent political force with clear evidence immigration played a primary role in both the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result.

On Monday the Certain Maritime Agreement on the Timor Sea dissolved – it’s termination obliges Australia to negotiate permanent boundaries, but comes at a significant risk for Timor-Leste, argued Bec Strating:

It is in the interests of both Australia and Timor-Leste to find a compromise in their negotiations, yet this need is undeniably more intense and urgent for Timor-Leste. Severe oil dependency exacerbates Dili's negotiating vulnerabilities with Australia. Without an agreement, Timor-Leste will be left with very few sources of revenue outside its $16 billion petroleum sovereign wealth fund.

In reviewing Bobo Lo’s new Lowy Institute Paper on the China-Russia relationship, Marcin Kaczmarski argued that Lo underemphasised Russia’s acquiescence to China as the ‘major’ partner in the relationship:

Beijing has managed to convince Moscow that China's rise does not pose a threat to Russia's ruling elite. Demonstrating self-restraint and some willingness to take Russia's interests into consideration, Chinese policymakers have successfully avoided falling into the Thucydides trap and prevented a backlash from a former great power over which they have been steadily gaining the upper hand.

But will China’s smooth economic rise continue? Stephen Grenville:

Growth has settled to a still-outstanding 6.5%, but credit has grown much faster than nominal GDP – a classic forewarning of a financial crisis. The International Monetary Fund and the OECD have both identified this as a priority policy concern. Just about everyone (including the Chinese authorities) agree, but there is a wide range of views on how all this will play out.

Robert Kelly reflected on what the world could learn from the impeachment of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye:

All democracies have scandals – the question is how they deal with them. South Korea just gave the world a model performance. In the nine years I have lived in South Korea, I have never been prouder to be here. This was South Koreans' finest hour.

The UN has implemented a new measure to address the difficulty in collecting evidence of war crimes. Susan Hutchinson:

A key barrier to prosecution for these crimes is access to evidence of specific crimes, perpetrated by specific individuals, halfway around the world, in the middle of a war zone. That very problem is the one that the new mechanism has been established to help overcome. Unlike the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry in Syria, it will establish the connection between the crime 'and the persons responsible, directly or indirectly'.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has ratcheted up rhetoric on US war debt and unexploded ordinance, and emphasised economic ties with China – very possibly with upcoming elections in mind. Elliot Brennan:

In February this year, Hun Sen suggested military action if he loses the election: 'some individuals… predicted that in 2018 they could win, and if we don't hand over power to them, they will crush us. How can this happen if the troops are in my hand?'

Tom Fawthrop wrote on what the establishment of river rights in India and New Zealand might mean for the Mekong:

Those striving to protect the Mekong from further damage could theoretically benefit from the 'rights of rivers' proclamations in India and New Zealand, but the international jurisdiction nature of the Mekong, that runs six nations, makes it a complicated case.

The only chance is probably within the framework of a UN agreement, and that could only take place if all four MRC countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) are persuaded to sign up to the UN Watercourses Convention. So far only Vietnam has ratified the convention that allows for a serious dispute resolution and water resource conflicts to be resolved by the International Court of Justice.

The Asia Pacific region needs to be more involved in negotiations of UN Global Compacts regarding refugees and migrants, argued Janet Lim and Annabel Brown:

As negotiation of the Compacts gathers steam, our region has a valuable perspective to offer and it is in our collective interests to contribute to the discussions. The movements of concern to the region - undocumented labour migrants, people affected by sudden and slow onset climate and weather events, internally displaced people, stateless people, mass displacement at sea – are all on the agenda. We have some positive developments to contribute.

And finally, Rodger Shanahan took a look at the history of relations between the Catholic Church and Islamists:

But while Orthodox Christianity has great strength in the Middle East, it is really Catholicism that has global reach, and a bureaucracy to give substance to ideological orientations. Most importantly, as an institution nearly two millenia old, the Catholic Church is unconcerned with electoral cycles and has a keen sense of time. Thus, its response to radical Islamism is an interesting one.

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