Australian bureaucrat uses Anzac Day to warn of ‘drums of war’.  Rescue mission for bodies of Indonesian submariners. ASEAN summit falls short on Myanmar military crackdown. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Covid-19 variants cause surge in Indian deaths

A boy mourns at a crematorium in Delhi, India, this week.
A boy mourns at a crematorium in Delhi, India, this week.
Credit: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

Great power rivalry

Australia: To mark this year’s Anzac Day, one of Australia’s most powerful bureaucrats, Mike Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, sent a letter to staff that was picked up by media in Australia and around the world.

In weighty tones, Pezzullo warned that free nations could again hear “the drums of war” and must aim to avoid conflict, but “not at the cost of our precious liberty”.

“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums … let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war,” he wrote.

As Pezzullo sent his missive, Australia’s new Defence minister, Peter Dutton, who formerly worked with Pezzullo in Home Affairs, warned that the world needed to prepare for a war with China over Taiwan. “I don’t think it [the prospect of war] should be discounted,” Dutton told ABC’s Insiders program on April 25.

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has repeatedly warned that any formal declaration of independence by the island would lead to war.

On Monday, Beijing criticised Dutton’s comments, urging Canberra to stand by the one-China principle, according to which Australia does not view Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

“It is hoped that the Australian side will … refrain from sending any false signals to the separatist forces of ‘Taiwan independence’,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

Tensions have been rising over Taiwan as China has conducted increasingly intrusive displays of naval and aerial strength around the island. On April 12, China flew 25 jets into Taiwan’s defence zone, the largest such breach in a year.

Joe Biden has increased the United States’ show of commitment to Taiwan, including allowing greater contact between American and Taiwanese officials.

On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about Pezzullo’s letter and said that “our objective is to pursue peace”.  On Wednesday, Morrison announced a five-year $747 million package to upgrade bases and training facilities in the Northern Territory that are used by the Australian military and US marines.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: On April 21, the Indonesian Navy lost contact with KRI Nanggala-402, a submarine that was about to conduct a torpedo drill north of Bali. The vessel, carrying 53 crew, had enough oxygen for three days.

Following a five-day search, officials announced that the submarine had been found. It was broken into at least three parts and was on the seabed at a depth of more than 800 metres, about three times the depth that the submarine can safely dive. There were no survivors.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, confirmed the grim discovery, saying rescuers would seek to recover the submarine and its crew. “All of us Indonesians express our deep sorrow over this tragedy, especially to the families of the submarine crew,” he said.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known, though a mechanical failure is suspected.

The navy’s chief of staff, Yudo Margono, said the crew was not responsible for the accident, blaming “forces of nature”. The submarine, one of five that Indonesia operates, was built in West Germany. It was 44 years old.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military leader, visited Jakarta last weekend for a summit of South-East Asian leaders, marking his first overseas trip since conducting a coup three months ago.

The summit was convened by the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose emphasis on non-interference has famously tended to result in the production of anodyne statements and insipid policy positions. But the deaths of an estimated 750-plus protesters in Myanmar since the coup and the detention of the nation’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as other political figures, prompted several ASEAN members to intervene.

In the end, the “consensus statement” agreed to at the summit fell short of demanding the release of Myanmar’s political prisoners. But it did include a call for an immediate end to the violence and for talks between the opposing parties. According to Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, Min Aung Hlaing agreed to “take the points in”.

On Tuesday, after the general had returned to Myanmar, the military regime said in a statement that it would consider ASEAN’s demands only after the country “returns to stability”.

Spotlight: India’s second wave

In India, which is suffering a devastating Covid-19 outbreak, there were about 20 intensive care beds available on Wednesday for infected patients in Delhi, which has some 20 million residents. Across the country, which has a population of 1.4 billion, hospitals are full, and supplies of medicine and oxygen are desperately low.

On Monday, India reported a record 352,991 new cases, though the actual tally was believed to be much higher. In some cities, a glow can now be seen in the night sky due to the funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims. Delhi’s largest crematorium, Nigambodh Ghat, which typically requires up to 8000 kilograms of wood a day, is currently using up to 90,000 kilograms.

As of this past Thursday, India had recorded almost 18 million cases of Covid-19 and 201,187 deaths. The exact cause of the recent surge in cases is unknown. As of February, infection rates were dropping, prompting speculation that India had developed herd immunity, at least in densely populated urban areas.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, eased restrictions and celebrated the large crowds at his political rallies, even as case numbers began to surge. “India had defeated Covid last year and India can do it again,” he told a rally in West Bengal on April 17, as daily infections began to rise above 260,000.

Modi has refused to introduce a nationwide lockdown, though Delhi and other cities and states have imposed their own lockdowns.

But the outbreak is also believed to be linked to new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus. A variant known as B.1.617 was first detected in India in October, but there has not been enough testing to determine the extent and speed of its spread.

Despite being the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines, India has struggled to secure doses from overseas. It also needs more supplies of raw materials to boost local production. The government says it will be ready to vaccinate anyone aged 18 or over from Saturday. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Covid-19 variants cause surge in Indian cases, deaths".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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