India and Australia are examples of important liberal democracies that are shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific region, based on their shared values for rules based on international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.
By Rami Desai : With the raging Russia-Ukraine war which is now into its eighth month, the world has been served a reminder of the fragility that exists in the global order and threatens world peace.
We see a similar fragility playing out in the Indo-Pacific region, where Chinese aggression is impacting the littoral nations in the South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. There is a need for the world's democracies to come together on a common platform to create conditions which obviate the need for war to settle disputes.
In this context, in recent times, the India-Australia relationship has been one of positive transformations in response to common challenges faced by the region. The countries are two such examples of important liberal democracies that are shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific region, based on their shared values for rules based on international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.
JAISHANKAR's VISIT TO AUSTRALIA
The relationship has come a long way since the Modi government came to power in 2014. This is the first time that an Indian foreign minister has visited Australia twice in a year. Dr. Jaishankar visited Canberra in February for the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting and during his recent visit to attend the Foreign Ministers Framework Dialogue. He met with Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, stating India’s priorities as “freedom of navigation in international waters, in promoting connectivity, growth and security for all”.
Minister Wong in her statement reiterated the common interest that the two countries shared in the “region being stable and prosperous and respectful of sovereignty, where countries are not required to choose sides but make their own sovereign choices”.
These statements have set a tone for the future of bilateral relations in this partnership. New Delhi is clearly signalling to the world that stability in the region is a shared vision between the two countries in light of Chinese revisionism. And Canberra, with its lighting up of the old Parliament House to welcome Dr Jaishankar has highlighted the importance of India in this partnership.
Wong further has said that “our partnership is a demonstration that we understand that this period of change is best navigated together”, indicating that the relationship between the two countries is critical to the region being reshaped strategically and economically.
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HOW INDIA AUSTRALIA RELATIONSHIP HAS EVOLVED
India and Australia have previously cooperated through the pandemic, with Australia recognising both Indian vaccines—the Indian manufactured Covishield as well as the indigenous Covaxin. Tourism since then has also picked up for Australia, with India being one of its top five markets and Indian arrivals the quickest to recover to pre-Covid levels.
The Economic Cooperation and Trade Deal (ECTA) that was signed between the two countries earlier this year is also a historic one. It is the first such trade deal in over a decade after the one with Japan in 2011.
It aims at doubling the trade between the two countries in the next five years by not only providing supply chain support for critical minerals from Australia to India but also by opening up the vast possibilities in the areas of pharmaceuticals and medicines from India to Australia.
In the field of education, Australia has announced the Maitri scholarships, a USD 11 million scholarship program for Indian students. Partnership on mobility where Indian skills and talents that are in demand in Australia will have a legal framework to aid in the movement of skilled labour from one country to another and mutual recognition of degrees and qualifications promise to be transformational for the bilateral relationship. After all, Indians are the second largest migrant group in Australia and one of the top sources of skilled immigrants.
SECURITY CO-OPERATION A PRIORITY
However, security cooperation still remains the highest priority for both countries. With China’s claim on the disputed South China Sea and aggressive military manoeuvring in the region, both countries realise that their collaboration would be significant to the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
While nations in the Indo-Pacific are acutely aware of China's expansionist threat through its unilateral actions, especially the recent security pact made by China with the Solomon Islands stoking fears in the Indo-Pacific, the exploitation of these waters and non-traditional security issues also add to legitimate concerns.
Illegal fishing, smuggling, increased use of sea transportation, exploitation of minerals amongst other such dangers all point towards the necessity of the enforcement of a rule-based order and maritime security.
Many observers of the Russia-Ukraine conflict had expected India’s stance to impact the Quad and other bilateral relations, but it seems the strong understanding of priorities between the Quad partners has seen India and Australia navigate through the difference of approach towards the Russia-Ukraine war. This navigation of difference in approach was also evident with India’s support for Australia for the AUKUS earlier this month at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s general conference, even though Russia and China conveyed their strong opposition to the AUKUS. Stronger defence ties have been the foundation of the political trust that both the countries enjoy.
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MILITARY DRILLS, NAVAL EXERCISES
Both countries have shown political will to ensure an upswing in military co-operation with trust building initiatives like the historic signing of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and Defence Science and Technology Implementing Agreement in 2020. These Agreements facilitated reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support, in turn making way for the first Quad exercise after 2007 with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) joining the Malabar naval exercise since 2020.
Apart from the two-part multilateral maritime Malabar Exercise, the two countries have also been part of over ten bilateral exercises (AUSINDEX, PASSEX, AUSTRAHIND) and over seventeen multilateral exercises (BLACK CARILLON, KAKDU, MILAN, PITCH BLACK). All exercises between the Navy (MILAN, MALABAR, PASSEX, KAKDU, AUSINDEX, BLACK CARILLON), Air Force ( PITCH BLACK) and the Army (AUSTRAHIND) between both countries have established mutual trust essential for closer engagement that goes beyond dialogue while increasing the scale of these exercises.
The recent maiden participation of the P81 Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft of the Indian Navy in the Kakadu exercise in September 2022 aptly themed “Partnership, Leadership and Friendship” hosted by RAN, not only enhanced joint SOPs and interoperability but was an exercise in mutual trust building.
However, as geopolitical competition increases in Asia combined with the economic opportunities offered by China, the economic dependency of the region may increase on China. Frameworks like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Quad, ASEAN amongst others should be pursued with urgency. India and Australia need to be actively aware of the developments in littoral nations.
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The geographic expanse of the Indo-Pacific creates challenges in surveillance, engaging littoral nations through mini-lateral exercises and dialogues can create a comprehensive network of nations with shared values towards a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. India and Australia must take the lead and provide the impetus for the region to commit itself to long-term security challenges that seem inevitable.
But what is clear now is that the India-Australia relationship is a master class in bilateral relationship development. Today, the two countries have finally gone beyond Curry and Cricket and created a foundation that might be one of the strongest in times to come.
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Oct 29, 2022