On 21 March 2022 Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi held the second ‘virtual bilateral summit’ with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. At the summit the two Prime Ministers agreed to host annual leaders’ summit, as a “structural mechanism of regular review” of bilateral relationship.[i] The summit was held as follow up from the first ‘India-Australia Virtual Leaders’ Summit’ held on 4 June 2020. At the meeting, the two sides expressed satisfaction on the way bilateral relationship has progressed since the last Summit when the relationship was elevated from ‘Strategic Partnership’ since 2009 to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) based on “mutual understanding, trust, common interest and shared values of democracy and rule of law”.[ii] The discussion at the second Summit covered a range of bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest.
The bilateral relationship between India and Australia has been on an upswing in recent years with frequent high-level interactions. Australia’s successive policy documents in recent years have highlighted that relationship with India is a foreign policy priority for the country. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper emphasises that “India is in the front rank of Australia’s international partnerships with congruent security interests:”[iii] The latest Defence Strategic Update released by the Australian Department of Defence in July 2020, reiterates that India is a significant economic and security partner for Australia to ‘support shared interests in global rules and norms’.[iv]
Much welcomed inaugural 2+2 Dialogue at the Foreign and Defence Ministerial level was held on 11 September 2021, in pursuance of CSP, as both Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton visited New Delhi, for the high-level Dialogue, recognising strong security and defence partnership between the two nations.
The most significant recent development in furthering bilateral security ties has been Australia’s re-entry into the Malabar exercises for the 24th iteration held in the Arabian Sea in November 2020. This was the first time Australian Navy participated in the crucial exercise with the navies of the other Quad countries after the 2007 edition of Malabar. The latest iteration of the Malabar with Quad countries was held in the Western Pacific in Guam in August 2021. Earlier in September 2021 Australia’s Northern Territory hosted the fourth edition of bilateral AUSINDEX maritime warfare exercises between the Royal Australian and the Indian Navies. Australia has also invited India to participate in the next Exercise Talisman Sabre (TS), Australia’s biggest war games in 2023, to enhance joint operational defence capacity. Another significant step up in bilateral security cooperation was conclusion of Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA) in June 2020, with an aim to enhance military interoperability and joint capacity in maritime domain awareness.
At the 2nd Summit, Australian PM Morrison also expressed that, Australia is looking forward to India’s participation in Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise[v] of Australian Defence Force (ADF) later this year. The exercise aims to promote security and stability in the region through bilateral and multilateral engagement.[vi] In furtherance of bilateral defence ties, General Rawat India-Australia Young Defence Officers’ Exchange Programme was announced at the second Summit.[vii]
India and Australia are two crucial players in the Indo-Pacific region with strategic geographical locations, India centrally located in the Indian Ocean and Australia at the juncture of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. In the strategic sphere, the two countries have reiterated their ‘shared vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific’, emphasising freedom of navigation, over-flight, peaceful resolution of disputes rather than through unilateral or coercive actions and respect for international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
With their shared maritime geography and increasing convergence of interests, an important aspect of the overall bilateral relationship between India and Australia has been maritime cooperation. Safety and security of crucial sea-lanes in the Indo-Pacific region remains a priority for both countries. For both Canberra and New Delhi, their security and prosperity are intrinsically linked to their surrounding waters. A significant Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was announced at the first virtual Summit, recognising that “many of the future challenges are likely to occur in, and emanate from the maritime domain”.[viii] At the 2nd Summit meeting, both PMs once again reiterated their commitment to strengthening cooperation and engagement in the Indian Ocean.
Australia is one of the first partners to have started practical collaboration on India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Australia has expressed its willingness to work with India and other interested partners in the region, in taking forward the IPOI announced by PM Modi at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2019. In April 2021, Australia announced AUD 1.4 million grant under the IPOI “to advance Australia and India’s shared vision for the Indo-Pacific” focusing on different pillars of the IPOI.[ix] On July 7, 2021, first round of grants of the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership (AIIPOIP) program was announced by Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterating “strong commitment to working with close regional partners in delivering an open, inclusive, resilient, prosperous and rules-based maritime order”.[x] Both countries also agreed to collaborate in Australia’s Pacific Step-Up policy to support resilience of small islands in the South Pacific.
As strategic partners, Australia and India are willing to work together to shape a prosperous, open and stable multilateral regional order post-COVID. In the past, notwithstanding positive developments in the bilateral relationship, there was some political ambivalence on both sides, particularly when it came to playing an active role to build a stable regional order. However, the pandemic has given new shape to geopolitical equations in the world. The geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific “is in rapid flux”.[xi]. Many ‘sore points’ have emerged in Australia-China relations in recent time, including the issue of 5G, Canberra’s critique of Beijing’s meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, COVID 19 and subsequent trade war between the two. Amid the dynamic geopolitical scenarios, India and Australia with their growing trade and closer security and defence cooperation and their engagement with other like-minded regional players will play a significant role in determining the regional balance of power.
India and Australia’s presence in many multilateral and plurilateral platforms like the G20, EAS, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Quad, provides opportunity for diplomatic cooperation with key regional partners on regional and global issues of common concern. At the 2nd Summit, highlighting the latest Quad Leaders' virtual meeting held on 3 March 2021, both the sides welcomed the progress of the Quad and underscored commitment of four countries on advancing the Quad’s positive and ambitious agenda to promote regional stability and prosperity.
The ongoing Ukraine crisis, also figured during the discussion at the Summit meeting. The Joint Statement issued after the Summit, reiterated concern over the “conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and emphasised for the “need for an immediate cessation of hostilities”.[xii] Speaking to the media after the Summit Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that two leaders felt that the conflict should not be a reason for diverting attention from the Indo-Pacific”.[xiii]
On the economic front, both the sides welcomed the considerable progress made in the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) negotiations, and reiterated their commitment for conclusion of an interim CECA at the earliest and a full agreement by the end of 2022. There is much potential for deeper economic engagement between the two countries. As Australia looks to reduce its economic dependence on China and diversify its trade relations with trusted partners, India’s expanding economy powered by the growing digitally enabled middle class and a young population offers significant opportunities. India is the 8th largest trade partner of Australia with trade in goods and services estimated at $24.4 billion in 2020.[xiv] Australia is well-placed to supply India’s industrial and infrastructure development needs. At the same time Australia’s limited domestic manufacturing base provides an opportunity for India.
Cooperation in the field of critical minerals was an important issue of discussion at the Summit. Australia has some of the largest reserves of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, antimony and vanadium. Australia can be a reliable supplier for India’s growing energy requirements. A bilateral agreement signed in 2020 on ‘mining and processing critical minerals’ [xv] is an example of growing trade and investment ties. At the 2nd Summit an MoU on Co-Investment in Australian Critical Minerals Projects between Khanij Bidesh India Ltd. (KABIL), India and Critical Minerals Facilitation Office (CMFO), Australia was agreed.[xvi]
India also contributes significantly in terms of immigrants, tourists and is the second largest source of international students to Australia. The Indian diaspora of nearly 7,00,000, constituting 3% of Australia’s population, is an asset that needs to be leveraged in strengthening the bilateral relationship. It is also the second-highest taxpaying diaspora in Australia,[xvii] therefore making significant contribution to Australian economy. By furthering economic cooperation the two countries can work together towards safe and sustained economic recovery post-COVID.
To further expand its diplomatic presence in India, Australia has also announced plans to set up a new Consulate-General in Bengaluru, along with establishment of the Centre of Excellence for Critical and Emerging Technology Policy. PM Modi welcomed both these announcements during his remarks at the virtual Summit meeting.[xviii]
Recent positive developments in bilateral ties between the two countries shows that there is a readiness on both sides to play an active role for ‘a stable multipolar and rebalanced order with space for plurilateralism’ as well. The 2nd Virtual Leaders’ Summit once again provided an opportunity for both sides to exchange views on regional and global issues of mutual interest. Regular annual Prime Ministerial level summits would be a landmark in many ways in strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two close Indo-Pacific partners to advance their shared vision of free, open and inclusive region underpinned by mutual prosperity and stability.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] , https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34998/English_Translation_of_Opening_Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_2nd_IndiaAustralia_Virtual_Summi
[ii] Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia, June 04, 2020,https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32729/Joint_Statement_on_a_Comprehensive_Strategic_Partnership_between_Republic_of_India_and_Australia
[iii] Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, https://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/minisite/2017-foreign-policy-white-paper/fpwhitepaper/foreign-policy-white-paper/chapter-three-stable-and-prosperous-indo-pacific/indo-pacific.html
[iv] Australian Government, Defence Strategic Update 2002, https://www.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-defence-strategic-update
[v] , https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/35008/
[vi] Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021, https://www.defence.gov.au/operations/indo-pacific-endeavour#:~:text=Commencing%20in%202017%2C%20Indo%2DPacific,partnerships%20with%20regional%20security%20forces.
[viii] Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Between the Republic of India and the Government of Australia, June 04, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32730/Joint_Declaration_on_a_Shared_Vision_for_Maritime_Cooperation_in_the_IndoPacific_Between_the_Republic_of_India_and_the_Government_of_Australia
[ix] Australia announces Rs 81.2 million grant for Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative, https://www.wionews.com/india-news/australia-announces-rs-812-million-grant-for-indo-pacific-ocean-initiative-378702
[x] Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-india-indo-pacific-oceans-initiative-partnership
[xi] , https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34246/Opening_Remarks_by_the_External_Affairs_Minister_at_the_First_IndiaAustralia_22_Ministerial_Dialogue
[xii] I.bid, no. 4
[xiii] Australian PM Scott Morrison expressed understanding of India's position on Ukraine: Foreign Secretary Shringla, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/australian-pm-scott-morrison-expressed-understanding-of-indias-position-on-ukraine-foreign-secretary-shringla/article65245621.ece
[xiv] India country brief, DFAT, https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/india-country-brief#:~:text=Bilateral%20economic%20relationship,at%20%241.4%20billion%20in%202020.
[xv] Barry O FARRELL, How India and Australia have elevated their ties, 04 June 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/how-india-and-australia-have-elevated-their-ties/story-922R723zL8Dv67fLXqdffI.html