Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles visited India from June 20-23, 2022. The visit was the first high-level visit from Australia to New Delhi after Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Labour Party, took over as the Prime Minister of Australia on May 23, 2022. An early bilateral visit by Defence Minister Marles, is a clear sign that defence and security cooperation, is certainly a key focus area of overall Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between the two democracies. While announcing his official visit to India, Defence Minister Marles said that “I am committed to strengthening Australia’s defence and security cooperation with India. Australia is ready to work closer with India in support of an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific”.[i]
The bilateral relationship between India and Australia has seen an upward trajectory 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 emphasised that “India is in the front rank of Australia’s international partnerships with congruent security interests:”[ii] The latest Defence Strategic Update released by the Australian Department of Defence in July 2020, reiterated that India is a significant economic and security partner for Australia to ‘support shared interests in global rules and norms’.[iii] Not much is likely to change under the new Labour government in the realm of foreign policy. Australia continues to view India as a critical partner.[iv]
A Joint Press Statement released after the meeting between Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Australian counterpart on June 22, 2022, highlighted that “defence cooperation activities between two countries has been increasing despite challenges of COVID-19 pandemic” and welcomed the “growing diversity and frequency of defence exercises and exchanges”.[v]
During the meeting, the two defence ministers also “reviewed strategic challenges and the regional security situation and reaffirmed their shared objective of an open, free, inclusive, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific region”[vi].
Most recent significant development recognising strong defence and security partnership between the two nations came in the form of much welcomed inaugural 2+2 Dialogue at the Foreign and Defence Ministers level, held on 11 September 2021. The 2+2 Dialogue was held in pursuance of CSP, with an aim to push the strategic and defence cooperation between the two countries, on “a range of bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest.”[vii]
Australia recognises India as “rising Indo-Pacific great power and an increasingly significant security partner for Australia, particularly in the maritime domain”.[viii] With their shared maritime geography, growing security ties, an important aspect of the overall bilateral relationship between India and Australia has been maritime cooperation. The two countries have a significant Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, announced at the first virtual Prime Ministers’ Summit in 2020, recognising that “many of the future challenges are likely to occur in, and emanate from the maritime domain”.[ix] The interactions between navies of the two countries have been frequent with Australia’s entry into Malabar exercises with other Quad countries in 2020 and regular bilateral exercises AUSINDEX, between the Indian and Australian navy. 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.[x] The navies of the two countries also participated in the recently concluded 26 nation RIMPAC 2022 biennial exercise in Hawaii. During the recent meeting, both sides expressed that they look forward to India’s participation in Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise of Australian Defence Force (ADF) to be held in October 2022. The exercise aims to promote security and stability in the region through bilateral and multilateral engagement.[xi]
Minister Marles also empahasised that “as we continue to lift our defence and security cooperation, exploring longer-term reciprocal access arrangements is the logical next step”.[xii] It is important to note that, the two countries have signed the much-awaited Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA) in June 2020, with an aim to enhance military interoperability and joint capacity in maritime domain awareness. Reciprocal access would be a useful step forward particularly in maritime surveillance. [xiii]
An increasing convergence of interests in the maritime realm, offers scope for deepening bilateral cooperation to secure the global commons and cooperatively support economic prosperity.Australia is also one of the first partners, to have started practical collaboration on the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Australia has expressed 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’s and India’s shared vision for the Indo-Pacific” focusing on different pillars of the IPOI.[xiv] On July7, 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”.[xv] Both countries also agreed to collaborate in Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy for 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”.[xvi]
A case in point is Australia’s ties with Beijing, which have been difficult recently, on many issues including 5G, Canberra’s critique of Beijing’s meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, COVID 19 pandemic and subsequent trade war between the two. More recently, Australia has been concerned about China’s assertiveness in its neighborhood i.e. South Pacific region, which has been undergoing many significant developments particularly in the light of Security Cooperation Agreement between Solomon Islands and China. The region continues to remain a priority for Australia and Beijing’s increasing push is a serious concern for Canberra.
During his visit, Defence Minister Marles voiced concerns about China aggressive rise and nature of its actions. In an interview with ABC News, he mentioned that “for both India and Australia, China is our largest trading partner and also China is our biggest security anxiety”.[xvii] He reiterated concerns about China in his speech at the National Defence College in New Delhi, as he stated that “China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious... It is critical that China’s neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk for them”. While referring to the “assault on Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control in 2020”, as “a warning”, he emphasised that it is “vital that China commits to resolving dispute through a process of dialogue consistent with international law”.[xviii]
The positive developments in bilateral ties between India and Australia in recent years, have shown that there is now a considerable alignment in their strategic interests, as the ambivalence of the past is fading and both countries appear ready to play an active role in structuring the regional balance of power for ‘a stable multipolar and rebalanced order with space for plurilateralism’ as well. As is being seen, under the new government in Canberra, there is likely to be much continuity when it comes to relationship with India. The defence and security cooperation is progressing; there is a lot of potential for the two countries. The two countries are also willing to further explore the prospect of defence industrial cooperation as they move forward. Amid the dynamic geopolitical scenarios, India and Australia, with a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific region, growing trade, closer security and defence cooperation and engagement with other like-minded regional players, will play a significant role in determining the regional balance of power, underpinned by mutual prosperity and stability.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Deputy Prime Minister to visit India, 20 June 2022, https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/media-releases/deputy-prime-minister-visit-india
[ii] 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
[iii] Australian Government, Defence Strategic Update 2002, https://www.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-defence-strategic-update
[v] Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh & his Australian counterpart Mr Richard Marles discuss ways to enhance defence cooperation during bilateral talks in New Delhi, June 22, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1836176
[ix] 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
[x] Talisman Sabre 21, https://www1.defence.gov.au/exercises/talisman-sabre-21
[xi] 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.
[xii]Defence Minister Richard Marles visits India to boost military ties, compares notes on approach to China, June 22, 2022, https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/speeches/speech-national-defence-college-new-delhi-india
[xiv] 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
[xv] Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-india-indo-pacific-oceans-initiative-partnership
[xvi] , https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34246/Opening_Remarks_by_the_External_Affairs_Minister_at_the_First_IndiaAustralia_22_Ministerial_Dialogue
[xvii] Defence Minister Richard Marles visits India to boost military ties, compares notes on approach to China
[xviii] Speech: National Defence College New Delhi, India, 22 June 2022, https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/speeches/speech-national-defence-college-new-delhi-india