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India-Australia: Aligning strategic spheres

This week’s visit to Australia by  A. K. Antony was the first ever visit by an Indian Defence Minister to that country.  This remarkable fact underscores the somewhat distant if cordial relations that long existed between India and Australia, the two largest maritime powers among Indian Ocean states.

Until recently, India and Australia were content to operate in largely separate strategic spheres.  Non-aligned India was mainly preoccupied with its immediate security problems in South Asia; Australia, a loyal ally of the United States, focused on security concerns in East Asia and the Pacific.

But these spheres of strategic interest can no longer be seen as entirely separate. The growing power of China has caused some disquiet throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the rise of India as a major regional power means that it is also starting to be seen a significant strategic player in the Pacific.   Many states, including Australia, are increasingly expecting India to assume a greater role in managing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.   India is also beginning to see Australia as one of several new security partners in the Asia Pacific region.

There have been some important developments in the bilateral security relationship in recent years.  India and Australia concluded an MOU on Defence Cooperation in 2006, and in 2009 the two countries announced a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation.

But the substantive security relationship has not developed as quickly as some had hoped. One reason was that New Delhi was irritated by Canberra’s ban on uranium exports to countries that are not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  Making an exception to this policy was a quite a big political issue in Australia, despite India’s strong non-proliferation record.

In December 2011, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard faced down many in her own party to force a change in Australia’s policy specifically for India.   Although this cleared away what many perceived as a roadblock in further development of the relationship, practical progress on security cooperation has still been slow.   Some observers see continuing inertia, and even bureaucratic opposition, in New Delhi towards developing a security relationship with a middle-sized power such as Australia, a close ally of the U.S.

Antony’s visit to Australia this week was an important, if largely symbolic, step forward in the defence relationship.  It was especially significant that it came so soon after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan, another close ally of the U.S.  During his visit to Japan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued that Japan was a “natural and indispensable partner” to India.  A few months ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly called for a strategy in which India, Japan, the U.S and Australia would form a “diamond” to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.

Whether or not New Delhi will come to agree with Abe’s “diamond” strategy, it is clear that in coming years an India-Australia partnership will be important for managing maritime security in the Indian Ocean and will also have implications for security in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Just as India’s strategic perspectives have changed in recent years, Australia’s perspectives have also been evolving.   Australia’s strategic gaze has traditionally been towards its north, to Southeast Asia and beyond to Northeast Asia, the heart of what is now called the “Asia Pacific.”  In contrast, the Indian Ocean region has traditionally received little attention.

But in its recent Defence White Paper, Australia has announced the expansion of its principal strategic focus towards the “Indo-Pacific”, essentially the arc of maritime Asia that extends from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.  The White Paper noted what it called “the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic arc,” which Australia must concern itself with, with Southeast Asia at its centre.   India is identified as a future key security partner in helping to manage security in the Indian Ocean.  The White Paper also laid out Australia’s plans for a major military modernisation in order to maintain its technological edge in its region for the next 30 years.  This will include the acquisition of two new large amphibious helicopter ships, 12 large conventional submarines and up to 100 fifth generation Joint Strike Fighters.

Antony’s visit to Australia was short on specifics, although it included an announcement of bilateral exercises between the Australian and Indian navies beginning in 2015, something that has been under discussion for some time.  Both navies are keen on greater engagement, though they are both highly stretched with existing operational and exercise commitments.  But the most important part of the visit was probably the opportunity to build better personal relations between Indian and Australian leaders, a gap that sorely needs more work.

In coming months, India and Australia will no doubt be looking for concrete ways in which they can expand security cooperation in the Indian Ocean and beyond.  This will include more staff talks across all military services, as well as an expansion in exchanges and training.  There is a commitment to work together to further operationalise multilateral forums in the Indian Ocean, such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

There have also been suggestions about a possible trilateral strategic dialogue between India, Australia and Indonesia, which would facilitate the discussion of security issues of common concern.  These Indian Ocean groupings will provide an important opportunity for India, Australia and key countries such as Indonesia to jointly mould and manage their regional security environment in coming years.

Dr. David Brewster is with Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Canberra.  He is the author of ‘India as an Asia Pacific Power and ‘India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership’.

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