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India-Australia: Deepening the bilateral

India and Australia, the two leading maritime powers of Indian Ocean states, have long operated in largely separate strategic spheres. As concerns grow over the increasingly aggressive posture adopted by China on various issues, the two countries see their spheres of strategic interest converging.

On February 11, Gateway House launched its report, titled ‘The India-Australia Security Engagement: Opportunities and Challenges’ authored by David Brewster, Senior Visiting Fellow, Maritime Studies, Gateway House, and Visiting Fellow, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. Gateway House’s Sameer Patil talks to Brewster on the future of the India-Australia naval engagement, cooperation in defence technology and ways to deepen the bilateral.

Q. In your paper, you have mentioned about potential cooperation on the Antarctic. Please elaborate on this aspect.

The Australians have had stations in the Antarctic for some 60 years I believe. Indians have been there for a shorter period. But just recently India opened a new major station near the Australian stations. That has opened up a potential for greater co-operation including in logistics which in the Antarctic is extremely important. So Australia could help ease some of the logistic challenges that India faces. Also there are a lot of complementarities in terms of the scientific research India and Australia are carrying out in the Antarctic.

Q. In the context of the recent aggressive behaviour by China in asserting its territorial claims, there has been a talk that India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. should think about reviving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue first tried in 2007. You have spoken about the Quadrilateral as one of the missed opportunities for deepening the India-Australia bilateral. What, in your view, would be the challenges for reviving this initiative?

There are a lot of opportunities to do something of that nature, particularly with the new Japanese government under Mr. Abe. The original Quadrilateral idea was his, so I think the Japanese have a renewed interest in something of that nature. The Australians I think have a lot of interest in moving the India relationship past bilateral to include at least trilateral relationships with countries like Indonesia or Japan or the U.S.

Q. India has an adverse view of China. What has been Australia’s perception?

Australia has a different relationship with China in economic terms, and also geographically China’s not a neighbouring country. We don’t have some of the historical issues that exist between India and China. But certainly over the last five years or so there have been growing concerns about the assertiveness of China in South and East China Sea and we’d like to see China acting in a responsible manner as a major power. I think that there is a lot that Australia and India can do together to figure out mechanisms to bring China into a relationship in the Indian Ocean region where it can play a positive role.

Q. Recently, navies of India and Australia participated in the multinational Exercise Milan in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. How do you envisage the future of this naval engagement? 

The naval engagement will be one of the key areas of engagement between India and Australia in the security dimension. I expect that most countries in the region would see that this partnership will help manage and provide security within the region.

Q. You have stated that India and Australia can cooperate in developing amphibious capabilities using Australia’s expertise in this field. Can you explain this?

Both countries are building their capabilities by acquiring amphibious ships whose primary use will be to provide humanitarian and disaster relief. For example, if there’s an earthquake or a cyclone that devastates a state in South East Asia, these are the ships on which aid and assistance are going to be delivered. So I think that there is a lot of potential for India and Australia to cooperate and provide assistance if an event like that happens.

Q. Coastal security has proved to be a great challenge for the Indian authorities. What insights can Australia offer?

Coastal security in Australia is not really directed at maritime terrorist attacks, as it is in India. Nevertheless it has led to Australia developing a very successful system of being able to track the movements of vessels throughout much of the Indian Ocean by putting together information from a whole variety of sources. I think there are probably a lot of lessons that Indian authorities can learn.

Q. Which are the other areas where India and Australia can deepen the engagement?

The two armies have many shared traditions stemming from the British links. Increasingly the Indian Air Force is acquiring a lot of equipment from the U.S. which means that in a few years time India and Australia will share many of the same platforms. That opens up a lot of potential for cooperation in maintenance, training, doctrine and the like. There are other areas that can follow on such as sharing of defence technology and cooperation in the Antarctic.

Q. Given India’s cumbersome bureaucratic decision-making process on arms procurement, how do you envision India-Australia cooperation in the arena of defence technology?

Given that Australian companies working in that sector have much less resources than the big American or French companies, I think it would put off a lot of companies given the difficulties, time and expense experienced in India. Nevertheless, there can be cooperation between the two government-run defence research organisations.

David Brewster is Senior Visiting Fellow, Maritime Studies, Gateway House, and Visiting Fellow, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. You can read more on the report, here.

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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