Indo-Australia- a New Era of Cooperation?
May 20, 2023 | Expert Insights
A flurry of diplomatic activities between Canberra and New Delhi hints at an emerging strategic partnership that will have sweeping impacts on the security dimension of the Indo-Pacific.
Early this year, the Australian Education Minister led a delegation of higher education institutions to India, underscoring the importance that his country attributes to the rising number of students enrolling in Australian educational institutions. This was followed by establishing the Centre for Australia-India Relations, with significantly increased funding, resources, and a mandate to strengthen business and diaspora ties.
In March this year, a formidable delegation led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, including the Minister for Trade and Tourism, Minister for Resources, high-ranking government officials, and prominent businesses, visited Ahmedabad, Mumbai and New Delhi. Clearly, it reaffirmed the strength of the multifaceted bilateral ties that have deepened under the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership established in June 2020.
However, it has not been an easy journey, with a host of hurdles and challenges still remaining, although the relationship between the two nations is founded on shared values, a commitment to democracy, and a desire for a prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific region.
The British presence in India and Australia during the 19th century facilitated the development of strong commercial and cultural ties between the two countries.
During the Indian independence movement at the beginning of the 20th century, Australia was one of the first nations to support India's fight against British rule. Since then, the two nations have developed a close relationship based on their shared commitment to democracy, multiculturalism, and a rules-based order.
With the opening of the India Trade Office in Sydney in 1941, India and Australia established diplomatic relations in the pre-independence period. The end of the Cold War and India's decision to implement significant economic reforms in 1991 marked the first positive step toward the establishment of closer ties between the two countries.
The convergence of India and Australia's interests in areas such as education, regional security, energy and resources, and international trade fosters the development of a significant bilateral relationship between the two countries. Positive changes have occurred in the India–Australia relationship, and three main factors have contributed to this trajectory: the escalation of–China's competition, China's rise and threat to India's and Australia's national interests, and commonalities in India's and China's foreign policies.
The recent summit between India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese allowed the leaders to discuss strategic, economic, and security issues and chart a course for the future. Nine agreements were signed between the two leaders in areas such as education, cybersecurity, maritime cooperation, and critical minerals.
The agreements reflect the expanding strategic partnership between the two nations, as well as their shared commitment to assuring the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. During the summit, both leaders reaffirmed their support for the Quad, an alliance between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia that aims to promote a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
After years of political estrangement/ distancing, geopolitical compulsions have invariably drawn New Delhi and Canberra closer. The need to counterbalance China's rise and assure a rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region has been a major factor in the India-Australia relationship. India and Australia have collaborated actively on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, maritime security, and disaster management issues. Additionally, the two nations have collaborated to promote a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
In the past, Australia was wary of conducting joint military exercises with India, as it did not wish to imperil its lucrative trade with PRC. However, as the cold war between the U.S. (Australia's closes ally) and China has intensified, Canberra has been compelled to look at strategic alliances within the Indo-Pacific region. This has led to the strengthening of defence cooperation which in the past was confined to the exchange of one or two military students attending courses on a bilateral basis.
The scope and size of the military cooperation have increased since 2020, when the two nations signed a ground-breaking agreement that granted them access to each other's military bases for logistical support.
In 2020 Australia started participating in the Malabar series of naval exercises conducted by India for its Quad partners. Australia had walked out of the Quad and the Malabar exercises in 2008. Despite India extending an invitation in 2017, it took Canberra three years to accept its participation in the Malabar exercise.
2020 was a significant move because it marked a sudden turn for the worse in India's relations with China due to Chinese military activities in the high Himalayan borders. At the same time, Australia-China relations were also undergoing a rough patch, with Australia openly demanding an international investigation into the origin of COVID-19 from China and Beijing retaliating by imposing tariffs and stricter controls on a long list of Australian exports such as beef, barley, coal, and wine.
Without a doubt, along with the U.S. and Japan, Australia is one of the most powerful democracies in the Western Pacific. It has played a role in helping the American Navy in its freedom of navigation exercise and joint patrols in the disputed South China Sea and even straying into India-claimed EEZ in the Andaman Seas.
With the sealing of the AUKUS deal, it is a matter of time before the Australian Navy will operate deadly nuclear-powered submarines, initially at least five U.S.-designed Virginia class and by late 2030s, a new class built with UK designs and American know-how. This will change the entire dynamics of maritime domination in the Western Pacific and the Southern Indian Ocean. If Indian naval power grows to include nuclear-powered submarines, its presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean will be reinforced by the Australian naval power, making them a significant force to reckon with even if the U.S. 7th Fleet is engaged elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific.
However, despite the expanding strategic partnership, there are still some obstacles to overcome. The trade relationship between the two countries is one of the primary obstacles. Since 2011, India and Australia have been negotiating a free trade agreement, but the talks have stalled due to disagreements over agricultural, intellectual property, and service issues.
- The relationship between India and Australia has significant implications for regional stability and global order. As robust democracies, the two countries share an interest in promoting a rules-based international system and preventing any threats to international norms and institutions. As the two fastest-growing economies in the world, they have the opportunity to cooperate in a variety of areas that could benefit both their countries and the greater Indo-Pacific region.
- One of the significant repercussions of the India-Australia partnership is the potential to shape the Indo-Pacific strategic environment. Significant geopolitical shifts are occurring in the region as China's assertiveness grows and the United States shifts its attention to the Indo-Pacific.
- Gone are the days when Australia played truant from the Quad. Now India and Australia play an important role in defining the Quad's agenda and maintaining the alliance's focus on its objectives. Critical to the success of the Quad is the collaboration of India and Australia in maritime security.