Last week the India-Australia summit set a new precedent. It was India’s first bilateral “virtual summit” with a nation that is gaining increasing salience in the Indian foreign policy matrix. After decades of neglect, New Delhi and Canberra are finally coming to terms with each other’s potential, exemplified by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have met four times over the last year and a half.
The maritime front
Morrison’s visit to India in January could not take place because of bush fires in Australia and after that the Covid-19 pandemic took over. So the decision by the two nations to go ahead with the virtual summit is an important signal that they don’t want the present momentum in the bilateral relationship to get disrupted. Last week saw India and Australia raising their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with a focus on institutionalising their growing engagements. Apart from more frequent interactions between the two Prime Ministers, the two sides decided to elevate the “2+2” engagement to the level of Foreign and Defence Ministers, where strategic discussions will be taking place at least every two years. Several pacts were announced including a framework arrangement on cyber technology, an MoU on cooperation in mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals, vocational training and water management.
It was India’s first bilateral “virtual summit” with Australia — a nation that is gaining increasing salience in the Indian foreign policy matrix. (Photo: PTI)
But clearly the focus of their engagement was the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific. As Modi argued, strong ties with Australia are “not only important for our two nations but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the whole world.” Morrison reciprocated by suggesting that Canberra is “committed to an open, inclusive, prosperous Indo-Pacific and India's role in that region, our region, will be critical in the years ahead.” Their post-summit joint statement underscored that both countries “share a vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region to support the freedom of navigation, over-flight and peaceful and cooperative use of the seas.” It is in this context that the two defence pacts, the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement, signed last week assume importance as they underline the growing defence synergy between two critical nodal powers in the Indo-Pacific. The logistics pact will give the two militaries reciprocal access to each nation’s respective military bases, thereby deepening the integration between the two militaries.
As India adopts a more ambitious defence diplomacy framework for the Indo-Pacific, it has enhanced its military ties with various regional stakeholders such as the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and France. Australia is a key actor with which India’s maritime convergence needs immediate operationalisation.
The China aspect
India’s annual Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan now await Australian entry and indications are that India is now ready to extend the invite to Canberra. The Quad will also become more potent if the four powers are ready to pool together their defence capabilities in the service of regional stability and economic prosperity.
Australia has made serious efforts over the last few years to dispel the notion about its lack of seriousness about Indo-Australian partnership. Moving beyond the ‘Cricket, Curry and Commonwealth’ banality, Canberra has imparted a renewed sense of purpose to its engagement with New Delhi and in Modi, it has found a partner keen to reciprocate. Australia has recognised India now as a “pre-eminent maritime power among Indian Ocean countries’ and a “front-rank partner of Australia.”
China’s aggression and foreign policy has played a large role in shaping this robust outreach. It’s growing interference in Australian domestic politics and its attempts to use trade for geopolitical purposes has raised questions about its long-term reliability for Australia. More recently, after Canberra joined other nations in calling for an independent enquiry into the origins of Coronavirus, Beijing was quick to retaliate by warning Australia that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products in response. They then suspended Australian beef imports, imposed tariffs on barley and issued an advisory to its citizens to avoid travelling to Australia.
Steps for the future
It is imperative that Indo-Australian economic ties become more robust. Though with trade, bilateral economic engagement has been growing between the two, hovering around $21 billion in 2018-19, it remains below potential. This was underscored by Morrison when he called for raising the level of trust to improve the “trade and investment flows” between India and Australia which “were are not where the two nations have restarted talks over the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) which were suspended in 2015. There is a natural synergy in Indo-Australian relationships that has not been explored fully. As the two nations realise each other’s significance in the emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamic, they can be more ambitious in charting out their future engagement. Modi-Morrison seems ready to take the plunge.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)