At their virtual summit in June this year Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison decided to raise the India-Australia relationship to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). To give substance to the two leaders’ decision, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met their Australian counterparts Peter Dutton and Marise Payne in Delhi on September 11 in a 2+2 format. This format underlines the importance that the two countries attach to developing their defence and security relationship as part of giving impetus to bilateral ties. India also has 2+2 dialogues with US and Japan. The development of similar diplomatic structures between India and the other three Quad countries gives an undoubted signal to the Indo-Pacific region of the Indian intent. The fact that India and Russia now propose to also engage in a 2+2 dialogue does not detract from this indication given by India to the Indo-Pacific area.
In their joint statement the Indian and Australian ministers emphasised their commitment to “implement the CSP based on mutual trust and understanding, common interests and shared values of democracy and rule of law”. It would be useful to unpack the three pillars mentioned by the ministers. The first is “mutual trust and understanding”. This is a diplomatic phrase which in the India and Australia context attempts to show that the two countries do not have any major differences between them and are looking forward to a period of cooperation. However, these words are also used when there is actually little “trust and understanding” between countries. Hence, they have to be interpreted in context. The term “common interests” is of substantial importance for the foundation of international relations is interests. Here, India and Australia have signalled that they have now developed common interests. The steps outlined by the ministers demonstrate a determination to pursue these interests. The third term “democracy and rule of law” is often invoked to generate good feelings in diplomatic encounters but countries that are rooted in “democracy and rule of law” can remain estranged for decades or go through rough periods. This is illustrated by the history of India-Australia relations itself. There was an absence of substantial content in bilateral ties for decades. Besides, no country adopted as boorish an approach towards India in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests as Australia. And, at that time too both countries were democracies committed to the rule of law!
There is no doubt that mutual economic interest is an important rationale for growing affinities between India and Australia. Trade and investments are providing opportunities for beneficial cooperation in numerous sectors stretching from education to tourism to commodities supplies and new and frontier technologies. But beyond the impetus provided by these sectors lie common security concerns arising out of China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s approaches adversely impact all Quad countries and have brought them together but India, Australia and Japan while conveying to China they will resist its current policies also do not want to burn their bilateral bridges with it.
In this context the joint statement as well as the ministers’ press statements are instructive. They indicate a stress on principles which China is flouting but without naming China. The reiteration of principles relating to upholding international law regarding freedom of the seas is obviously meant to convey to China and the international community that India and Australia insist that they be upheld and the established world order not be eroded. But by not naming China both countries have indicated that they do not desire an open confrontation with it.
Both India and Australia have important economic and security stakes in and concerns about China. However, neither these stakes nor concerns are identical. This leads to both adopting common as well as differentiated approaches towards China.
The concentration of enormous manufacturing power in China has led to the fragility of supply chains in crunch situations. It has also resulted in China developing coercive capability. Both India and Australia therefore have difficulties with China virtually becoming the factory of the world. But as a great producer of primary commodities Australia’s dependence on the Chinese economy is far greater than India.
In the security and defence sector while both countries feel the Chinese threat its nature is different for both countries. India has a border dispute; China is illegally occupying its territory. This accounts for a land-based threat. At the same time with China growing great naval capability a maritime threat is also growing. In Australia’s case the Chinese threat is maritime. Hence, while India and Australia’s defence cooperation is “across services” its real substance is and will remain in the maritime domain. Both countries are now establishing mutual logistical support arrangements, undertaking greater defence intelligence sharing and engaging in bilateral and multilateral naval exercises. The multilateral exercises involve the Quad but trilateral mechanisms with Japan, France and Indonesia are also being set up.
The ministers also focussed on developments in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Myanmar is India’s neighbour and China is extremely active there. Its ingress there threatens Indian interests. Hence, India’s perspective on Myanmar has to be necessarily different from that of Australia but the two countries found common ground to seek a return of democracy and the release of political detainees.
Both India and Australia acknowledged the obvious reality of the Taliban control of Afghanistan. India joined Australia in calling on the Taliban to fulfil its commitment on counter-terrorism and human rights. This was the right approach. However, in addition, India must continue its engagement with the Taliban. Its interests demand that it does so.
After I concluded this article news has come of the formation of the Australia, British and American alliance to combat China in the Indo-Pacific. What this will do, the emerging security architecture will require a deep analysis. Certainly, it will degrade the developing trust and confidence between India and Australia.