India-Australia Partnership: Game-Changer for Regional Security?

Anushka Saxena
July 9th 2020


Image Courtesy: Carnegie Endowment

Given the current dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region, India-Australia axis can emerge as a game-changer. Both nations play an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s 2014 visit to India came with a vision to rapidly expand the bilateral partnership. In recent years, we see increasing endeavour for cooperation between the two nations, especially in the fields of defence and maritime security. This is primarily due to converging interests of both nations in the IOR and the larger Pacific region, the shared friendship with the United States and now increasingly the shared resentment towards China. With the materialisation of the AUSINDEX naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in 2015 and the 2+2 dialogue between the Foreign and Defense Secretaries of both the countries in 2017, bilateral relations shave reached greater heights.

Important Aspects of the India-Australia Relations

From a historical perspective, we saw Indian and Australian soldiers fighting the World Wars side-by-side, as British colonies. Both nations also share growing diaspora links. People of Indian origin constituted the largest chunk of migrant population in Australia in 2011-12. Both nations are a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, where the potential for collaboration is immense. Shared democratic values, too, are an important catalyst in the relationship. 

There were no major signs of trust between the two nations until 2014, and the volume of annual bilateral trade remained capped at a low AUD 15 million. Concerns shared by both nations rarely translated into a combined action, something that is evident in the relations today. However, with Tony Abbott’s visit to India in 2014 came an important sign of revival in the India-Australia relationship – the nuclear cooperation agreement of September 2014, which allowed India to import Uranium from Australia for energy production purposes. Even while imposing strict limitations and safeguards on the usage of this radioactive element, Australia declared that it would trust India with its uranium for years to come, thus making India the first nation to import Uranium from Australia without being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2015, the first AUSINDEX naval exercise was conducted between the navies of both nations off the coast of Visakhapatnam. This exercise, which focused on anti-submarine warfare, saw joint boarding party watches between Australia’s HMAS Arunta and India’s INS Shivalik, joint practices for Replenishment at Sea, exchange of technological know-how, and much more. The exercise became biennial, with the second one being conducted in 2017 and the third, in 2019. The push for the AUSINDEX came with the declaration of the ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’ by the Prime Ministers of both countries, in 2014. Both nations also engage in a joint exercise for the Armed forces, titled ‘AUSTRA-HIND’ (2016 onwards). The exercises have been extremely vital, not only for enhancing India-Australia defence partnership, but as a tool for securing overall stability in the region, and for preparing the forces of both nations to counter China’s increasing military presence in the Indo-Pacific (which concerns them deeply and equally).

The closest India and Australia have come to putting up a cooperative front in the international arena, has been through their participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (hereon, ‘Quad’) and Australia supporting India’s Permanent Membership in the United Nations Security Council. As introduced by Japanese President Shinzo Abe in 2007, the Quad is an informal strategic dialogue among India, Australia, the United States and Japan, and acts as the ‘Asian arc of Democracy’. Concerns over upsetting China had led for the then Australian PM Kevin Rudd to withdraw from the Quad in 2007. However, after tensions with China rose, Australia rejoined the Quad in 2017. Since then the dialogue has been seen as a platform by the four nations to create a military partnership that helps them implement their common vision of the Indo-Pacific. The revival of the Quad is strongly based on providing a counter to China’s rising belligerence in the disputed South China Sea and the IOR (through its ‘String of Pearls’ Strategy), and its economic hold over the region, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Implications of the Partnership on Regional Security

The AUSINDEX provides a platform for joint interoperability initiatives, mutually beneficial military training and materiel cooperation that will ultimately come in handy in fending off attacks or providing humanitarian aid anywhere in the region. Exchange programmes for personnel training are an added advantage – while two officers from Australia are trained in India’s Defence Services Staff College and National Defence College annually, India sends two of its officers to study in Australia’s Command and Staff College, and the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. Such programmes lead to an exchange of knowledge, tactics, strategies and technology, which would encourage both nations to adopt each other’s “best practices” while tackling with regional security challenges.

Two important aspects of this relationship have also been the Mutual Logistical Support Agreement (MLSA) and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The MLSA, which was signed during the COVID-19 virtual summit held between India and Australia on June 4, 2020, will be a major step towards improving logistical interoperability between the two nations in the fields of defence, fuel and technology exchanges, and food and water provisions, especially when Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) is needed on either side. In terms of the MDA, India’s National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) Project has established an integrated intelligence grid comprising of coastal vessels, shipping traffic management systems, surveillance radars and biometric identity databases to detect and deal with threats being faced by its naval arm in Indo-Pacific waters. Securing Australia’s partnership in carrying out joint surveillance and patrolling in the region, and in the interchange of research and technological know-how on enhancing MDA, would produce an advanced security mechanism for the region.

Challenges and Way Forward

Now that the India-Australia relationship has been upgraded to the status of being a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, and India has appeared on Australia’s ‘top priority list’ of nations in the latter’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017, it is time to take talks and discussions to the level of continued action. The primary area for divergence between the two nations has to be the ideological difference, in terms of how important the Indian Ocean is to Australia, and how important the U.S is to India. Australia has often referred to the Indian Ocean as its “second sea”, with its primary focus being on the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, Australia’s heavy dependence on and dedication towards the United States for military, economic, technological and maritime support is a mutual divergence, since the latter focuses primarily on issues-based alignment, and has no declared alignment with the U.S. However, collaborative efforts of the Quad provides opportunities to narrow such divergences, creating mutual space for India to engage with Australia and the U.S together on common issues like maintaining a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, the MLSA and the AUSINDEX will enable Australia’s access to the Andaman/Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands, which will help it make a deeper connection with the IOR. At the same time, access to Australia’s naval bases, and to the over 8,000 islands that come under Australian jurisdiction, will further India’s maritime power.

The Malabar Naval Exercise, with the U.S, Japan and India as its three permanent members, is another area where the scope for India-Australia partnership exists. India has repeatedly overlooked Australia’s wish to join the Malabar exercise (besides 2018, when Australia was invited), as a precaution to avoid kindling China’s offensive attitude. However, with China’s interventions across the Line of Actual Control and its ever-growing expansionism, it would be in the interest of both nations to not only have Australia participate in the exercise, but also develop a common policy on counter-balancing China’s influence in the region.

As was focused on in the virtual summit, Chinese expansionism in the region can be tackled only through collaborative actions and through strengthened economic ties. In this light, India and Australia must fully exploit the potential of the AUSINDEX, the MLSA and the MDA in creating security mechanisms, while crossing annual bilateral trade and commerce expectations by a wholesome margin. The proximity of both nations to chokepoints like the Malacca Strait, and the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for each other’s businesses, can help in this regard. With combined policy action and concerted efforts towards consolidating defence and logistical cooperation, the India-Australia partnership can truly become a game-changer for regional security. 

** The author is working as a Research Intern with the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies. She is a student of History at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi**