Authors: Pradeep S Mehta and Sandra George, CUTS International
Emerging cooperation between India and Australia is widely understood as a response to the China challenge that is facilitated by multilateral groupings like the Quad. But the recent signing of the Australia–India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) on 2 April suggests the bilateral relationship is much more substantial.
The bilateral virtual summit held on 21 March — and the subsequent agreement — marks a new phase in India–Australia relations, especially in the larger security and defence context. While some argue that taking away the ‘China glue’ will lead to cracks in India’s relationship with the other Quad countries, it is not what has caused the linkages that matter the most — it is the nature of the bilateral engagement itself.
Since the 2000s, dialogue partnerships between India and Australia have seen a new phase of engagement. The signing of several bilateral agreements — such as the Memorandum on Defence Cooperation in 2006 and the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2009 — culminated in the binding 2020 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Regular defence engagements range from frequent prime ministerial visits to tri-service staff-level military dialogues, indicating political will for a future military partnership.
Militarily, in addition to the multilateral maritime Exercise Malabar, both countries participate in AUSINDEX, an exercise which ensures mutual interoperability. India and Australia have jointly taken part in 10 bilateral exercises and 17 multilateral exercises as of 2022, facilitated by the 2020 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement that enables reciprocal access to military bases — as exemplified by India’s recent deployment of P8 surveillance aircraft to Darwin.
There is also institutional crossover between both countries, with Indian institutes training army personnel from Australia and vice versa. This remains significant in forging genuine friendships and trust for strategic partnerships. The recent summit also announced the establishment of the General Rawat India–Australia Young Defence Officer Exchange Programme. This will increase shared understanding of working culture and issues of strategic importance among military personnel.
Better integrating the economic and strategic aspects of the India–Australia partnership will be crucial in fostering cooperation in defence technology and commerce. The ECTA is expected to give a fillip to bilateral economic ties. Collaboration in defence-sector research and development is also crucial — a joint working group between India’s Defence Research Development Organisation and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group has been in motion since 2018. Increasing bilateral investment in the ongoing Australia–India Strategic Research Fund and the Australia–India Innovation and Technology Challenge is yet another positive development for defence, technological and commercial cooperation.
Defence equipment co-production is also important. When it comes to military expenditure, India ranks third in the world. But import-oriented procurement has made India heavily reliant on Russia in the defence sector. Even the recent shift to US defence procurement is import based. While India is focussing on defence manufacturing to better balance imports and domestic manufacturing needs, India’s modernisation demands will continue to outstrip domestic supply. This opens the scope for cooperation, with India expressing interest in Australian defence equipment — such as the Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured light mobility vehicles, radar technologies and undersea applications.
But the India–Australia relationship is not without its challenges. For example, the perception gap between India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ and Australia’s conceptualisation of national independence is a potential hurdle to deepening future security cooperation. The current trajectory of India’s foreign policy — especially in defence relations — is more focussed on issue-based partnerships than comprehensive relationships, limiting the scope of relationships with partners.
Even so, defence linkages seem to be a natural way forward, given the common threats both countries face in their maritime space. Apart from cooperation through the Quad and ASEAN frameworks, greater security cooperation in Indian Ocean littorals can be fostered through forums and partnerships such as the India Ocean Rim Association, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, and the Australia–India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership.
India–Australia cooperation on economic and strategic fronts can also be promoted by ‘polylateral’ actors — such as non-governmental organisations, academic institutions, businesses and think tanks. This includes cooperation between Indian and Australian private sectors and the incentivisation of multinational projects to engage Indian enterprises.
It is time for India–Australia cooperation to go beyond ‘cricket, commonwealth and curry’ — and even the new ‘C’ in China — to form a stronger relationship that transcends nascent cooperation initiatives in aiming for the ‘four Ds’ — democracy, defence, diaspora and dosti (friendship). The potential for the recently-signed ECTA should be considered in this larger context.
India–Australia dosti is off to a good start, but it should never be solely reactionary to an ever-changing geopolitical landscape in the neighbourhood and beyond. Rather, it must continue in a self-sustaining manner.
Pradeep S Mehta and Sandra George work for Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International.