Defense cooperation hardens India-Australia relations
Authors: Pradeep S Mehta and Sandra George, CUTS International
The emerging cooperation between India and Australia is widely understood as a response to China’s challenge facilitated by multilateral groupings like the Quad. But the recent signing of the Australia-India Economic and Trade Cooperation Agreement (ECTA) on April 2 suggests the bilateral relationship is much more substantial.
The bilateral virtual summit held on March 21 – and the subsequent agreement – marks a new phase in India-Australia relations, particularly in the broader context of security and defence. While some say removing the ‘Chinese glue’ will lead to cracks in India’s relationship with other Quad countries, it’s not what caused the ties that matter most – it’s nature. of the bilateral commitment itself.
Since the 2000s, dialogue partnerships between India and Australia have experienced a new phase of engagement. The signing of several bilateral agreements – such as the Memorandum on Defense Cooperation in 2006 and the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2009 – culminated in the binding Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of 2020. range from frequent visits by the Prime Minister to military dialogues at the staff level of the three services, indicating a political will for a future military partnership.
On the military side, in addition to the multilateral maritime exercise Malabar, the two countries are participating in AUSINDEX, an exercise that ensures mutual interoperability. India and Australia have jointly participated in 10 bilateral exercises and 17 multilateral exercises from 2022, facilitated by the 2020 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement which allows reciprocal access to military bases – as evidenced by the recent deployment by India from a P8 surveillance plane in Darwin.
There is also an institutional crossover between the two countries, with Indian institutes training Australian military personnel and vice versa. This remains important for forging genuine friendships and the trust for strategic partnerships. The recent summit also announced the establishment of General Rawat’s Young Defense Officers Exchange Program between India and Australia. This will increase common understanding of work culture and issues of strategic importance among military personnel.
Better integration of the economic and strategic aspects of the Indo-Australian partnership will be crucial in fostering defense technology cooperation and trade. ECTA should give a boost to bilateral economic relations. Collaboration in defense sector research and development is also crucial – a joint working group between the Indian Defense Research Development Organization and the Australian Defense Science and Technology Group has been in motion for 2018. Increased bilateral investment in the ongoing Australia-India Strategic Research Fund and the Australia-India Innovation and Technology Challenge is another positive development for cooperation in defence, technology and trade.
Co-production of defense equipment is also important. When it comes to military spending, India ranks third in the world. But import-driven procurement has made India heavily dependent on Russia in the defense sector. Even the recent move to defense procurement in the United States is import-based. As India focuses on defense manufacturing to better balance imports and domestic manufacturing needs, India’s modernization demands will continue to outpace domestic supply. This opens the field for cooperation, with India showing interest in Australian defense equipment, such as the Bushmaster and Hawkei light mobility armored vehicles, radar technologies and underwater applications.
But the relationship between India and Australia is not without its challenges. For example, the perceived gap between India’s “strategic autonomy” and Australia’s conceptualization of national independence is a potential barrier to deepening future security cooperation. India’s current foreign policy trajectory – particularly in defense relations – is more focused on problem-oriented partnerships than comprehensive relations, which limits the scope of partner relations.
Even so, defense ties seem like a natural path, given the common threats the two countries face in their maritime space. In addition to cooperation under the Quad and ASEAN frameworks, greater security cooperation in the Indian Ocean coastlines 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.
Indo-Australian cooperation on economic and strategic fronts can also be promoted by “polylateral” actors, such as non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, businesses and think tanks. This includes cooperation between the Indian and Australian private sectors and the inducement of multinational projects to engage Indian companies.
It is time for India-Australia cooperation to move beyond “cricket, Commonwealth and curry” – and even the new “C” in China – to form a stronger relationship that transcends budding cooperative initiatives by targeting the “four Ds” – democracy, defence, diaspora and back (Friendship). The potential of the recently signed ECTA should be seen in this wider context.
India-Australia back off to a good start, but it should never be solely reactionary to an ever-changing geopolitical landscape in the neighborhood and beyond. On the contrary, it must continue autonomously.
Pradeep S Mehta and Sandra George work for Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International.