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  • Writer's pictureAayushi Sharma

Australia, India ties: Acquiring new depth

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

The recent visit of the Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar to Australia shows that bilateral relations are at an all-time high between the key two Indo-Pacific democracies.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong with India's Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

India's Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently concluded his second visit to Australia this year for the Foreign Ministers' Framework Dialogue. In Australia, Jaishankar held talks with the Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and Education Minister Jason Clare including on the historic Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) between the two countries. Australia and India not only have a very strong bilateral partnership that is consistently growing but they are also partners in the Quad (the Indo-Pacific grouping with the US and Japan) and are two of the most prominent democracies of the Indo-Pacific. Various issues of bilateral cooperation were primarily on the agenda, keeping in mind the current geopolitical situation and India's upcoming presidency of the G20.

During the last leg of his visit to Australia, Jaishankar spoke to Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute on pertinent issues of bilateral cooperation, the broader global politics and the course of the India-Australia relationship.

Bilateral Cooperation

During his address to the Lowy Institute Dr. Jaishankar jokingly said, “India and Australia should write a serious book on diplomacy, disguised as a serious book on cricket.” Both the countries have held a strong relationship when it comes to cricket. Sports forms an important common ground for cultural change between the two countries whose diplomatic relations are at an all-time high. Over the years, this relationship has grown rapidly in many other areas of diplomatic cooperation. As was discussed throughout the talks among the Australian government officials and Jaishankar, new avenues for bilateral cooperation have been set up to enhance relations.

The aim is to mutually increase the diplomatic footprint, as the Australian Finance Minister Penny Wong put it. One breakthrough headway made in the attempts to strengthen the India-Australia relationship is the progress on ratification and the entry into force of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement. Talks are also underway to amend the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. Both these agreements would contribute significantly to enhance the ease of doing business capacities among the two nations while also increasing the flow of bilateral trade on both sides. The Foreign Ministers Framework Dialogue, an important aspect of Jaishankar’s visit, primarily focused on key areas of possible cooperation including critical minerals, renewable energy sources, mobility of skills and capacity building in the education sector as well as the larger areas of trade, economy and diplomacy. The declaration of setting up a consul general of Australia in Bengaluru is another important initiative that would add to the diplomatic footprint of Australia in India.

The Larger Global Context

It is widely agreed that India’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific is very important for the regional and global changing dynamics. The deepening relationship between India and Australia forms a major part of this venture into the Pacific for India. It provides a strong strategic hold for India to ground its position in the region. Now, this bilateral relationship is not just important from a regional perspective but also from a global one. Throughout the various engagements of Jaishankar with the Australian government officials, the question of the war with Ukraine, India’s relationship with Russia, China’s ambitions as well as the stand on AUKUS (the trilateral security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia) and the Quad was discussed at greater lengths. In order to assess the importance assigned to the bilateral relationship in question, we must look at the global scenario that shapes such decisions. Jaishankar, in his address to the Lowy Institute, focused on three main challenges that the world faces today which make strong bilateral cooperation all the more necessary.

The Challenges of Global Politics: Three Cs

The three significant challenges as briefly put by Dr. Jaishankar were - Covid, conflict and climate change. In the case of Covid the focus has been on the detrimental economic effects of the pandemic and the subsequent need for states to recover from the resulting economic downturn. The contemporary geopolitical scenario is mired with conflicts and there is a growing need to build bilateral relationships among significant states. The last aspect of the global challenge according to Jaishankar, has been the problem of climate change that is growing deeper by the day. This particular categorization of the global challenges by the foreign minister is noteworthy because it provides an insight into the major avenues for bilateral cooperation that the two countries are seeking. These global challenges form the larger context into which the India-Australia partnership will take place. This is primarily important because of the growing strategic relationship among the two states. Multilaterally, India and Australia are seeking strategic cooperation in the Quad and the strengthening bilateral relationship is further aiding in the better functioning of Quad as well according to Jaishankar. As noted in his address, the Quad grouping is working better since 2017 that it did in 2007 when it was first founded and one of the major reasons in the strengthening India-Australia engagement that happened over time. The smooth diplomatic communication among all the QUAD countries adds to the stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As Jaishankar notes, the only way to make QUAD work even better is to keep generating new ideas for possible cooperation and keep the alliance dynamic.

Why Jaishankar’s visit holds importance

As 2023 approaches, India will hold a significant leadership position as a host of G20 and so it becomes very important to maintain better bilateral relationships with prime strategic partners. The Australia-India partnership also works to contain authoritarian revisionism in the Indo-Pacific. This is also evident from India’s recent acceptance of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) decision to not halt the transfer of conventionally armed but nuclear powered submarines to Australia under the AUKUS agreement. India’s position helped in blocking China’s efforts to interrupt the agreement of this transfer as China claimed that this stands in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty agreement. This visit to Australia also acts as a show of bilateral support to the world amidst growing conflict and upheaval. Both the states reiterated their cooperation for peace and respect to sovereignty while also condemning the ongoing war in Ukraine. The support for AUKUS by India despite the existence of Quad was a testament to the fact that both the countries are determined to cooperate bilaterally on global issues without the other multilateral commitments coming in the way.

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