'The driver behind the fourfold increase in military exercises between Australia and India is China'
Justin Burke is the 2022 Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute and the CSIS. In this interview with Rami Niranjan Desai on military cooperation between Australia and India, and the impact of China on the relationship.
Justin Burke says military ties between Australia and India are set to rise exponentially.
Rami Niranjan Desai (RD): We have seen unprecedented cooperation between Australia-India in maritime security in recent years including many joint military exercises. How do you see the deepening of security ties between the two countries?
Justin Burke (JB): In theory there are many reasons why Australia and India should be natural partners: proximity, language, democracy… not to mention cricket.
But speaking frankly, the driver behind the four-fold increase in military exercises between our countries in the last decade has been the behavior of China.
None of these exercises are easy to organize, and everyone has unrelenting demands on their military resources. Given that, I think it signals the high priority both nations have attached to deepening security ties.
RD: What kind of future cooperation between the armed forces and especially the navies of the countries can be expected? What domains would such cooperation be further expanded in - patrol and surveillance, conducting war games, capacity building and officer training? What areas?
JB: I absolutely appreciate the benefits from regularly exercising together, from the trust it narrowers, to the signal it sends to potential adversaries. Obviously after a certain point, more will not always equal better.
I was particularly excited seeing an Indian Navy P-8I deployed to Darwin this year; Couple that with the ambitious Maritime Domain Awareness initiative announced by the Quad leaders in May , and I think cooperative anti-submarine patrols are an area with a lot of potential.
RD: Australia and India have made commitments, as part of the Quad, and bilaterally, to keep the Indo-Pacific oceans 'free, open and secure' - what kind of material resources would be required in the future to ensure this in the face of revisionist challenges that the region faces? Where would those resources come from?
JB: Activities like Indo-Pacific Endeavour - which recently returned to India with a task group for the third time in six years - are about creating a shared vision of what a 'free, open and secure' Indo-Pacific region means with friends and partners. This work is crucial.
But to keep it free, open and secure requires more military assets. Australia's navy currently boasts its largest fleet in many decades, and the AUKUS agreement to obtain nuclear-powered submarines will be a step-change in capability. But it also won't be cheap, with Australia's defense spending expected to see two per cent of GDP as a floor going forward rather than a ceiling.
Beyond the security lens, noting the free trade agreement which our two countries recently ratified, there remains considerable potential in the Australia-India economic relationship. It is now a strategic imperative to realize this potential.
RD: Explain to our readers what in your view is the importance of The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) that the two countries signed a couple of years ago?
JB: The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement is one of the quiet achievements in the relationship in recent years. These kinds of agreements provide really valuable foundations upon which greater, frictionless interoperability can be achieved in the future.
RD: Do you see Australia and India cooperate in engaging countries across the African coastline of the Indo-Pacific too? I ask this because there have been rising concerns about Chinese interests in that region too.
JB: Australia's conception of the Indo-Pacific doesn't really include East Africa in any practical sense. China's interest in the Pacific Islands is a much more proximate strategic headache for Australia, as are the maritime trade routes and choke points to our north through which our mineral exports and refined petroleum imports are shipped. Our strategic interests don't overlap precisely, and I think the relationship is mature enough to cope with that.