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  • Writer's pictureRami Niranjan Desai

Role of India and Australia in a free and open Indo-Pacific

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

How Australia and India are working together to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

With the raging Russia Ukraine war, the world has been served a reminder of the fragility that exists in the world order as evinced by the conflict which now in onto its eighth month and threatens global stability. The Indo-Pacific is perhaps the most key theatre where revisionism is impacting the littoral nations in the South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. There is a need for the democracies to come together on a common platform to create conditions which obviate the need for war to settle disputes.

India and Australia are two such major democracies that have set an example in recent times by cooperating on their shared vision for a free and open Indian Ocean. In 2020, the two countries elevated their strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership centered in their shared values of democracy. The new comprehensive partnership expanded on the mutual interests of the two countries through 11 key areas which importantly included an open, inclusive, and free Indo–Pacific region based on the idea of a rules-based maritime order.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Australia Richard Marles a few months ago on his visit to India reiterated the concern related to a Free and Open Indo- Pacific (FOIP) that was facing ‘pressure’ as it faced considerable geostrategic shifts stating that “Australia stands ready to work closer with India in support of an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific”. The Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell has noted that joint defence-related activities between the two countries have seen a “near four-fold increase” since 2014. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar too has reinforced the focus on India and Australia’s co-operation on defence and security by calling it the ‘key pillars’ of this partnership considering China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

Both countries have shown political will to ensure an upswing in military co-operation with trust building initiatives like the historic signing of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Agreement in 2020. These agreements facilitated reciprocal access to military basis for logistics support in turn making way for the first Quad exercise after 2007 with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) joining the Malabar naval exercise in 2020. Apart from the two-part multilateral maritime Malabar Exercise, the two countries have also been part of over 10 bilateral exercises (AUSINDEX, PASSEX, AUSTRAHIND) and around 17 multilateral exercises (BLACK CARILLON, KAKDU, MILAN, PITCH BLACK). All exercises between the navies (MILAN, MALABAR, PASSEX, KAKDU, AUSINDEX, BLACK CARILLON), air forces (PITCH BLACK) and armies (AUSTRAHIND) of the two countries have established mutual trust essential for closer engagement that goes beyond dialogue while increasing the scale of these exercises. The recent maiden participation of the P-81 Long-Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft of the Indian Navy in the Kakadu exercise in September 2022 aptly themed ‘Partnership, Leadership and Friendship’ hosted by RAN not only enhanced joint SOP’s and interoperability but was an exercise in mutual trust building.

The Joint Working Group on defence and security between Australia and India too is slated to meet in 2022, with an aim to boost ties between defence industries. Indian military expenditure is one of the largest in the world and relies heavily on importing weaponry, though with an increasing focus on self-reliance. Marles on his visit to India included a trip to Goa where he saw a display of India’s indigenous drone development and autonomous vehicle technology. Australia on the other hand can provide India with its radar technology and light-weight vehicles amongst others. Additionally, as there has been a slate of interactions through bilateral dialogues and exercises the signing of the Economic Co-operation and Trade Agreement (INDAUS ECTA), the two countries have enhanced their strategic ties with the strengthening of economic ties.

Apart from Chinese revisionism and expansionism including through the recent security pact made by China with the Solomon Islands, stability and peace in the Indo Pacific is also threatened through non-traditional security issues like illegal fishing, smuggling, increased usage for sea transportation, and exploitation of minerals in these waters. The counter is for nations in the Indo-Pacific to build deeper ties that enforce rules-based order and maritime security. Cooperation between Australia and India is increasingly among the strongest examples of such collaboration.

For a more holistic approach to enhance the defence and security partnership, both countries would gain from increasing non-governmental institutional interactions. Steps have been taken in the right direction by the recent announcement of the General Rawat India-Australia Young Defence Officer Exchange Program, the need for academic institutions, scholars on the Indo-Pacific, think-tank partnerships and diaspora diplomacy would go a long way in better understanding of this burgeoning relationship in the policy circles and filling perception gaps.

As geopolitical competition increases in Asia combined with the economic opportunities offered by China, economic dependency of the region may increase on China. Frameworks like Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Quad, ASEAN amongst others should be pursued with urgency. India and Australia need to be actively aware of the developments in littoral nations. The geographic expanse of the Indo Pacific creates challenges in surveillance, engaging littoral nations through mini-lateral exercises and dialogues can create a comprehensive network of nations with shared values towards a free and open Indo-Pacific. India and Australia are taking the lead and provide the impetus to the region to commit itself for long-term security challenges.

(Rami Niranjan Desai is a senior researcher on security issues.)

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