India is strengthening its strategic partnership with Australia, with the two countries having decided to gradually step up their defense cooperation – a development that will also no doubt keep the Chinese strategic establishment on edge.
The growing closeness between the two countries was evident Wednesday, when visiting Australian Defense Minister Steven Smith held talks in New Delhi with his Indian counterpart A.K. Antony. The two sides agreed to inject new vigor into their defense cooperation. Smith’s India visit has come just days after Australia’s ruling Labor Party decided to sell uranium to India for power generation.
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During the talks, Antony and Smith agreed to institute Track 1.5 Dialogues (semi-government level) on defense matters between appropriate institutions on both sides, according to Indian Defense Ministry chief spokesman Sitanshu Kar. Significantly, the defense ministers stressed the importance of freedom of navigation in international waters, a key issue in the region with China having upped the ante over the South China Sea, which Beijing lays claim to huge swathes of. India, like most other countries, has refused to toe the Chinese line on the issue, angering Beijing by working with Vietnam on natural resource exploration in the region.
The Indian and Australian defense ministers also discussed at length regional security issues, such as the threat of piracy. Kar said the two sides also agreed to continue with the practice of their respective navies conducting Passage Exercises during naval ship visits to each other’s ports. In addition, Antony and Smith agreed to examine the possibility of undertaking a full-fledged bilateral naval exercise in the future.
The importance of Australia to India in a regional context is difficult to overstate. China, though, has so far successfully managed to keep Australia away from India and Japan, torpedoing their plans to form a loose alliance with the United States – an idea that dates back half a decade to the now aborted Quadrilateral Initiative. Now that India-Australia bilateral ties are on an upswing, it will be interesting to see how China responds.