A serious strategic partnership between Australia and India has long been a missing link in the security architecture of Indo-Pacific Asia. Now the gap is at last being filled, if a high-level visit this week is anything to go by.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr was in New Delhi on January 21st and 22nd, to follow up the visit by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last October, which itself had heralded a breakthrough in ties between these two Indian Ocean democracies. Carr’s talks with his Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid had a strong security focus.
During the Cold War these were two democracies were estranged by the Western-Soviet divide. From the 1970s until recently, India's isolation by the nuclear non-proliferation regime prolonged mistrust between New Delhi and Canberra, long a self-styled anti-nuclear white knight.
Yet with a raft of growing shared security concerns ranging from the rise of China to transnational maritime issues and the scourge of jihadist terrorism, and with rapidly deepening economic and societal links, the logic of closer ties between Australia and India is now clear. Australia is now a major energy exporter to India's voracious economy, and Indian migration and investment is now helping sustain Australia’s own economic success.
The two main sources of trouble in the relationship have eased. Misperceptions and policy failures about the alleged mistreatment of Indian students in Australia a few years ago have now largely been addressed. And at the end of 2011, the ruling Australian Labor Party took the historic decision to remove its blanket ban on entering talks about civilian uranium sales to India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Australia may or may not one day actually export uranium to India — that is almost beside the point. Canberra will and should insist on proper safeguards for any sales, on a par with its arrangements with for instance China and Russia. Mr. Carr this week announced the start of safeguards negotiations, and sensibly neither side seems in a hurry.
What matters most for strategy and diplomacy is something else. Australia’s in-principle policy change on uranium removed a political barrier of mistrust and perceived discrimination from what should always have been a natural and positive relationship between two important countries with much to offer each other.
What's next? We can expect security relations to start evolving at an accelerated pace, adding flesh to the bones of a security declaration signed in 2009. Already Australia and India are likely to be sharing strategic assessments related to issues ranging from Afghanistan to the changing power balance in the Indo-Pacific. There are plans for deeper dialogue on cyber security and coordination in international bodies like the East Asia Summit. Before long there will be moves to annual bilateral naval exercises and possibly experimental three-way consultations on maritime security challenges bringing in their shared neighbor Indonesia, as recommended in a recent major non-government dialogue.
In the long run, there is much the two nations could do in shared monitoring of Indian Ocean maritime traffic and even cooperation in developing capabilities for amphibious operations and disaster relief.
At the same time, both nations remain relatively cautious — certainly more so than Japan — in trying to offset Chinese perceptions that this is all about balancing or containment.
Still, in the thickening and complex Indo-Pacific security web, the Australia-India strand is at last worth watching.