India and Australia have been strategic partners since 2009. The bilateral relationship between both the countries has evolved in recent years, and both share strong political, economic, and community ties, which further strengthen relations.
India and Australia have a lot in common, as both are Westminster-style secular, multicultural democracies. Growing people-to-people ties, including an increasing Indian diaspora in Australia as well as Indian students choosing Australia for higher education, tourism, sports etc, have played a significant role in further strengthening relations between the two countries.
Principle and pragmatism have been the two pillars on which the two countries have built their partnership. An exchange of prime ministerial visits in 2014 built momentum in the bilateral relationship, “signifying the growing depth of the India-Australia strategic partnership.”
The Australian foreign policy blueprint released in November 2017 sees India in the front rank of Australia’s international partnerships. Regarding India-Australia relations, the blueprint says: “Beyond an increasingly important economic relationship, our security interests are congruent, particularly in relation to the stability and openness of the Indian Ocean. Both the countries have common interests in upholding international law, especially in relation to freedom of navigation and maritime security.” India’s strategic engagement with East Asia and the United States is strongly supported by Australia.
Because of severe bushfires in Australia, the visit of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to India, planned for January 2020, was cancelled. Now the upcoming virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Morrison on June 4 can be an inflection point in the bilateral relations of India and Australia. Both countries should try to come to an agreement on few pending issues that have been left unaddressed for the past few years.
The India-Australia economic relationship has seen significant growth in recent years. Australia recognizes the immense potential and growing economic profile of India, which is evident from the fact that its government commissioned the India Economic Strategy, which was released in 2018. But talks over a formal economic agreement have floundered.
Australia and India launched negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in May 2011. To date, they have had nine rounds of negotiations, with the last leg being held in September 2015. The talks stalled and then both India and Australia were engaged in discussing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which included the 10 ASEAN member states as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. India and Australia could not agree over certain clauses of RCEP, mainly regarding market access over agriculture and dairy products (concerns regarding market access for Chinese goods were also a major concern for New Delhi). India opted out from RCEP and did not sign the agreement, although the other countries in RCEP are still negotiating with India to join.
The upcoming Modi-Morrison summit should look into reviving the CECA. India is Australia’s fifth largest trade partner, with trade in goods and services worth A$29 billion, representing 3.6 percent of the total Australian trade in 2017-18. Australia’s exports to India were valued at A$8 billion and imports at A$21 billion.
There are already more than 100,000 Indian students who are studying in Australia, more than two-thirds of whom are pursuing higher education. The Modi-Morison summit must address the gaps in the educational cooperation between India and Australia. A Joint Working Group on Education already exists; this group must comprehensively suggest new innovative ways to facilitate and enhance educational cooperation. There is also a need to promote and popularize the New Colombo Plan of Australia, which encourages Australian undergraduate students to study in Indo-Pacific countries in general and India in particular.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball into diplomatic plans. Australia has been comparatively successful in flattening the COVID-19 curve and containing the spread of virus. Its geographical location has worked in its favor, making it easier to restrict borders, and also the low population density has helped in following the social distancing norms. The spread of COVID-19 has created an opportunity worldwide to collaborate on research and development, especially in the field of medicine.
Another focus for the summit should be upgrading their defense relations. During the last “Two-Plus-Two” Dialogue between the foreign and defense secretaries of both countries in December 2019, India and Australia had moved closer to signing a mutual Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) for reciprocal access to each other’s bases and ports, similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between India and the United States. The upcoming virtual summit can take the agenda forward by signing the MLSA agreement.
India’s Army, Air Force, and Navy of India each have cooperation and engagement with their Australian counterparts. AUSTRA HIND (a Special Forces Army Exercise), AUSINDEX (a bilateral maritime exercise), KAKADU (a multilateral maritime exercise), and Exercise Pitch Black (a multilateral air exercise) are examples of the Indian Armed Forces’ close cooperation with Australian Armed Forces.
Now is an opportune time for India to shred its past hesitations about including Australia into the Malabar trilateral naval exercise. India should invite Australia to join the Malabar exercise, which also include the United States and Japan, as a permanent member of the grouping. Australia’s inclusion into Malabar will give a new fillip to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in terms of meaningful and outcome-oriented cooperation for building capacity and improving interoperability, along with the geopolitical signaling about the emerging balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.
India has always propagated the vision of a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” with a multipolar regional and world order wherein no one country should dominate or dictate regional affairs. India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific resonates very well with Australian Indo-Pacific perspective, which advocates for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” with a rules-based order and open market economies, along with the freedom of navigation in high seas and overflight. India and Australia share the same concern about China’s expansionist behavior, whether in the South China Sea or along China’s land border, especially the ongoing India-China border standoff. Other concerns include China’s economic coercion of Australia when the latter called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, as well as Chinese influence peddling in other countries through providing unsustainable loans and by promoting the Chinese authoritarian system, which ultimately appears to be a threat to the peaceful order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Connected by the waters of Indian Ocean, India and Australia can be two geographic, geopolitical, and geoeconomic pillars in the Indo-Pacific region. The Modi-Morrison virtual summit will play an important role in addressing outstanding issues so that both countries can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the region.
Ms. Shristi Pukhrem is Senior Research Fellow with India Foundation, New Delhi.
Mr. Siddharth Singh is pursuing his Ph.D. in Indo-Pacific studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.