India’s Place in Australia’s National Defense Strategy 2024

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India’s Place in Australia’s National Defense Strategy 2024

The pace of growth in the Australia-India strategic relationship is quite impressive, but New Delhi’s hesitance on hard security issues may hamper further developments. 

India’s Place in Australia’s National Defense Strategy 2024
Credit: Depositphotos

The Australia-India relationship has strengthened significantly over the last decade. From annual summit meetings between the two leaders to the Australia-India Foreign and Defense Ministerial Dialogue, the political and security engagements between New Delhi and Canberra have been elevated. Despite a certain amount of traditional wariness among Australian analysts about the prospects of the relationship, and vice versa, there has been rapid growth in the bilateral partnership, primarily driven by the growing threat that both sides perceive from China. 

The pace of growth in the Australia-India strategic relationship is quite impressive. The two countries promoted their partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership only in June 2020 and then followed this up with an inaugural round of 2+2 ministerial dialogues at the level of foreign and defense ministers in September 2021. This reflects a certain amount of urgency that both countries attach to their bilateral relationship in addressing changing regional strategic dynamics. India engages in such ministerial level 2+2 dialogues only with a handful of countries, including the United States and Japan, demonstrating the importance that India attaches to its relationship with Australia. 

Two countries also signed a military logistics agreement that facilitates their access to each other’s military bases on a reciprocal basis for repair and replenishment. These agreements are critical in enhancing better understanding and building deeper partnership between the two militaries.

Both India and Australia have benefitted from their other broader minilateral engagements, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) and the more functional Australia-India-Japan supply chain resilience initiative. The two countries have used these platforms to relay the critical importance of international law, while ensuring that Asia does not become a hegemonic space. The message is clearly meant for China, though it is carefully not directly named. 

The first National Defense Strategy issued by Australia last week gives a fair amount of importance to India. The strategy was also accompanied by the 2024 Integrated Investment Program and is based on the recommendation of the 2023 Defense Strategic Review. In deepening defense partnerships, the strategy identifies key partners across multiple regions in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan and India. It states that in the context of continuing deterioration of the strategic environment and the “competition [that] is playing out in military and non-military ways,” Australia should “work with other key partners – notably New Zealand, Japan, our partners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific family, the Republic of Korea, India as well as the U.K. and other European nations – that share our concerns.” This is in addition to the U.S., which is Australia’s “closest ally and principal strategic partner.”

The strategy further identifies “the [growing] risk of a crisis or conflict in the Taiwan Strait” in addition to multiple flashpoints including territorial issues in South and East China Seas and the Sino-Indian border. The mounting competition for “access and influence across the Indian Ocean” including strategic ports is also given prominent attention in the strategy, all of which are also of concern to India.

In managing the evolving situation in the Indian Ocean region, the strategy identifies India as a “top-tier security partner for Australia” and adds that through the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries, Australia “is continuing to prioritize practical and tangible cooperation that directly contributes to Indo-Pacific stability.” In this regard, it added that Canberra “will continue to support India’s key role in the region by increasing the depth and complexity of our defense cooperation” including through both “bilateral and multilateral cooperation, defense industry cooperation and information sharing.” The strategy also refers to the worrying trends in India-Pakistan and India-China relations, which also carry “the risk of nuclear weapons use or proliferation a factor in each potential flashpoint.” 

On the other hand, Australia’s growing concerns about China also mean that it is tightening security partnerships. With AUKUS and the Australia-Japan security cooperation agreement, Canberra is clearly getting more serious about augmenting its defense capabilities, as well as enhancing military flexibility and interoperability with key partners. There are several more bilateral and other agreements coming up in the Indo-Pacific, as efforts intensify to bring more capable powers from beyond the region to build up the military muscle in the Indo-Pacific. European powers such as France and the U.K. have demonstrated their interests in contributing to maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific. While these are not meant to replace the Quad, there is a potential danger of the Quad becoming less relevant because other agreements have gained a lot more teeth in dealing with the hard security issues in the Indo-Pacific. 

Considering that Australia is tightening its partnerships, the question is whether India is as important to Australia as some of these other partners. It is possible that the Quad is losing some of its focus on traditional hard security issues because of India’s reservations. This, in turn, could potentially be creating an incentive for India’s partners – Australia, but also Japan and the United States – to look to other regional arrangements that are more suited to their security requirements. Over time, this raises the risk that the Quad could become just a talk-shop with limited utility, while India’s other Quad partners look elsewhere. 

In sum, even as there has been deepening engagement between New Delhi and Canberra, there are also potential concerns. Despite all the nice sentiments in the Australian document, the reality is that there is greater momentum in some of Australia’s other partnerships than there is with India. This may be mainly because New Delhi is still reluctant to consider the kind of security partnerships that Australia’s other partners are willing to engage in, but it does reveal some limitations for the future of the relationship.