Only ten years ago, it would have been impossible to say that the cooperation between Australia and India was particularly active. But since then, the two countries have intensified their efforts to collaborate with one another, with notable success. The reason for India’s and Australia’s increased interest in deepening their partnership is the concern felt by both about China’s growing might and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC).
As PRC’s economic and political influence in APAC countries increased and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) became more active in the Pacific Ocean, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and other nations of the region grew more and more worried. India felt the same concern as it witnessed similar developments in the Indian Ocean and Africa. Hence, all of these countries started trying to foster cooperation with one another in the political and military spheres.
In November 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott signed the Australia–India Framework for Security Cooperation, which provided an important impetus to their efforts to foster closer ties between the two nations.
There are high-level visits between Australia and India, and the two countries are deepening their military and political cooperation at such events as, for example, the 2+2 Dialogue, involving their foreign and defense ministers, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), which India’s and Australia’s Prime Ministers participate in along with their Japanese and U.S. counterparts.
Australia and India are currently working on bilateral agreements on logistics support and information exchange, and are finishing up their broader maritime agreement. All of these efforts should ease military cooperation and aid in the development of a strategic partnership.
Still, despite all of these ties and common fears about the PRC, India and Australia have been unable to establish a firm anti-Chinese alliance thus far, as both countries view one another with a certain degree of suspicion. One of the stumbling blocks on the path to a partnership between India and Australia is the former’s identity politics, which, in the opinion of western nations (including Australia), run counter to democratic values that the West views as the basis of cooperation with its partners, and also lead to right violations of India’s Muslim population.
For instance, in August 2019, the government of Assam (a state in India) published its National Register of Citizens (NRC) that left out approximately 2 million of the state’s residents of foreign descent, who might, therefore, be in danger of deportation because their Indian citizenship cannot be ascertained. In December 2019, the Parliament of India decided to grant fast-tracked Indian citizenship to all non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They include Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Zoarites and Sikhs, and, according to the Indian government, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is meant to protect religious minorities fleeing persecution in Muslim-majority countries. However, asylum seekers who practice Islam can only acquire Indian citizenship after going through the process of naturalization, in accordance with the current legislation. And, millions of undocumented Muslim migrants could now be in danger of deportation, even those that managed to reside in India for dozens of years. The decision sparked protests among the Indian population (comprising 200 million Muslims), which resulted in unrest and casualties. In addition, the CAA drew criticism from a number of nations and the West’s liberal media outlets.
It is difficult to say what effect all of this will have on the development of the Australia–India relations. The West is well-known for its pragmatism and often chooses to turn a blind eye to controversial behavior of its partners if cooperation with them is truly beneficial. The presence of China in Asia-Pacific is becoming increasingly noticeable, thus Australia as well as other Western nations will just have to accept India’s domestic policies for the sake of their own security and to preserve the usual order in APAC. Many Australian politicians have been expressing their enthusiasm about the future of their nation’s relationship with India. Still, in January 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose not to attend the Raisina Dialogue conference.
Raisina Dialogue is an international conference that has been held annually in New Delhi since 2016 and is organized by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and its think-tank Observer Research Foundation. During this event, India discusses its most topical issues on geopolitics and geo-economics with its key partners. The 5th edition of the Raisina Dialogue was held in January 2020, and Scott Morrison was slated to give the inaugural address at the conference. But only Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne was at the event. Scott Morrison sent a video message to the conference attendees stating that he was forced to remain in Australia until the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis had been resolved. The fires were truly a nation-wide disaster that required the leadership’s undivided attention. Still, the fact is the Australian Prime Minister missed one of India’s most important political events.
Another issue affecting the level of cooperation between the two countries is that each nation is concerned with China’s actions in its own region, i.e. Australia is worried about the South Pacific while India about the Indian Ocean and South Asia. Hence, each side wishes to direct its main efforts towards keeping its own sphere of influence intact, and worries that its partner will try to put its own issues first on their joint agenda.
And finally, Australia is part of the western world and USA’s key ally, so much so that there are American military bases in its territory. Cooperating with Australia means increased collaboration with the United States for India. The USA has been trying to entice India into its anti-Chinese bloc for quite some time, but for India the policy of non-alignment with any military partnerships is at the core of its strategy. Hence, although India does cooperate with the United States, it does so on a limited basis, so as not to become too dependent on this relationship, and it also tries to treat its partnership with Australia separate from that with the USA. There are reports that India is the nation that opposes Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercises, which it stages with the United States on an annual basis.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that complete trust is lacking between China’s two main rivals in the Indo-Pacific. India is afraid of falling under the influence of the West, while the West comes across as a partner who is concerned only with its own interests. Distrust hinders the development of military and political cooperation between PRC’s rivals, and China, in the meantime, continues to grow more powerful, and it is even becoming difficult for the United States to compete with this leading player by itself.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.