In mid-June 2017, Indian warships reached the port city of Freemantle to conduct a Bilateral Maritime Exercise with the Australian Navy, called AUSINDEX. This week-long naval exercise raised hopes for deeper engagement between the two countries and for crafting a new rules-based system in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This need to maintain order in the IOR has become even more vital today, given China’s rising presence in the region and a not so assuring response from the US to the same. However, the actual nature of the security relationship between India and Australia is still beset with doubts that need to be addressed if a collaborative security framework in the IOR is to be established.
It is generally believed, that a major indicator of truly deep naval cooperation would be the inclusion of Australia in the India-led Malabar series of naval exercises. Though bilateral naval exercises have been conducted between India, Japan, the US and Australia in the past, there has not been a single quadrilateral naval manoeuvre involving these countries since 2007. After the inclusion of Japan as a permanent participant in 2015, Australia remains the only country, of the four, that is presently not a part of Malabar. Even though a request has been submitted by the Australian government to take part in this wargame, the response from New Delhi suggests that this request has not be accepted. So, the question arises: What is making India doubt its relationship with Australia?
One of the answers to the above could be Australia’ growing dependency on Chinese investments and trade. Overall Chinese investment in Australia reached a historic peak in 2016 when it amounted to almost $11.5 billion. Australia continues to be the second largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment and China also accounts for one-third of Australia’s exports. The export concentration is so severe that in 2013-14, a growth in sales to China alone accounted for almost 80 percent of all Australian export growth in value terms that year. This major Australian economic dependency on China does raise doubts about Canberra’s ability to follow through on any significant strategic alignment with New Delhi given the unfavourable stance of the latter towards growing Chinese military activities in the IOR. Moreover, Beijing’s recent use of ‘debt diplomacy’ to make Sri Lanka do its bidding on the strategic front only serves to heighten suspicions about China’s desire to leverage its skewed economic relationships for geopolitical gain.
Ambiguity, however, looms large as far as Australia’s stance towards the South China Sea (SCS) disputes in particular and power dynamics in the IOR in general is concerned. New Delhi’s concerns about Australia’s position hinge on two basic issues – first, the ambivalence of Australia vis-à-vis China, second, the lack of any substantive movement in the area of India-Australia bilateral military cooperation. In her speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2017, Minister of Defence, Marise Payne, did talk about Australia’s commitment towards maintaining a rules-based order in the SCS. However, at the same time, she also declared Australia’s support to and possible collaboration with Beijing in the latter’s use of military capabilities in shaping and maintaining regional security. Moreover, while the India-Japan Security Declaration takes a firm stance on China, the declaration between Australia and India stays ambivalent towards China by referring rather generally to a ‘shared desire to promote regional and global security’. Thus, Australia’s security relationship with India hasn’t really managed to come out of China’s shadow. This is a major impediment not only to the India-Australia security relationship but also to the development of a possible ‘quad’ in the Malabar naval exercise.
it must be said though, that Australia is not the only party that has maintained an ambivalent attitude. According to David Brewster, a distinguished fellow with the Australia-India Institute, India has hardly ever considered Australia to be an independent key player in the Indian Ocean littoral, unlike Japan or Singapore. Australia’s reluctance to recognize India as a dominant naval power in the IOR littoral and its tendency to be overwhelmingly dependent on the US when it comes to security cooperation has often pushed New Delhi to directly approach Washington instead of bilaterally involving Canberra. On the other hand, Canberra doesn’t want to find itself in a position where it has to ultimately choose between New Delhi and Beijing. Essentially, it has become difficult for both India and Australia to find concrete ground on which deeper military cooperation can be developed.
Turning it on its head, some analysts have suggested that it is actually India which is deterred from including Australia in Malabar due to the fear of an adverse Chinese response as in 2007. In my opinion, however, this does not come across as a strong enough argument, given that India of late has been taking a hard stance against what it considers to be Beijing’s encroachment in its sphere of influence. Ranging from India’s refusal to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, to forcefully objecting to China’s construction of a Class 40 road in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, that has led to the current standoff in that area, India has clearly held firm on various issues.
Now, as doubts still linger regarding the inclusion of Australia in the Malabar naval exercise, I think the focus should instead be on making the India-Australia bilateral relationship more meaningful. As that will ultimately open the path towards serious coalition building against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Karan Tripathi is a law student at Faculty of Law, Symbiosis International University, India and is currently interning with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, New Delhi
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