The following words by the Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith encapsulate the importance of bilateral cooperation between India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific:
“It is under-appreciated that Perth and Chennai are closer to each other than Sydney is to Seoul, to Shanghai, or Tokyo…..As the world sees the potential of an Asian/Pacific century unfolds, Australia sees India at the heart of this historic shift in the political and economic influence”.
The above statement by the then Foreign Minister of Australia explicitly reflects the significance that is attached to India-Australia security cooperation in the geopolitical and geo-economics hotbed of the Indo-Pacific. This is against an emerging notion of the Indo-Pacific which packs diverse perspectives from the major powers sharing common values and interests. India and Australia are part of this emerging axis in the Indo-Pacific which includes countries of the Indo-Pacific littoral, France, Japan and the United States, which can now be seen as moving towards a common geopolitical and geo-economic agenda. With the enhancement in the level of security cooperation between the two middle powers, India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, amidst growing Chinese influence in the region, the two countries have stuck their neck out to defend the principles of free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region. Amidst all odds, India and Australia bilateral ties have seen solidification and a strategic upgrade from Strategic Partnership to a rejuvenated Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The thrust in partnership between India and Australia is likely to boost not just the bilateral relationship but also consolidate partnerships with other partner countries falling under the ambit of the Indo-Pacific Belt. These includes the countries extending from the Horn of Africa to the countries of the Indonesian Archipelago and beyond. On 4 June, 2020, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison virtually held an India-Australia Leaders’ Summit 2020 to uplift the strategic partnership and make the Indo-Pacific more open, free, stable and prosperous in the post-COVID-19 world order. The signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) is based on the shared principles and mutual interest such as the rule of law, open, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. The “2+2” Dialogue is a unique diplomatic equation that two counterparts share depending on the level of mutual-trust, common values and principles, their long-term vision for peace and security mutual-confidence and shared-interests. The “2+2” Dialogues have been developed at two levels, the first level is often referred as the “2+2” Secretary Level Dialogue and the second level is often termed as the “2+2” Ministerial Level Dialogue, with latter holding greater significance as it involves the political heads from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs like the Minister of External Affairs of India and the Foreign Affairs Minister of Australia respectively and from the Ministry of Defence Affairs like the Minister of Defence of the two countries. Albeit, India and Australia took to the Strategic Partnership as late as 2009 but within a decade they have built solid grounds for deepening their bilateral ties especially in the Indo-Pacific Region. The dialogue involves the meeting of the Defence and Foreign Ministers of the two countries at least once in a two-year span to assess the comprehensive strategic partnership that two countries share. Before signing the CSP with Australia, India already had established “2+2” Ministerial Level Dialogue with the United States and Japan. Changing currents of international affairs and the accelerated rate of developments on all major dimensions such as economic, social, political, cultural and now most crucial on geopolitical and geo-economics fronts shows the push towards the crystallisation of the Indo-Pacific vision that the two countries share.
A Comprehensive Assessment
What significance does this dialogue hold for India-Australia Security Cooperation? The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with “2+2” Ministerial Level Dialogue between India and Australia has not only widened the evolving strategic partnership that the two countries had since 2009 but has significantly opened new avenues on multiple sectors such as the threats and challenges in a post-COVID-19 world. The new avenues as highlighted in the Joint Statement of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia are maritime domain, specifically, an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, Defence Cooperation, Terrorism, Regional and Multilateral Cooperation, greater collaboration in science and technology, entrepreneurship and innovation, economic cooperation, people-to-people cooperation, energy and environment, etc. The new avenues have the potential to not just bring mutual-benefit to the two partners involved but also has the potential to ameliorate the instability and a sense of insecurity that is prevailing in the countries of the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Apart from what can already signal a robust bilateral relationship between India and Australia- the official foreign and defence white papers of Australia and India’s National Maritime Policy add more substance to the ongoing developments of Indo-Pacific. However, various leading research amongst the leading strategic communities across the globe points out the need for later to develop a more comprehensive and Pan-Indian Ocean Strategy and Maritime Domain Awareness to tackle long-term and current challenges that the Indo-Pacific Region faces as a whole. The vision such as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) supports the heightened level of strategic and security partnership that India-Australia imbibes in the Indo-Pacific. However, there is much room for dialogue and debate among major stakeholders in the region to collaborate in shaping the new security architecture in the region. The major stakeholders such as India, the US, Japan, the UK, France and Australia along with multinational and international bodies such as the UN (United Nations), ASEAN (Association of South-East Nations, IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, FIPIC (Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation), Multilateral and Bilateral Naval and Air Exercises- and their smooth-functioning combined with their long-term vision have immense potential in shaping the emerging security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. One needs to use “Evasive Balancing” strategy towards Chinese waxing influence in the region. India and its major bilateral partners in the Indo-Pacific domain such as the US, Japan, Australia, France and the UK have explicitly enunciated in their policy papers concerning the region about using cooperative and evasive balancing strategy against assertive China. The role of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a wait and watch the situation as challenges and opportunities unfold in the region.
** The author is an Intern at KIIPS. He has a postgraduate degree in International Relations from Symbiosis International University**