The foreign and defense secretaries of India and Australia held a 2+2 Dialogue in New Delhi on December 9, 2019. This was the third 2+2 dialogue between both the countries. This dialogue mechanism was started in 2017 and since then has been held every year. It is important to understand this dialogue from three perspectives – first as one in the series of 2+2 dialogues held by India (which India also holds with the United States and Japan), second what it means for India-Australia bilateral relations and third as a part of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific.
The 2+2 Dialogue is a recent mechanism added to India’s diplomatic engagements. India holds 2+2 Dialogues with the United States, Japan, and Australia. Of all these three countries, India had started this dialogue first with Australia, then with the United States, and Japan is the latest country to join in this dialogue. India and these three countries are also a part of the proposed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. This is an arrangement considered to promote rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Recently India held 2+2 Dialogues with all the three countries in one month. India had 2+2 Dialogue with Japan on November 30 in New Delhi. India and the United States held their 2+2 Dialogue on December 18 in Washington, D.C. These 2+2 dialogues could be considered as a significant development in the view of three meetings on the Quad held this year. In May 2019, senior officials of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia met in Bangkok for consultations on free and open Indo-Pacific. In September 2019, the first ministerial meeting of the Quad countries was held in New York. This meeting was held between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Foreign Ministers of India, Japan, and Australia. In November 2019, senior officials of the Quad countries met in Bangkok on the sidelines of East Asia Summit. Increased engagements of the Quad countries and 2+2 dialogues indicate acceleration from all the countries. Nevertheless, more concerted efforts would be necessary to give a concrete shape to the concept of the Quad.
Either viewed from a bilateral perspective or multilateral perspective, India-Australia relations are yet to reach the full potential. There is much scope for both countries to strengthen their relations. Of India’s relations with the United States, Japan, and Australia, it would take a considerable effort from both India and Australia to bring their relations at par with India-US and India-Japan relations. India’s relations with the United States and Japan are more diversified than India-Australia relations. Also, Australia had remained a neglected entity for a long time in India’s foreign policy.
Only in recent times, India has taken steps to address this issue. This was evident when in November 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia after 28 years. China has been a significant factor that has influenced India-Australia relations. Australia’s closeness to China during Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s tenure was a cause of concern for India. Now under Scott Morrison’s premiership, Australia has been growing close to the United States. Until now, considerable diplomatic efforts from India’s side have been directed towards balancing its relations with Australia and China.
However, in recent times India and Australia have been focusing on increasing their engagements. This 2+2 Dialogue with Australia will be followed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to India in January 2020. In 2018, Australia released the India Economic Strategy 2035 report, which set a target for Australia to make India as one of the top three export as well as investment destinations. During Morrison’s visit, both the countries are also expected to sign a logistics agreement that would enable interoperability between the militaries of both countries. More focus on strategic areas is necessary for India and Australia at bilateral as well as multilateral levels.
There are certain issues that still need to be sorted out. Indian Navy holds Malabar Exercise with the navies of the United States and Japan. This exercise was started in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between the navies of India and the United States. Since 2015, Japan has also been a permanent partner in this exercise. Australia participated in this exercise once in 2007. However, Australia is not a permanent partner. Concerns expressed from China have been considered as the reason to exclude Australia from the Malabar Exercise. However, India held a bilateral naval exercise with Australia named AUSINDEX in April 2019. Inclusion of Australia as a permanent partner in the Malabar Exercise remains a contentious issue between the other members, which must be sorted out since it would also strengthen the cause of the Quad.
Similarly, India’s 2+2 Dialogue with the United States and Japan are held at the ministerial level, but 2+2 Dialogue with Australia is held at the secretary level. Both countries could consider upgrading the dialogue to ministerial level in order to strengthen the bilateral relations. From the perspective of the Quad, India, and Australia have increased their engagements, but both countries need more efforts at the bilateral level.
India’s role in the Indo-Pacific
India has been advocating rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. India also calls for a multilateral order that would protect the interests of all. Australia is one of the crucial countries from India’s point of view in the Indo-Pacific, but India’s stand is that any arrangement should not be aimed at a particular country. Countries like the United States and even Australia have been pushing for a more significant role for India in the Indo-Pacific. China’s assertive activities across the Indo-Pacific region are a matter of concern for a number of countries, including India. The United States, Japan, and Australia aim at creating an arrangement that would act as a deterrent to China. How India and the other Quad countries arrive on a consensus is yet to be seen. Similarly, India would need significant diplomatic balancing if it has to protect its own strategic and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific and, at the same time, maintain cordial relations with China.
*** The author is an independent journalist based in Vadodara, India and tweets at @NiranjanMarjani ***