By Anil Wadhwa
The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between India and Australia- two democratic countries, pluralistic societies and market economies who see eye to eye on diverse issues across the board in recent times – has just received another shot in the arm through their first ever 2+2 ministerial dialogue. Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women Senator the Hon Marise Payne and Defence Minister the Hon Peter Dutton MP, travelled to New Delhi on 10-11 September for in person meetings with their counterparts from India, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. At the heart of this interaction, which arose out of a decision taken at the virtual Summit between the two Prime Ministers in June 2020, was the objective of advancing their shared vision of an open, free, prosperous and rules-based Indo – Pacific region. They have decided to meet at least once every two years in this format to keep up the momentum. Over the past few years, there has been unprecedented engagement, development of new mechanisms and synergies as well as burgeoning people to people contacts between the two countries.
Agreement was reached to deepen cooperation in vaccine manufacturing, including under the Quad framework, and to deliver high quality vaccines to their Indo – Pacific partners. Researchers of both countries are working together to advance Covid 19 screening and study the future health effects of the virus through projects funded by the Australia – India Strategic Research Fund. Building upon the Resilient Supply Chains Initiative launched by their Trade Ministers, they agreed to work together through multilateral, regional and plurilateral mechanisms to diversify supply chains between trusted and reliable trading partners for critical health, technology and other goods and services.
The Ministers agreed to continue to bolster their maritime cooperation, working together to support the health and sustainability of oceans and water resources, and support India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative. Their reiteration of commitment to maintain a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo- Pacific region to support freedom of navigation, over flight and peaceful and unimpeded commerce by adherence of all nations to international law including UNCLOS, the peaceful resolution of disputes; and their emphasis on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea which is fully consistent with International law, particularly UNCLOS, and does not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law point to their concerns about aggressive Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Over the past few years, China’s actions– including extensive island building at sites it occupies illegally in the Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal, denial of fishing rights and assertion of claims against neighbours like Philippines and Vietnam in disputed seas, and naval incursions around the Japanese Senkaku islands in the East China Sea has heightened concerns in a number of countries around the world.
In this context, Asean would note the joint commitment of both countries to its centrality and to a strong, resilient and inclusive regional architecture that they will try to achieve through plurilateral and trilateral mechanisms. Also notable was the commitment of both countries to the Quad mechanism and its “positive” agenda aimed at practical cooperation in Covid 19 vaccines, maritime security, climate change, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, connectivity and infrastructure, counter terrorism, and critical and emerging technologies. This is significant, coming as it does before the first in person Summit of the Quad leaders which is expected later this month in Washington.
While reaffirming support for the Indian candidacy for permanent membership of the UNSC, grants of Australian $ 1 million to the International Solar Alliance, and Australian $10 million to the Coalition for Disaster Resilient infrastructure – both India led initiatives were announced and joint research and investments pledged by Australia in low emissions technologies. Interestingly, after detailed discussion on a joint approach, India and Australia have called upon ‘those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan” to adhere to counter terrorism commitments and human rights, in accordance with UNSCR 2593 and the cessation of violence, restoration of democracy, release of political detainees and dialogue in Myanmar. Australia was briefed on the ongoing disengagement talks with China on the India China LAC. Both countries, especially India, are concerned that the Pakistani influenced Taliban government should not start supporting the Pakistani agenda of outsourced terror activities from its soil and harm the security interests of India and other regional countries.
The Defence relationship promises a lot, the synergies between the armed forces of the two countries have been enhanced considerably in recent years, and Australia’s continued presence in Malabar exercises, ramping up the air force cooperation, as well as Indian participation in future in Talisman Sabre exercises will raise interoperability while both sides explore longer term reciprocal arrangements in logistics support. The last version of the Malabar exercises was held off the coast of Guam last month, while the next phase will be held in the Bay of Bengal from October 11-14. The maritime forces of the two countries are currently participating in the AUSINDEX exercises off the northern Coast of Australia. Both sides endeavor to increase cooperation in various defence technologies and the dialogue between the Defence Research & Development organization of India and the Defence Science and Technology Group of Australia as well as ISRO and Australian Space Agency continues, but cooperation in defence industries including unmanned vehicles, Artificial Intelligence and other niche technologies were specifically singled out. Defence Minister of India Rajnath Singh invited Australia to invest in India in defence manufacturing, and to take advantage of the recently announced liberalized policies related to the co-development and co-production of weapons systems.
Both sides emphasized cooperation in cyber security, innovation, digital economy, cyber and critical technologies and pledged to work together in secure telecommunications networks including 5G. Foreign Minister Marise Payne conveyed that India wants to work with India in setting standards and rules for secure and resilient technologies. Notably, there was agreement to reinforce maritime domain awareness through information sharing and practical cooperation. A liaison officer has been posted from Australia at the Information fusion center – Indian Ocean Region in Gurugram and Australia will further strengthen its defence related diplomatic presence at the Embassy in New Delhi. The two sides can be expected to do more to maximize resources to ensure free and open critical maritime corridors in the Indo – Pacific. There was commitment to keep the seas, space and airways free and open; to keep nations secure from terrorism and piracy, to ensure that global cyberspace is free from disruption, and to ensure access to and responsible use of global commons. They also pledged to strengthen cooperation in critical minerals where a working group has made progress, reports have been released and their scientific organizations are working together. They agreed to continue to work together on counter terrorism; countering of radicalization and on the proposed UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
There was renewed support expressed for an early harvest announcement by December 2021 on an interim agreement to liberalize and deepen bilateral trade in goods and services, and pave the way for a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, as well as an early resolution of the issue of taxation of offshore income of Indian firms under the India Australia Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. An early conclusion of the Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement was also flagged. India’s national Education Policy 2020 has paved the way for boosting collaboration between the academic institutions of both countries further, but the burning topic of the day is the travel facilitation of Indian students enrolled in Australian Universities – Foreign Minister Marise Payne spent considerable time on the issue, assuring of best efforts in this regard. The two natural partners can look back with satisfaction on their productive discussions.
(The author is a former Secretary (East) in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and has served as the Indian Ambassador to Poland, Oman, Thailand and Italy. Currently, he is a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)