By Pradeep S Mehta & Amit Dasgupta
Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese’s first visit to India heralded an extraordinary strategic expansion in bilateral relations. Albanese developed close personal equations with prime minister Modi during this visit. It would be fair to predict that with Albanese visiting India again in the last quarter of the year, and PM Modi visiting Australia in May this year, 2023 would see extraordinary consolidation in the bilateral relationship.
At one level, the visit consolidated existing partnerships in promoting cultural ties, people-to-people contacts, educational and skilling collaboration, cooperation in science and technology, and bolstering trade and investment through the common understanding on upgradation of the existing Economic Cooperation & Trade Agreement (ECTA) to a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). At another level, it placed focus on the Indo-Pacific through expanded security and defence cooperation keeping the Indo-Pacific squarely in mind. On board INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, Albanese referred to India as Australia’s ‘top tier security partner’ and the centrality of the Indian Ocean for both countries. For the first time, Australia would host Exercise Malabar, which would involve naval ships from India, the US, and Japan. Stepped up military exercises by Australian and Indian armed forces were also announced stressing their ‘increasingly strategic importance’ as both nations navigate the challenges of the region together.
The extraordinary pace at which India-Australia relations has leap-frogged has baffled foreign policy pundits and is a credit to the commitment and consistency with which New Delhi and Canberra have focused on not only mutual interest and shared aspirations but also a futuristic agenda for the Indo-Pacific based on shared concerns prompted by Beijing’s expansionist and belligerent agenda. In fact, in less than a decade, prime minister Modi’s 2014 visit to Australia lifted the relationship from lukewarm to the pivotal influencer that it has become in the Indo-Pacific. The bipartisan support has enabled external affairs minister Jaishankar to enjoy excellent relations with his Australian ministerial colleagues.
One of the core compulsions behind this dramatic transformation in relations is the joint concern at Beijing’s garrulous behaviour, which has caused uncertainty and turbulence in the Indo Pacific. Take the Pacific Island countries, for instance, where Beijing has initiated a series of interventions, especially in matters related to security. This has been a cause of great discomfort for Australia and India, as it could dramatically alter the scenario in the region. In an unprecedented gesture, Modi would be the first Indian prime minister to visit Papua and New Guinea. Earlier this year, Jaishankar visited Fiji. India and Australia will, undoubtedly, exchange assessments to align interventions in a meaningful and sustainable manner to counter Chinese overtures in the Pacific island states. The forthcoming Quad Summit in Sydney is, similarly, likely to explore how the grouping may be further strengthened, so that smaller nations in the region see it as a confidence booster. New areas could be introduced into the cooperation matrix, such as health, drug research and manufacturing, and international education and research. Defence and security are likely to remain critical components of the Quad agenda and a direct response to China’s behaviour.
The previous government in Canberra had adopted a harsh line towards Beijing, which the current government has softened somewhat. At the same time, both prime minister Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong are realistic in their assessment that China poses a strategic threat and that Australian security interests are better served by moving away from singular dependence on Beijing, especially in matters related to trade. At the same time, it bears mentioning that the second-most widely spoken language in Australia is Mandarin. Relations with China go back several decades and the shifting from an entrenched way of thinking will not happen overnight. Australian business knows that CECA, while important, will not immediately alter the status quo. After all, Australia-China two-way trade currently stands at A$250 billion, which is ten times the Australia-India bilateral trade! What Australia seeks to achieve, to borrow a phrase from Foreign Minister Penny Wong, is ‘strategic equilibrium’, which is an evolving process.
Robustness of bilateral relations depends entirely on the canvas of areas in which it collaborates. This is well reflected in the diverse and multiple verticals that both sides have jointly identified, such as, education, research, skilling, health, and technology, to name a few. Additionally, futuristic areas have also become the focus of strategic interest, for instance, joint projects in cyber and critical technology in space involving joint projects for the development of ethical frameworks, rules and standards that apply to critical technologies to help shape a global technology environment in furtherance of an open, free, rules-based Indo-Pacific region. CUTS is engaged in a project to look at the evolution of standards for the upcoming 6G technology. There are various similar projects which will lead to good global outcomes, that would reinforce India’s image as a digital economy leader.
The rapport established between the two prime ministers during Albanese’s visit holds great promise for the bilateral relationship and may well emerge as the most defining relationship in the Indo Pacific, notwithstanding former prime minister and China supporter Kevin Rudd’s expected though uncalled-for outburst that it could trigger an ‘accidental’ war.
(Respectively, secretary general, CUTS International, and a CUTS and Australia India Institute Distinguished Fellow)