China’s growing influence and aggression in the waters is leading to increased concern among countries around the Indo-Pacific. It is this key factor that is pushing India and Australia closer on maritime engagements. The two have decided to elevate their relationship to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and it is expected that the two could ink a crucial agreement, the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement, on Thursday when PM Narendra Modi meets his counterpart Scott Morrison for a virtual summit.
The ground work for the agreement was completed in December last year in the 2+2 dialogue between the Defence and Foreign secretaries of India and Australia. The agreement will allow the two countries to use each other’s military bases.
The two countries also conducted a two-week-long bilateral maritime exercise in April last year called AUSINDEX. The exercise was first held in 2015. The focus was on anti-submarine warfare, incorporating maritime patrols and reconnaissance aircraft.
When asked whether Australia would like to join the Malabar exercise, the Australian high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, said that it was upto the participants to decide on that aspect. The Malabar exercise is a tri-lateral maritime exercise conducted by India, US and Japan. Interestingly, if Australia does join the Malabar exercise at any stage, then all four members of the security dialogue ‘The Quad’ would be part of it.
The Quad was revived in 2017 after a decade and China had reacted sharply to it, suggesting it was aimed at countering Beijing. However, India has publicly maintained that the Quad is not to counter China. PM Modi, while speaking at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018, had said: “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”
O’Farrell said, “It is crucial as ever for like-minded democracies and important partners like India and Australia to work together to shape the type of region and the type of world we want to live in presently and post Covid-19.”
Ministry of External Affairs in a statement ahead of the summit said, “We have a shared approach to a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
The two sides will also look at engagement in cybersecurity and trade – specifically maintaining supply chains. The trade between the two countries currently is at $21 billion. Australia’s cumulative investment in India is about $10.74 billion whereas India’s investment in Australia is $10.45 billion. In a statement India said, “It is looking at stepping up investments and trade with each other.”
The summit is being held virtually after being postponed twice this year; once in January due to the Australian Bushfires and then in May due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is for this reason that both sides are going ahead with a virtual summit, the first for India. Australia has held a virtual summit earlier this year with Singapore.