As their strategic interests intertwine, the India-Australia clinch will only get tighter in these countries' endeavour to counter the Chinese threat
China’s expansionist moves in the Indo-Pacific region have propelled in no small measure the tightening embrace between India and Australia. The ties between New Delhi and Canberra, on the upswing in recent years, have gathered further momentum with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent visit to India to participate in the first bilateral annual summit.
Both India and Australia have experienced China’s belligerence first-hand.
India is still grappling with the Chinese incursions in eastern Ladakh since 2020 where the People’s Liberation Army continues to occupy what it considers to be its territory amid a continuing face-off of troops. Australia, too, has got the wrong end of the stick from an angry Beijing, being slapped with crippling trade restrictions after the then Australian PM Scott Morrison sought a probe into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before that, the Morrison government’s decision in 2018 to ban Chinese company Huawei Technologies from its 5G network due to security concerns did not go down well with Beijing. The Indian government also excluded Huawei from its 5G trials, reflecting its security concerns though this was never explicitly stated.
The trade spat apart; Canberra also remains concerned about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. While bilateral relations under the Albanese government are on the mend – he met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Bali last year and foreign minister Penny Wong has visited Beijing – it’s fairly evident that Canberra is not willing to put all its eggs in one basket.
Likewise, stung by Chinese belligerence in the region and beyond, New Delhi too is keen to deepen ties with countries with whom it sees a strategic congruence. Hence the effort by both sides to give a greater impetus to their economic, defence and security ties.
As their strategic interests intertwine, the India-Australia clinch will only get tighter in their endeavour to counter a rising China. Indicative of the growing synergies, in 2022 alone the two countries exchanged 18 ministerial visits. External affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar has made three visits Down Under in the last year. New Delhi-Canberra had already elevated their ties to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2020, under whose rubric they noted that the two “share the vision of an open, free, rules-based Indo-Pacific region”.
Indeed, all four `Quad’ countries have made known their intentions to counter China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific by resolving to keep the region free and open. The Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, itself has evolved from being a meeting of just officials to now summits at the leader's level. While its members dismiss suggestions that it is an Asian or Indo-Pacific NATO with a military element, there is no doubt that the Quad is meant to contain China’s hegemonic ambitions which they see as a threat to regional stability.
An important pillar of this strategic partnership is the increasing cooperation in the defence and security sectors. India, for instance, shed its initial unwillingness to invite Australia to regularly participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise. It’s an exercise that makes China see red given that the other Quad nations, the US and Japan are also regular participants. India’s initial hesitancy has given way to embracing Australian participation in 2020, and this year the exercise will for the first time be conducted off the Australian coast.
But it’s not merely in the realm of security that India and Australia see an opportunity to join hands. Increasing strategic convergence has also meant that the two sides are working to reap the benefits of enhanced economic and trade ties while also building resilient supply chains to move away from dependence on China.
Three of the Quad members, India, Australia and Japan joined hands to launch the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) last year. The trilateral initiative in the Indo-Pacific has already raised Chinese hackles.
India and Australia also hope to bolster bilateral trade and investment. Bilateral trade exceeded $31 billion in the last fiscal and the balance of trade is in Australia's favour. The two sides would like the annual bilateral trade to touch the $100 billion mark. Towards this end, they signed the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) last year, while negotiations for the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) are currently underway.
That the Australian trade minister Don Farrell met his Indian counterpart Piyush Goyal within days of the Modi-Albanese Summit indicates the sense of urgency with which the two sides are working to see CECA through by the end of this year. Beijing, in the meantime, is still awaiting a visit by Farrell.
Australia sees India as a key element in its efforts to diversify trade after its ties with China deteriorated under the Morrison government. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, while India occupies the number nine slot. Stung by the trade sanctions, Canberra has made it clear that it wants to diversify its exports and is looking towards India which offers a huge market for its goods. With the Indo-Pacific emerging as the most critical region amidst the ongoing geopolitical realignment, New Delhi and Canberra are pressing all the right buttons for now. Time will tell if the two cricketing nations can face up to China on a bouncy, unpredictable pitch.
(The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist)