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Defense & Security
Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar with Admiral John C Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command

India-Australia Defence Cooperation and Collaboration in the Indo-Pacific

by Dr Shubhamitra Das

The significant rise in defence and security ties between India and Australia has led to an ease in dealing with their responsibilities in multilateral regional forums. The institutionalisation of cooperation has also become more strategic.  The geostrategic positioning of India and Australia on the Indian and Pacific Oceans has helped with the convergence of interests, enabling relations to expand and steadily deepen. Unlike in earlier times when New Delhi and Canberra were searching for equal grounds for cooperation, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has made this easier, enhancing the conviction that greater engagement was an inevitability of their geographic circumstances. It made them partners to jointly take responsibility for maintaining a free, open, inclusive and peaceful Indo-Pacific, which demands a noticeable tilt towards defence and security cooperation. India has long aspired to be the key protagonist in the Indian Ocean; Australia has wanted to more naturally belong to the region. Moreover, Australia’s foreign policy over the years has emphasised playing a constructive role in the region with enhanced regional engagement. Though China looms large in each nation’s strategic calculation, the issues that unite both countries go beyond China and include the multifaceted challenges of maritime security, piracy, armed robbery, smuggling of small arms, protracted internal conflict, illegal, unprotected, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, cyber security, climate change, and ocean-born trade security. The India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (2020), upgraded from the bilateral strategic partnership of 2009, is an effort to broaden the scope of their defence and security relationship by finding new initiatives, methods, and mechanisms to sustain mutual security interests. These have been bolstered to-date through cooperation in the AUSINDEX, Kakadu, Pitch Black, Milan, and Malabar military exercises, and with further collaboration in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, 2+2 ministerial dialogues, Joint Working Group for research on enhancing defence industry, mutual logistics, and intelligence support and sharing agreements. These have included, for example, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and officer exchange programs. In addition, Australia’s invitation to India to join Exercise Talisman Sabre, the most important military exercise between Australia and the United States, will set another milestone for cooperation. Both countries further engage in humanitarian matters, energy security, and marine and space research. Their commitment to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in Afghanistan and within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in vaccine distribution, for example, highly has been successful. In energy security, both have agreed to focus on UN Sustainable Development Goals and work on new and renewable technology in solar and wind energy. One potential area for cooperation – being maritime powers – will be wave energy for sustainable and resilient energy sources. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, in which India and Australia are deeply involved, will work on a whole array of issues involving marine ecology; security of maritime borders; pollutants, like marine plastics; IUU fishing; and marine research for conservation purposes. In addition, India and Australia have updated the Memorandum of Understanding in space programs, technology advancement, and joint space programs. Australia will also be supporting India in tracking the Gaganyaan mission – India’s first space-manned mission – at Cocos Keeling Island. Currently, India and Australia are at a crucial juncture. The election of the new government in Australia in 2022 is likely to aid the strong relationship between the two nations. But the turn for India to head the G20 is also expected to facilitate greater cooperation, particularly in economic and trade liberalisation and potential reform of economic regimes such as the World Trade Organization. In April 2022, India and Australia signed their first Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement. The fast pace at which their trade took off – from US$13.6 billion in 2007 to US$24.3 billion in 2020 – shows the many benefits of diversifying their trade. In addition, the elimination of tariffs for nearly 90 percent of Indian exports will further boost the Indian economy. The question is whether India will continue to engage its economy regionally in multilateral economic bodies. While it declined to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, India has begun a process of seeking bilateral FTAs with most member countries. What Australia and India can achieve bilaterally to make the comprehensive strategic partnership effective is to engage in dialogue with regional littoral countries on defence and security. This engagement will help with confidence-building and familiarity among partners. However, the advantage of this type of institutionalisation of the Indo-Pacific depends upon the degree to which states seek interaction. The littoral states, in this sense, should be included within the Indo-Pacific complex as much as possible. The emerging paradigm of inclusivity and pluralism within a free, open, and peaceful Indo-Pacific will bring together the littoral and less powerful countries of the region and empower them to join and engage with others; that is, those who otherwise do not have a voice or clout in international political platforms. Along these lines, the Indian Security and Growth for all (SAGAR) initiative seeks to enhance cooperation through information sharing, capacity building, coastline surveillance, and infrastructure building. The India-Australia-Indonesia trilateral dialogue is another attempt to enhance cooperation in the same direction. Although it was presumed in India that the Labor government in Australia might be more inclined toward China, it was understood that this did not mean a policy and behavioral turnaround. Instead, Canberra’s focus will include a mix of continuity and change. Australia has come a long way in its institutionalisation of the Indo-Pacific, and its ability to diversify its interests by engaging with the littoral countries deserves special attention. To be sure, China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea and it’s diplomatic handling of Australia’s COVID-19 inquiry have been influential here. But the process has also been captive to such institutionalisation as mentioned above. Australia’s involvement with Quad and its participation in the military exercises with India and other Quad countries in the Indian Ocean will continue to strain its relations with China. In addition, the Russia-Ukraine war will likely continue to drive foreign policy activism and cooperation among like-minded countries, of which Australia figures prominently. The takeaway here is that regular interaction between the two countries on various defence-related activities has worked to enhance mutual respect and understanding of shared values. This interaction has broader implications. Both nations can support each other in addressing issues of mutual concern internationally. Their engagement in trilateral groupings like the India-Australia-Indonesia and India-Japan-Australia dialogues, as well as joint engagement in the Supply Chains Resilience Initiative and the Quad with the United States and Japan, represent successful examples of bilateral and multilateral trust and relationship-building. One significant outcome of these growing partnerships will be to revive and strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association in awareness generation, capacity-building, and consensus-building. Lastly, all the above initiatives are government efforts to enhance partnerships. The involvement and regular interaction of academia, think tanks, civil society, and the media have been equally important and will continue to play an important role in boosting these relationships.

Rock Islands on the Pacific Ocean

China is playing the long game in the Pacific. Here’s why its efforts are beginning to pay off

by Graeme Smith

A week-long trip to Beijing by the Pacific’s most flamboyant statesman Manasseh Sogavare, was always going to cause concern in Canberra. The substance of the visit was as expected. The relationship between China and the Solomon Islands was upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” (on par with Papua New Guinea, the first Pacific nation to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative). Nine agreements were also signed covering everything from civil aviation and infrastructure to fisheries and tourism. The Chinese premier, Li Qiang, who inked the deals with Sogavare, made a point of not mentioning the controversial policing cooperation agreement, the draft of which was leaked more than a year ago to New Zealand academic Anna Powles. Despite repeated calls from Australia and New Zealand to release the text of the policing agreement, there is no indication the Chinese or the Solomon Islands leadership will do so. There were also moments of theatre in Sogavare’s trip. The prime minister declared “I’m back home” when he arrived in Beijing in a clip posted by China Global Television Network. He then said in a longer interview on the same network that his nation had been “on the wrong side of history” for the 36 years it recognised Taiwan instead of the People’s Republic of China, and lauded President Xi Jinping as a “great man”. Sogavare saved his biggest serve for his return to the Solomon Islands, though. He accused Australia and New Zealand of withdrawing crucial budget support and hinted he would look to China to fulfil his ambitions to establish an armed forces, should Australia be unwilling to help.China’s slow start in the PacificSome key questions have been overlooked this week in the pantomime about what Australia should or shouldn’t do to shore up its relationship with an important Pacific partner. (We could start by accepting that Sogavare will never love us, and avoid getting into an arms race in the Solomon Islands with China.) What’s been somewhat lost, though, is how China has made inroads so quickly in a region that it still officially classifies as “peripheral”. China has certainly had to work harder to gain a foothold in the region. Relative to other regions, it has a lack of historical state ties with the Pacific. In Africa and Southeast Asia, China can draw on memories of shared anti-colonial struggles and aid projects like the Tanzam railway. In the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Party is a latecomer. Also holding it back is the remoteness and small population of the region. This has not made the Pacific a good fit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has flourished in countries with rapid transport and communication links, substantial Chinese diasporas and leaders who are easily reached. Most of China’s own Pacific experts were baffled when the region was belatedly included in the project. Yet despite these obstacles, it’s clear the Chinese state’s approach in the Pacific has shifted, most remarkably in its diplomacy and the role state-linked companies are expected to play. Diplomats with serious intent China’s wolf warrior diplomacy has received plenty of attention, but the picture in the Pacific is less straightforward. The recently appointed special envoy to the Pacific, Qian Bo, undoubtedly styles himself as a wolf warrior. Under his tenure as Fijian ambassador, a Taiwanese representative was assaulted by Chinese diplomats for the crime of displaying a Taiwanese flag cake. Yet, other appointments suggest China is appointing higher-calibre diplomats to the region. These include Li Ming, the current ambassador to the Solomon Islands, and Xue Bing, the former ambassador to Papua New Guinea who now holds the challenging post of special envoy to the Horn of Africa. With experience in the region and good language skills, these diplomats have been more able to engage with Pacific communities than their predecessors, who largely focused on sending good news back to Beijing. More serious representatives suggest more serious intent.Chinese companies exerting influence, tooChina’s state-linked companies remain the driving force behind China’s engagement with the Pacific. Unlike the embassies, they are well-resourced and have skin in the game. Many company men (in construction, where Chinese companies dominate, they’re mostly men) are based in the region for decades, developing a deep understanding of how to win projects and influence political elites. Failed projects generate plenty of headlines, but many companies – such as COVEC PNG and China Railway First Group – are effective operators. They are building infrastructure cheaply in the Pacific and winning the favour of multilateral donors, particularly the Asian Development Bank. For larger state-linked companies, like China Harbor Engineering Company and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), the geopolitical game has shifted. In the past, they could rely on their standing within the Chinese political system (their parent companies often outrank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to resist pressure to act on behalf of state. Now, they are expected to carry geopolitical water for Beijing. Often this can benefit the companies. For instance, when CCECC lobbied the Solomon Islands leadership to switch their allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, it helped the company when it came to bidding for projects for the Pacific Games in Honiara. The leaders of these companies realise it can harm their image when they are seen as Beijing’s pawns. Yet, the companies, diplomats and Pacific leaders who choose Beijing’s embrace know times have changed. China is now a serious player in the region with a development philosophy to sell. It’s no longer enough to read Beijing’s talking points. You have to look like you mean it.