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The challenges facing a strategic Australia-India alliance in the Asia-Pacific

Image Credit: j_arlecchino (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Narendra Modi’s address to Parliament House back in 2014 was significant for a few reasons. Apart from it being the first time an Indian prime minister addressed the parliament in 28 years, it was a pivotal step towards improving the strategic Indo-Australian alliance in the Asia Pacific. Both countries maintain strong trade and security interests in the Asia Pacific, alongside a common desire for hegemonic powers to be contained.

Apart from the strategic regional value both possess, shared cultural and political values as secular, liberal democracies (or the stereotypical three C’s of cricket, curry and commonwealth) would suggest a familiar and worthy alliance. Three years on from Modi’s speech and already there have been positive developments in bilateral ties; with a uranium deal signed, a free trade agreement in the works and people to people links higher than ever before. Collaboration over the Asia-Pacific region however has proven to be difficult due to certain hurdles that have prevented India and Australia engaging together more extensively on the Asia-Pacific.

PM Modi’s tenure as prime minister has been characterised by a very proactive and engaging form of foreign diplomacy. India’s overall approach however remains rooted in tradition, awarding the majority of its efforts and concerns with its immediate neighbourhood. At the forefront of this are security concerns related to its volatile neighbour on the Western border in Pakistan and its inscrutable and powerful neighbour on the Eastern border in China. The interactions India maintains with these countries also impacts smaller states in South Asia and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly then, Australia has remained a country relatively low in priority and is predominantly viewed as a junior ally albeit one with attractive resources. An increasingly positive partnership between New Delhi and Washington has also reduced the imperative for India to actively seek alternative partnerships.

Similarly for Australia, India’s significance pales in comparison to the formers main main ally in the US and largest trading partner in China. Although India’s status as an emerging power has been viewed with promise by Prime Minister Turnbull and others within Australia, India is arguably seen as a country which still faces numerous domestic challenges not least of all, addressing its lopsided development which has left a vast gap between rich and poor.

For Australia, the Asia-Pacific region is their primary trade and security concern, with ongoing disputes in the South and East China Seas holding implications for Australia’s key partnerships with China and the US. While India is a peripheral actor in these disputes, its significance as a mediating influence cannot be ignored especially in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Already there a signs which suggest India’s voice will be vital, as New Delhi has quietly improved relations with Vietnam and Philippines, both of whom are in dispute with China over the South China Sea. India’s concern with the Asia Pacific is similarly influenced by concerns over the emergence of a hegemonic regional power. For India as well, security is a pre-existing factor in its relationship with China; over Tibet, maritime boundaries in the Indian Ocean and longstanding disputes along India’s Northeast boundary. India’s credibility therefore lies in its role as a non-hegemonic regional actor, which employs a balancing role, with its own major power aspirations remaining on the backburner for the time being, due to internal limitations and perceived external security concerns.

In all of this however, there is an apprehension over aggravating China, as any security issue between China and India would pose a problem for Australia and would greatly disturb the regional order. The primary concern for Australia in relation to China is the latter’s relationship with Washington, as perceptions of a rising China and a declining US become ever popular, disputes and flashpoints in Asia can seriously test not only the Sino-US relationship but also Australia’s commitment to both actors. In such a scenario, Australia would find a partnership with India worthy but risky as there are fundamental differences in perceptions of Chinese influence in the region between New Delhi and Canberra. Both remain wary as any strategic alliance between Australia and India can be perceived as antagonising China; which hinder both nations desire for maintaining balance and order.

Building consensus on non-nuclear proliferation and disarmament has been a major hurdle given India’s status as a nuclear power. Trade and maritime security on the other hand seem the most viable points of collaboration. Although a defence agreement was signed in 2014, the defence relationship has yet to develop fully. The Forging New Alignments report from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney discusses a potential trilateral partnership between the US, Australia and India in the Indian Ocean. Such a partnership however should be met with caution given the likely unpredictability of the Chinese response and the radical changes in America’s Asia Policy under its new president, which could make this partnership contentious. Furthering both nation’s trade and security agendas together would perhaps be best served occurring via regional institutions, such as the East Asia Summit. Other fields for regional cooperation include working together on humanitarian aid, disaster relief projects and addressing climate change issues. The scope for cooperation is therefore endless and although the regional alliance seems slow in development, one suspects it is only a matter of time before these common interests far outweigh the perceived difficulties and challenges.

Chiraag is an Honours graduate in International Relations from the University of Melbourne with a special interest in the Asia Pacific region.

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