Shifting Focus: Prioritising the India-Australia relationship

Josephine Warnant | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

The India-Australia relationship is at a vital moment following the productive Morrison-Modi virtual summit. As both nations experience increasing challenges in the face of China’s expansionist behaviour, it is more vital than ever to strengthen relations.

Whilst Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi’s recent virtual bilateral summit lacked the fanfare of a traditional diplomatic visit, it did send a clear signal that both Australia and India have an interest in affirming relations.

With a total of nine agreements signed, including a Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA) and a joint declaration for a “Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, the summit elevated the India-Australia relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Traditionally, the India-Australia relationship has been perceived as one always poised to take off but that has never quite done so.

Shifting regional relations have brought renewed focus to the bilateral benefits of strong relations for both nations.

With a shared history of the Commonwealth, common democratic and judicial systemsand informally, a shared love for cricketIndia and Australia appear as natural allies.

The countries also share another common interestbalancing against China.

Currently, relations between Australia and China are tense, with recent trade disputes and government issued discouragement of Chinese tourists travelling to Australia. Tensions between China and India have also reached boiling point with the recent “extraordinary escalation” over a border conflict between India and China which saw the death of 20 soldiers.

This escalation in the Chinese threat level makes it an appropriate time to re-examine and reaffirm the India-Australia relationship to prioritise regional cooperation against China.

Australia has moved to further solidify its existing relationship with India in three key areas; defence strategy, economic ties and people-to-people links, but could take further action.

India and Australia’s strategic defence relationship is important due to their shared maritime geography and cooperation to combat terrorism, piracy and other illegal activities in the Indian Ocean. In 2019, the Australian and Indian navies held a two-week bilateral maritime exercise, AUSINDEX which focused on anti-submarine warfare to create a stable and secure Indian Ocean.

The new shared maritime vision declaration also states intent to develop an “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” (IPOI) and multilateral maritime cooperation. Australia has been excluded from certain maritime training events in the past, such as the trilateral ‘Malabar’ training exercise which was conducted by India with the US and Japan, despite Australia requesting involvement. Australia has lobbied to further participate in these types of exercises as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and should continue to express interest in participating in strategic exercises in conjunction with India and key regional security partners.

There remains a strong need to further enhance economic ties between India and Australia. India was Australia’s eighth-largest trading partner and fifth-largest export market in 2018-19, driven by coal and international education. Since 2000, India’s GDP has grown seven-fold to reach USD $3 trillion, with India’s economy projected to become the third largest by 2030 in market exchange rate terms.

This enormous potential for growth has been acknowledged by Australia with the release of the India Economic Strategy in 2018. This strategy highlights numerous opportunities for Australian business in India, identifying 10 key sectors that best match Australian competitive advantages with Indian priorities and 10 key Indian states on which to focus.

Whilst the India Economic Strategy is a positive step on the path to facilitate continued focus on economic opportunities in India, Australia can go further to emphasise the importance of the Australia-India economic relationship. This includes encouraging India to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact as well as continuing to work with India to expand trade.

Australia has strong people-to-people ties with India, including the more than 100,000 Indian students that study in Australia. Increasing these ties should also be a priority in strengthening the India-Australia relationship. While a Joint Working Group on education already exists, it must further innovate to enhance education cooperation. The New Colombo Plan program should also be further promoted and prioritised to foster educational links between India and Australia.

The India-Australia relationship is at a vital moment following the productive Morrison-Modi virtual summit. As both nations experience increasing challenges in the face of China’s expansionist behaviour, it is more vital than ever to strengthen relations.

Now is the right time for Australia to solidify its bonds with India.

Josephine Warnant is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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