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India, Australia must commit to cooperation in Indo-Pacific
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Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd.)
Former Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and author of From the Crow’s Nest.

Part of the same geographic hemisphere, India and Australia are key players in a shared strategic environment. Both countries also share the fraternity of the Commonwealth, speak the same language, are committed to a democratic way of life, and have secular, free and open societies.

The cricket linkage apart, a fact not recalled often is that Indians and Australians were comrades-in-arms, in the 20th century fight against fascism and imperialism.  India contributed over two million troops to World Wars I & II; Indian soldiers fought alongside the ANZACs at Gallipoli, and thousands shared a soldier’s fate in battlefields across Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.

India and Australia can also be termed as ‘book-ends’ of an ocean space whose strategic importance has led to a debate on its nomenclature, especially after US President Donald Trump’s use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in recent policy statements. The Indo-Pacific paradigm reflects the growing economic and security linkages between nations of the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

While not India-centric, this concept acknowledges the reality of a rising China and India, and the continued strategic role of the US in both oceans.  It is the unquestionable reality of vital trade and energy sea lanes that run seamlessly across the region and the imperative of providing maritime security that will sustain the Indo-Pacific logic.

Since challenges in the maritime domain demand a collective response, they can be used for collective endeavours to ensure the security of this vast commons.  Traditionally, while India’s policies have been guided by the principle of ‘non-alignment’ and subsequently, in ‘strategic-autonomy,’ Australia has remained focused on its core alliance with the US. The idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic-arc has, however, caused both nations to re-evaluate the significance of the other in its security matrix.

Among the drivers that should bring the two nations closer are: a mutual recognition of the value of cooperative maritime securit;, common interest in regional peace and political stability; opposition to violent extremism; shared interests in the security of sea lines of communication and in upholding the principle of ‘freedom of navigation’.

While ‘traditional security threats’, arising from typical issues of international relations, are dealt with by states, the term ‘maritime security’, implies maintenance of ‘good order at sea’; a task undertaken by navies and coast-guards. Good order is achieved by addressing, ‘non-traditional security threats’ arising, largely, from non-military sources.  As far as Indo-Australian cooperation is concerned, there are many ‘low-hanging fruits’ to be picked.

With a 100,000 merchantmen transiting the Indian Ocean and trade worth trillions of dollars passing through the Malacca Strait annually, protection of international shipping against pirates and other non-state actors remains an issue of prime concern.  The resurgence of piracy offers fertile ground for Indian, Australian and other navies to act in concert for safety of shipping.

The December 2004 Asian tsunami exposed the vulnerability of this region to natural disasters and showed the value of multi-national collaboration in rescue, relief and rehabilitation. Climate change is looming over us and rising sea levels will lead to mass migration and regional crises that no single nation can cope with. Under such circumstances, the growing importance of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief demands participation by major navies in a common humanitarian endeavour.

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370, in March 2014, had focused attention on another critical area demanding maritime cooperation on a huge scale. Similarly, the loss of the Argentinean submarine San Juan is a reminder of the sparse submarine-rescue facilities available in the region. Thus, there is compelling need for regional navies to pool specialist search and rescue facilities in the region.

For maritime cooperation to be effective, it must be supported by a system that will provide common maritime domain awareness (MDA).  This is another arena where Indo-Pacific neighbours could pursue cooperation by creating a framework for information sharing with each other.

President Trump’s retreat from globalization and focus on ‘America first’ may mean the end of pax Americana which, for six decades, ensured regional stability and provided succour during emergencies. This should motivate Indo-Pacific nations to come together in common causes. The second AUSINDEX in 2017 was a welcome sign of Australia-India bilateral naval cooperation.

Apart from naval cooperation, India also seeks advanced military technologies in a number of feilds like electronics and submarine-building where Australia has much expertise.

India is a dialogue partner of the Pacific Island Forum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated enhanced engagement with this region, evidenced by his visits to Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and the convening of two India-Pacific Island leaders’ summits in 2014 and 2015.  The promising momentum of South Pacific-India engagement must not be allowed to stall. This is an area where India and Australia could work together to revive impetus.

However, there are two aspects of Indo-Australian relations that must be borne in mind. The first is Australia’s past political ambivalence towards India.

The 1980s saw the Indian Navy undergoing a long-overdue expansion and inducting an aircraft-carrier, some destroyers, diesel submarines and a nuclear attack boat on lease. Pakistan was expected to complain, but it was Australian Defence Minister Kim Beazley who publicly criticized India’s naval accretions, apprehending, what he called a possible ‘clash of interests’. Australian Navy aircraft started buzzing Indian warships in a hostile manner and laying sonobuoy patterns around them.

The 1998 nuclear tests saw Australia condemning them as “outrageous acts perpetrated by India”, suspending defence relations and withdrawing its Defence Adviser in New Delhi and expelling three Indian officers at defence colleges in Australia overnight.  Kevin Rudd’s withdrawal from the Quadrilateral Dialogue in 2007 and serial flip-flops over the sale of uranium to India may have been manifestations of political caginess in Australia, but for Indians, these were unfriendly gestures.

The second ‘fly-in-the ointment’ in Indo-Australian relations is represented by China. India acknowledges China’s economic rise and military prowess, and seeks friendly relations with its northern neighbour. However, we have serious bilateral territorial disputes awaiting resolution for over five decades.

As demonstrated in the stand-off in Doklam, India will not compromise on its territorial integrity and hopes its nuclear arsenal will deter any possibility of war. Another disturbing aspect of China’s posture has been its active engagement in serious nuclear and missile proliferation through the China-Pakistan-North Korea nexus. However, India has pursued a multi-track engagement with China.

India, certainly, does not consider the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s Ocean’. However, as a peninsular nation, we do have vital interests and assets which need safeguarding. India hopes to use its dominant location in this ocean to ensure ‘good order at sea’ and the safety of shipping.

India does not seek military alliances and hopes that the Quad will become a maritime partnership for the common good. While each of the four participants has their own national interests to advance, there is no reason for China to suspect containment or ‘ganging up’.  For its members, the Quad – a concord of four democracies – should become a source of mutual support and reassurance, in times of need.

The attitudes and perceptions of India and Australia seem to present a number of conundrums to each other.  India is aware that Australia-China relations are characterised by strong political, economic and trade bonds and that China is also beginning to play a role in Australia’s domestic politics. But these are matters, internal to Australia.

As two robust democracies, no matter how desirable the professional linkages between the two navies, such cooperation will be circumscribed by larger political compulsions. Therefore, if Australia does recognise India as an important potential partner, and both nations invest effort and goodwill in this relationship, there must be tangible assurances of commitment and constancy.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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