With China President Xi Jinping still around, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott chose not to talk up a “security cooperation” framework agreement he signed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Canberra, but its intense agenda clearly points to the strategic choices he has made in the wake of Beijing’s rapidly increasing influence in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
The framework binds the two countries to annual summits, including meeting of the two PMs, regular meetings of the defence ministers, regular bilateral maritime exercises, close cooperation in counter-terrorism and international crimes, early operationalisation of the civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement and Australia’s support for strengthening India’s energy security by supply of uranium for India’s safeguarded nuclear reactors. The Australian Financial Review, a leading daily, described it as “a hedge against China’s growing military power” in its front page main report.
Abbott’s stated top priority is a free trade policy with India by the end of next year, which, he said, needs to be “cranked up” and is something the two “can-do PMs” will achieve, but this comes with a close alignment of the two countries’ economic cooperation agenda with their strategic interests. The ambitious framework of security cooperation has 32 actionable points organised under seven heads: annual summit and foreign policy exchanges and coordination; defence policy planning and coordination; counter-terrorism and other transnational crimes; border protection, coast guard, and customs; disarmament, non-proliferation, civil nuclear energy and maritime security; disaster management and peacekeeping; cooperation in regional and multilateral fora.
In his address to the joint session of Australian Parliament, Modi said the two countries do not have to rely on borrowed architecture of the past, “nor do we have the luxury to choose who we work with and who we don’t.” He said India and Australia can play their part by expanding their security cooperation and deepening their international partnerships in the region.
Australia, according to strategic experts, is forging close ties with India — another big Asian country with which it shares the ethos of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. With Japan and the US, Abbott’s gameplan is to rope in India to form an axis that stitches together its economic and strategic interests. This has not gone unnoticed by the Opposition as well as the media here.
Bill Shorten, leader of Opposition, told Fairfax, “Our national interests are converging more broadly in the region, and heading that is security.” Melbourne newspaper The Age, which devoted a page to the first visit by an Indian PM in 28 years, said in a report, “This security framework ranks alongside Australia’s deepening ‘quasi-alliance’ with Japan’s rapidly tightening military ties with India, and the strengthening collaboration of all three countries with the United States.”