In its preoccupation with the perennial challenges in the neighbourhood and its enduring aspiration to dance with the great powers, India has in the past missed out on the opportunities for productive partnerships with the middle powers. Thursday’s virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Australian premier, Scott Morrison, is an important part of Delhi’s current diplomatic effort to plug that big gap in India’s diplomatic tradition.
Few countries have been as underestimated in India as Australia. Take the simplest metric, for example — economic weight. With a GDP of more than US$1.4 trillion, Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world, following closely behind Russia which stands at $1.6 trillion. Australia is rich in natural resources that India’s growing economy needs. It also has huge reservoirs of strength in higher education, scientific and technological research.
In the global diplomatic arena, Australia punches way above its weight. Its armed forces, hardened by international combat, are widely respected. Canberra’s intelligence establishment is valued in many parts of the world. Australia has deep economic, political and security connections with the ASEAN and a strategic partnership with one of the leading non-aligned nations, Indonesia. Canberra has a little “sphere of influence” of its own — in the South Pacific (now under threat from Chinese penetration). All these Australian strengths should be of interest and value to India. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed Australia is a natural part of Asia and invited it to participate in the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947, a few months before independence. But the rest of the 20th century was one of drift and alienation.
A political dust-up between Delhi and Canberra in the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998 complicated the possibilities that the end of the Cold War opened up. But since 2000, Canberra has taken consistent political initiative to advance ties with India by resolving the nuclear difference and expanding the template of engagement.
That there was a gap of nearly three decades between Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Australia in 1986 and Modi’s trip in 2014 only underlines how short-sighted India’s neglect of Australia has been. It was exactly in these years that China transformed its relationship with Australia. Delhi’s temptation to judge nations on the basis of their alignments with other powers stands in contrast to Beijing that puts interests above ideology, promotes interdependence with a targeted middle power, turns it into political influence and tries to weaken its alignment with the rival powers.
Thanks to the new political will in Delhi to liberate its relations from ideological prejudice, India’s Australian moment appears to be at hand. The Indian diaspora — now estimated at nearly 7,00,000— is the fastest growing in Australia and has become an unexpected positive factor in bilateral relations.
Common membership of many groupings like the G-20, East Asia Summit, IORA, and the Quad has increased the possibilities for diplomatic cooperation on regional and global issues. The current downturn in the global economy certainly limits the immediate possibilities for realising the full potential of commercial relations between India and Australia. But there are a host of emerging issues — from reforming the World Health Organisation to 5G technology and from strengthening the international solar alliance to building resilience against climate change and disasters — that lend themselves to intensive bilateral political and institutional engagement. It is the geopolitical churn in the Indo-Pacific that has opened up a massive space for consequential security cooperation between India and Australia. Delhi and Canberra know that neither of them can rely on the old formulae for securing their interests, thanks to the growing Chinese assertiveness and the uncertain US political trajectory.
Over the last few years, defence engagement between the two countries has grown and is likely to be capped by a military logistics support agreement to be unveiled at the summit. Modi and Morrison, however, must raise the level of ambition, for the scale of the security challenge in the Indo-Pacific demands more than incremental steps.The two leaders must order their security establishments to develop strategic coordination in the various sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific littoral. The eastern Indian Ocean that lies between the shores of peninsular India and the west coast of Australia ought to be the top priority.
Eastern Indian Ocean, connecting the two oceans, is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. This is where Delhi and Canberra can initiate a full range of joint activities, including on maritime domain awareness, development of strategically located islands and marine scientific research. The sea lines of communication between the Indian and Pacific oceans run through the Indonesian archipelago. Given the shared political commitment to the Indo-Pacific idea between Delhi, Jakarta and Canberra and the growing pressures on them to secure their shared waters, Modi and Morrison must seek trilateral maritime and naval cooperation with Indonesia.
Besides Indonesia, three other powers present themselves as natural partners for India and Australia — Japan, France and Britain. Tokyo has close ties with both Delhi and Canberra. Their current trilateral dialogue can be expanded from the diplomatic level to practical maritime cooperation on the ground. France is a resident power with territories in the Western Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Paris and Canberra are eager to develop a trilateral arrangement with Delhi that will supplement the bilateral cooperation among the three nations. Modi must endorse the initiative.
Finally, there is the less discussed role of Britain, which wants to return to the oriental seas. In the east, Britain continues to lead the so-called Five Power Defence Arrangement set up back in 1971, after Britain pulled back most of its forces from the East of Suez. The FPDA brings together the armed forces of the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Modi and Morrison must explore the possibilities for engagement between India and the FPDA. It is only by building a series of overlapping bilateral and minilateral platforms for regional security cooperation that Delhi and Canberra can limit the dangers of the growing geopolitical imbalance in the Indo-Pacific.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 4, 2020 under the title ‘A middle power moment’.
The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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