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India and Australia New Defence Partnership with an Eye to China?

Even as China and India mobilize troops and equipment along the Himalayan region of Ladakh in what is the second Himalayan border standoff between the two neighbors in recent years, a significant development saw India advance ties with another ally in the Asia-Pacific region. At the first-ever India-Australia Virtual Summit held earlier in June, India and Australia - two strategic partners on opposite ends of the Indian Ocean – have quietly lifted ties to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in a move that is being viewed with concern by the Chinese media.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison concluded their first-ever virtual bilateral summit on June 4 with signing two landmark defence arrangements. The more prominent of these is the long-pending Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA). The MLSA builds on the success of the bilateral AUSINDEX naval exercises, which have focused on anti-submarine warfare. Over the last few years the two sides have engaged in three iterations of the AUSINDEX joint exercises. The exercise held in April 2019 in India’s Visakhapatnam saw Australia send a landing helicopter dock, a conventional submarine and a Durance-class multi-product replenishment oiler. The recently signed accord will further the exchange and allow for refueling and cross-access maintenance of military ships and aircraft as part of the logistics support framework. The MLSA is similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) arrangement between India and the United States. Australia is the fourth country to have signed such an agreement with India. The accord will improve interoperability of military forces to allow for more constructive engagement between the two countries.

Australia has long sought to strengthen military ties with India, which, along with Japan, is regarded as a regional counterweight to China. New Delhi has so far been cautious to not antagonize China, although officials have acknowledged the partnership’s potential as a geostrategic multiplier in the Indo-Pacific. India has instead separately courted Australia as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, both Southeast Asian states that oppose China’s military settlements on contested South China Sea atolls.

The recent revival of ‘Quadrilateral 2.0’ between the US, Japan, India and Australia, has yielded plenty of discussion but no significant joint military exercise involving all four members. Some analysts believe that with this agreement, Australia is now more firmly placed in the quadrilateral security arrangement, often referred to as the “Quad,” with the US, Japan and India. Although the June 4 summit commitments stopped short of any clear indication from the Indian government in terms of inviting Australia to be a part of the annual Malabar naval exercise alongside the US and Japan, many believe the step forward with the MLSA suggests an invite could be on the way.

As recently as last year Beijing had been reasonably confident that underlying divisions among Asian democracies would impede any substantive progress and that most allies in the region will avoid formal multilateral security commitments owing to an acute dependence on Chinese trade and investment. In 2019 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the idea of an emerging Indo-Pacific alliance as an “attention-grabbing” concept that would dissipate “like sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean”.

The Chinese media response to the June 4 announcement suggests that Beijing is viewing the developments with some degree of concern, if not alarm. The CCP-backed Global Times said in a recent article that the development “deserves China's vigilance” and that Beijing needs to view the India-Australia accord as a direct threat “that will shape a confrontational atmosphere in the region, jeopardizing peace and stability.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that China views the expanding network of maritime partners as potential encirclement. Nations like India and Australia have been cognizant of this and have traditionally been hesitant of moves that may be seen as confrontational. It is thus ironic that it is Beijing’s increasingly belligerent diplomacy and refusal to accept a multipolar order in the region that is accelerating the momentum for a security alliance among democracies in the region.

In May 2020, efforts by Australia and the European Union prompted the World Health Assembly to back an independent review into the coronavirus pandemic. China has been quick to retaliate. On Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Education said students should reconsider choosing to study in Australia. International education is Australia’s fourth-largest export industry, worth $26 billion annually. This is after it slapped 80 per cent tariffs on Australian barley and other exports. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth A$235 billion a year. Australian PM Morrison has been categoric in his response to what many call blatant arm-twisting by Beijing, stating that “I am never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes.”

Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese defence officials and diplomats have been engaged in a dialogue to bring an end to the current stand-off at the frontier in Eastern Ladakh along the LAC. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. Sustained dialogue could mean tensions may finally be defused over the next few weeks. However, as the world’s largest democracy and a nation that shares a sizable 3,448 km-long border with an increasingly muscular China, India’s dilemma is evident — how to balance domestic compulsions and also bring China to commit to LAC talks. There is little doubt that these Chinese incursions are bound to recur. India no doubt needs to reset its China policy to reflect the changed ground reality with a neighbor whose rise is manifested by periodic muscle-flexing and diplomatic saber-rattling.

As long as China insists on a hierarchical structure where its political and security interests take precedence, an Indo-Pacific strategy will likely be the most potent tool for countervailing Chinese power, with the Quad at its core. The India-Australia partnership could well be one more step in this direction.

(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on India-Japan affairs, and an entrepreneur in linguistics. She has worked for Goldman Sachs, and is a graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University).


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