By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Nov 14
As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, Australia viewed India with wariness, given the dynamics of the Cold War. Australia worried that a powerful Indian Navy would uphold Soviet Union interests in the Indian Ocean. And India’s naval build up did not sit well with Canberra’s advocacy of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOZP).
All that is now history, as is evident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just concluded trip to Australia. With an assertive China racing ahead of Australia, Japan and India, the interests of these lesser powers have sharply converged.
At first this convergence was hesitant and apologetic. In 2007, when China questioned why the American, Australian, Japanese, Indian and Singaporean navies were training together in Exercise Malabar, New Delhi acknowledged Beijing’s ire by reverting to bilateral Indo-US Malabar exercises, with Japan occasionally participating.
The non-confrontationist United Progressive Alliance defence minister, AK Antony, also curbed India’s military diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific, apparently to placate Beijing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has emphatically abandoned that reticence. Last month, during the prime minister’s visit to the US, New Delhi and Washington jointly backed the need for free passage in the South China Sea, and agreed to “upgrade” Malabar.
Now, at the close of Mr Modi’s three-day visit to Australia, New Delhi and Canberra announced a new “Framework for Security Cooperation” that will guide close collaboration in defence, counter-terrorism, cyber security and maritime security.
A joint statement announced: “Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Abbott decided to extend defence cooperation to cover research, development and industry engagement. They agreed to hold regular meetings at the level of the Defence Minister (sic), conduct regular maritime exercises and convene regular Navy to Navy, Air Force to Air Force and Army to Army staff talks.”
Even so, the two sides face structural challenges in translating the new framework into actual security cooperation. India’s focus is on the Indian Ocean, while Australia looks towards East Asia and the Pacific. Australia is a close US ally; while New Delhi steadfastly ploughs an independent and non-confrontationist furrow, which Canberra sees as pusillanimity. Australia has been ambivalent about its relationship with China. Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister from 2007-2010 and then again briefly in 2013, strongly backed an “Asian Australia” and close ties with China, causing unease in New Delhi and other regional capitals.
In contrast, Australia’s current prime minister has displayed no such ambiguity. During his visit to New Delhi in September, the two countries announced they would hold their first bilateral maritime exercise in 2015, which is likely to extend into joint training on a regular basis. The Indian Navy is keen on making this a sophisticated exercise that coordinates combat drills instead of a non-controversial rather than a ceremonial one that takes shelter behind the rubric of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and search and rescue (SAR) operations.
That Australia is ready for a substantive engagement is evident from its 2013 Defence White Paper, which emphasised the need to build stronger defence relations with India. A “Country Strategy Document” followed that in short order, identifying the Indian Navy as a crucial maritime partner.
Australian analysts like David Brewster, an analyst with Gateway House, Mumbai, argue that forums like the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) provide opportunities for India-Australia security cooperation; as does the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), an Indian initiative that promotes interaction between regional navies.
There is also scope for cooperation in anti-proliferation initiatives relating to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). “Australia’s involvement in the Australia Group (which it chairs) can be an opportunity to champion the inclusion of India in the Group and other international non-proliferation regimes”, says Brewster.
That Mr Modi sees Australia as an important partner was made clear during his barnstorming speech to a joint sitting of Australia’s parliament in Canberra, where he won over the audience with humour and cricket analogies.
“It has taken a Prime Minister of India 28 years to come to Australia. It should never have been so. And, this will change. Australia will not be at the periphery of our vision, but at the centre of our thought”, said Mr Modi.