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The Albanese Government Reaffirms a Robust Australia-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in the Indo-Pacific

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This article originally appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs

The India-Australia bilateral relationship has advanced significantly over the past few years. Richard Marles’ visit suggests that trend is unlikely to change under the Albanese government.

The change in the government in Canberra has not affected the trajectory of the Australia-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. On June 22, 2022, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence of Australia, Richard Marles met with India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Marles’ visit to India marked the Australian government’s first high-level bilateral visit to any country since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party won the federal parliamentary elections in May 2022. The visit needs to be seen in the context of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between the states. In June 2020, the Australia-India strategic partnership was enhanced to the CSP under the Scott Morrison Government, which emphasised defence and security cooperation. The two nations signed the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement in April 2022 to diversify bilateral trade.

Results of the Meeting

Both defence ministers reaffirmed their commitment to implementing the CSP based on shared values of democracy and the rule of law, as well as mutual trust and understanding. With a goal to enhance defence cooperation, both agreed to build on operational engagements under the India-Australia Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement, and commended the expanding diversity and regularity of defence exercises and exchanges between the two nations. The two leaders reiterated their shared goal of an open, free, inclusive, prosperous, and most importantly rules-based Indo-Pacific region.

Australia and India have continued to advance defence cooperation initiatives, despite disruptions caused by COVID-19. The two leaders decided to strengthen links in the defence industrial cooperation, build on operational engagements through the India-Australia Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, and strive to make supply chains more resilient and provide capabilities to their respective armed forces. The two nations will continue to conduct defence drills and exchanges: the Malabar naval exercise, which India hosted in November 2020, included the Australian Navy, and India will take part in an exercise sponsored by Australia in the Indo-Pacific region in October 2022.

Growing Defence Ties

The India-Australia Joint Working Group (JWG) on Defence Research and Materiel Cooperation, which will meet in Australia later this year, had the support of both Ministers. This JWG is an essential tool for strengthening ties across defence industries. Both parties agreed to look into ways to strengthen links and expand business prospects between Australian and Indian defence industrial bases.

During the virtual summit conference between the prime ministers of the two nations on 21 March 2022, it was revealed that the historic General Rawat Young Officer Exchange Program will begin in the second half of 2022.

Growing security cooperation and the significance of building the strategic alliance have been major aspects of Australia and India’s burgeoning relations. This was a pertinent topic for the first official political visit of the new Australian government. The conversations have been fruitful, and both have agreed to work together to strengthen resilience in the Indo-Pacific.

The Quad, and China’s Assertive Posture

India has emerged as a significant strategic partner in Australia’s strategic framing amid the emerging security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. There is a growing perception in Australia that India can be one of its most trusted and reliable strategic partners. The steps in this direction go back to Prime Minister John Howard’s visit to India in 2006, when Australia agreed to sell uranium to India. Over the past decade, subsequent governments in Canberra have been working to engage India, but the COVID-19 situation only accentuated the pace of Australia-India strategic partnership. As China began flaunting its economic muscles, and concerns arose from China’s assertive posture in the Indo-Pacific, both states have recognised the need for a resilient global supply.

This is visible both at the bilateral and multilateral level. In addition to the growing Australia-India CSP, the development of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in which both maritime democracies are actively engaged, has been significant. The Quad, a security grouping of the US, India, Japan, and Australia, made a comeback in 2017 after an almost ten-year absence. The Quad has been elevated to summit-level meetings and has become an integral part of the member states’ strategy for a free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific. However, concerns were raised regarding the Quad states’ cohesion and in particular India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine situation. This has had little impact, as evidenced by three virtual summit-level meetings held between Scott Morrison and Modi during the Ukrainian crisis, and important deals inked with India including the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement.

In some corners it was anticipated that a Labor government could be more accommodating towards China, which in turn could affect the India-Australia strategic partnership. But the trajectory of the Australia-India strategic partnership set under the Morrison government has continued. The first two top foreign visits under the Labor Government, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio during the Quad summit in Japan, and Richard Marles’ India visit, engaged India on a range of defence and security issues amidst the concerns of the Chinese intent of dominance in the Indo-Pacific. The pace of the Australia-India strategic partnership, developed over almost a decade, has been extraordinary since the outbreak. The bonhomie between the two Indo-Pacific maritime democracies, the growing trust and confidence and the strategic convergence between the two nations will continue to deepen the Australia-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership under the Albanese Government.

Dr Ashok Sharma is an Academic Fellow of the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne; a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs; a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy; an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.

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