Written by Karan Tripathi.

Indian warships conducted a Bilateral Maritime Exercise AUSINDEX in mid June 2017. This week-long naval exercise raises hopes for deeper engagement between the two countries, necessary for maintaining rule-based order in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This strategic need has become even more significant today with the rising Chinese presence in the region and the not so assuring response from the US. However, there are serious doubts about the comprehensive security relationship between India and Australia that need to be addressed.

Australia’s security engagement with India has not been able to come out of the shadows of the Chinese presence in the region.

One of the major indicators of this significant relationship would be the inclusion of Australia in the India-led Malabar naval exercise. Though bilaterally, naval exercises are conducted between India, Japan, US and Australia, a quadrangle initiative has  not taken place since 2007. After the inclusion of Japan as a permanent participant in 2015, Australia remains the only country out of the four mentioned that is not included in the Malabar naval exercise. Even though a request has been submitted by the Australian government, there are signs that suggest that this request might not be accepted.  Despite a lucrative bilateral maritime exercise and the looming Chinese presence through initiatives such as One Belt One Road, what is making India doubt its relationship with Australia?

One of the major reasons is growing Australian dependency on Chinese investments. The overall Chinese investment in Australia peaked in 2016 by reaching almost USD 11.5 billion. Australia continues to remain the second largest recipient of Chinese direct investment and China is the destination of one-third of Australia’s exports. The export concentration is so severe that increases in sales to China alone accounted for almost 80 percent of all Australian export growth in value terms in 2013-14.  These economic figures raise doubts about the intention of Canberra to take any strategically significant alignment with Delhi knowing the clear stance of the latter on the growing Chinese economic and naval presence in the region. Moreover, a somewhat similar situation is evident in Sri Lanka where Beijing doesn’t shy away from exploiting economic dependence for strategic purposes.

The ambiguity looms large on Australia’s stance in the South China Sea as well as on power dynamics in the Indian Ocean. In her speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2017, Minister of Defence Marise Payne discussed Australia’s commitment towards maintaining a rule based order in the South China Sea. However, at the same time, she also declared Australia’s support for, and possible collaboration with, Beijing in the latter’s use of military capabilities in shaping and maintaining regional security.  Moreover, while the Japan-India Security Declaration takes a firm stance on China, the Declaration between Australia and India is ambivalent on China including general phrases such as a ‘shared desire to promote regional and global security’. Australia’s security engagement with India has not been able to come out of the shadows of the Chinese presence in the region. This is a major roadblock not only to the Australia-India security relationship but also to the development of a possible ‘quad’ in the Malabar naval exercise.

Australia, however, is not the only party that has maintained an ambivalent attitude. According to Brewster, India has hardly considered Australia as an independent key player in the Indian Ocean littoral; unlike Japan or Singapore. Australia’s resistance to recognising India as the dominant naval power in the littoral, and its closer relationship with the US when it comes to security cooperation, has often pushed Delhi to directly approach Washington instead of bilaterally involving Canberra. On the other hand, Canberra doesn’t want to find itself in a position where it has to finally choose between Delhi and Beijing. Therefore, it has become difficult for both the countries to look beyond these ambiguities and find a concrete ground upon which deeper military cooperation can be sought just like the way it is sought with Japan or US.

Some experts in Delhi suggest that it is the fear of the Chinese response that is deterring India from taking a affirmative stance on Australia’s inclusion in the quadrilateral naval exercise. However, looking into the history and assessing the degree of the Chinese response to the Malabar exercise of 2007, this explanation does not hold water. In addition, the Modi government has sent several strong signals to Beijing; for example, the visits of the US Ambassador and the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh.

As the doubts still linger regarding Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar naval exercise, the larger focus should be on strengthening a much more meaningful bilateral engagement. Both the countries should accept each other as significant players for Asia-Pacific regional security and as a possible force to counter China’s ambitions in the region.

Karan Tripathi is pursuing a degree in Law and Humanities at Faculty of Law, Symbiosis International University, India. He has participated in various research projects on maritime and cyber security at a number of think tanks in New Delhi. Image credit: CC by Naval Surface Warriors/Flickr.

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