The Australia-India security relationship has been growing in recent years. But with changes in the regional balance, the two countries will need to move faster to forge a new Indo-Pacific alignment.
A new report, ‘Australia, India and the United States: The Challenge of Forging New Alignments in the Indo-Pacific’, looks at Australia’s choices in building its strategic relationship with India, and how that relationship fits with Australia’s core alliance with the US. It argues that Canberra must promote a trilateral security relationship with Washington and Delhi, focused on the Indian Ocean. Australia should also work with India to build regional maritime domain awareness and open Australia’s military facilities for use by India.
In many ways Australia and India are the odd couple of the Indian Ocean region and in the past, the relationship was characterised more by difference than by convergence. Since the turn of the century, however, Australia has recognised India as an important partner. This is intimately linked to Australia’s strategic reorientation towards the Indo-Pacific. The idea of an Indo-Pacific ‘strategic arc’ reinforces India’s role as a key regional partner that could eventually rank alongside Australia’s traditional partners in the Asia Pacific.
India too is increasingly recognising Australia’s importance as it builds networks across the Indo-Pacific. Australia is probably most interesting to India as a partner in Southeast Asia and across much of the Indian Ocean region.
Indeed, in addition to shared concerns about China’s role in the region, there is a long list of issues driving the security relationship. Among these are a mutual recognition of the value of cooperation in Indian Ocean maritime security, mutual objectives to build institutions and a sense of regionalism in the Indian Ocean, shared interests in peace and political stability in Southeast Asia, opposition to violent extremism, shared interests in the security of sea lines of communication and principles of freedom of navigation, and finally, mutual interests in the continued regional role of the US.
While security cooperation between India and Australia has been growing, it remains relatively undeveloped. The two countries have entered into several security agreements over the last decade, and there have been many regular defence and security dialogues, including a new 2+2 dialogue among defence and foreign secretaries. But we have only recently begun to see this being translated into more substantive cooperation.
The Indian and Australian navies are at the forefront of defence cooperation. They are the two most powerful navies among Indian Ocean states and share security responsibilities across this vast ocean and the AUSINDEX naval exercises held in the Bay of Bengal in 2015 were an important step forward.
Cooperation among the other armed forces is at a lower level. There are nascent links between India’s coastguard and Australia’s maritime border command, which could become significant. The growing number of shared platforms potentially creates significant opportunities for cooperation among the two air forces. There are also potential areas of cooperation between the two armies, including cooperation between special forces, which are expected to conduct exercises in late 2016.
Overall, however, defence cooperation remains relatively undeveloped and largely still in the realm of the potential.
Building an Australia-US-India partnership
The report argues that Australia should promote a trilateral defence and security partnership with India and the US with a primary focus on the Indian Ocean, where the interests of the three countries most clearly intersect. The Indian Ocean will likely be the scene of growing strategic instability in coming years. This gives Australia a very direct interest in promoting India’s role alongside the US.
Australia, the US and India have many shared interests in the Indian Ocean. India is now highly focused on the perceived threat from China. There is a strong view among Indian strategists that Beijing is challenging New Delhi’s aspirations in the region. But most Indian strategists also understand that the country simply does not have the material capabilities to address the threat on its own for some years to come.
Australia is giving much greater recognition to the importance of the Indian Ocean region and the need for it to play an active role there. Australia also sees considerable value in India assuming an expanded regional security role alongside the US.
There is much that can be achieved among the three countries in the Indian Ocean region. The report recommends that Australia take an incremental and bottom up approach focusing on joint exercises, intelligence and cyber cooperation, shared maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief/search and rescue (HADR/SAR).
For the last two decades, joint exercises have been the key point of cooperation between India and the US, and it is an area that Australia is only just beginning to enter. Although Australia participated in the US-India Malabar 2007 naval exercise, India has since resisted including Australia. Australia must continue to focus on participating in the India-US Malabar naval exercises alongside Japan. There are also opportunities for personnel from the three countries to participate in exercises that may not necessarily be officially trilateral in nature.
As a related initiative, Australia should also make available its huge training areas in the north for use by India in conjunction with Southeast Asian partners such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. This would provide excellent opportunities for improving multilateral inter-operability between Indo-Pacific partners and further develop Darwin as a hub for regional defence interactions.
A key area for trilateral cooperation is in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to improve maritime domain awareness. The vastness of distances across the Indian Ocean makes tracking of vessels and aircrafts a difficult task and beyond the resources of any single country. It is a field that India has shown particular interest in cooperating with both the US and Australia.
The recent signing of ‘white shipping’ information sharing agreements between India and Australia, and India and the US, might be step towards a broader trilateral information sharing arrangement that could grow to include ‘grey shipping’ or naval shipping.
Information sharing arrangements could be bolstered by sharing of facilities. The finalisation of the India-US LEMOA may ease the way for similar facilities sharing arrangements between Australia and India. Australia should be open to allowing India to use its facilities on Cocos Island (once they have been extended and improved) as part of a mutual arrangement in relation to Indian facilities in the Indian Ocean. The US, India and Australia are all making major investments in ISR capabilities, which will include Boeing P-8 maritime aircraft as a key element in maritime ISR capabilities. The use of common platforms could create important opportunities for cooperation in training, support and maintenance.
Cooperation in maritime HADR/SAR is a relatively easy way of promoting greater interaction between armed forces without triggering political sensitivities.
The Indian Ocean region is particularly susceptible to natural disasters and has few capabilities to deal with them. This provides an opportunity for Australia, India and the US and others to establish cooperative arrangements for use of existing capabilities to respond to natural disasters. India, the US and Australia along with Japan, demonstrated the soft power benefits of HADR cooperation when they worked together to provide relief to Indonesia and other countries following the 2004 tsunami. This experience formed a foundation for further cooperation between those countries. India, Australia and the US, along with France, have the strongest capabilities to respond to natural disasters. Ongoing cooperation on HADR would facilitate responses throughout the region and provide practical experience in working together.
Maritime SAR is another way of promoting interaction among the armed forces. The experience of the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 demonstrates the growing importance given to responding to these events, and the reputational price for failing to take an active role in such activities. Australia, India and France hold primary responsibility for maritime SAR in large portions of the Indian Ocean. Together with the US, they have the greatest capabilities in the region and greater cooperation between them will further leverage these abilities.
Over the last decade, the US and Australian defence and security relationships with India has developed on separate but largely parallel paths, but trilateral cooperation can ensure that the countries plan for security as equal partners.
David Brewster teaches at the National Security College, Australian National University