Harsh V Pant
Australia is in a hurry to reconfigure the contours of its foreign policy. The government of Anthony Albanese is working for a thaw in Canberra’s ties with China which have deteriorated significantly in recent years. Australia’s trade minister Don Farrell met with his Chinese counterpart virtually last month in an attempt to stabilize bilateral ties that have been strained by China’s aggressive trade and political moves and Australia’s strong pushback.
Australia’s Strategic Balancing
But even as the Albanese government is seeking to bring some semblance of normalcy to its ties with China, it is clearly underlining with its foreign policy moves that it will set the terms of engagement. The visit of Prime Minister Albanese to India last week and to the US this week should be seen in this context. The message of engaging two partner democracies that are also members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue would not be lost on China.
The US visit will see the finalization of the AUKUS pact signed in 2021 for the supply of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Australia will be buying three to five US Virginia-class submarines and will co-design with the UK and the US a common AUKUS submarine to be built in Adelaide. For Canberra, this ensures a fast-track acquisition of nuclear submarine capability as it seems greater strategic balance in the wider Indo-Pacific, thereby becoming the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia.
The pact, however, is about much more than just nuclear submarines; it is about strengthening ties between three traditional security partners that have to urgently upgrade their intelligence and hi-technology cooperation so as to effectively respond to the challenges they are facing.
The Australian political class has come together to shore up this key partnership despite initial reservations in some quarters. The same can be said about India-Australia ties where a strong bipartisan consensus is shaping the upward trajectory of a partnership that for years was struggling to deliver. Last week’s trip of Albanese to India showcased in full glory the expanse of ties between two nations that are finally realising the real potential of their engagement. In India, Albanese not only talked about trade, defence and security and education but also played Holi and enjoyed cricket – a reflection of how wide and deep ties between the two nations have become.
On trade, there is more ambition today than ever with the signing of the Economic Co-operation and Trade Agreement last year that lifted tariffs on more than 85 per cent of Australian exports to India. The two sides remain committed to the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement soon with Albanese talking of the end of the year as the target.
India is keen to encourage a relatively risk averse Australian corporate sector to invest more and with the Australian government keen to diversify away from China, the message has gone out that opportunities in India are too important to be ignored.
As India transitions to an energy resilient economy with its focus on lowering carbon emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy, solar and hydrogen technologies are emerging as key areas of cooperation with Australia. During the visit of Albanese, the two sides “exchanged terms of references for the Australia India Solar Taskforce … (to) provide our [Indian and Australian] governments with advice on opportunities to accelerate solar PV deployment and enhanced supply chains.” The two nations are also working towards developing resilient supply chains in critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt as India’s demand for critical minerals rises.
People-to-people engagements have become key to shaping the trajectory of India-Australia relationship. The Indian diaspora in Australia is becoming economically and politically influential and Indian middle classes are increasingly attracted to the Australian education system. Indian students are among the top tier of students going to Australia to study even as Australian universities such as Deakin, Wollongong and Melbourne are ready to set up campuses in India, taking advantage of the new rules announced by the Indian government.
More critical, perhaps, has been the strengthening of defence and security cooperation between two like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific. Where in 2007 it was Australia and India that scuttled the first outing of the Quad, today it is New Delhi and Canberra that are giving a new edge to this four way partnership.
Australia will host the Malabar naval exercises this year for the first time and India will also be a part of the Talisman Sabre exercise involving the US, Australian and partner nations. Maritime exchanges have now become routine between the nations, propelled by a shared sense of strategic convergence and there is a desire to build on this momentum by involving all three domains of military power.
It is a sign of a new maturity in a bilateral relationship when even difficult issues can be discussed openly. In response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising concerns about the attacks on temples in Australia, Albanese responded by suggesting that those responsible for attacks on Hindu temples in Australia will “face the full force of the law”.
As Australia moves rapidly to give a new edge to its foreign and security policies, India can harness enormous opportunities that this moment has opened up. With Canberra placing “India at the heart of Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” there are today new possibilities in a bilateral relationship that has the potential to transform the strategic architecture of the Indo-Pacific.
The article was first published in the Money Control as Australia’s bold moves present opportunities for India to capitalise on Indo-Pacific strategic convergence on March 13, 2023.
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