Towards an Indo-Pacific strategic partnership

Australia and India have no shortage of ways forward

Anthony Bergin

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

2 February 2018

Anthony Bergin shares his key takeaways from India’s Raisina Dialogue and takes a look at how Australia and India could deepen their relationship in the Indo-Pacific.

David Brewster makes some excellent points in his recent article on building defence cooperation between Australia and India. He is right to point to the powerful symbolism of the four navy chiefs from Japan, India, the US, and Australia sharing the stage at the recent Raisina Dialogue.

I attended the Dialogue prior to participating in the Australia-India Policy Forum 1.5 track talks, which were co-hosted by Carnegie India and the Australian National University’s National Security College. Here is what struck me most from Raisina.

First, India was able to pull over 500 delegates from 86 countries for the Dialogue, and not just within its own region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance, also spoke at Raisina, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance.

Netanyahu highlighted the ‘natural’ bonds between Israel and India, their many areas of current cooperation, such as irrigation, agriculture and defence, and how pleased he was that Modi was the first Indian leader to visit Israel “in its 3,000-year history”. There is now a strong partnership between the two states.

More on this: Time for Australia-India defence cooperation to get real

Second, the theme of the Raisina Dialogue was Managing Disruptive Transitions. In his speech, Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar raised four major global disruptions: the rise of China; the choices, postures and behaviour of the US; terrorism; and non-market economics. A key takeaway from Raisina was that India has a vital stabilising role to play in each of these four areas.

Third, during the session with the four naval chiefs, it was very evident that ‘the Quad’ grouping is slowly gathering some momentum.

Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., Commander of US Pacific Command, said he believed China is a disruptive transitional power. He noted the effect on Vietnam of China moving oil research platforms into Vietnamese waters. At the same time, he lauded increased military cooperation between the US and India.

In another session, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed that if China is the sole emerging global power, it’s more a threat to liberal world order – however, this threat is mitigated if free and democratic India also plays a role.

Fourth, former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma underlined that the Pentagon doesn’t have a rapid reaction cell to speed up defence ties for any other country except India. He recommended that the US support India’s strategic advantage to prevail in contested domains in the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in a recent task force report on US-India relations.

Finally, the Indo-Pacific concept was the key geostrategic focus in everyone’s conversations at Raisina. Former US General David Petraeus, who also spoke at the Dialogue, referred to the shift in the US lexicon from ‘Asia-Pacific’ to ‘Indo-Pacific’ as an explicit recognition of the importance of India.

After Raisina, I sat down with representatives from Australia and India at the 1.5 track talks. I set out some ideas for how Australia might cooperate with India in the South Pacific and the broader Indian Ocean region.

More on this: Can India plot a course for Asian leadership?

On the South Pacific, I noted that India is very much underrepresented. This is despite New Delhi holding two meetings of the Forum for India Pacific Islands Co-operation (FIPIC) and one related FIPIC gathering in Suva last year. Unfortunately, India still tends to see the Pacific islands via Fiji, given the special relationship with the Indian diaspora.

I suggested several areas of Australian cooperation with India. In selected Pacific states, we might cooperate around renewable energy and climate change issues where both countries have some technical expertise.

Another area might be healthcare. India understands village economics, and much of the Pacific is made up of villages. For Australia, an area of cooperation could be in setting up much-needed dialysis units, supplying on the ground contacts and logistic support through our missions (India has diplomatic missions only in Papua New Guinea and Fiji), with India providing equipment and staff.

Australia recently joined the International Solar Alliance led by India to roll out solar technology. Australia and India can work together to help the islands meet their energy needs.

Another possibility is deep seabed mining. India is an official pioneer investor with an internationally recognised mine site in the central Indian Ocean Basin, and – like Australia – good geological exploration capabilities. Papua New Guinea (PNG) recently started a deep seabed mining project, and Solomon Islands, PNG and the Federated States of Micronesia, like Australia, all have extended continental shelves. This makes seabed mining an area where we might cooperate in the Pacific.

Another area for bilateral cooperation is disaster relief. India and Australia both have excellent capabilities to assist in disaster response, especially amphibious capabilities.

More on this: Is France still committed to the Pacific?

The two countries could also undertake joint naval deployments in the region. India recently sent ships to Suva and Pohnpei in Micronesia.

Turning to broader Indian Ocean cooperation, there are at least eight areas where India-Australia relations might benefit – beyond those suggestions made by David Brewster.

First, there’s civil maritime law and order. Three years ago, Australia joined the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM), so the two countries can work together within that body on maritime capacity building and information sharing. The Australian Border Force sent a vessel to Chennai last year, and we can do more of this.

Second, port state control is very weak in the Indian Ocean. Our two countries can assist here together to build the capacity of states in this area of shipping safety.

Third, Australia and India could cooperate on fisheries. Indian Ocean fisheries management is diverse in its scope. But compared to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is the Wild West. Australia and India could cooperate to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. For example, we should be encouraging flag state vessels to use vessel monitoring systems and promote greater monitoring of transhipment at sea. We should, as occurs in the Pacific, be promoting a high seas boarding and inspection regime in the Indian Ocean.

Fourth, disaster relief applies as much to the broader region as it does to the Pacific. We can cooperate on this issue in the Indian Ocean, as many Indian Ocean rim countries don’t have much capacity when ports get closed in extreme weather events.

More on this: Australia is missing the mark on the Indo-Pacific

Fifth, in the area of naval cooperation, we could collaborate on submarine safety issues and work with existing bodies to strengthen submarine rescue operations. The recent missing Argentine submarine case highlights the problems. We might consider talking about non-sensitive information that affects the safety of submerged navigation like seismic activity, fishing activity and real-time movement of deep-water rigs and deep-draft vessels.

Sixth, we could pursue trilateral cooperation with Indonesia. Now that the Indian navy has at least one ship permanently stationed at the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca, and India often takes the opportunity to work with the Indonesian navy in the area, there’s a real opportunity for Australia to join in too.

As Australia builds up its strategic presence on Cocos Island, which is closer to Southeast Asia than our mainland air bases, this might enable closer maritime security opportunities with India.

Seventh, we could cooperate on piracy. The latest report from the International Maritime Bureau shows the number of pirate attacks in India is decreasing: down to just four last year from 14 the previous year. But there are still many attacks in ports and anchorages in the Indian Ocean. Australia and India could work together on best practices for security and safety for ports and anchorages.

Finally, Australia has been in discussions with India for some time now on science collaboration in Antarctica. Nothing major has emerged yet. As India’s Bharati Station and our Davis Station are very close in the Vestfold Hills, there are some good opportunities for collaboration. If we ever build a runway at Davis, a lot more operational and science collaboration with India would open up in the frozen continent.

From the tone of discussions at the recent Australia-India Policy Forum, it’s clear that both sides want deeper bilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Now’s the time to start moving.

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