Deeper Cooperation: New Era Heralds Australia-India Strategic Ties

21 July 2020
Caption: Flag Officer Commanding Indian Navy Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral Suraj Berry and Commander Australian Fleet Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead AM, RAN, shake hands at the joint media brief held on Indian Navy Ship Sayadri in Visakhapatnam, India for AUSINDEX 2019. © Department of Defence. Photographer: LSIS Steven Thomson.

Key Points:

  • In the modern context, Australia and India can trace historical ties to around the advent of the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent. Since then bilateral ties have grown markedly, particularly in the 21stcentury, as India moved to liberalise its economy to encourage foreign investment. 
  • In recent years the increased prevalence of hostile actors and regional instability has served as a catalyst to foster closer cooperation between Australia and India. 
  • A salient example of this intensified collaboration has led to Australia and India recently signing an historic accord – the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – which has set the tone for enhanced strategic and defence cooperation. Included within this framework is the mining and processing of critical minerals and rare earths. 
  • The convergence of strategic interests between Australia and India has set the stage for not only a new era in bilateral relations, but as a consequence shall also increasingly attract Australian strategic interest and defence involvement towards the Indian Ocean region.

The ties that bind Australia and India run far deeper than our shared passion for cricket. Around 15,000 Indian soldiers stormed the shores of Gallipoli alongside the ANZACs: our two nations have served alongside each other in war, peacekeeping missions, disaster responses and military exercises.

Commonalities of Interests

 Each year we welcome each other’s citizens for tourism, education and skilled migration. Our two-way goods and services trade with India was $30.3bn in 2018-19, and we have a close and enduring bond of friendship and understanding.

And, of course, we share an ocean. Access to the Indian Ocean is vital for Australia’s trade and economic wellbeing. The Indian Ocean is home to five of Australia’s top 15 trading partners: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and more than half of our global trade, including oil, crosses the Indian Ocean.

As Defence Minister, I am working with India, and with other regional partners, to facilitate a secure Indian Ocean region, including to support freedom of navigation.

When the Prime Minister announced the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan, he acknowledged that Australia’s strategic environment is changing rapidly.

Major power competition is increasing. Some countries are modernising their militaries and increasing their preparedness for conflict. Some are employing coercive tactics that fall below the threshold of armed conflict. Cyber-attacks, foreign interference and economic pressure seek to exploit the grey area between peace and war. Terrorism, violent extremism, organised crime and people smuggling persist. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose health and economic challenges.

Working with our allies – including India – is key to our efforts to meet these challenges, Australia is deeply committed to strengthening its defence and security partnerships with our regional partners. We must collectively work to preserve shared values of peace, prosperity and security.

At its core, the India-Australia relationship is based on a common set of values and institutions, including commitments to democracy and multilateral cooperation, as well as our Commonwealth history.

Expanding Defence Ties

Our defence relationship with India is at an historic peak, with activities between us quadrupling since 2014. In 2019, Indo-Pacific Endeavour – Australia’s premier maritime activity – focused for the first time on the Indian Ocean, including a visit to India for our bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX.

Last year’s iteration of AUSINDEX was the largest Australian defence deployment to India and our most complex bilateral exercise to-date, involving submarine-on-submarine serials, and coordinated P-8A maritime patrol aircraft missions over the Bay of Bengal.

Recognising that we face shared challenges and opportunities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, elevated our bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) on 4 June 2020 The CSP commits us to new initiatives and practical global cooperation in defence, cyber, maritime, science, infrastructure, trade and education, across the full spectrum of our strategic, economic and cultural relationship.

The CSP also reflects our shared focus on the Indo-Pacific region and commits us to working even more closely with our regional partners, including Indonesia, Japan, France and the United States.

As Defence Minister, I am committed to delivering on our joint CSP commitments. This includes implementing the two landmark defence arrangements under the CSP: the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement (DSTIA), which significantly enhance the scope for defence cooperation between Australia and India.

The MLSA paves the way for deeper and more sophisticated cooperation, enabling us to conduct increasingly complex military engagement and improve our combined responsiveness to regional humanitarian disasters.

The DSTIA will allow our respective Defence science and technology research organisations to collaborate and share information. We can jointly explore world-leading technologies and share important research in key areas of mutual interest. This may also include efforts on COVID-19 medical responses and military medicine cooperation.

Growing our defence industry engagement will allow us to explore solutions to industrial base challenges and identify opportunities for future cooperation. In February this year, an Australian defence industry delegation of 10 companies attended the DEFEXPO tradeshow in India for the first time. Through increased defence industry engagement and enhanced S&T collaboration, I am confident that opportunities will arise to achieve highly capable and cost effective capabilities for both nations.

Under the CSP, we also agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the field of Mining and Processing of Critical and Strategic Minerals. Critical minerals and rare earth elements are used in the manufacture of mobile phones and computers, solar panels, defence industry technology and products, and many other high-tech applications. They are also an important part of defence industry supply chains.

Australia has significant geological reserves of critical minerals and rare earth elements, and we are well placed to capitalise on rising global demand, including in partnership with our Indian friends.

Future Trajectory

In driving the Australia-India relationship forward, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and I, along with our Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, will meet every two years in a ‘2+2’ format to deliver on our commitments under the CSP and discuss strategic issues.

The Australian government is deeply committed to working with India to advance our mutual interests in regional and global security, prosperity and stability. We will work together to meet the challenges that confront both our nations, and I look forward to that deeper cooperation.