Event ReportsPublished on May 21, 2019
Australia’s defence engagement with India is growing

“India is a notable inclusion in our Foreign Policy White Paper and we believe India now sits in the front-rank of Australia’s international partnerships,” said Commander Mitchell Livingstone, Commanding Officer, HMAS Toowoomba of the Royal Australian Navy.

Initiating a discussion on “Australia’s Contribution to Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean,” at Observer Research Foundation Chennai on 11 May 2019, Commander Livingstone, said the partnership between these two countries is a natural one, as their security interests are increasingly aligned, particularly in relation to ensuring stability and openness in the Indian Ocean.

The joint naval exercise known as AUSINDEX 2019 which concluded on 16 April was aimed at strengthening cooperation and interoperability between the Indian Navy and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). This was seen as an “exercise of several firsts”, said Commander Livingstone. It was the largest-ever deployment of Australian defence forces to India since Independence. “A first it was for anti-submarines warfare exercises for our navies,” he said as his ship was berthed in Chennai.

Further, as Commander Linvingstone assessed, it was one of the most complex exercises ever be carried out between the militaries of the two nations. It involved advanced warfare drills, including anti-submarine, air defence, and anti-surface warfare exercises, as well as cross deck flying. In addition, it was the first time the P-8 aircraft, the Australian maritime patrol, had flown on a coordinated mission with another country.

Commander Livingstone believed this exercise reflected a growing defence engagement between the two countries. More, importantly it showed Australia’s commitment to regional maritime security in the Indian Ocean. “We have strengthened our relationship by taking it to the next level,” said Commander Livingstone.

Rules-based environment

Speaking earlier, Captain Simon Bateman, Australian Defence Advisor to India, said, “A rules-based security environment is one of Australia’s policy objectives.” He explained that the Australian government through ‘Operation Manitou’ contributed to international efforts to promote security, stability and prosperity in the Middle-East, which remains key to Australia’s economic and trade interests.

As he pointed out, RAN along with 30-plus other navies make up the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) which conducts counter-terrorism, maritime security and counter-piracy operations. The UK, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Denmark, India, Malaysia, Netherlands and Singapore are among the countries that have participated in the CMF, he said.

Capt Bateman mentioned that three principal task forces currently working on maritime security, namely, Combined Task Force or CTF-150, which broadly covered ‘Maritime Security and Counter-Terrorism’, CTF-151 aimed at ‘Counter Piracy’ and also CTF-152 focused on ‘Security Cooperation in the Persian Gulf.’ He went on to say that CTF-150’s operations are in some of the busiest shipping lanes with three significant choke-points, namely, the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal. Operating in this area is one of the toughest jobs, making them often more vulnerable than being in open waters.

The speaker noted a dramatic reduction in Somali Piracy since 2012. The peak years of the piracy crisis were 2007-2012 when attacks across the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and the Red Sea took place on a daily basis. However, he was not sure that piracy activities would not return to threaten the security of this region. Counter-piracy measures were crucial not just in the Persian Gulf, but equally to maintaining security in the IOR. “Transnational crime is an ongoing problem and it went hand in hand with terrorism,” warned Bateman.  India and Australia need to work together to combat transnational crimes such as piracy, human trafficking and illegal fishing.

Valued partner

Susan Grace, Australian Consul-General at Chennai, echoed the same sentiments and said India is seen as a valued strategic partner in this region. Australia and India have much in common being pluralist democracies promoting openness and stability in the Indian Ocean Region.

When asked about China, Grace replied, “China is an important trading partner for Australia and commerce was the most important aspect of their engagement.” She regretted that Australia’s economic relationship with India on the other hand was still lagging behind with an as yet unsigned free trade agreement.

Grace understood that India was unable to put “a good deal on the table” because of its desire to protect its agriculture sector. However, Australia remained ready to take the economic engagement to the next level. She reasserted Australia’s commitment to maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region.

Reflecting on the recent terrorist-attacks in Sri Lanka, she said “It is a serious wake-up call. It taught us that we have a long way to go in ensuring security in the Indian Ocean, and that though ISIL had been defeated, its ideology continues to thrive in this region.”

Looking to the future, Commander Livingstone said in conclusion, “One could ask: Where to Next?” And the answer, he said, is this: “It is always possible to take the cooperation between the two countries to the next level, though the responsibility to take it forward lay with the Ministry of Defence.” He further added that communication was the key in continuing such exercises.

The report was written by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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