Originally Published 2021-02-24 12:49:26 Published on Feb 24, 2021
India-Australia relations likely to get stronger

India-Australia relations are set to become stronger as India’s relationship with China hits an all-time low. In the aftermath of the clash in Ladakh, which killed twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops, relations between the two countries have nose-dived. As a consequence, India has sought to deepen ties with key strategic partners, particularly Australia. While relations between the two countries have traditionally been cool, the India-Australia relationship has improved dramatically over the last few years, and is likely to get even stronger. This growth trajectory is unlikely to be characterised by any open or declaratory support for Australia, but rather more substantively at the level of defence and strategic interaction and cooperation.

India has traditionally been wary of openly taking positions against China, thus exhibiting its preference for a more subtle approach, especially on China’s bilateral disputes with other countries. Even on the South China Sea, though Indian sympathies lie with the smaller states in the region, and though India supported the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, India did not overtly criticise China. That is likely to be the manner in which India reacts to Australia’s dispute with China also, supporting Australia through improved bilateral relations without necessarily criticising China for its actions.

Indian foreign policy is characterised by wordplay

India has always been reluctant to publicly name China, even in objection to China’s behaviour. This has been the case not only on broader international issues but also even when China has directly targeted India. For example, though China scuttled India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and India reacted with uncharacteristic anger, its statement avoided calling out China specifically, but instead eluded to it by simply saying “procedural hurdles persistently raised by one country”.

Similarly, even after the death of Indian soldiers in Ladakh, Prime Minister Modi did not mention China while on a visit to bolster the morale of Indian troops in Ladakh, despite facing domestic criticism for not doing so.

Although India will openly criticise Chinese actions, it consistently evades denouncing China by name. For example, India has repeatedly supported the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and also supported the judgement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, both of which are clearly targeted at China. Even recently, India made a categorical statement on the issue by saying:

“South China Sea is a part of Global Commons and India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region. We firmly stand with the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law. India also believes that any differences be resolved peacefully by respecting the legal and diplomatic processes and without resorting to threat or use of force.”

India is deepening its engagement with Indo-Pacific partners

The pattern, therefore, is one in which India is reluctant to blame China but demonstrates that it will still act in its own interests in countering China. This can be seen in India’s slowly deepening commitment to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi explicitly denied any intention to target or contain other countries, obviously meaning China, when he talked about his conception of the Indo-Pacific at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. Indeed, that statement has been reiterated more recently by the Ministry of External Affairs in response to Russian criticism of Indian participation in the Quad, which is perceived as a containment strategy towards China.

But this wordplay elides over the actual fact of India’s growing involvement with the Quad. From being the weakest link in the Quad, New Delhi is now pushing a more robust entity, with a former ambassador to China even suggesting that it needs to be militarised.

India-Australia Relations Likely to Get Stronger

This is a pattern that can be expected in the case of Australia also. India is likely to strengthen its strategic partnership with Australia in ways that it will help counter China’s military and diplomatic aggression, but will likely remain reluctant to explicitly name China.

There is little doubt that India is grateful for Australia’s open support after the Ladakh clash when Foreign Minister Marise Payne made a statement in the Australian Parliament supporting India and criticising Chinese actions.

Since India has so far been uncomfortable in making public statements so openly against China, its preferences are likely to be more reflected in the actions it takes.

For example, Indian interactions with Australia have become more frequent even over the last few months, demonstrating the increased significance Delhi places on the relationship. After upgrading their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and signing multiple defence agreements in 2020, the Indian and Australian Foreign Ministers met for an in-person meeting on the side lines of the Quad meeting in Tokyo. The two sides have also been in close telephonic contact, reviewing the regional security developments.

Future engagement between India and Australia will of course be driven by China’s actions, as it has been in the past. For example, India resisted inviting Australia to the Malabar naval exercises for several years despite the fact that Australia was keen on participation and had sought an invitation from India. The US had also pushed India to invite Australia, but India remained reluctant because of Australian criticisms after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests and because there were questions about Australia’s commitment to the partnership.11 But after the Ladakh confrontation, India extended the invitation to Australia and an Australian contingent participated in the 2020 Malabar exercises. This dynamic is unlikely to alter. There is little indication that China will ease up on the confrontation with India in the near future, despite the damage it is doing to Sino-Indian relations, and despite their own concerns about growing India-Australia relations.

A reset in Sino-Indian relations is unlikely

It is not certain that the Ladakh clash represents a breaking point for India in its relationship with China. After the Doklam confrontation in 2017, India made an effort to reset relations. Despite an earnest attempt by India to attempt to address China’s concerns in two informal summits between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, relations showed little sign of improvement, and anger in India against China has intensified. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to say with certainty that India will not attempt yet another reset in relations with China if Beijing makes a sincere effort.

In this case though, it is unlikely that Sino-Indian relations will see an improvement any time soon. For one, China seems in no mood to reassess its own behaviour despite the unpopularity that it is garnering around the world. For another, the confrontation in Ladakh has now changed the ground conditions as a consequence of Chinese incursions that will be difficult to rectify even if both capitals want to reset the relationship. Even though India has not demanded status quo ante, the Indian Foreign Minister and others have repeatedly linked peace at the border with overall stability in the relationship. It is difficult to see how this can be achieved as long as both sides have troops eyeball to eyeball on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Finally, these developments have an action-reaction consequence of misperceptions: Chinese behaviour leads to Indian reactions, such as on India’s strategic partnerships, which feeds suspicion in Beijing, leading to further actions, a cycle that becomes self-perpetuating.

This dynamic will deepen India’s commitment to its security partnership with Australia. But this commitment is unlikely to take the form of overt declaratory support for Australia in Canberra’s own difficulties with China. Rather, this will be seen in Indian actions. Dialogue and cooperation will intensify. The military relationship will also likely grow stronger including through joint exercises, both in bilateral and multilateral formats.

India would also potentially like to deepen its economic relationship with Australia, both to support Australia but also to benefit from the Sino-Australian trade spat.

However, India-Australia economic relations are unlikely to come anywhere close to Sino-Australian economic ties. Both sides are also likely to explore other options such as a closer intelligence relationship, and in other areas such as high technology and outer space.

Ideally, the two countries should also explore closer diplomatic coordination to resist China’s actions in multilateral agencies that both countries find unacceptable.18 Over the medium term, such coordinated diplomacy that includes not only India and Australia but also other like-minded countries, could present a serious effort to contain Chinese malevolence.

India’s long tradition of non-involvement in other’s disputes makes it reluctant to openly take sides especially against other Asian post-colonial powers. But this reluctance is limited to Indian pronouncements and does not extend to Indian actions. Thus, the correct criterion for judging India’s commitment to security cooperation with Australia will not be what India says but what India does. And this, we can expect, will grow stronger in the coming years.

This commentary originally appeared in Perth USAsia Centre
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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