Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-06-11 10:31:52 Published on Jun 11, 2020
Modi and Morrison play for the long haul

Last week’s India-Australia summit set a new precedent. It was India’s first bilateral “virtual summit” with a nation that is gaining increasing salience in Indian foreign policy matrix. After decades of neglect, New Delhi and Canberra are finally coming to terms with each other’s potential, exemplified by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have met four times over the last year and a half. Morrison’s visit to India in January could not take place because of bush fires in Australia and after that the Covid-19 pandemic took over. So the decision by the two nations to go ahead with the virtual summit is an important signal that they don’t want the present momentum in the bilateral relationship to get disrupted.

Last week saw India and Australia raising their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with a focus on institutionalising their growing engagements. Apart from more frequent  interactions between the two Prime Ministers, the two sides decided to elevate the “2+2” engagement to the level of Foreign and Defence Ministers, where strategic discussions will be taking place at least every two years. Several pacts were announced including a framework arrangement on cyber technology, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cooperation in mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals, vocational training and water management.

But clearly the focus of their engagement was the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific. As Modi argued, strong ties with Australia are “not only important for our two nations but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the whole world.” Morrison reciprocated by suggesting that Canberra is “committed to an open, inclusive, prosperous Indo-Pacific and India's role in that region, our region, will be critical in the years ahead.” Their post-summit joint statement underscored that both countries “share a vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region to support the freedom of navigation, over-flight and peaceful and cooperative use of the seas.”

It is in this context that the two defence pacts, the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement, signed last week assume importance as they underline the growing defence synergy between two critical nodal powers in the Indo-Pacific. The logistics pact will give the two militaries reciprocal access to each nation’s respective military bases, thereby deepening the integration between the two militaries.

As India adopts a more ambitious and pro-active defence diplomacy framework for the Indo-Pacific, it has enhanced its military ties with various regional stakeholders such as the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and France. Australia is a key actor with which India’s maritime convergence needs immediate operationalisation. India’s annual Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan now await Australian entry and indications are that India is now ready to extend the invite to Canberra. The Quad will also become more potent if the four powers are ready to pool together their defence capabilities in the service of regional stability and economic prosperity.

After initial dilly-dallying from Australia on strong ties with India, it has made serious efforts over the last few years to dispel the notion about its lack of seriousness about Indo-Australian partnership. Moving beyond the ‘Cricket, Curry and Commonwealth’ banality, Canberra has imparted a renewed sense of purpose to its engagement with New Delhi and in Modi it has found a partner keen to reciprocate. Australia has recognised India now as a “pre-eminent maritime power among Indian Ocean countries’ and a “front-rank partner of Australia.”

China’s aggression and assertive foreign policy has played an important role in shaping this robust outreach. China’s growing interference in Australian domestic politics and its attempts to use trade for geopolitical purposes has raised fundamental questions about its long-term reliability for Australia. More recently, after Canberra joined some other nations in calling for an independent enquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, Beijing was quick to retaliate by warning Australia that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products in response. And then went ahead to not only suspend Australian beef imports from and impose tariffs on barley but also issued an advisory to its citizens to avoid travelling to Australia.

It is therefore imperative that Indo-Australian economic ties should become more robust. Though bilateral economic engagement has been growing with trade between the two countries hovering around $21 billion in 2018-19, it remains below potential. This aspect was underscored by Morrison when he called for raising the level of trust to improve the “trade and investment flows” between India and Australia which at present “are not where would both like them to be.” With this in mind, the two nations have restarted talks over the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) which were suspended in 2015.

There is a natural synergy in Indo-Australian relationship that has so far not been exploited fully. As the two nations realise each other’s significance in the emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamic, they can be more ambitious in charting out their future engagement. The Modi-Morrison duo seems ready to take the plunge.

This commentary originally appeared in The Mail Today

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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